History International Lifestyle Weirdness

Here’s why the Brits allowed prostitution in colonial Malaya, and even deemed it necessary

When talking about British Malaya, what do you think of? Some may imagine colonial-styled buildings in its heyday, with serious British people bustling about inside it, making up laws and new taxes. For others, it may be the image of a British officer in full uniform, munching on a crumpet while overseeing laborers work his plantation. Or perhaps heavily powdered admirals from the Company milling about in their ships along the Straits of Malacca.

And wigs. Don’t forget the wigs. Gif from Giphy.

Yep, if our education system taught us anything, the colonial period in Malaya was a prim and proper time, with phrases like ‘pish posh old chap‘ and ‘the locals are running amok again‘ being thrown about in between delicate sips of tea. After all, the most uptight things we can think of in Malaysia, like the Parliament and our legal system, did come from the British.

But if you think that everyone were uptight prudes during the British era, well, that’s not quite right. We hope it’s not puasa time when you found this article, because today we’ll be looking at some of the more haram parts of British Malaya. For one thing…


Prostitution wasn’t illegal for a big chunk of the British era

Keeping it legal! Img from ScienceNordic.

Today, if you need to get a quick release or just some time away from the missus, you’ll have to go to some shady back alley or massage place, and hope that you won’t get busted by the police, JAIS, or worse… end up on that 999 show on TV3. Because everyone knows that’s only slightly less degrading than being on Akademi Fantasia.

However, if you were to travel back in time to Malaya sometime between the mid-1800s to the 1930s, the attitude towards brothels and prostitution in general was a bit more lenient. To be fair, it was a time when other vices like opium and gambling were allowed by the colonial government, so casually dropping by a brothel for a quick hookup wasn’t as discreet a matter as it is now.

Karayuki-sans do dress like this, at least in Penang and Singapore. Img from Singapore’s National Archives.

You can seemingly find brothels in a majority of the states in Malaya back then, particularly areas that have a large number of immigrants like the Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore and Malacca), Perak and some Federated Malay States (because of the tin mining), and Kuala Lumpur. As for what kind of women were available, well, the most well-documented ones were Chinese (called ah ku) and Japanese (called karayuki-san), but with the exception of British prostitutes (which were banned), most other races were available.

“Further down the Batu Road was ‘the Malay kip-shop,’ a huge ramshackle building presided over by ‘moma’, a very fat jolly Malay woman – here you could get a cold beer or a Malay girl if you wanted one. Nearby was the ‘Siamese house’ with the Siamese girls… In the Batu Road and in Petaling St. and further on near the Princes Cinema were the more superior Japanese Hotels, where you could get Beer and almost any race of girl…” – excerpt from “Migrants, Minorities & Health: Historical and Contemporary Studies.

Indian prostitutes may be a bit hard to find, though, but we’ll get to why in the next header. Anyways, prostitutes and brothels can be licensed in colonial Malaya, and to give a rough idea of how prevalent they are, in 1893 there was an estimated 958, 150 and 1,080 licensed prostitutes in Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, respectively. Unlicensed prostitutes (called ‘sly prostitutes’) were also a thing, but their numbers weren’t recorded.

Regardless of licensing, prostitutes and brothels were seen as a necessary part of British Malaya by the local colonial government. A huge reason why sex workers were a social necessity back then was that…


Due to the influx of Chinese laborers, there were too many men and not enough women

Tin mining in Perak. Img from MalaysiaCentral.

Between 1880 and 1930, Malaya saw a mass influx of foreign laborers, many of them Chinese males. Penang, for one, practically became one huge Chinese sausage party, and in men in Singapore outnumbered women by 3 to 1 at the turn of the century. So if you’re a British officer who wanted to keep so many men motivated and happy, what do you do? Why, just let the sex workers do their thing, of course!

“…the dominant view was that male ‘desires and impulses’ needed to be ‘gratified’ and that, in the absence of women as wives, prostitutes supplied a ‘public want’ and were ‘a necessary evil, to save us from something worse’.” – excerpt from “Migrants, Minorities & Health: Historical and Contemporary Studies.

Now that’s a bit of foreshadowing for ya. Anyways, this imbalance wasn’t a problem with the Indian community, who usually migrated along with their families, meaning that their community had more women. Perhaps because of that, there wasn’t as big of a demand for prostitutes from them, although some had theorized that having less disposable income than Chinese laborers, as well as being confined to rural estates, might have something to do with that as well.

Disregarding that for the moment, it’s not just the foreign labor that benefited from the presence of sex workers being available. A lot of British and Sikh officers arrived in Malaya as bachelors, and they also 👏 had 👏 needs 👏.  Even some non-bachelors were showing up to the yard for milkshakes, because as put by an anecdote…

”…their wives who were young, pretty and graceful once but for want of exercise soon renders them obese and unwieldy and after bearing a few children they generate into ugly bags.” – excerpt from “Prostitution in Colonial Malaya with Special Reference to Penang: Some Preliminary Thoughts..

Other colonial men upon hearing such an utterance. Gif from Tenor.

There seemed to be some business from the local Malays as well, because in that time period, the ‘mas kahwin’ (dowry) to marry a virgin had jumped from about $22.50 to somewhere between $100-$125. This caused them to postpone their marriage to the ripe old age of 25 (instead of around 17-ish), causing many to break and turn to prostitution until then.

UiTM students just launched a satellite into space! And you won't guess how much it cost...

While the locals seem to be a bit ‘eh’ when it comes to the issue of prostitutes prostituting about (not openly protesting it, but not openly supporting it either), using an ‘immoral’ solution to the sausage fest actually weighed heavy on the British, so brothels and prostitutes were outlawed sometime in the 1930s due to ‘health and morality‘ concerns.

After all, you can’t be a prestigious, elite world power if you allow such debauchery in your colonies, right? Well, the outlawing of brothels actually exposed a bigger problem for the British’s image, because apparently…


Homosexual acts weren’t uncommon among British Malayans

Hoo boy. Don’t try to look this up in your KSSM history textbook, guys, because we can bet our ass cheeks it wasn’t included. Let’s put the parts together. The reason prostitutes were condoned in British Malaya was because some places have too many men, and it was foreshadowed that prostitutes were ‘a necessary evil, to prevent something worse’.

To make it simpler, for foreign bachelors in 1890s Malaya, there were three choices to deal with their raging hormones: be celibate, visit a prostitute, or love your brother.

Ahhhh… Gif from Giphy.

Yeah, there was a lot of backstabbing action going on in British Malaya, even before prostitution was outlawed. In the process of outlawing prostitution however, colonial authorities encountered male prostitutes, and in trying to figure out how to deal with them brought homosexuality to the public’s attention back then. And that’s how people started talking about homosexuality in British Malaya.

Based on British accounts and maybe a stereotype or two, besides frequenting the brothels, Chinese laborers were ‘famously known’ to know how to take care of their needs without women‘, an account that was supported by a reportedly ‘high incidence of anal syphilis among Hainanese houseboys‘. But who gave the syphilis to the Hainanese houseboys? It wasn’t clear, but apparently there was an inclination for some British people to experiment, being so far from home and all.

“This was so in the Settlements and the FMS, where British colonial staff, naval and ground troops, planters and company representatives took local women and mistresses, partnered their houseboys, and visited brothels as matters of routine. The health costs of this were no deterrent, and the venereal disease clinic in Kuala Lumpur was referred to as ‘the other club’.” – excerpt from “Migrants, Minorities & Health: Historical and Contemporary Studies.

But that’s not all! Apparently, there were some hot military action as well. A British soldier who served in Singapore acknowledged that his unit’s commanding officer knew that his male soldiers were having sex with each other in the mangrove swamps, but he turned a blind eye towards that, regarding it as a ‘harmless outlet for pent-up sexual frustration’.

Can you blame them though? They fiiineee. Img from National Army Museum.

In short, all sorts of sticky homosexual acts were had among the different layers of society, but interracial sex seemed to be the most problematic to the authorities. Besides threatening the legitimacy and authority of the British colonial administration, inter-race homosexuality was also seen as a security risk. This sentiment was highlighted in a trial of gross indecency between a British artillery gunner and a Chinese man in 1941, when the court was told that…

“…what makes this particular offence more serious is that when members of Her Majesty’s Forces lower themselves to an animal degree like this, they are not only giving very poor impressions of themselves, but they also lay themselves open to blackmail which may not be paid in money … I am hinting, sir, at the possibility of espionage.” – excerpt from “The Strange Career of Gross Indecency: Race, Sex, and Law in Colonial Singapore“.

And of course, it’s just embarassing lah for the British. Some accounts of homosexuality made the British the butt of quaint colonial jokes, like how a ship that deported European homosexuals was said to have ‘entered Penang harbour stern first‘. This, plus other things, was said to be demoralizing for both the British forces and the community in general, who looked to the Government for wholesome governing.


Huh. Who knew British Malaya was such a loose time?

Getting dat British tea. Gif from Imgur.

Well, it was, before the 1930s or so. As we’ve mentioned above, in an effort to keep British’s face as a moral empire, prostitution eventually became outlawed, and after the homosexuality issue blew up, the British came up with a specific law amendment that criminalizes same-sex acts in Malaya. These laws didn’t stop people from doing stuff, though.

After prostitution and brothels became outlawed, sly prostitution (the illegal kind) became more popular. Former prostitutes found new ways to get clients without brothels, by hanging out in coffee shops or cabarets, although some found waitressing jobs or became mistresses of former clients. However, in the absence of previous regulations that required health checks among other things, venereal diseases became a problem once again.

As for the law that criminalizes same sex acts, it was enacted in 1938, but that just meant that people can get caught and put to trial for same-sex acts, instead of stopping such acts altogether. You might have noticed that the British artillery guy and his Chinese lover’s case was in 1941.

So while these laws didn’t do much for these vices, it did show that the colonial government did something to address it, somewhat salvaging their image. And at the end of the day, maybe that’s all that matters. We mean, how many of you actually knew of prostitutes and homosexuality in British Malaya before?


[If you enjoyed this story and want more, please subscribe to our HARI INI DALAM SEJARAH Facebook group]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Here at CILISOS, we believe that the only way to consume information is with a serious dose of flavour. Our aim is to make mundane things like news and current events entertaining, and informative, hopefully in equal measure. Read More

The Serious Legal Stuff


Cilisos Media Sdn. Bhd. Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

To Top
Send this to a friend