110 CHAPTER FIVE: DEVELOPING NETWORKS IN THE “URBAN UNDERWORLD” In the previous chapter, we saw the futile attempts
at controlling the secret societies by the various groups in Singapore. The British, in their attempts to criminalise secret societies, had driven them underground in order to deprive them the recognition as part and parcel of mainstream society. In reality, there is a thin line between what is “mainstream” and “underworld” due to the continuous cooperation between people from both societies with each other and it was through this network of relationships that sustained the secret societies. Community leaders would want to tap into the labour market that secret societies had great influence. Politicians, in the early stage of political development and in the absence of strong grassroots movements, would seek their aid during election as canvassers for votes and election helpers. The police would welcome some form of income supplement or “coffee-money” which secret societies would not mind giving and hawkers, shopkeepers and heads of street theatre groups would require some form of “protection” in order to eke out a living in the midst of intense competition. In return, secret societies would appreciate the help rendered by politicians and community leaders whenever they had trouble with the law and the regular income from their protection rackets. This contributed to the resilience of secret societies.
Whether it was cooperation or compliance, members from both the mainstream and underworld societies were constantly seeking to develop networks. Although money was inevitably involved in these relationships, services and favours were also exchanged. In some cases, neither money nor services was involved but the exertion of influence.
111 In the absence of a dominant or common ideology to bind the people living in a heterogeneous society such as Singapore, where it was divided along linguistic, ethnic, political affiliation and educational lines, these networks served as types of social interaction between the people. This social interaction was a form of sustenance to the continuous presence of secret societies in Singapore. The networks both served as a formula for bringing together individuals who were not kinsmen and as “building-blocks for elaborate chains of vertical integration”1 In some cases, the links are not vertical in fashion but linked through intermediaries. This linkage showed the need for secret
societies from the various communities in Singapore. Undoubtedly, this relationship was also subject to changes brought on by social changes such as technological advancement, encroachment and impact of new ideas and the need for adaptation. This was especially so during the post-war period where great changes were taking place at an alarming rate. Seeing the cooperation and compliance between members of secret societies and the larger society was thus applicable in explaining the political and sociological action pertaining to the secret society scene in Singapore. Such connections, despite under intense pressure brought on by technological advancement and the gradual sophistication of public services, persist even till today. Only by understanding the sociological action behind these various social players then can we understand the present world we are living and the historical value behind. In addition, the network mode of analysis will help readers to see members of secret societies as entrepreneurs who tried to manipulate norms and relationships for their own social and psychological benefit. With particular reference to
James C. Scott (1972), ‘The Erosion of Patron-Client Bonds and Social Change in Rural Southeast Asia,’ Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, November, p. 8. Although Chinese society in Singapore was based on kinship ties, Chinese did interact with non-kinship members through business ties and others.
112 the 1957 by-election2, this chapter, attempts to explain the continuing presence of secret societies in Singapore society and the challenges they faced due to social evolution.
Definition of Networks A network or social connection was an instrumental, informal and sometimes inequitable relationship of reciprocity which usually involved a two-group tie. In many ways, this network was similar to the patron-client relation which authors such as James C. Scott and others described.3 The major differences lay in the type of society and religion. Patron-client relations occurred mainly in agricultural societies but Singapore was immigrational, occupational and urban; hence, there was fluidity and mobility of the people. In addition, there was a dominant religion, be it Roman Catholicism or Islam, in areas with strong patron-client relations. In Roman Catholicism, patron-client relations were strong due to the concept of godparents as patrons, while Islam was the unifying force that bound the different classes and ethnic groups together. In Singapore, the predominant religions of the Chinese population were Taoism and Buddhism and the concept of godparents as patrons was absent. Moreover, the patron-client mode of
analysis is a vertical analysis which was rigidly hierarchical. In addition, as compared to the Marxist and functionalist analysis,4 the network analysis showed the interconnections between social groups demarcated by class, ethnicity, language and religion as well as the hierarchy within each network.
Please refer to the third chapter of this thesis. Please see for more details James C. Scott (1972), ‘Patron-Client Politics and Political Change in Southeast Asia,’ The American Political Science Review, Vol. 66, No. 1, March, p. 92; Donald Liddick (1996), An Empirical, Theoretical and Historical Overview of Organized Crime, Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, p. 200; Eric R. Wolf and Sydel Silverman (2001), Pathways of Power: Building an Anthropology of the Modern World, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 179-180. 4 Please refer to Scott (1972), ‘Patron-Client Politics and Political Change in Southeast Asia,’ p. 91 for more details on the Marxist and functionalist mode of analyses of social relations.
In this two-group tie, one would perform the role of an advocate and the other would be the executive. The advocate would seek assistance from the executive and was usually a person of a higher socioeconomic class than the executive. He was the protector as well as the provider. The executive reciprocated by offering services and general support to the advocate. In other words, he executes the advocate’s wishes. Although both parties were aware that such relationship was sometimes unequal in status, each of them found it useful to form alliances with someone superior or inferior to himself. Humankind would always seek to achieve self-interests and would take others into account, regardless of status, as long as the self-interests were not compromised. The networks were self-regulating as there were no formal regulations but legitimated by certain values determined by the parties involved. This relationship was not about loyalty but provision, sustenance, favours and reciprocity. Therefore, it was not that members of secret societies substituted their allegiance to their headmen to another different level of authority as whichever party failed to fulfil its side of the obligation would lose the support and free the other party of its obligation. In some instances, there were
businessmen and politicians who were headmen of secret societies or had secret societies under their payroll.
Like all relationships, the network connections were also subject to changes. Advocates might find their power reduced as a result of bankruptcies, losing at elections and even trouble with the law. When advocates lost their power, the executives were free from their obligations and they could look for other advocates. Thus far, there were no known cases whereby advocates refused to fulfil their side of the bargain after obtaining
114 the services from their executives as those who entered into such relations would be aware of the obligations involved. Moreover, when one was dealing with secret societies, one had to be cautious due to the constant deployment of strong-arm tactics by the members. However, the possibility of some form of vendetta against the party which could not fulfil its side of the bargain should not be ruled out.
In short, advocates acted like entrepreneurs who built and managed an enterprise for the pursuit of their own agenda in the course of which they innovated and took risks.5 However, in some cases, they might not have the networks or resources needed for their pursuits. Hence, they needed intermediaries or facilitators to introduce contacts. For this reason, facilitators were bridges for people to come into a working relationship in which they otherwise would not.6 The distinguishing factor between advocates and facilitators lay in terms of the resources they possessed. If a person had direct access to land, jobs, scholarship funds or specialised knowledge (also known as “first order resources”) and he entered into such connections, then that person is an advocate. However, if he had strategic contacts (or “second order resources”) with other people who had direct control over the first order resources, that person was the facilitator.7
Using the above definition, we could thus conclude that there were basically three types of networks occurring in the “urban underworld.” The first type (Type A), as seen
Jeremy Boissevain (1974), Friends of Friends: Networks, Manipulators and Coalitions, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 147. 6 Liddick (1996), An Empirical Overview of Organised Crime, pp. 202-203. 7 Adapted from Boissevain (1974), Friends of Friends, p. 147.
115 in Figure 1 and 2 below, shows politicians and business community as “advocates” and secret societies as “executives.” Figure 1 politicians/businessmen (advocates) ss1 ss2 (executives)
executive 1 (ss1)
advocates (politicians/ businessmen
executive 2 (ss2)
In Figure 1, politicians and businessmen had direct control over secret societies. Hence, the connection is vertical in fashion as they were at the top of the hierarchy. In Figure 2, the relation between the advocates and executives was horizontal-like as secret societies were not directly controlled by the advocates as the latter needed the assistance of secret societies during elections (as election helpers and canvassers for votes) and securing workers for their businesses. In return, they were obliged to help their secret society friends when the need arose.8
The second type of networks (Type B) involved a facilitator as in Figure 3 and 4 below:
In Chapter 4 (p. 16) of this dissertation, it was reported that some labour groups were hiring secret societies to “stress” their arguments during internal disputes. Due to the lack of information, I am unable to include this in the network association pyramids.
116 Figure 3 politicians/businessmen (advocates) │ contacts (facilitators) │ secret societies (executives) │ voters/workers
Politicians who did not have direct access to voters had to depend on their contacts to liaise with voters. However, their liaison personnel may not have direct access to voters and hence, obtained the assistance from secret societies. The advocates might or might not be keenly aware that secret societies were involved in canvassing for votes on his behalf as he had depended on the intermediaries for assistance. Sometimes, the
relationship might not be in a vertical or horizontal fashion but overlap as shown below: Figure 4 advocates facilitators ss 2 voters ss 1 voters
The third type of network (Type C) is summarised in Figure 5 below: Figure 5 secret societies police hawkers shopkeepers (advocates) (executives)
It could be argued that the above figure was one of cooperation and compliance from the executives. The police, unlike the hawkers and shopkeepers, were under no compulsion to work with the secret societies as they were willing to provide information of raids at secret
117 society hideouts and economic activities for a fee. Hawkers and shopkeepers, out of fear of reprisals, consented to offer protection money to secret societies. In this instance, there was an element of coercion.
The networks secret societies had with these community leaders and politicians is somewhat different from the relation between secret societies had with political parties such as the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and community leaders of the anti-Japanese fund raising in the 1930s as seen in Chapter 3 of this research. In some instances, members of triad groups had to break ties with secret societies when they joined these political parties. Hence, the relationship would be one of co-optation rather than a network as their identity as a member of secret society would be subsumed under the political body. Moreover, even though secret societies were involved in the anti-Japanese fund raising activities in the 1930s, hence, had to cooperate with community leaders who were at the forefront, such a relationship could have been purely a concerted effort of all Chinese doing their utmost to help in the war. Undoubtedly, there might have been exchanges of services and favours but in the absence of raw data, it remained inconclusive.
In essence, networks, with or without facilitators, depended largely on the relative bargaining positions of the advocates and executives or how much more one needed the other.9 However, the colonial rule system had affected the “comprehensiveness of
James C. Scott, ‘The Erosion of Patron-Client Bonds and Social Change in Rural Southeast Asia,’ Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, Nov 1972, p. 7.
118 exchange and the relative bargaining position of executives.”10 The British had brought their own law and institutions which impinged on the networks, offering alternative services to both politicians and the business community and hawkers. This had seriously challenged the very survival of secret societies.11
Type A Network Connection: Business Community It was well-known that many of the community leaders had received help from secret societies before they became eminent.12 There were big businessmen who formed secret societies or employed secret societies to protect their businesses and intimidate others.13 Some secret societies ran coolie houses and for a commission, businessmen could obtain workers for their businesses. Hence, many of these businessmen joined secret societies so as to tap into the labour market14 for workers for their rubber and pineapple factories and coolies for their warehouses. In the midst of a highly competitive economy, it was inevitable that serious rivalries, threats and blackmails would occur. Whenever these businessmen were threatened or blackmailed and they would like to determine those responsible, they would turn to secret societies for underground work. There were also businessmen who were not members of any triad, yet cooperated with them and even became quite influential and respected by triad members.15 In return,
Ibid. More will be discussed in the later part of this chapter. 12 Tan Beng Luan, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Fong Chiok Kai, Oral History Unit, Acc. No. 185, Reel No. 5 (audiocassette), 15 Jun 1982; Pitt Kuan Wah, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Lim Nang Seng, Oral History Department, Acc. No. 308, Reel No. 17 (audiocassette), 26 Sep 1985. 13 Rajan Supramaniam, Communities of Singapore: Interview with Mr. Sivapathasundaram Sangarapillai, Oral History Department, Acc. No. 1339, Reel No. 17 (audiocassette), 19 Dec 1991. 14 Yao Souchou, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Chua Chong Ho, Archives and Oral History Department, Acc. No. 430, Reel No. 6 (audiocassette), 4 Jun 1984. 15 Ibid.
119 secret societies would receive commission, jobs, housing, meals and other forms of benefits.
The network could thus be summarised in Figures 6 below: Figure 6 business community (advocates) │ secret societies (workers) (executives)
Figure 6 shows the dependence on secret societies to tap into the labour market by the business community which was hiring members of secret societies directly as workers. Sometimes, it was through the influence of secret societies that businessmen were able to obtain workers as seen in Figure 7 below: Figure 7 business community (advocates) | secret societies (executives) | workers
The network was even extended to areas outside of Singapore. In 1937, when the Japanese were conquering territories in China, many overseas Chinese communities were boycotting Japanese goods. The Chinese in Bangkok made serious efforts to crush
Japanese trade in Thailand by “importing Singapore secret societies to intimidate merchants who deal in Japanese goods.”16 Secret societies sent warning letters to those merchants, asking them to stop such business for the plain reason that their country was at
‘Bangkok Chinese are Boycotting Japan,’ Singapore Free Press, 8 November 1937, p. 3. Although the press report did not specify how secret societies were “imported” into Thailand, it is my guess that secret societies in Singapore were hired and they moved to the Thai capital. It was not stated what benefits these secret societies received from the Bangkok Chinese.
120 war with Japan. If the warnings were ignored, drastic actions would be taken. In the month of October that year, eight serious stabbings resulted due to the failure to comply with the threats.17
Type A Network Connection: Politicians It was during elections that the establishment of networks between politicians and secret societies was most evident. There were many areas for cooperation. When
Singapore had its first elections, the responsibility of ferrying voters to polling stations fell onto the candidates. Candidates had to borrow or rent trucks and cars in order to get votes. Politicians might not have sufficient resources to do so but not the secret societies. They had the contacts and ability to mobilize cars, lorries and drivers at the shortest possible time. Politicians needed helpers to put up party banners and personal posters in the constituencies they were running. Secret societies were able to mobilize their
members to put them up and run errands for them. Politicians needed votes which secret societies could help canvass for them. Sometimes politicians needed “protection” from their rivals and their over zealous supporters. Members of secret societies could act as their bodyguards while they were campaigning for votes. Such services had to be
remunerated. Mr Koh Choon Hong, a candidate for the Tanjong Pagar Division at the 1957 by-election, engaged the Headman and a member of the 969 secret society of 24 Group, four members of other secret societies of the same Group and a member of a secret society of 18 Group at a daily remuneration of $12 each, to canvass for votes; six of them
121 were to protect his election meetings as well.18 (Please refer to the two tables below) Some were paid $400 per month to put up election posters.19 Even food, refreshments and cigarettes were handed out to members of the Sio Eng Hiong secret society of 108 Group, who were putting up election posters for Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the Tanjong Pagar area.20 The fundamental truth in these relations was that secret societies did not support the political party but individual politicians. This means that secret societies did not have any political affiliation with or inclination towards any of the political parties but had agreed to help due to certain benefits and favours they could obtain from individual politicians.
1957 By-Election in Cairnhill and Tanjong Pagar: Allegations of Secret Societies’ Involvement in Canvassing Votes 21 Cairnhill Division: Name Abdul Majid Mirza Goh Kong Beng Political Party Secret Society Involved Independent No mention of any secret society involvement Independent Sar Ji Group which included the Kun Heng Kok secret society of the Group; also had the assistance of Aw Ee Meng, a protected member of the Group Labour-Front Aided by Jiman bin Simen @Panjang, Headman of 329 secret society of 36 Group; also obtained assistance from M. Rajapal Thamoo Occupation/Position President of the Malayan National Seamen’s Union President of the Singapore Teachers’ Union
Keng Ban Ee
Committee member of the Labour Front
Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Corrupt, Illegal or Undesirable Practices at Elections, 1958, p.18. 19 Ibid, p. 17. Mr. Chong Wee Ling, candidate for the Tanjong Pagar Division, offered Aw Sai Soo, a member of the Tai Chap Wee secret society of 24 Group, this sum of money. 20 Ibid, p. 17. 21 Extracted from Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Corrupt, Illegal or Undesirable Practices at Elections, 1958, pp. 16-20.
122 @Panjang, Headman of the Black & White secret society of 24 Group Assisted by Lim Toh Heng, General Headman of Lau Yong Heng secret society of Sar Ji Group in Mohamed Sultan Road area; also assisted by members of 18 Group No mention of any secret society involvement
Soh Ghee Soon
Businessman; serving member of several sporting bodies
Tengku Muda M. bin Mahmud
Great grandson of the last Singapore Sultan (Hussain M. Shah)
Tanjong Pagar Division: Name Chong Wee Ling Political Party LiberalSocialist Party Secret Society Involved Assisted by brother Chong Chiang Ling @Lau Hor Kia, General Headman of Chap Sa Io secret society of 18 Group and obtained help from 108 Group active in the Tanjong Pagar division; also assisted by 309 Group, 888 secret society of 24 Group, 206 secret society & 909 secret society of 108 Group; help also obtained from Tng Teck Hock @Teck Ho and Hai Lok San secret society of 108 Group, Aw Sai Soo of Tai Chap Wee secret society of 24 Group was given a monthly remuneration of $400; 969 secret society of 24 Group Engaged the Headman and members of 969 secret society of 24 Group and a member of secret society of 18 Group at a daily Occupation/Position President of the Singapore Bus Owners’ Association
Koh Choon Hong
Lawyer; founder-member of the Labour Front
123 remuneration of $12 each; also obtained help from secret society of 108 Group Supported by members of secret society of 108 Group and 969 secret society of 24 Group of the Cantonese section of Chinatown; Ho Beh Swee, leader of Ho clan & Committee member of Tanjong Pagar Branch of the PAP, supplied food & refreshments to members of Sio Eng Hiong secret society of 108 Group
Lee Kuan Yew
People’s Action Party
Lawyer; Secretary-General of PAP; former member of the Legislative Assembly
Indeed, such close working ties were very rampant. Secret societies had started their involvement in elections during the 1954 and 1955 Legislative Assembly Elections. In 1954, it was reported in the Singapore Free Press that an Indian businessman, Mr V. S. Padmanabhan, a candidate in the Changi division, reported to the police that he was threatened by a gang if he did not pay protection money.22 Sales of block votes, collecting signatures as written guarantees of their votes and promises of victory bonuses, corrupt entertainment and payment to canvassers were some of the allegations that were rife in 1955.23 Due to the lack of hard evidence, there was no action taken to curb such activities. However, during the 1957 by-election in the Cairnhill and Tanjong Pagar constituencies, secret society involvement was not only rife but they were getting more violent in their methods to obtain more votes for their candidates they supported. An official inquiry was conducted and the report alarmed the British authorities. Out of the eight candidates running in the by-election, only two had no known secret society involvement. There
‘Gang Threatens Polls Man,’ Singapore Free Press, 2 October 1954, p. 1. ‘Election Workers Use Novel Vote Tactics,’ Singapore Free Press, 14 January 1955, p. 7.
124 were instances where more than one secret society was hired as each secret society had strong influence in certain areas in a constituency. Hence, in order to garner more
support, it was not surprising that rival secret societies were recruited. This was not indicative that rival secret societies were cooperating with each other. Indeed, rivalries between secret societies did not abate even though they shared the same advocates. The network could thus be summarised in Figure 8 below: Figure 8 politicians ss1 │ voters ss2 │ voters (advocates) ss3 (executives) │ voters
Type B Network Connection: Facilitatorship Indeed, not all politicians were actively engaging secret society services. Some might be ignorant as their friends and co-workers were engaging members of secret societies as helpers. Others, though may be aware, did not reject the offer of assistance. One of the candidates for the Cairnhill Division, Mr Goh Kong Beng, acknowledged that he had been introduced to Aw Ee Meng, a protected member of the Sar Ji Group (although he denied that he was aware of Aw’s secret society connections), by a friend, in consequence of a remark that he was worried about his prospects in the Mohamed Sultan Road area because he knew no one there.24 Thus, the network pyramid would be:
Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Corrupt, Illegal or Undesirable Practices at Elections, 1958, p.18. A “protected member” of a secret society is one who pays contribution but does not participate in the activities of the secret society.
125 Figure 9 Goh Kong Beng │ friend │ Aw Ee Meng │ Sar Ji Group │ voters (advocate) (facilitator) (facilitator/executive) (executives)
The pyramid above looks complicated due to the different levels of connections. The friend of Goh Kong Beng in this relationship, played the role of the facilitator since he introduced Goh to Aw, his contact. Aw performed the role of facilitator as well as he obtained the services of the secret societies. Aw and the Sar Ji Group were the executives as ultimately, they were the recipients of benefits should Goh become elected. In this network, Aw played the dual roles of facilitator and executive.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a candidate for the Tanjong Pagar Division, was supported by members of secret societies of 108 Group and 969 secret society of 24 Group.25 Yet, it was Lee who started the motion on the subject of corrupt and improper practices at elections in the Legislative Assembly that triggered the inquiry into the 1957 byelections.26 It was then uncovered at the Inquiry that it was Mr Ho Beh Swee, a
Committee member of the Tanjong Pagar Branch of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and also the leader of the Ho clan in the area, who had supplied food and refreshments to members of the Sio Eng Hiong secret society of the 108 Group who were putting up
Ibid, p.17. Ibid, p.11.
126 election posters.27 The Ho clan was found to have associations with the 206, 309 and the Hai Lok San secret societies of the 108 Group. It was likely that Ho had engaged the members of secret societies without the knowledge of Lee. In this situation, the network diagram would be Figure 10 Lee Kuan Yew (advocate) Ho Beh Swee (facilitator) secret societies (executives) voters
On the surface, it might seem that the secret societies were involved for petty benefits such as food, refreshments and cigarettes. However, should Lee Kuan Yew (a lawyer by profession) be elected and members of secret societies ran foul of the law, they hoped that they could obtain Lee’s services through Ho.
Although Lee and Goh might not have actively sought assistance from or keenly aware of the facilitators’ dealings with the secret societies, they were classified as ‘passive advocates’ as firstly, they had indeed benefited from the help rendered by members of secret societies and secondly, they left most of the operations to the facilitators28 and remained “ignorant” of their dealings with secret societies during elections. It was indeed difficult to ascertain whether advocates were aware of the facilitators’ dealings with members of secret societies, even during official inquiries. However, as Goh had sought the assistance from a friend and had accepted Aw’s help (regardless whether Goh knew of
Ibid, p.17. I would describe advocates who are actively aware and supportive (or at least give tacit approval) of the facilitators’ dealings with members of secret societies as “active advocates.” Due to the lack of examples, I am unable to describe the role of active advocates in the facilitatorship system.
127 Aw’s connections), therefore, his relationship with the facilitators and executives was vertical as compared to Lee’s.
The reasons for the preferred role of facilitators were many. Goh’s friend could have introduced Aw to him as a type of favour. There was also the possibility of gaining additional favours in return if the relationship became successful. As for Ho Beh Swee, he was committee member of the Tanjong Pagar Branch of the PAP and should Lee lose his seat, his own position would also be jeopardised. Facilitators, like advocates, were also motivated by benefits and incentives. In addition, they were highly concerned about their positions in society. There was also the possibility that facilitators were “advocates” who were unable to fulfil their obligations to their “executives” as they did not have the resources to do so. By accepting the position of a facilitator, he could fulfil his obligations and continue to receive the goodwill from the active and/or passive advocates and the executives in these networks.
Members of secret societies did not enter into a network just for petty gains. They were well aware of the advantages they possessed if they had actively supported a candidate during elections. For once the candidate was elected, they would then “have a member of the legislature to whom they could appeal if in trouble.”29 There were several occasions when secret society members when arrested, sought the protection of the Assemblyman elected for their area.30 The Assemblyman was informed of the
unwarranted arrests by the police and hence, felt that it was his duty to make enquiries.
Wilfred Blythe (1969), The Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya: A Historical Study, London: Oxford University Press, p. 471. 30 Ibid, p. 472.
128 Members of secret societies had hoped that the active support of a successful candidate would be “a prospect of weakening the power of the police,”31 who was determined to wipe out the menace posed by triad groups. The secret societies had hoped that the support from Assemblymen would dampen the morale of the police and thwart their efforts in eliminating the secret societies.
Through the active participation in the electoral process, members of secret societies had attempted to politicise the network cultivated with politicians. Before such relations could congeal, the British, ever alarmed at secret society involvement, enforced more stringent rules pertaining to elections; rendering it more difficult for secret societies to take advantage of the opportunities presented during elections in reviving and maintaining such relationships.32
Type C Network Connection: Police Connivance Police cooperation is a form of connivance as the police were only interested in obtaining bribes in exchange for information on raids of secret society operations. Although some police officers were determined to wipe out the menace posed by triad groups, there were black sheep in their midst. Some of the police officers working in the Secret Societies Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department were former secret society members who were recruited into the police force to help solve crimes relating to
Ibid. These rules include making voting compulsory which rendered canvassing on polling day unnecessary; making polling day a public holiday and the prohibition of providing private transport for voters. For the full description of these rules, please refer to Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Corrupt, Illegal or Undesirable Practices at Elections, 1958, pp. 34-40.
129 secret society activities.33 They continued to maintain friendly relations with secret
societies even though they were on opposing sides. Consequently, it was quite common that the police ignored calls for help from the public34 as they had been bribed not to intervene. Indeed, police corruption was so rife that people would spit at the Telok Ayer Police Station whenever they walked past it.35 As the police were on the receiving end in this relationship, they were the executives while the secret societies had become the advocates as the police executed the wishes of secret societies; that is, the guarantee of the safe conduct of their operations. Thus, the network cluster would be: Figure 11 ss1 ss2 ss3 (advocates)
The bribery of police officers served a dual function. By paying off the police officers, not only would it ensure that secret societies would be prepared for police raids, it would also ensure that no action would be taken by them when the public complained about secret society activities and harassment. Police inaction would then leave the public vulnerable to secret society threats and therefore, had no option but to comply with the demands of secret societies. On one hand, the British government was organizing police operations such as “Operation Dagger” and “Operation Pereksa” (Examination), yet on
Tan Beng Luan, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Fong Chiok Kai, Oral History Unit, Acc. No. 185, Reel No. 17 (audiocassette), 12 Oct 1982; Tan Beng Luan, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Soon Eng Boh, Oral History Unit, Acc. No. 142, Reel No. 6 (audiocassette), 23 Feb 1982; Chai Yong Hwa, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Ong Chye Hock, Oral History Unit, Acc. No. 168, Reel No. 18 (audiocassette), 10 Apr 1982. 34 Tan Beng Luan, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Fong Chiok Kai, Oral History Unit, Acc. No. 185, Reel No. 16 (audiocassette), 12 Oct 1982. 35 Yao Souchou, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Chua Chong Ho, Archives and Oral History Department, Acc. No. 430, Reel No. 7 (audiocassette), 4 Jun 1984.
130 the other, the police were conniving with the triads. Triad groups were quick to capitalize on their connections with the corrupt members of the police force to avoid the police dragnet.
Type C Network Connection: Pay-For-Protection Protection rackets were the usual type of business that secret societies were involved. Hawkers, shopkeepers, coffee shop owners, prostitutes and other small
businesses pay protection money to the advocate so that they could eke out a living. Some did voluntarily; others did it out of fear due to the violent methods used by secret societies. The “voluntary” group included street theatre operators as they needed bouncers to keep watch over their theatres.36 Payment was usually in the form of tickets at
discounted prices which resulted in the existence of a black market for theatre tickets and this made secret societies rich.37
The networks with the “involuntary” group were unique as the demand for protection was created by the advocates. Small businessmen who would like to operate a business in an area controlled by a secret society, had to pay protection money. If they refused to pay, their businesses would be disrupted, their properties destroyed and worse, their lives endangered until they paid up or moved to another area. Sometimes, when a secret society was displaced by a stronger rival, then whichever side won that territorial
Ng Sin Yue, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Kwang Poh, Oral History Unit, Acc. No. 256, Reel No. 6 (audiocassette), 3 Mar 1983. 37 Ang Siew Ghim, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Chia Soon Ann, Oral History Department, Acc. No. 465, Reel No. 39 (audiocassette), 9 Jan 1986.
131 right would harass all hawkers and shopkeepers in that area and the small businesses would have to pay to the stronger secret society.38
Strong arm tactics were not the only way that secret societies used to coerce small businesses to pay for their maintenance. They often came up with different ways to remind the hawkers to pay their protection money. These reminders could come in the form of Chinese New Year greeting cards, probably due to the tradition of giving money for good luck during the festive occasion. At first glance, these cards might seem
harmless but the words convey an insidious meaning. In addition to the usual greetings such as “Wishing You a Happy New Year” and “May All Enterprises Meet with Success,” the names of the secret societies and reminders such as “I Pay Homage” were also printed on these cards.39 Failure to comply would result in assaults, destruction of property and more threats. The pay-for-protection type of connections could therefore be summarized in the following figure:
Figure 12 secret societies (advocates)
The number of territories was not the only benchmark in assessing the strength of the power and influence each secret society possessed as secret societies did not depend solely on their protection rackets for survival. In some cases, with strong support from influential patrons, secret societies were able to operate in several areas and in different types of employment. 39 Singapore Police Force (1958), Chinese Secret Societies in Singapore, Singapore: CID, p. 34. See also ‘New Year Cards with a Sting,’ Straits Times, 7 January 1960.
132 Type C Network Connection: Recommendation for Employment As mentioned earlier, many businessmen relied on the secret societies to obtain workers for their factories and warehouses. Before one could work in pineapple and rubber factories, one must get recommendation from workers who were already working in them.40 Most of these workers, if not all, were members of secret societies and to work in these factories, one must join the secret society there. membership had become a prerequisite for jobs in these factories. Hence, secret society
Membership did indeed have its “privileges.”
Secret societies were highly
protective of their members. If any family member of secret society members were to pass away, other members of the secret society would mourn with them41 In addition, they would collect donations and give them to the bereaved family and send wreaths and scrolls.42 Families of members of secret societies who were sent to prison would receive help from the secret societies until their release.43 In addition, these members would also be given a special bonus if they had refused to divulge any names.44
Chai Yong Hwa, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Ong Chye Hock, Oral History Unit, Acc. No. 168, Reel Nos. 17, 18 (audiocassettes), 10 Apr 1982. 41 Yao Souchou, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Chua Chong Ho, Archives and Oral History Department, Acc. No. 430, Reel No. 7 (audiocassette), 4 Jun 1984. 42 Singapore Police Force (1958), Chinese Secret Societies in Singapore, p. 70. A worker from the Singapore Harbour Board, Mr. Teo Tian Seng, received a wreath during his father’s funeral wake from the employees of the Singapore Harbour Board who were from the 505 Gang. 505 Gang was a branch of the 108 Group of secret societies. See also Straits Times, 14 November 1975. 43 Liana Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups: Interview with Mr. Lim Kim Guan, Oral History Unit, Acc. No. 280, Reel No. 10 (audiocassette), 11 Jul 1983. 44 Ibid.
133 Cooperation as a Form of Control Control involves an idea of a person or other force having the power to change or stop something. Control over the secret societies could be achieved through the network connections, in addition to prohibition through legislation. For example, in Figure 13 below, Advocate A could make use of his relationship with secret societies to control the threats and excesses from his rivals and supporters. Figure 13 Advocate A Advocate B
Occasionally, advocates might use their influence to pressure their executives to reduce their activities for fear of police checks, destruction of their reputation and image or for the general good of the community.
There were several occasions where advocates and facilitators used their influence over the secret societies at the intervention of people who were of a higher social status than them. One example was the dispute in the Tanjong Pagar Division. Prior to the 1957 by-election, a fight between members of the Ji Tok Kiat secret society of 24 Group and the 206, 309 and Hai Lok San secret societies of 108 Group occurred in Duxton Road, Tanjong Pagar.45 This dispute invariably involved the two Chinese clans in the area as the 24 Group was associated with the Teo clan while the 108 Group was associated with the
For the full details, please refer to Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Corrupt, Illegal or Undesirable Practices at Elections, 1958, pp. 15-16.
134 Ho clan. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was informed of this by the leader of the Ho clan, Mr Ho Beh Swee, who was also the Committee member of the Tanjong Pagar Branch of the PAP. Lee contacted Mr William Tan, the Liberal-Socialist member of the Legislative Assembly for Tiong Bahru Division as the members of the Teo clan were his supporters. Both Assemblymen mediated in the dispute in the presence of the Superintendent of Police in charge of the Secret Societies Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department. A
settlement was reached between Mr Ho and Mr Teo Choon Huat, the leader of the Teo clan and the situation remained calm even during the by-election. If a compromise had not been reached, violence would disrupt the election and the British authorities would have to adopt punitive measures against members of secret societies. Through this
episode, the ability of secret societies to beat a hasty retreat before more punitive measures were taken against them served to prolong their existence.
It has been discussed in Figure 10, that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a passive advocate of secret societies. It was his co-worker, Mr Ho, who had direct contact with secret societies. Lee had used his own influence over Ho to settle the dispute between the rival secret societies. Hence, the control over the secret society activities came from the influence of a third party.
Controlling the secret societies was not equivalent to controlling their excesses. The demand for protection money was a type of excesses but some hawkers and shopkeepers notwithstandingly paid. This was a way of controlling their actions, that is, stopping them from damaging their property and destroying their livelihood. In the absence of alternative government protection agencies, small businesses could only
135 comply. It was only through police connivance with the secret societies that the control over the triad groups was absent as police connivance only served to embolden the secret societies.
Dynamics of Networking Networks between the mainstream and the underworld were never static. Social changes were constantly taking place and this had serious ramifications on these networks. Changes to such relations occurred when one party gained more leverage over the other over a period of time and this was dependent on the strength of advocates, the bargaining position of executives and the changes occurred within a society as it progressed over time.
If advocates lost their high socioeconomic status through bankruptcy or their seat in the Legislative Assembly, they would lose their ability to grant benefits to the secret societies. Secret societies would then have to look for other advocates. Similarly, if secret societies lost their territorial rights to their rivals, they would lose their claim to collect protection money in the area.
Conversely, the higher the socioeconomic status, the more sought after the advocates would be. In addition, the advocates would also be able to exercise greater influence and control over the secret societies. Likewise, if a secret society was strong despite the competition, they would be able to dominate more areas and in more areas of employment. Hence, the balance of power would be tipped towards the advocates’ end.
136 The bargaining position of the executives also changed over time. When
advocates needed and actively engaged the assistance of the secret societies to canvass for votes during elections, they would be more agreeable to the demands of their executives. However, the British implementation of the changes to the electoral process greatly affected these networks. Indeed, politicians now could directly approach the voters
without the need of a third party.
The commercialization of Singapore’s economy and the growth of the global market strengthened the demand for skilled labour. Secret societies had dominated the unskilled labour force and the dependence on them for unskilled labour gradually whittled away by the 1930s as the economy progressed. Simultaneously, services provided by mainstream institutions expanded and improved so the general public’s fear of the secret society power began to reduce gradually.
As these networks were the building blocks for social interaction, changes to them would affect it. Politicians and the business community depended on the secret society influence to reach out to voters and to tap into the labour market. Social changes and changes to the electoral process had broken up this dependence. The cooperation with the higher socioeconomic class served to sustain the secret societies but this was only a temporary reprieve. Once the support from the advocates and executives had been
removed, secret societies would have to face mounting challenges to their existence.
British rule had impinged on these networks as they effected changes to the electoral process and improving the services provided by governmental agencies. The
137 British were not against such networks per se but they were very concerned about the parties involved. To the British, no dealings should be made with secret societies as they were outlawed, especially when secret societies were a state within an empire. As time progressed, the need for such networks with secret societies diminished. It could be argued that the focus of such relations have been shifted to having ties with government agencies, which was another manifestation of networking. Hence, these networks with secret societies lost its importance. In addition, secret societies became so disruptive to the larger society that they became more alienated from the public.
Secret societies always had the ability to manipulate relationships for their own benefit. Attempts to weaken the power of the police through the support of candidates at elections were some of the ways in gaining leverage and finding sustenance. Through the years, the general perception of secret societies had changed from being mutual help associations to social menace; coupled with the social changes that were occurring, the networks with secret societies began to erode and regarded as less acceptable to the general public. Moreover, the strengths and resources the secret societies possessed were no longer relevant to the ever-changing society, brought on by the marketisation of the economy, accelerated urbanisation and the expansion of central administrations.46 Hence, secret societies lost their place in society not because of the prohibition but due to the rejection from the public. As society gained sophistication and had experienced the coercive power of triad groups, it was ready to put a stop to their excesses when the opportunity was presented.
Luis Roniger, ‘The Comparative Study of Clientelism and the Changing Nature of Civil Society in the Contemporary World,’ in Luis Roniger and Ayşe Günes-Ayata (eds.) (1994), Democracy, Clientelism and Civil Society, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, p. 11.
138 CONCLUSION The various survival strategies deployed by secret societies showed their willingness in changing and modifying their modus operandi when circumstances did not favour them. Despite the tag of “security threat,” “thugs,” “gangsters” and the
proscription by the British authorities and the difficult social and economic conditions they faced, they could still find a niche for themselves. This was in part aided by the constant attempts of co-optation and the open cooperation by sections of the larger society so as to advance their individual agenda. Political players such as community leaders, the Kuomintang Party (KMT), the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and even the Japanese were quick to capitalize on the potential of secret societies. These political players knew that in order to gain access to mass support and acceptance, they needed the goodwill of secret societies.
Although the political players shared the common purpose of winning members of triad groups to their side, they adopted different methods. Community leaders were willing to cooperate with triad groups. In reality, some of them had connections with triad groups (ranging from being former members of secret societies to just being friendly) before they became prominent public figures. The large base of manpower, their
incredible mobility of members and the aura of secrecy they possessed were instrumental to the advancement of self-interests. The pervasiveness of secret societies in the everyday lives of the community was too strong to be ignored.
On the other hand, the relationship between secret societies and the KMT and the MCP was more of an attempt to co-opt members of secret societies as the identity of
139 secret society members was subsumed under party membership. Each party would like to tap on to the power and influence secret societies had over the rest of the Singapore society which was predominantly Chinese. It was quite unlike the relationship that the business community and local politicians had with triad groups. The political agenda and the interests of the political parties were not to be compromised.
Members of secret societies were not easy preys for these political parties to exploit. Neither were they mere foot soldiers who were content to allow their political patrons manipulate them. There was great mutual distrust and the lack of success in gaining the full cooperation from the secret societies by the political parties was testament to the apathy and unwillingness of the secret societies in surrendering their power. The majority of triad groups remained cold towards the causes and objectives of the KMT and MCP. This was because the alignment with these political bodies was not a result of any type of inclination towards a particular political ideology but more as a means of hiding behind a greater power or influence for survival, revenge-taking and victimizing. The alignment with the KMT and the MCP was more evident after the Japanese Occupation as there were members of secret societies who had indeed suffered at the hands of Japanese oppressors and their collaborators. Hence, there was a great sense of anger which was followed by an increase in the aggressive action of “righting the wrongs” they had suffered or simply firing the first salvo.
The Japanese were by far, the most aggressive in their treatment of members of secret societies. Although they recognized that secret societies were regarded as one of the centres of Chinese patriotism, they freed some of them on detention warrants served
140 by the British when they occupied Singapore, on the condition that they served the Japanese empire. In reality, these members of triads did not have a choice as they would be tortured and executed by the Japanese just the same should they refuse. Not
surprisingly, the Japanese would dangle a carrot for members of triad groups to entice them to serve as spies through the offer of protection and enough food to sustain members of triad groups and their families and the acquiescence of the continuation of gambling operations and protection racketeering. With the collaboration of secret societies, the Japanese authorities were able to use terror methods to great effects in order to control Singapore within the shortest time.
However, there were members of triads who did not collaborate with the Japanese but went into the jungles to fight against them. Some joined the Malayan People’s AntiJapanese Army (or MPAJA, under the aegis of the MCP) or the Overseas Chinese AntiJapanese Army (or OCAJA, under the flag of the KMT.) After the war, some of them lay down their arms and tried to resume their lives while some continued to fight for independence against the British.
The British were never interested in dealing with the secret societies since the official proscription in 1890. They did not desire to share power nor give official Police
recognition to any group which they felt were threatening their supremacy.
operations such as “Operation Dagger” and “Operation Pereksa” (Examination) were conducted to wipe out the secret society menace but they brought limited success. The lack of court convictions, the unwillingness of witnesses to testify and the “guerilla’ style of secret society operations were some of the reasons for the limited success in police
141 operations. The different signals given by the different personnel of British authorities regarding the necessity of adopting the various operations against the secret societies served to embolden secret societies as the latter knew that there was no single-minded focus in dealing with them. Hence, they were not fearful of the authorities’ power. In addition, the British authorities neglected to deal effectively other important aspects such as education and the high unemployment rate as these would absorb members of triads into the process of modernizing the economy. commensurate with their efforts. Consequently, the results were not
The fight for survival for the secret societies was not confine to the proscription of their existence but also in the harsh social and economic conditions that plagued Singapore after the war. Like any other ordinary person, members of secret societies could not escape from the harsh conditions and they too had to meet their basic needs as well as their families’. Operating the illegal trade such as prostitution rings, gambling and smuggling operations, running pick pocketing classes and conducting armed robberies were some of the ways in finding and supplementing income. Efforts in improving the social and economic conditions such as public housing, trade schools and Chinesemedium skills training centres were inadequate in helping Singaporeans in general overcome poverty.
It is indeed not surprising that members of secret societies also formed networks with members from “mainstream” society. Politicians as well as businessmen needed the assistance of secret societies to aid them during elections and looking for workers. Street theatre operators needed the muscles of secret societies to fend off competitors and
142 trouble-makers so as to conduct their business. Secret societies also preyed on the fears of hawkers, brothel operators and other small businessmen and exacted protection money from them, although some of them were seeking their protection voluntarily. Evidently, secret societies were indeed useful to the larger community.
The success of secret societies in preying on the fears of the people was also helped by police connivance. The extra money from secret societies in exchange for police inaction regarding raids on their premises and the collection of protection money was not rejected by the police. On one hand, the British government wanted stringent measures against the secret societies but on the other, the executive arm of the government, that is the police, were conniving with the triads.
The alignment with political players, the adoption of the “guerilla” style and the development of network connections were strategies employed by secret societies helped them to prolong their existence. Certain sections of the community needed their
assistance for their own purposes. However, as society progresses and the need for triad groups had diminished and replaced with better run agencies, secret societies had lost its place and function in mainstream society. As Singapore progresses and the subsequent hardline approach and determination of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in wiping out the secret society menace after it had controlled the political life of the island, secret societies gradually faded away from public life.
One of the greatest difficulties in this research was the lack of hard data to form conclusive evidence about the methods of survival adopted by the secret fraternities. This
143 was not just due to the protracted process of de-classification of records but also the destruction of police records and other documents.1 There was absolutely no
corroboration with some of the arguments posed by historians over the years. In addition, secret societies operated clandestinely and hence, would not keep written records of their dealings. The task of studying their operations and relations with other secret societies in Singapore as well as in the region remained problematic. It was indeed challenging to write in details the steps they took to re-invent themselves, how they overcame the restrictions imposed on them or even the modifications to their operations.
Although there was the lack of hard evidence, especially from the perspective of secret societies, this was not indicative that a research on survival strategies adopted by secret societies was impossible to achieve. The existing corpus of documents, though came from the perspective of authorities, did contain insights on the steps taken by members of secret societies in overcoming various obstacles to their existence. Moreover, the Oral History interviews proved to be invaluable in exploring and stretching the argument further as some of the interviewees were former triad members or had dealings with triads. Furthermore, seeing members of secret societies as “entrepreneurs” who were always actively seeking to preserve their self-interests despite the risks involved would move the research of secret societies further away from the “law and order” paradigm and the viewpoint of authorities.
See Wilfred Blythe (1969), The Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya: A Historical Study, London: Oxford University Press, p. xii. Some of the police documents were destroyed soon after Blythe had studied them.
144 This research has attempted to explore the reasons for the longevity of secret societies despite the legal prohibition and uncovered the connectivity between the “mainstream” and “underworld.” Indeed, there was a very thin line between what was “mainstream” and “underworld.” There were always people who needed the assistance of secret societies. This study would also help understand that for a secret society to
survive, it was not enough to impose tough legal measures against it but involved a multifaceted approach.
Although secret societies had originated in China, they had assumed a different form as a way of adapting to the local conditions. It was this ability to adapt to the changing landscape that they survive even up till this day, although they no longer enjoy the same power and influence they once had. Some may even label them as a constitution of a contraculture2 as they are opposed to the dominant values and behavioural norms of mainstream society; yet, constituted a different culture from the mainstream. This is indeed an interesting topic for future exploration on the subject. Perhaps such an approach may shed new light on the history of secret societies in Singapore.
Report of a Psycho-social Study of Secret Society Gangsters in Singapore, 6 March 1981, p. 31.
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