Private Ordering and the Chinese in Nineteenth Century Straits Settlements

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-53
Journal / PublicationAsian Journal of Comparative Law
Issue number1
Online published6 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016
Externally publishedYes


The Straits Settlements comprised a group of British territories located in the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It initially comprised Penang, Singapore, and Malacca, and was formed in 1826. Unlike Malacca which was a thriving city with a substantial Chinese community, Penang and Singapore were relatively uninhabited when the British arrived, but Chinese immigration to both territories swiftly took place and on a large scale. For much of the nineteenth century, British policy towards the Chinese community in the Straits was one of minimal governance. They were largely left to order their affairs privately and this suited the Chinese, who tended to be aloof from the machinery of government and were also unfamiliar with English law. While there were many positive aspects of such private ordering, some negative features included the manner in which secret societies evolved and the treatment of coolies. It was only when the colonial government introduced strong measures that these negative aspects were ameliorated.