The fraternal society known as Freemasonry began in Singapore on 8 December 1845 with the establishment of Lodge Zetland in the East, now Singapore’s oldest surviving Freemason lodge.1 Its members are called Freemasons or Masons, and belong to lodges or temples. The society’s activities are held at the Masonic Hall on Coleman Street.2 The society promotes three main principles: society, charity and morality.3
Freemasonry, or simply Masonry, is one of the world’s oldest fraternal societies. It started in England in the 16th century from a blue-collar trade fraternity guild of stonemasons or stone-workers.4 However, very few Masons today are stone-workers. In 2008, some 99% of the 800 Singapore Freemasons were professionals, managers, executives and businessmen.5 The oldest Grand Lodge of Freemasons in the world is the United Grand Lodge of England, founded in London on 24 June 1717.6
It is believed that Dutch Masons were the first to set up an organised lodge in Southeast Asia, but the beginnings of Singapore’s lodge can be traced to the founding of Freemasonry in the eastern archipelago. This began with the establishment of a lodge in Bencoolen in 1765.7 Stamford Raffles, himself a Mason, participated in rites and ceremonies at lodges in the region – namely, Lodge Virtutis et Artis Amici in Java, Lodge de Vriendschap in Surabaya, and Chapter La Vertueuse in Batavia.8
Freemasonry was introduced to Malaya in September 1809 via Neptune Lodge No. 344 E. C. Penang (later renumbered 441).9 Activities in Singapore began with the first “mother” lodge, Lodge Zetland in the East No. 748 E. C. (now known as Zetland in the East Lodge No. 508), which was established and consecrated on 8 December 1845 in a house on Armenian Street.10 The founders include former headmaster of Raffles Institution John Coulson Smith and Justice of Peace and trustee of Raffles Institution Thomas Owen Crane.11
At the first lodge meeting, 12 leading members of the then small European community in Singapore – including senior lawyer William Napier, Deputy Superintendent of Police Thomas Dunman and The Straits Times editor Robert Carr Woods – were proposed for initiation.12 On 15 December 1845, Napier became the first initiated Brother. Next to be initiated was prominent citizen William H. Read, followed by Lieutenant Benjamin Bloomfield Keane.13 Other notable Masons in Singapore’s early history were the first Attorney-General Thomas Braddell, the Rajah of Sarawak James Brooke and Admiral Henry Keppel.14
Prior to the construction of the lodge on Coleman Street in 1879, meetings were held in Masonic halls in various locations around Singapore, including Armenian Street (1845), High Street (1846), North Bridge Road (1853), the Esplanade (1856), Beach Road in Kampong Glam (1871), another location on Beach Road (1873) and Hill Street (1875).15
In 2009, the Freemasons funded S$7.5 million to renovate the Zetland in the East, the lodge’s first major renovation since World War II, which added a new annex to the new building. Previously, the public had not been allowed access due to the Freemasons’ secretive nature, but the hall was refurbished to allow the public to visit and have guided tours. The Lodge was reopened in December 2012.16
In 2010, there were 33 lodges, chapters and other Masonic groups in Singapore.17
The membership of Freemasonry is open only to adult men and exclusively by invitation, with a screening process in place.18 It is not a Christian institution or a religious group; in fact, religious or political discussion is forbidden in the Lodge.19 Masons meet in specially designed buildings known as lodges or temples, and they must believe in the existence of God – in whatever form he chooses. It is said that one of the charms of Freemasonry is that God is not specified.20 Its basic tenets are brotherly love (hence fellow Masons are brothers), philanthropy and truth.21 Procedures and tools of medieval masonry are used as symbols to teach these values.22 The brotherhood meets monthly in lodges.23
The Masonic rules in the society’s Book of Constitutions contain many elements of a religion.24 Freemason teachings enjoin morality, charity and obedience to the law of the land.25 The method of teaching involves a series of two-part plays or ritual dramas with parables, in which members communicate messages to new members.26 Initiated members are sworn under oath to keep secret the signs, words, grips and tokens used during lodge meetings. These signs and tokens are solely ceremonial, and are a way of demonstrating that one is a Mason.27 The best-known sign is a particular form of handshake that is recognisable to other Masons.28
Membership levels or degrees
Proper or symbolic masonry, also known as Blue Lodge Masonry, has three main degrees. These are, in ascending order: Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason. Promotion requires a mastery of memorised material.29 Other appendant bodies confer additional degrees. The York Rite, for instance, confers up to nine additional degrees, while the Scottish Rite confers up to the very rarely awarded 33rd honorary degree – for Masons who have made outstanding contributions to Masonry, community and mankind.30
In Singapore, levels of membership include Worshipful Brother, Inner Guard, Junior Deacon, Senior Deacon, Junior Warden, Senior Warden and Worshipful Master.31 When elected senior leaders rise to the highest office in a lodge, they become Worshipful Masters and are installed in the symbolic “Chair of King Solomon”.32
In Singapore, Masons erected lighthouses, raised funds for the Chinese Pauper’s Hospital (present-day Tan Tock Seng Hospital) and founded Singapore’s first library.33 Historically, they are known to be involved in charitable work.34
During World War II, Japanese troops imprisoned 250 Masons in Changi Prison.35 Freemasons managed to continue meeting in the prison in secret.36
The official black attire includes an apron with masonry symbols of lodge, rank, award medals, and other symbolic adornments of the Order.37
26 Feb 1845: The local lodge is warranted and named Lodge Zetland No. 748.
8 Dec 1845: First meeting at Lodge Zetland is held.
1846: Lodge Zetland is renamed Lodge Zetland of the East.
24 May 1850: Horsburgh Lighthouse foundation stone is laid with Masonic ceremonial honours.
24 May 1854: Raffles Lighthouse foundation stone is laid with Masonic ceremonial honours.38
1863: Lodge Zetland is renumbered Lodge Zetland in the East No. 508.
29 Mar 1873: Construction of Clyde Terrace Market on Beach Road begins with Masonic ceremonial honours.
14 Apr 1879: Foundation stone of the Masonic Hall on Coleman Street is laid.39
28 Jun 1952: The first compilation of members of all nationalities, Lodge Singapore, is consecrated at Victoria Memorial Hall (present-day Victoria Concert Hall). The lodge is now numbered 7178.40 After the consecration, 166 brethren convene at a banquet at Robinson’s Cafe in Raffles Place.
4 Feb 1963: Worshipful Brother T. S. Zain becomes the first Malay to be installed in the symbolic Chair of King Solomon.41
9 Dec 1995: The 150th anniversary of Singapore’s first Masonic lodge, Zetland in the East, is celebrated at the Orchid Country Club with 1,000 guests, including some from Britain, Australia, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka.42
2012: Lodge Zetland in the East reopened after a three-year renovation of the 133-year-old building.43
Vernon Cornelius-Takahama & Kevin Seet
1. Lim Kuang Hui, In the Chair of King Solomon (Singapore: Lim Kuang Hui, 1995), 14 (Call no. RSING 366.109595 LIM); Susan Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons,” Straits Times, 8 December 1995, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons.”
3. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 7.
4. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons”; Freemasons, The Lodge Singapore No. 7178 E. C., 1952–2002: 50th Anniversary (Singapore: The Lodge Singapore, 2002), 99. (Call no. RSING q366.1095957 FRE)
5. Ven Sreenivasan, “Veil Lifts a Tad on a Fascinating Social Network,” Business Times, 8 December 2008, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Lindsay Jones, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 3195. (Call no. R q200.3 ENC)
7. Freemasons, Lodge Singapore No. 7178 E. C., 1952–2002, 27.
8. Lim Kuang Hui, ed., The Pentagram Freemasons in SE Asia: 150th Anniversary Issue, Volume LV, December 2008 (Singapore: The Library Committee, District Grand Lodge of the Eastern Archipelago, 2008), 58. (Call no. RSING 366.10959 PEN-[SRN])
9. Freemasons, Lodge Singapore No. 7178 E. C., 1952–2002, 28; Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 13; Santokh Singh, “Freemason’s Halls in Penang,” 12 September 2008.
10. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 14; Lim Kuang Hui, ed., The Pentagram Freemasons in SE Asia: 150th Anniversary Issue, Volume LV, December 2008 (Singapore: The Library Committee, District Grand Lodge of the Eastern Archipelago, 2008), 31. (Call no. RSING 366.10959 PEN-[SRN])
11. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons.”
12. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons.”
13. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 19.
14. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons.”
15. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 14; Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons.”
16. Sreenivasan, “Veil Lifts a Tad on a Fascinating Social Network.”
17. Venessa Lee, “Inside the Inner Sanctum,” Today, 19 June 2010, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 7; Sreenivasan, “Veil Lifts a Tad on a Fascinating Social Network.”
19. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Freemasonry,” accessed 30 August 2019; Sreenivasan, “Veil Lifts a Tad on a Fascinating Social Network.”
20. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 8, 14.
21. Freemasons, Lodge Singapore No. 7178 E. C., 1952–2002, 26.
22. Jones, Encyclopedia of Religion, 3197.
23. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons.”
24. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 35.
25. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Freemasonry.”
26. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons”; Freemasons, Lodge Singapore No. 7178 E. C., 1952–2002, 99.
27. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 8.
28. Sreenivasan, “Veil Lifts a Tad on a Fascinating Social Network.”
29. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Freemasonry”; Michael S. Beltran, Together My Brothers: A Journey into Freemasonry (Philippines: Lost Word Pub. House, 2009), 37 (Call no. RSEA 366.109599 BEL)
30. “Freemasons and the York Rite System,” Dummies, updated 6 June 2016; Beltran, Together My Brothers, 47–48.
31. Freemasons, Lodge Singapore No. 7178 E. C., 1952–2002, 75.
32. Lee, “Inside the Inner Sanctum”; Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 23.
33. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons”; Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 20.
34. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 7; Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons.”
35. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons.”
36. Lim, Pentagram Freemasons in SE Asia, 496.
37. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons”; Lee, “Inside the Inner Sanctum.”
38. Freemasons, Lodge Singapore No. 7178 E. C., 1952–2002, 29–30; Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 512–17, 520–25. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
39. Freemasons, Lodge Singapore No. 7178 E. C., 1952–2002, 30.
40. Freemasons, Lodge Singapore No. 7178 E. C., 1952–2002, 31, 44–47.
41. Lim, Chair of King Solomon, 21, 23.
42. Long, “Hush-Hush World of the Freemasons.”
43. Natasha Ann Zachariah, “Bigger Home for Freemasons,” Straits Times, 8 December 2012, 14–15. (From NewspaperSG)
Colin Macdonald, Freemason's Hall Singapore: A Pictorial Appreciation of the Home of Singapore Freemasonry since 1879 (Singapore: Colin Neil Macdonald, 2008). (Call no. RSING 366.2095957 MAC)
Freemasons, Ceremony of Laying the Foundation Stone of the Clyde Terrace Market, at Singapore, the 29th Day of March, 1873, By the Rt. Worshipful, the District Grand Master, W. H. Read (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1873). (Call no. RRARE 959.51 CER; Microfilm NL5876)
“Singapore Masonic Library,” Singapore Masonic Library, n.d.
The information in this article is valid as at July 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.