Anti-yellow culture campaign

Singapore Infopedia

by Seow, Peck Ngiam


The term “yellow culture” is a direct translation of the Chinese phrase huangse wenhua (黄色文化), which refers to what was perceived as degenerate behaviour, such as gambling, opium-smoking, pornography, prostitution, corruption and nepotism. The term originated from China, where such behaviour plagued the country in the 19th century.1 The grassroots anti-yellow campaign in Singapore started in 1953.2 On 8 June 1959, the government led by the newly elected People’s Action Party (PAP) launched another campaign against yellow culture.3 This later campaign was sustained and extensive, easing only in the 1980s.4

In the postwar period, the British colonial government shut down many Chinese magazines and newspapers, because of their alleged communist content and links.5 In their absence, tabloid newspapers emerged, publishing not only subversive literature, but also pornographic or obscene content and sensational news to increase their circulation.6 The public perceived these “mosquito” newspapers” – a name coined for such small-sized presses whose news comprised “a mixture of things annoying, irritating, half-libellous and frequently biting and satirical”7 – as one of the main sources of yellow culture.8 Anti-yellow advocates and anti-colonialists thus blamed the colonial government for the social issues plaguing the society.9

In October 1953, a female secondary school student was raped and murdered. This was not the first of such cases, and it sparked a public outcry. The case marked the start of the anti-yellow culture campaign (fanhuangyundong 反黄运动) in 1953, as the rape-murder was widely believed to be a result of yellow culture in the society.10

In response, the student committee of the Secondary Two cohort of Chung Cheng High School (Branch) organised a seminar on anti-yellow culture for their cohort, and put together a publication of student essays and newspaper articles on anti-yellow culture. A few days later, the same committee organised another seminar, this time for the entire school, including teachers. Subsequently, an anti-yellow committee was set up on campus, to remove yellow materials in the school library and encourage students not to read materials or watch movies associated with yellow culture.11 Their actions inspired students from other schools to organise their own anti-yellow campaigns. For instance, students from Anshun San Min School started an anti-yellow campaign, by creating posters and dissuading their relatives and friends from reading tabloid newspapers.12 The anti-yellow movement in local Chinese schools was also influenced by the revolutionary events to eradicate social ills taking place in communist China around the same time.13

On 19 August 1956, the Anti-Yellow Cultural Council was formed at a meeting attended by over 1,000 participants from organisations in the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities.14 It was also attended by prominent personalities, such as politicians Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew, and 13 organisations.15 The aim of the council was to end the spread of “pornographic literature and art which corrupts and opiates the minds of the people – particularly youths – and to promote healthy cultural and recreational activities”.16 At the meeting, representatives from four Malay and four Chinese cultural bodies and seven trade unions were elected into the council, with two seats reserved for the Indian cultural bodies.17 The council passed 10 resolutions at the meeting.18 The resolutions included urging the government to ban striptease shows and the entry of dancing troupes or performers of such nature, censor pornographic films and television programmes, and restrict the sale of pornographic publications.19

However, the council was short-lived, as the colonial government associated it with a communist insurgency and was concerned about the council’s influence.20 The movement was called to a halt abruptly in 1956 after the arrest of some key members who were detained without trial. Two major organisations who supported the council, the Singapore Women’s Federation and the Chinese Brass Music Gong society, were deregistered and banned.21

Revival of the anti-yellow movement
When the PAP came into power in 1959, it aimed to create a wholesome Malayan culture and eliminate yellow culture, which was seen to threaten social discipline in Singapore.22 Part of a social revolution to build a new Malayan nation, this campaign against yellow culture was spearheaded by then Minister for Home Affairs Ong Pang Boon and supported by the Ministry of Culture.23

In 1959, the government launched a nationwide clamp-down on various aspects of Western popular culture that were seen to encourage a decadent and degenerate lifestyle.24 The government banned items and activities such as pornographic publications and films, striptease shows, jukebox dens, pin-table saloons, rock ‘n’ roll music and long hair on men.25 At the same time, it sought to promote healthy cultural and recreational activities that focused on forging a common Malayan culture such as a People’s Concert featuring traditional dances of different ethnicities.26

Undesirable Publications Ordinance and Cinematograph Film Ordinance
As part of the anti-yellow drive, the Undesirable Publications Ordinance and Cinematograph Film Ordinance banned obscene publications and films that depicted crime, violence, sex, nudity, racial prejudice and colonial glory.27 The prohibitions extended to music: Radio Singapura pulled rock ‘n’ roll music off the air to feature more serious programmes with a Malayan emphasis.28 To eliminate “examples of sex-obsessed culture”, the government revoked the licence of the Mei Hwa (Plum Blossom) stage show (梅花艳舞团) just before its performance, even though hundreds of tickets were already sold.29

Several discothèques were closed for having many cases of drug abuses and had their liquor permits revoked.30 Chinese mutual aid associations and social clubs, where secret society members operated gambling dens, were also shut down.31 Jukebox and pin-table saloons were outlawed, because they were gathering places for gangsters and youths.32 

Operation Snip Snip
The government frowned upon the hippy movement and men with long hair, as these were associated with drug culture, as well as permissive and deviant behaviour.33 An anti-long-hair drive, named Operation Snip Snip, was launched on 9 January 1972. Under this campaign, long-haired male visitors were told to cut their hair short or be denied entry into the country.34 Pop stars and musicians with long hair, such as Cliff Richard, were refused entry at the customs for non-compliance.35

The ban on long hair was extended to schools, and the Ministry of Education provided guideline sketches of acceptable hair lengths and styles.36 Men with long hair were served last in government offices,37 while companies were discouraged from hiring men with long hair.38

On 1 November 1974, Operation Snip Snip was relaunched for three months with stricter measures and support from the private sector.39 Government employees who defied the rule were fined, warned or had their employment terminated.40 In the private sector, member organisations of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) conducted surprise checks on their employees.41 Those who flouted the rule despite warnings were reported to the government.42 In addition, the private sector, including hotels and restaurants, followed the government offices’ lead and served long-haired males in their establishments last.43

The restriction on long hair was gradually relaxed in the 1980s, while the ban on jukeboxes was lifted only in 1990.44

Seow Peck Ngiam

1. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings,1998), 326. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
2. Lim Cheng Tju, “The Anti-Yellow Culture Campaign in Singapore: 1953–1979,” in The State and the Arts in Singapore: Policies and Institutions (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2019), 34 (Call no. RSING 700.959570904 STA)
3. “Permits of 8 Papers Withdrawn,” Straits Times, 9 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Lee Siew Hua, “Less Ado about Men with Long Hair: Officialdom Closes Half an Eye to Seventies Ban,” Straits Times, 9 March 1986, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Thum Ping Tjin, “Chinese Newspapers in Singapore, 1945–1963: Mediators of Elite and Popular Tastes in Culture and Politics,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 83, no. 1 (2010): 53–76. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
6. Lim, “The Anti-Yellow Culture Campaign,” 34; “‘Mosquitoes’ Closed ‘in Public Interest’,” Straits Times, 24 October 1958, 9 (From NewspaperSG)
7. David Lu Chi-hsin, “Gems from the Mosquito Press”, China Heritage Quarterly, no. 23 (2010).
8. Lim, “The Anti-Yellow Culture Campaign,” 34.
9. Lim, “The Anti-Yellow Culture Campaign,” 34.
10. “Schoolgirl, 15, Strangled on Lonely Path,” Straits Times, 13 October 1953, 1 (From NewspaperSG); “Zhuang yuzhen anjian de ganxiang” 庄玉珍案件的感想 [Thoughts from the case of Chng Geok Tin], Nanyang Siang Pau 南洋商报, 1 November 1953, 8 (From NewspaperSG); “Zhongzheng fenxiao xuesheng jihui taolun fan huangse wenhua”
11. “Zhongzheng fen xiao xue sheng ji hui tao lun fan huang se wen hua 中正分校学生集会 讨论反黄色文化 [Chung Cheng High School (Branch) student assembled to discuss about anti-yellow culture] Sin Chew Jit Poh 星洲日报, 4 November 1953, 4. (From NewspaperSG).
12. “Anshun san min zhongxiaoxue xuesheng zhankai fan huangse wenhua yundong” 安顺三民中小学学生 展开反黄色文化运动 [Students from Anshun Sanmin school initiated an anti-yellow culture campaign] Sin Chew Jit Poh 星洲日报, 6 December 1953, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Lim, “The Anti-Yellow Culture Campaign,” 33.
14. “Pornography: Big Battle Is Ready to Begin,” Sunday Standard, 20 August 1956, 2 (From NewspaperSG)
15. “The Anti-Yellow Culture Campaign,” 35.
16. “The Anti-Yellow Culture Campaign,” 35.
17. “Pornography: Big Battle Is Ready to Begin,” 2.
18. “Pornography: Big Battle Is Ready to Begin,” 2.
19. “Pornography: Big Battle Is Ready to Begin,” 2.
20. Lim, “The Anti-Yellow Culture Campaign,” 35.
21. Lim, “The Anti-Yellow Culture Campaign,” 35.
22.Singapore: The State and the Culture of Excess (London: Routledge, 2007), 54–59. (Call no: RSING 06.2095957 YAO).
23. Lee, Singapore Story, 326; Yao Souchou, Singapore: The State and the Culture of Excess (London: Routledge, 2007), 54–59; Sai Siew Min and Huang Jianli, “The ‘Chinese-educated’ Political Vanguards: Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy & Jek Yeun Thong,” in Lee’s Lieutenants: Singapore’s Old Guard, ed. Lam Peng-er and Kevin Y. L. Tan (St. Leonards, N. S. W.: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 142–43. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 LEE)
24. Sai and Huang, “The ‘Chinese-educated’ Political Vanguards: Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy & Jek Yeun Thong,” 142.
25. Philip Holden, “At Home in the Worlds: Community and Consumption in Urban Singapore,” in Beyond Description: Singapore Space Historicity, ed. Ryan Bishop, John Phillips, and Wei-Wei Yeo (London: Routledge, 2004), 82; “If Social Revolution Is to Have Full Meaning…,” Straits Times, 9 December 1959, 4
26. Sai and Huang, “The ‘Chinese-educated’ Political Vanguards,” 143.
27. “S’pore Govt. Bans 18 Pin-up Magazines,” Straits Times, 27 June 1959, 9; “Magazine Ban: Now 65 Publications May Not Circulate in Singapore,” Singapore Free Press, 2 January 1960, 1; “Ban on Books: Minister Names 54 Publishers,” Singapore Free Press, 1 July 1960, 7; “Chain Story Picture Ban Gets A Welcome,” Straits Times, 4 July 1960, 12; “Govt. Bans Four More U.S. Magazines,” Singapore Free Press, 26 June 1961, 1; “Banned! Morality Sleuths Seize 30 Novels,” Straits Times, 19 January 1963, 6; “Now Culture Clean-up May Move on Films, Warns Minister,” Straits Times, 12 June 1959, 9; “Seven Films Banned,” Straits Times, 18 October 1959, 7; “78 Films on Banned List,” Straits Times, 14 July 1961, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “The Rock Music Goes Off the Air,” Straits Times, 17 June 1959, 9; “Ministry Silent on ‘Banned Song’ Mystery,” Straits Times, 14 July 1970, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Permits of 8 Papers Withdrawn,” Straits Times, 9 June 1959, 1; “Meihua yanwu tuan zuowan yi ting yan” 梅花艳舞团 昨晚已停演 [Mei Hwa stage show has stopped performing yesterday],” Sin Chew Jit Poh 星洲日报, 9 June 1959, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
30. P. M. Raman and Gerald Pereira, “Discos Tighten Up Entry Rules after Warning by Minister,” Straits Times, 23 October 1973, 13; R. Chandran and Gerald Pereira, “Govt Shuts Down 6 discos,” Straits Times, 2 November 1973, 1; Osman Ahmad, “Discos Lose Liquor Permits,” Straits Times, 18 November 1973, 1; Christina Cheang, “Discos Must Pay Up to $25,000 Deposit,” Straits Times, 13 November 1973,13. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Govt. Closes Eight Clubs: ‘They Were Used By Gamblers’,” Straits Times, 14 August 1959, 1; “Swanky Club is Shut Down in Singapore,” Straits Times, 26 September 1959, 2; “Four Clubs Are Closed by the Govt,”  Straits Times, 18 November 1959, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Harold Soh, “Culture Clean-up Hits Jukes,” Straits Times, 13 June 1959, 1; “Peril of Pin-table Culture – by Home Minister,” Straits Times, 25 June 1959, 1; Wong Moh-Keed, “Pinball Tables Banned,” Straits Times, 28 April 1977, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
33.Lim Warns of Flower People, Yellow Culture,” 13 January 1968, 4; Gerry de Silva, “Police ‘Hit’ the Hippy Trail and the Message Gets Through…,” Straits Times, 4 April 1970, 8; “Long Hair ‘Mark of a Rebel’,” Straits Times, 22 June 1974, 27; “Sin Chew Jit Poh,” New Nation, 28 January 1972, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “Op Snip Snip at the Causeway,” Straits Times, 10 January 1972, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “Long-hair Ban Keeps Pop Stars Out,” New Nation, 29 August 1972, 3; “Why Cliff Will Not Come to Singapore,” New Nation, 19 August 1972, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “Now It's Snip, Snip Time in the Schools,” Straits Times, 12 January 1972, 13 (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Long Hair Means a Long, Long Wait…,” Straits Times, 23 June 1972, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Govt to Bosses: Don’t Employ the Long Haired,” Straits Times, 17 July 1973, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
39. “Anti-long Hair Drive from Nov 1,” Straits Times, 2 October 1974, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “‘Shaggy Look Doesn’t Pay’ Message Driven Home,” Straits Times, 12 December 1975, 11; “Long Hair: Action Taken against 348 Govt Workers,” Straits Times, 8 March 1978, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
41. “Anti-long Hair Drive from Nov 1.”
42. “Govt to Get Names of Long-hair Workers,” Straits Times, 4 October 1974, 9. (From NewspaperSG)}
43. “Govt to Get Names of Long-hair Workers.”
44. Lee, “Less Ado about Men with Long Hair,” Straits Times, 9 March 1986, 12; “Jukebox Ban Off,” New Paper, 15 July 1991, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of September 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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