You may have been living in Singapore for a while, but do you know who the Freemasons are or what the term Freemasons actually means? Your dad or hubby may be a member, but may not have shared what goes on in this society, which is exclusively for men. For everyone who praises the Masonic brotherhood’s mutual support network and charity programmes, another speculates darkly about global conspiracy, giggles at secret handshakes and archaic rituals, or expresses genuine outrage against its history of class-based elitism and gender exclusivity. Properly escorted, Verne Maree ventured into the Freemasons Hall in Coleman Street to find out more.
My first point of call is Darren Desker (53), a Eurasian Singaporean who describes himself as an amateur Masonic historian. Freemasonry in Singapore was founded in 1845, he tells me. Sir Stamford Raffles was a Freemason when he sailed into Singapore, as were the majority of his peers.
Most people point to 1717 as the start of Freemasonry, when England’s Grand Lodge was founded and the era of Grand Lodges began. Ireland followed suit around 1725 and Scotland in 1736. From there, it spread to Europe, the Americas and beyond.
However, the earliest evidence of associations or lodges is to be found in Scotland. As Amanda Ruggeri points out in her article “The Lost History of the Freemasons”, medieval guilds of stonemasons existed in both England and Scotland; but it was in Scotland, around 1600, that some 13 guilds acquired an institutional structure.
In fact, Mary’s Chapel in Edinburgh is the world’s oldest Masonic lodge still in existence. Its written history dates back at least to 1599, when it started keeping minutes of its meetings.
Today there is a total of 14 Masonic Lodges in Singapore under four different constitutions; these include eight English, three Scottish, two Irish and one French. There are also over 20 other appendant Masonic orders, which you have to be a Freemason to join. Singapore has some 600 to 700 Freemasons.
This figure is low, as Darren says. New Zealand, with a similar population, has some 10,000 Freemasons. London has three times our population, but is home to around 1,600 lodges.
Becoming a Freemason
Entrepreneur Robbie Hoyes-Cock has called Singapore home since his parents brought him here as a baby, and is in the business of organising luxury party events.
He was a teenager when he discovered that four of his dad’s good friends – men whom he regarded as “genuinely good people with a certain magnetism about them” – were all Freemasons. “I became set on joining the fraternity, in the hope that one day I could be just like them: mixing success with doing good and being good.”
You only need to be 21 years of age to join Freemasonry, he says. “As we do not solicit membership, if you have an interest in Masonry as I did, you need to act on it and make enquiries. You will never be asked to join.”
Etiquette and Secrecy
“Freemasons must abstain from certain discussions at Lodge,” reveals Darren. The first is politics, the second is religion.
“Freemasonry was not originally regarded as secretive,” he says. In 18th- and 19th-century England, you could even buy Masonic newspapers and journals at a newsstand or the equivalent; it was only in the run-up to World War II that Freemasonry, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, became more reticent, in the interests of national security.
“They would answer no comment, even to an attack on Freemasonry,” he says. “Some ten years ago, they decided to adopt a more open approach to public relations.”
The United Grand Lodge of England, on the corner of London’s Great Queen Street, is the headquarters of English Freemasonry. “Like ours in Coleman Street, which is nearly 140 years old, it’s a nice building. But you wouldn’t know it’s a Masonic building, apart from the discreet symbols: the square and compasses, which are the tools used in masonry.”
Freemasonry in the United States is more open, he adds. “You’ll see signs for the local lodge on the outskirts of many towns, and the Masonic symbol is emblazoned on T-shirts and jackets. And the Freemasons Hall in Manhattan flies a very large Masonic flag.”
Paul Baragwanath (60), a Brit who happens to be a good friend of mine, puts it this way: “Only after I was initiated into the Lodge in 1985 did I realise that it’s not a secret society; it’s a society with a few secrets and rituals.”
Key factors for him include “the tremendous camaraderie and harmony with my fellow Masonic brothers, and the ability to donate to various Masonic charities”. A party animal of note, he is also looking forward to being one of more than 5,000 Masons from all over the world who will converge on London to celebrate the 300th Masonic Anniversary, at the United Grand Lodge in Great Queens Street, followed by a Gala Grand Dinner at the Royal Albert Hall.
Requirements and Ritual
As a Mason, you’re welcome at any other lodge anywhere in the world, explains Darren – as long as your lodge is recognised. That recognition occurs at Grand Lodge Level, and requires a belief in a Deity.
Becoming a Mason also requires “freedom of inclination”, and you are required to take an obligation, using a book – the bible, for example – that accords to your faith. You are also required to learn Masonic ritual, which involves committing pages and pages of ritual to memory.
He describes three principles of Freemasonry:
- Fraternity, the social side of things;
- Doing good; and
- Questions of life and philosophy.
It was a privilege for me to meet Brian Henry, who came here about 50 years ago from London on a three-year contract to set up an Associated Motor Industries plant in Jurong. He became a Freemason about 40 years ago, and at one time served as District Grand Secretary.
“There’s a certain amount of mystery about it that appealed to me; I like the way the mystery is only revealed to us bit by bit. The Masonic system does a lot of charity work, too; some of the lodges adopt a children’s school, or visit and support the sick.”
Now in his eighties, he still spends a lot of time in the office. “I’ve never regretted becoming a Freemason,” says Brian, “and I know that it’s made me a better boy! In their journey through the Masonic system, we try to make good men better, kinder, and less rough on each other.”
Secrets, Mysteries and Privileges
One of the secrets relates to membership. “As a matter of courtesy, you’re not allowed to say that someone is a Freemason,” says Darren. “Only the individual himself can divulge that information.” Secret grips (not handshakes) and other cues are used mostly during visit to another lodge, to prove that you’re a member.
Interestingly, this practice may be traced back to the Middle Ages, when masons travelled far from home to build Europe’s massive and intricate churches and cathedrals. Forming organisations was a way to ensure that strangers knew the trade and could be trusted; an insider code like a handshake proved that you belonged to the organisation. Looked at in this way, it’s not entirely creepy.
Masonic mysteries like all mysteries cannot be communicated, says Darren. “They have to be discovered through your own study, experience and critical thought.” Masonic privileges are based on rank. You join as an Entered Apprentice and then progress to Fellow Craft, Master Mason and Installed Master. After serving a series of offices in the Lodge, you can in time become Master of the Lodge.
For example, an Entered Apprentice’s privilege includes admission to the Lodge, and to visit other lodges under supervision; for a Fellow Craft, the privilege to offer his opinion on certain subjects during Masonic lectures. A Master Mason’s privilege includes supervising Apprentices and Fellow Crafts and correcting any mistakes; that of the Master of a Lodge, to instruct in Freemasonry.
Helping One Another
Retired Hilton hotelier Beppi Forster-Lau (70), a Swiss, became a Freemason in 1987 and now runs the office. He was attracted by “the behavioural standards that it sets, and that it doesn’t publicise its good works”.
Being a Mason has improved his overall view of life, he says, and made him a better man. “I have a different approach to family life, and also to charity. This office has only one paid staff member; the rest of us are volunteers, and we pay our own travel and other expenses. It’s not free. Charity is one of our main purposes.”
He also appreciates that the Freemasons’ charity work is both external and internal. “As an expat in a foreign country, it is a certain comfort to know that you and your family would be looked after if something went wrong.”
There’s no obligation to help a fellow Mason, it seems; rather, there’s a feeling of fraternal responsibility. And as Darren points out, Freemasons cannot help one another in an unlawful way: “You still have all your usual civic and moral duties.”
American fund manager Tony Raza (49) tells me that, by nature, he likes to get involved in things – from the kids’ hash to golf, tennis, wine clubs and condo committees. “In Freemasonry,” he says, “I found a social and fraternal activity with a feeling of greater purpose. This feels like a long-term pursuit.”
For his Lodge’s annual Pink Bow-Tie Dinner, husbands and wives work together to raise funds for the Breast Cancer Foundation. “From that,” says Tony, “BCF president Noor Quek asked me to join their Exco. I think she was tickled at the idea of men going out to raise funds for breast cancer!”
The Knights Templar, which Robbie HoyesCock describes as “a rather well-known side degree in Masonry”, organises an annual Christmas carol service in the Temple on Coleman Street. “Last year, we welcomed a number of under-privileged kids, dressed up for them, sang for them, and then brought in a magician and a Santa to evoke the real spirit of Christmas.”
Sometime in the 19th century, it was in France that some lodges were opened to women too. This is known as Co-masonry; there are also women-only lodges. However, an individual can join only one type of Masonry, according to Darren. You can’t be a Mason and a Co-mason.
Interestingly, both the Honourable Fraternity of Antient Freemasons and the Order of Women’s Freemasons have visited Singapore from England. There is interest in setting up a women’s order here.
As the parent of a young daughter, Tony Raza is sensitive to gender issues. But he makes the point that, since the days of cave-dwellers, males have had traditional rites of passage that pass down morals from men to boys.
“Freemasonry has a structure that you need to move through to prove yourself, and I think this is important in men’s lives; without it, they resort to structures like gangs.”
What’s more, any new candidate is asked: “Does your wife know, and does she approve?” Until his wife approves, they don’t proceed. “This is a key principle,” says Tony.
Religion and Conspiracy Theory
As a 16-year-old, asset manager Olzhas Zhiyenkulov (now 27) from Kazakhstan, via London, was initially fascinated by the romance and the mystery of the conspiracy theories surrounding Freemasonry.
“My research showed that Freemasonry is not some godless secretive order that is driven by a desire for power, but a community of intelligent and compassionate individuals with a strict moral code who have chosen to spend their lives caring not only for themselves, but also for their communities. We are brothers, committed to one another and to a common goal of doing good in this world.”
He wants to correct some of the “baseless allegations” again Freemasonry – for instance, that it is incompatible with religion. “It is a fundamental principle in Freemasonry that, in order to be eligible to be a Freemason, one must believe in a Supreme Being (that is, God).”
Tony Raza agrees. Their Lodge includes people of “all the religions” – Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and more. “We also have a Greek and a Turk; whatever religious or political divisions may exist out there, we don’t have them in our lodge.”
What’s more, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living. “We’re all brothers. You could be COO of a large company, but that would not make you better than anyone else.”
This is an article that first appeared in the May 2017 edition of Expat Living. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue!
Interested to know more about living in Singapore?