Secret societies in Singapore (Chinese:
公司, Pinyin: gōngsī) are generally
Chinese in origin. They have been
largely eradicated as a security issue in the city state. However
many smaller groups remain today which attempt to mimic societies of
the past. The membership of these societies is largely adolescent,
and sometimes includes non-Chinese Singaporeans.
Despite fading from contemporary Singaporean society, these secret
societies hold great relevance to Singapore's modern history. The
founding of the city state in 1819 saw the arrival of thousands of
Chinese, thereby transplanting to Singapore social systems already
present in China itself. Although the secret societies were commonly
associated with violence, extortion and vice, they also played a
part in building a social fabric for early Chinese migrants in
Ironically, they were given leeway to
control the Chinese populace due to the hands-off policy adopted by
the British colonials, who hoped to create stability.
The concept of Secret societies came to Singapore with the arrival
of the Chinese during the modern city's founding in 1819, although
pre-existing Chinese, particularly the Peranakans, had been living
in the area prior to that. These early groups, however, were largely
assimilated into Malay society, and had abandoned many of the social
structures of their origins.
The term for secret society, hui (Simplified Chinese: 会, Traditional
Chinese: 會), is often interchangeable with terms like kongsi (公司,
Pinyin: gōngsī) or Chinese clan (会馆,
會館, Pinyin: húguǎn), all
roughly translating to the meaning of "brotherhood". The term
is more widely known in Southeast Asia, however, whereas in China,
the secret societies were just simply known as hui or tong.
Over in China, the concept of brotherhood as a form of non-blood
kinship has been a unifying force for centuries, with evidence of
its existence dating back to the Warring States Period of 475-221
BC. Specific references are often made to the sworn brotherhood of
Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
These forms of kinship were enforced through the taking of a blood
oath, a process usually conducted only in times of strife, and
therefore evokes a sense of rebellion against the wider social
order. This sense of brotherhood is also associated with the concept
of mutual aid, a key component dating back to the Tang Dynasty
period from 618 to 907. Forms of aid often involved the pooling
together of resources (including financial), or the loan of these
resources, and were utilized for needs such as basic livelihood, the
holding of a marriage, or financing and supporting political
Individuals requiring such mutual aid were often economically or
socially under-privileged. It was therefore common for these hui to
be formed amongst the poorer, lower-class males of Chinese villages.
The first secret societies
The secret societies which formed in Singapore can be traced to
mid-18th century Fujian province in China, with the local offshoots
adopting an organizational structure mirroring the parent
organization. The Hongman (洪門), the first secret society to be
established in Singapore, traced its origins to the Heaven and Earth
Society (Tiandihui) in Fujian.
Despite their founding principles of mutual assistance and bonding,
secret societies have, over time, come to conjure up impressions of
violence and disorder. This association, perhaps exaggerated, has
been encouraged by law enforcement officers since their formation in
the colonial era. This perception was strengthened by several
factors, including the inability of the colony's administration to
control their activities, the branding of arrested society members
as "criminal gangsters" by the media and an upsurge in violent crime
in the 1960s sparked by a few society members. These factors came
together during the same period in which the country was trying to
gain a foothold fresh from having attained political independence it
did not foresee.
Several important riots in Malayan history prompted had earlier
colonial government to respond unambiguously. These riots include
the Penang Riots of 1867 (which involved the Ghee Hin) and the Post
Office Riots of 1876. The Societies Ordinance of 1889 was introduced
as an attempt at suppression.
List of secret
Ghee Hin Kongsi
Hai San Kongsi
Cho Koon Kongsi
Ghee Khee Kongsi
Ghee Sin Kongsi
Ghee Soon Kongsi
Chen Chen Kow (Tsung Peh
Ghee Hok Kongsi 義福公司,
Ghee Khee Kwang Hok Kongsi
Hok Bing Kongsi (Hok Hin
Kongsi) 福興公司, 福兴公司
Hen Bing Kongsi
Choo Leong Kongsi
Ang Bang Kongsi
24 Ghee Hai Kim
Sio Yi Ho
21 Tong Meng Ge
Pa Hai Tong 21
Ang Meng Tong 21
Hai Lo San
Ghee Hin Kongsi
The Ghee Hin Kongsi (Simplified Chinese:
义兴公司; Traditional Chinese: 義興公司; Pinyin: ýxīng gōngsī) is a secret
society in Singapore and Malaya, formed in 1820. Ghee Hin literally
means "the rise of righteousness" in Chinese. The Ghee Hin often
fought against the Hakka-dominated Hai San secret society.
Ghee Hin was initially dominated by the Cantonese, although Hokkiens
formed the majority by 1860. Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka and Foochow
form smaller minorities. Their main lodge was located in Lavender
Street, which contained the ancestral tablets of important
ex-members, before being donated to the Tan Tock Seng Hospital when
it was torn down in 1892, following the Suppression of Secret
The Ghee Hin were notorious for riots against Catholic Chinese in
1850 (killing over 500), as well as post offices in 1876, against a
new, and more expensive, monopoly on post and remittances. The
colonial government began to move towards surveillance, control, and
finally suppression from 1890s onwards.
Ghee Hin and Hai San were the two secret societies that were
involved in Perak civil war in the 19th century.
Ang Soon Tong
Ang Soon Tong is a secret society based
in Singapore. According to a former police officer, the society was
active as early as the 1950s, mainly in the Sembawang area. In 1998,
a 19-year old youth was arrested for setting up a website dedicated
to the society. As recently as 2007, Ang Soon Tong was still active,
with one of its members sentenced to reformative probation that year
for clashing with members of another secret society.
The gang was formed during the early 1960s in the early years of
Singapore's Independence when the police force was more relaxed in
its enforcement. 369 recruited members mainly in prisons and
ex-convicts who wanted to belong to the most powerful gang. Until
recently, 369 was a group of the '18' (Chup Pueh Sio Kun Tong in
Hokkien) secret society.
It has since declared its independence
from the '18' group and has opened its own branches in many parts of
Singapore. Places like Tanjong Rhu, Kallang Airport, Teck Whye Lane,
Clementi, Tanglin Halt, Mei Ling Street, Joo Seng, Bishan, Thomson,
Geylang and places like Yew Tee are the main branches in which many
members are recruited.
Members of this secret society often tattoo lines of dots called 'tiam'
in Hokkien on their foreheads or even five dots on each knuckle on
their fingers to identify themselves as 'fighters'. Teardrops on the
cheeks are also quite common to signify they have recently lost a
'brother' due to a gang attack or have no more tears to cry, or
blood drop below their lips to signify that they won't bleed during
369 members have been known to dress in
a predominantly black outfit and usually taunt rival gang members
into a fight with their myriad of gang chants and poems. Gang signs
and gang symbols are a few ways gang members use to exhibit their
association with this secret society.
Gang violence in Singapore
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the gang furiously attacked rival
gangs and started many turf wars. It also started recruiting many
members from the Indian & Malay community after relaxing the
only-Chinese rule. It also made profits from the sale of illegal and
pirated VCDs, narcotics and prostitution. Attacks on rival gangs
such as the '303' gang (Sakongsa in Hokkien), the Omega gang and
other independent branches of the '18' group were somewhat of a
The police cracked down on gang activity
in the early 1980s and gang wars came to a screeching halt as many
of the leaders were jailed. Many other notorious 'headmen' fled to
neighboring countries or were killed in gang attacks. However, in
the late 1990s and early dawn of the millennium, the gang gained
strength as many of the jailed leaders were released and several of
the members had succeeded in scaring off many rival gangs from
territories. Gang attacks once again became common and rioting cases
Cases of murder involving gang attacks
and riots were steadily increasing and the police force tightened
its noose on the gangs. Singapore's Secret Society Branch dedicated
most of its resources to halt the gang violence and managed in
netting in a considerable amount of members. Slowly but surely, the
gang violence receded and many members were put in prison.
Salakau has predominantly held the territories as mentioned but gang
activity has been brought to a standstill as the laws are stricter.
The Singapore Police Force has a better understanding of the gang
networks and ample resources to stamp out further violence. The gang
situation in Singapore has been officially described as 'an
unorganized network of street corner gangs with no centralized
leaders' and the Secret Societies Branch (SSB) of the Singapore
Police Force relentlessly pursues and keeps a staunch vigil against
any gang undertones related to any criminal act.
The SSB regularly conducts surprise
raids or checks on nightspots and public places known to be gang
territories to deter any potential offenders. Anyone found guilty of
being a member of an unlawful society may be punished up to a
minimum of five years imprisonment and five strokes of the cane.
Sentences are usually doubled or even tripled for anyone with
significant leadership authority in any unlawful society in
The strict laws serve as a deterrent to potential gang members and
has successfully decreased the number of gang-related street fights
and attacks although gang-related violence occurs sporadically but
remain no cause for alarm in the interest of public safety. The most
recent case was when '369' gang members launched a premeditated
attack with machetes and other weapons against a rival gang outside
a 7-11 convenience store at Central Mall which left a 46-year old
rival gang member dead.
The culprits have since been arrested
and imprisoned due to the swift action of the authorities. Recent
cases of fighting in popular nightspots such as Ministry of Sound
and Club Momo have been attributed to '369' gang members but the
situation remains under control by law enforcement agencies.
Reasons for the
In the early 19th century, secret societies posed a significant
threat to law and order in Singapore. The early Chinese immigrants'
clandestine activities and occasional turf wars proved too much of a
problem for the British authorities. The British authorities were
therefore obliged to curb the growing problem. They employed a
number of methods, both on purpose and not, to check the growth of
secret societies. This resulted in the decline of secret societies
Singapore becoming a
The transfer of authority over Singapore from the Indian Government
to the colonial office in London is considered by most to be the
most important factor that helped the British authority check the
growth of secret societies. Elevation of Singapore to a crown Colony
meant that London was willing to spend money and resources, and
provide proper administrators that it was previously unprepared to
do. Thus, Singapore was given a significantly larger priority and
only with the transfer of power, could the authorities initiate the
Legislation of strict
The legislation of strict laws had an enormous effect in checking
the growth of the secret societies. Two significant laws were passed
in the 1860s.
The first was the Peace Preservation Act (also known as the
banishment act) of 1867, which gave the colonial government the
power to detain and deport Chinese immigrants who were convicted of
crime. This was a major weapon against the secret societies members
as it created fear and deterred the immigrants from joining the
secret societies. With this law, the power of the secret societies
was significantly curtailed.
In 1869, The Peace Preservation Act was amended, and the Dangerous
Societies Suppression Ordinance was also enacted. This required that
secret societies be registered. By requiring only the societies, and
not the individual members, to be registered, the police attracted
people to go to provide insight on the actual strength of the
societies. 10 societies, 618 office bearers and 12371 members were
registered in the first round of registrations.
This Ordinance also accorded the colonial
government the power to inspect any society that was deemed
dangerous to public peace. This way the colonial government could
monitor the activities of the secret societies closely. This
prevented the Chinese immigrants from joining the secret societies,
causing it to reduce in influence in Singapore in the 19th century.
In 1843, there were only 133 police personnel. Even if the army of
595 men was brought in, they were still no match for the Chinese
Community consisting of 32132 people (most of whom were secret
society members). Thomas Dunman, the first Commissioner of Police,
wrote that his police force was underpaid and drew salaries lower
than the average coolies. By 1865, there were 385 policemen to 50043
Chinese, but the ratio of policemen to Chinese was still too few to
be effective. This was compounded by the fact that no one in the
police force was qualified to deal with the Chinese.
The officers' posts were held by
Europeans while Indians made up the rank and file. No Chinese were
employed because of their possible dealings with secret societies.
Thus, the police force was ignorant of the language and ways of the
Chinese, which was also the most volatile community. So ineffective
was the police force that the wealthy had to hire private watchmen
and carry personal arms to ensure their own safety.
However, after Singapore became a Crown Colony, large improvements
made to the local police force. This was an important factor that
helped check the growth of secret societies. The police force
started to receive more funding, better equipment and proper
training. All these made the police force a much more effective
force than it previously was under the East India Company. Even more
significant was the hiring of Chinese police officers who could
understand and deal with the problems associated with the secret
The establishment of the Chinese Protectorate is yet another factor
that led to the societies’ growth being checked. The first Chinese
Protector, William Pickering maintained close contact with the
Chinese immigrant community, and provided them with assistance.
Being fluent in written and spoken Mandarin as well as in various
Chinese dialect, Pickering looked after the welfare of the newly
arrived coolies, prevented coolie abuse and kept track of the
numbers of coolies leaving and arriving.
Pickering also licensed coolie depots.
To qualify for a license, the depots required a constant and
plentiful supply of water and good ventilation. He also visited the
coolies to ask them in person what their connections in Singapore
were, making sure they had someone to turn to during their stay.
This establishment of the Chinese Protectorate let the British
sustain, for the first time in history, a satisfactory relationship
with the Chinese community. Pickering was know affectionately to the
Chinese as daiyan (大人), Cantonese for 'great man'. The Protectorate
effectively became a legitimate alternative where migrants could
come and try solve their problems, putting it forward to the
societies for a normally violent conclusion.
It thus helped to deter many new
immigrants from increasing the membership of secret societies.