The term “yellow culture” is a direct translation of the Chinese phrase "黄色文化" (huangse wenhua), which refers to decadent and degenerate behaviour such as gambling, opium-smoking, pornography, prostitution, corruption and nepotism that plagued much of China in the 19th century and which brought the country to her knees.
This aversion to yellow culture had been imported by schoolteachers from China, who infused into Singaporean students and their parents the spirit of national revival that was evident in every chapter of the textbooks they brought with them, whether on literature, history or geography. And it was reinforced by articles of left-wing Chinese newspaper journalists enthralled by the glowing reports of a clean, honest, dynamic, revolutionary China.
Anti-yellow culture campaign
On 8 June 1959, the Singapore government led by the newly elected People's Action Party (PAP) launched a campaign against yellow culture. Although there were earlier attempts to eradicate yellow culture, the campaign launched by the government in 1959 was a sustained and extensive enterprise, easing only in the 1980s.
Spearheaded by then Minister for Home Affairs Ong Pang Boon and supported by the Ministry of Culture, the government launched a nationwide clampdown on various aspects of Western popular culture that were seen as promoting a decadent or antisocial lifestyle. The PAP moved quickly, outflanking the communists with puritanical zeal. It ordered a clean-up of Chinese secret society gangsters and banned items and activities such as pornographic publications and films, striptease shows, jukebox dens, pin-table (pinball machine) saloons, even rock and roll music as well as long hair on men. At the same time, it sought to promote healthy cultural activities that focused on forging a common Malayan culture.
The Singapore Standard, June 13 1959
By BOB PERIES
The Singapore Government yesterday cracked down on pin-table parlours and silenced jukeboxes in bars and coffee shops, in a Police drive that started at 6 p.m.
The crackdowm is another step in the Government's campaign to rid of the island of "yellow culture."
The Minister for Culture, Mr S. Rajaratnam, announced earlier in the week that rock n' roll and sentimental music would be drastically reduced in Radio Singapore broadcasts.
The Government has also ordered cinema exhibitors to withdraw from screening about 30 films and to send some back for re-examination by the censor.
Brutality, Low Moral Tone
The films came from America, Japan and Hong Kong.
It is understood that these films, in part, showed excessive brutality or were of a low moral tone.
The film censor, Mrs Cynthia Koek, however, would not comment.
Groups of Police officers, detectives and constables, acting on the instructions of the Government fanned out at 6 p.m. from all Police divisional stations to proclaim the big ban.
Armed with sheafs of documents authorising the ban, Policemen moved into hundreds of pintable arcades, bars and coffee shops.
After informing the proprietors of these establishments, they slapped the notices announcing the cancellation of their licences to operate the machines.
Saloons Quiet And Deserted By 8 p.m., the saloons were deserted and the jukeboxes in bars and coffee shops blared no more.
A Standard reporter, who toured the island at 7 p.m. found several saloons in the Chinatown and Jalan Besar areas had closed down voluntarily - after getting wind of the impending swoop.
Unlicensed gaming shacks, which had mushroomed all over the island quietly shut their doors when messages were realyed through underworld agents.
This is an eye-witness account of the swoop: At 6 p.m., Police Officers moved in silently into saloons, bars and coffee shops and explained the ban to teh shocked proprietors.
They were warned that any breach of the ban would lead to a fine.
Notices were then pasted or nailed on the walls of the premises and above jukeboxes.
The proprietors asked their customers to leave and then shut their doors immediately.
The Singapore Standard, June 16 1959
Several hundred workers who have been thrown out of employment as a result of the ban on pin-tables amd jukeboxes have asked the Singapore Government to reconsider the order so that they would not add to the number receiving public assistance.
"We do not want to go on the dole," declared 300 employees of the Asia Novelty Emporium, one of the largest pin-table operating establishments on the island, whose licence was cancelled on Friday when the Government ban was imposed.
Twelve representatives of the workers, headed by the manager, Mr. Low Boon Kwee, yesterday met the Minister for Labour and Law, Mr. K.M. Byrne, to ask for the temporary rescindment of the ban so as to give them time to find other employment.
Mr. Low claimed that they were still uncertain if the ban was a temporary suspension of the game or a permanent prohibition.
As a result, the workers still keep coming to the place of work in case the suspension is lifted. They are not paid for it.
"The immediate closing down of the establishment has put us in a quandary and we are unable to find other jobs because it had been so sudden," he added.
Of the 300 employees, 100 are girls, and they are the bread-winners for about a 1000 people, said Mr. Low.
At the one-hour meeting with the Minister yesterday, Mr. Low said that Mr. Byrne expressed his sympathy but said that he could not rescind the order. He would, however, bring the matter before the Cabinet and would give an answer to the delegation of the workers next Monday.
The emporium began functioning ten years ago and the workers are paid daily wages.
The Government, however, is not likely to reconsider its ban on the operation of jukeboxes and pin-tables.
The Minister for Culture, Mr S Rajaratnam said yesterday that it was up to the operators to convince the Government as to why the machines should not be banned.
Mr Rajaratnam said the suggestion by the operators that they were prepared to play classical music instead of provocative hits could not be entertained.
The Minister said it was not possible to check whether they were playing classical music as it would require a large staff of inspectors to watch them.
The decision to ban the jukeboxes and pin-tables was taken by the Ministry of Culture last week as part of the Government's policy to get rid of the "yellow culture" on the island.
These restrictions apparently did no harm apart from adding somewhat to unemployment and making Singapore less attractive to tourists. But the seamen who had always been a part of Singapore's transient population soon found their way to the amenities still offered in the more obscure corners of the island to which the authorities turned a blind eye. Prostitution continued discreetly - it was left alone because the government could not ban it without taking silly and ineffective action.
The local Chinese schools, which were influenced by the revolutionary events that were taking place in communist China at the time, were the first to promulgate the "anti-yellow movement" which aimed to purge from the city-state hedonistic foreign influences deemed to be corrupting Malayan youths and undermining the moral fabric of society. When the PAP came into power, it established, among its aims, a goal to create a wholesome Malayan culture and to eliminate yellow culture that threatened social discipline in Singapore. The campaign against yellow culture was part of a social revolution to build a new Malayan nation.
As part of the anti-yellow drive, obscene publications and films that depicted crime, violence, sex, nudity, racial prejudice as well as those glorifying colonialism were banned under the Undesirable Publications Ordinance and the Cinematograph Film Ordinance respectively. Jukebox and pin-table saloons were outlawed because they were gathering places for gangsters and youths. Chinese mutual aid associations and social clubs, where secret society members operated gambling dens, were also shut down. The prohibitions extended to music: Radio Singapura pulled rock and roll music off the air to feature more serious programmes with a Malayan emphasis. The government also frowned on the hippie movement and men with long hair, as these were associated with the drug culture, as well as permissive and deviant behaviour. In addition, several discothèques were closed and had their liquor permits revoked.
Anti-long hair campaign
An anti-long hair drive, named Operation Snip Snip, was launched on 1 November 1974. With this campaign, men with long hair were served last at government offices as well as denied entry into the country. Companies were also discouraged from hiring men with long hair, and employees who defied the hair rule had their employment terminated. The restriction on long hair was gradually relaxed in the 1980s, while the ban on jukeboxes was lifted only in 1990.
This article was written by Roy Tan.