In May 1933, within the walls of the House of Commons, Conservative MP Gordon Hall Caine addressed Phillip Cunliffe-Lister, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, on the issue of destitution in British Malaya. Given the ‘vast number of impoverished Europeans in Malaya’, Hall Caine pondered whether the Government was ‘taking any further action to repatriate those men affected who cannot be locally supported?’ Cunliffe-Lister’s response that, while there had been repatriations, the ‘present income of the European Unemployment Fund (EUF)’ was sufficient for ‘local relief without assistance from the Government’ was, in many ways, correct. Indeed, for a number of years, expatriates in the colonies had been involved in benevolent work in support of their destitute countrymen. In 1921 the Singapore Free Press reported that, on the occasion of St George’s Day, members of the Penang St George’s Society were presented with ‘a unique opportunity’ to help ‘the sacred cause of charity by diverting to the local European Unemployment Fund the subscriptions which in ordinary circumstances would have been for the annual Penang St George’s Ball’ (Singapore Free Press, 22 April 1921). Funds were raised by the English St George’s societies but also by the ethnic associations of the Scots and Welsh through various means–from straightforward collections after committee meetings to the more obscure ‘beach pyjamas dance and cabaret’ held by the Selangor branch of the Royal Society of St George (RSStG), the proceeds of which went to the EUF.
During the 1920s, sums of between $100 and $250 were regularly bequeathed by the ethnic associations to the EUF. However, as the effects of the Great Depression grew increasingly severe for the trading port of Singapore—the cornerstone of Singapore’s economy—benevolent aid became far more important to many more people. A report from the Malayan Tribune in October 1930 that referenced the many ‘educated Europeans and Eurasians, shabbily dressed’ who could be found ‘hanging around eating-houses and coffee-shops, and walking about the streets for unemployment and unable to find it’ (Malayan Tribune, 2 October 1930) illuminates the increasingly difficult situation. In response, financial contributions to the EUF greatly increased. In 1932 the Singapore St Andrew’s Society donated $500 while the Singapore RSStG paid to the EUF ‘a sum of over $1500’ which, the association’s President felt ‘was no mean achievement and a striking example of the unity and solid friendship which exists among the national societies in Singapore’ (Singapore Daily News, 8 November 1932). It is clear then that the help given to those who had fallen on hard times was plentiful and the associations were rightly proud of what they had achieved. ‘There cannot be anything seriously wrong with the Empire’ affirmed H. Bowrey, the President of the Singapore RSStG, ‘when you can get, seated around the same table, Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen discussing amicably how best to make the most money for the unfortunate unemployed’ (The Straits Times, 8 November 1932). Thus, as men like Gordon Hall Caine voiced concern about Britain’s destitute sons and daughters, over 6000 miles away her more affluent offspring were hard at work relieving those ‘impoverished Europeans’.