Between the World Wars

Singapore Table of Contents

The Singapore economy experienced much the same roller-coaster effect that Western economies did in the period between the world wars. A postwar boom created by rising tin and rubber prices gave way to recession in late 1920 when prices for both dropped on the world market. By the mid-1920s, rubber and tin prices had soared again and fortunes were made overnight. Tan Kah Kee, who had migrated from Xiamen (Amoy) at age seventeen, reportedly made S$8 million in 1925 in rubber, rice milling, andd shipping; and Hakka businessman Aw Boon Haw earned the nickname "Tiger Balm King" for the multimillion-dollar fortune he made from the production and sale of patent medicines. Although they never amassed the great fortunes of Singapore's leading Asian businessmen, the prosperous European community increasingly lived in the style and comfort afforded by modern conveniences and an abundance of servants.

The Baba Chinese leaders focused their attention on improving educational opportunities, which meant lobbying for free Englishlanguage primary schools and more scholarships for English-language secondary schools. Although English-language schools expanded rapidly, most educated Straits-born Chinese studied at Chineselanguage schools. Of the 72,000 children in Singapore schools in 1939, 38,000 were in Chinese schools, 27,000 in English schools, 6,000 in Malay schools, and 1,000 in Tamil schools.

The Straits-born Chinese increased their share of Singapore's Chinese population from 25 percent in 1921 to 36 percent in 1931. Chinese immigration was drastically cut by the Immigration Restriction Ordinance of 1930, which limited immigration of unskilled male laborers. Put in force to combat unemployment resulting from the Great Depression, the ordinance dropped the number of Chinese immigrants from 242,000 in 1930 to 28,000 in 1933. Immigration was further restricted by the Aliens Ordinance of 1933, which set quotas and charged landing fees for aliens. Executive Council member Tan Cheng Lock and others bitterly opposed the policy in the Legislative Council as anti-Chinese.

The administration of the colony continued to be carried out by the governor and top-level officials of the Malayan Civil Service, posts that could be held only by "natural-born British subjects of pure European descent on both sides." The governor continued to consult with the Legislative Council, which included a handful of wealthy Asian business and professional leaders, who served as nonofficial members of the council. The mid-level and technical civil service positions were open to British subjects of all races. Very few Asians opposed the system, which gave the official members the majority on the legislative and executive councils. In the 1930s, Tan agitated unsuccessfully for direct popular representation and a nonofficial majority for the legislative council, but most Chinese were satisfied to devote their attentions to commercial and professional affairs and the growing interest in nationalism in China.

The sympathies of even the Straits-born Chinese lay with their homeland in the period between the wars. A Singapore branch of the Guomindang was active for a few years beginning in 1912, and Chinaoriented businessmen led boycotts in 1915 against Japanese goods in response to Japan's Twenty-One Demands against China. These demands were a set of political and economic ultimatums, which if acceded to, would have made China a protectorate of Japan. Mass support for Chinese nationalism became more evident in 1919 when demonstrations, which turned violent, were staged in Singapore. In the early 1920s, Sun Yat-sen was successful in convincing Singapore's China-born businessmen to invest heavily in Chinese industry and to donate large sums of money for education in China. Tan Kah Kee contributed more than S$4 million for the founding of Amoy (Xiamen) University in 1924. The Guomindang also sent teachers and textbooks to Singapore and encouraged the use of Mandarin (or Guoyu) in Singapore's Chinese schools.

Although Mandarin was not the language of any of Singapore's major dialect groups, it was considered a unifying factor by the various Chinese leadership factions of both Singapore and China. Singapore's first Chinese secondary school, established by Tan in 1919, taught in Mandarin, as did a growing number of Chinese primary schools. In 1927 the Guomindang increased the number of promising students brought to China for university education and began a concerted effort to extend its control over Chinese schools in the Nanyang by supervising their curriculum and requiring the use of Mandarin. In the late 1920s, the colonial authorities had become increasingly aware of growing left-wing politics in the Chinese schools and sought to discourage the use of Mandarin as required by the Guomindang. By 1935, however, Mandarin had become the medium of instruction in all of Singapore's Chinese schools.

Following the breakup of the short-lived alliance between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the communists established a Nanyang Communist Party in 1928. Outlawed and harassed by the Singapore police, the party was reorganized in 1930 as the Malayan Communist Party ( MCP), centered in Singapore. For the remainder of that year, it had some success in infiltrating teacher and student organizations and staging student strikes. In early 1931, however, the seizure by the police of an address book containing information on the newly organized party and its connections with the Far Eastern Bureau of the Communist International ( Comintern) in Shanghai, led to arrests and the near destruction of the CPM by the following year. The Guomindang also had its problems during this period. The party's membership in Singapore had expanded rapidly until 1929, when the colonial administration banned the Singapore branch of the Guomindang and fund-raising for the party in China. Concerned about the increase of anticolonial propaganda, the Singapore government censored the vernacular press, severely restricted immigration, and cut off aid to Chinese and Tamil schools. During the 1930s, attempts by the communists and the Guomindang to organize labor and lead strikes were also suppressed by the colonial government.

Chinese nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment in Singapore increased throughout the 1930s. The fortunes of both the Guomindang and the MCP rose with invasion of Manchuria by Japan in 1931 and the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. The CCP and the Guomindang formed a united front in December 1936 to oppose Japanese aggression. The Guomindang called upon the Nanyang Chinese for volunteer and financial support for the Republic of China, which had promulgated a Nationality Law in 1929, by which it claimed all persons of Chinese descent on the paternal side as Chinese nationals. Tan Kah Kee headed both the Nanyang Chinese National Salvation Movement and the Singapore Chinese General Association for the Relief of Refugees, as well as the fund-raising efforts for the homeland among the Malayan Chinese. Chinese government agents used the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and other local organizations to organize highly effective boycotts against Japanese goods. Singapore's Chinese also boycotted Malay or Indian shops selling Japanese goods, and Chinese merchants who ignored the boycott were severely punished by extremist groups.

The British authorities struggled vainly to control the tide of anti-Japanese feeling by forbidding anti-Japanese demonstrations and by banning importation of anti-Japanese textbooks from China and the teaching of anti-Japanese slogans and songs in Chinese schools. They were alarmed at the communist infiltration of the Nanyang Chinese National Salvation Movement and other Chinese patriotic groups. The banned MCP claimed a membership of more than 50,000 by early 1940. Although nominally partners in a united front in opposition to the Japanese, the MCP and the Guomindang competed for control of such organizations as the Nanyang Chinese Relief General Association. Nonetheless, Singapore's Chinese contributed generously to the support of the Chinese government.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress