Gambling farms in the 19th century

Singapore Infopedia


Gambling activities, also known as gaming, in colonial Singapore attracted different opinions from the British administrators. Stamford Raffles abhorred it and set out to ban gambling, while Residents William Farquhar and John Crawfurd saw gambling as critical for generating revenue. In the 19th century, revenue farming was the common form of government taxation and control. Farquhar and Crawfurd implemented legalised gambling through gambling farms. Although the colony outlawed gambling a few years after Crawfurd left office in 1826, it was difficult to wipe out gambling activities entirely; instead, illegal gambling dens flourished. Several ordinances were enacted in the 19th century to deal with gambling rackets.

Early regulation on gambling
Gaming and cockfighting were said to have been practised by the native inhabitants of Singapore and the early immigrants. Gambling games were traditional in China, while cockfighting was practised by the Chinese as well as Indian and Muslim societies.Revenue farming was the norm then – the government granted the successful bidder the monopoly right to control a specific trade or product in return for a fixed rent.2

Raffles was opposed to gaming and cockfighting, having abolished the farms in Bencoolen when he was Lieutenant-Governor from 1818 to 1824.Singapore would be no different. He called these vices “absolutely pernicious in every degree” and claimed that they would lead to other crimes. As gambling could not be moderated by taxation in the same way that intoxicants like opium and alcohol could, they were prohibited. He identified gaming as a vice of the Chinese and cockfighting as the equivalent among the Malays.4

Raffles’ subordinate, William Farquhar, the first Resident of Singapore (1819–23), however, saw these “vices” as opportunities to obtain revenue. In 1820, he issued licences for gambling farms, which overrode Raffles’ objections, while the latter was in Bencoolen. Farquhar sold the licences at $95 per month, but soon thereafter the operation of the gambling farms was placed under the Kapitan China (Chinese ‘Captain’), the headman of the Chinese community. The Kapitan China in turn collected revenue and taxes for the colonial government.5

When Raffles returned to Singapore, he ordered the termination of all public gambling, gaming houses and cockpits through Regulation No. IV of 1823 – A Regulation prohibiting gaming-houses and cockpits, and for suppressing the vice of gaming at Singapore. He proclaimed that “the practice of gaming [was] highly destructive to the morals and happiness of the people”. The punishment for flouting the rule was severe: confiscation of buildings used for gambling, and flogging of gambling farm operators and gamblers.6

Lucrative gambling farms
Farquhar was replaced by John Crawfurd (1823–26) as Resident in 1823, and the latter supported Farquhar’s idea about gambling farms. He wrote to the government in Bengal on 15 July to complain about the harsh punishments for gambling. On 23 August 1823, a month after Raffles had returned to Bencoolen, Crawfurd permitted 10 gambling houses and a cockpit to operate.7 By 1826, gambling had become the most lucrative tax farm, contributing $30,390 – nearly half – of the annual $75,000 tax-farm revenue.8

In 1827, the year after Crawfurd had left office, the Grand Jury demanded the prohibition of gambling.9 In 1829, gambling was banned throughout the Straits Settlements.10 But this merely drove gambling underground, where it continued to flourish. In 1833, many gambling houses still existed with at least 20 of them on Church Street.11 Corrupt policemen received bribes for conniving in the operation of gambling houses, and Deputy Superintendent of Police Thomas Dunman considered the eradication of gambling houses impossible.12

The problem of illegal gambling resurfaced over the decades, accompanied by calls to restore the gambling farm. In 1834, Resident Councillor of Singapore Samuel George Bonham attempted to bring back gambling farms, but failed.13 In 1836, The Singapore Free Press suggested the restoration of gambling farms as a means to curb police corruption.14

As part of the discussions over the transfer of Singapore to the direct control of the Colonial Office in London, a proposal to revive the gaming farm was brought up by some residents.15 This resulted in a drawn-out exchange of letters from 12 July to 6 September 1860 between “Delta” (William. H. Read), who felt that gambling farms should be restored to provide state revenue and restrain police bribery, and “Zeta” (Robert Little), who wanted to eliminate gambling.16 In 1861, as part of a proposal to expand the resident labour force of the Chinese, Governor Orfeur Cavenagh contemplated legalising gambling in order to fund a subsidy scheme to bring Chinese women to Singapore.17 While Cavenagh thought it shameful to raise the state revenue through legalising vices, he saw it as a compromise since the law on gambling was ineffective and police corruption was widespread.18

However, Cavenagh’s proposal was not implemented. In June 1862, the Sheriff convened a public meeting to discuss the problem of gambling after it had become an issue in the newspapers, and the suggestion of restoring the gambling farms was brought up again.19 The meeting was in response to a written request from 33 European residents to look into the control or repression of gambling.20 This furore over gambling in the 1860s seemed to have quietened down only after a petition by Chinese merchants against the restoration of gambling farms in 1865.21 But with the turn of the century, revenue farming died out as governments began to implement direct taxation. Legalised gambling activities in the 20th century were taxed directly by the government, instead of being farmed out.22


Joshua Chia Yeong Jia, Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman & Goh Lee Kim

1. John A. Price, “Gambling in Traditional Asia,” Anthropologica, New Series 14, no. 2 (1972): 165, 171–72. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
2. John Butcher and Howard Dick, eds., “A Fresh Approach to Southeast Asian History,” in The Rise and Fall of Rrevenue Farming: Business Elites and the Emergence of the Modern State in Southeast Asia (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1993), 3. (Call no. RSING 336.200959 RIS)
3. Sophia Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 290, 297–98. (Call no. RSING 959.57021092 RAF-[HIS])
4. T. S. Raffles, “Minute By the Lieutenant Governor,” in Sophia Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 68. (Call no. RSING 959.57021092 RAF-[HIS])
5. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 63–64 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Maurice Freedman, Colonial Law and Chinese Society (London: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1952), 97. (Call no. RDTYS 301.42 FRE)   
6. T. S. Raffles, “Regulation, No. IV. Of 1823,” in Sophia Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 6–7. (Call no. RSING 959.57021092 RAF-[HIS])
7. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore: The Annotated Edition (Singapore: National Library Board, 2020), 21. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
8. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988), 44–46 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 144.
9. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 145, 194.
10. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 48–49.
11. “The Late Session,” Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 16 May 1833, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 446–48; C. M. Turnbull, “Internal Security in the Straits Settlements, 1826–1867,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 1, no. 1 (1970): 47–48. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
13. Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, 23.
14. “Gambling Farm,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 31 March 1836, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “The Singapore Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 5 July 1860, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Correspondence,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 12 July 1869, 2; “Correspondence,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, (1835–1869), 6 September 1860, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Turnbull, “Internal Security in the Straits Settlements, 1826–1867,” 48.
17. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 75.
18. Turnbull, “Internal Security in the Straits Settlements, 1826–1867,” 48. 
19. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 7 June 1862, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Gambling Made the Headlines and Aroused Debate,” New Nation, 9 January 1975, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “The Singapore Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 26 October 1865, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
22. John Butcher and Howard Dick, eds., “Revenue Farming and the changing State in Southeast Asia,” in The Rise and Fall of Rrevenue Farming: Business Elites and the Emergence of the Modern State in Southeast Asia (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1993), 35–43. (Call no. RSING 336.200959 RIS)

The information in this article is valid as at July 2020 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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