Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Singapore and the Moral Economy of the Chinese Triad (or Kongsi)

I’ve just started reading “Opium and Empire,” written by Prof. Carl A. Trocki of Queensland University. His book provides a fascinating account of the large-scale migration of Chinese laborers to SE Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries to work on plantations (pepper and gambier) and in mines (primarily gold and tin)... and their capitulation into the fold of the colonial economy assisted by widespread smoking of Indian opium that was taxed by the colonial government.

In the absence of existing social and economic networks to look after Chinese immigrants, the laborers themselves formed associations referred to as ‘Kongsis’ (likely to be translated as “fair share” rather than today’s interpretation of “public share”). The Kongsis adopted brotherhood rituals similar to those of Triad organizations in China, although their formation was premised by the necessity of a social and economic network of payment and security and not political agendas. Their arrival to the region pre-dated the formation of distinct borders between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

By the time Dutch and English arrived to the scene and defined the borders, they met these well organized social networks of hard-working immigrants that provided one resource they needed badly: cheap labor organized under good leaders. The establishment of Singapore in 1819 required a lot of labor to build the infrastructure that would be required for the free port.

Although the Kongsis and their leaders were gratefully employed by the colonial governments, their inherent organization and power in numbers also was regarded as a threat. This perceived threat was compounded by the colonists’ inability to understand Chinese or any of the religious and brotherhood rituals that characterized the kongsis. It became convenient for Europeans to associate the kongsis as equivalent to the triad societies of China – counterrevolutionary organizations hell-bent on criminal activities to ultimately overthrow the government. Thus, the Kongsis were more-or-less forced to become “secret” societies.

The force of Trocki’s argument is that the ultimate capitulation of the kongsis was, to borrow the term from James Scott, a result of fundamental changes to the moral economy. Trocki argues that triad riots were not (as characterized by the Colonial government) simply the result of inter-clan rivalries, but were instead the result of sudden changes to the moral economy of laborers, particularly those on plantations, that no longer felt they were being properly taken care of by the kongsi.

A new class of Chinese merchants had developed, themselves often organized into Kongsis, and these traders had learned to work with Europeans. Good thing, since faster British vessels and chaos in China meant that virtually all trade now depended on British clipper ships instead of Chinese junks. Some of these merchants also purchased the right to sell opium. Before long, many of the Kongsi laborers on plantations in Singapore and later Johor were regular users of the drug, indebted, and relatively powerless against the colonial laws and guns that were available to back up the merchants’ claims.

According to Trocki, in the first century of Singapore’s existence, government revenues derived from opium rarely accounted for less than 40% of the total, and often made up over 60%. The free port had thus found a solution to fund most of the costs related to its development while also bringing most kongsi laborers into a new form of economic dependence.

While some of the kongsis evolved into organizations resembling a union (and were subsequently often banned), others – primarily belonging to wealthier merchants- adapted significantly and were able to flourish in the colonial economy. One example is the Teochew Ngee Ann Kongsi, largely organized by the late Seah Eu Chin, owner of significant pepper and gambier interests.

As an aside, Ngee Ann Kongsi was a principal founder of the Kwang Im Temple that resides next to Sri Krishnan Temple on Waterloo Street. More on Kwang Im in the next few days…

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