René Henry de Solminihac Onraet (born 6 April 1887, India; died 8 May 1952, Burley, Hampshire, England) was a police officer who scored notable successes against gambling and Communism then became Inspector-General of the Straits Settlements Police from 1935 until 1939. After World War II he prepared a significant report on rebuilding intelligence capability in Malaya.
Onraet was the seventh of nine children of Henry Felix Onraet (1842-99) and Marie Anne de Goutiere de Marquetiere (1850-1944). He attended Stonyhurst College in Lancashire before joining the Straits Settlements Police Force in 1907 as a cadet.
After a few months in Singapore he spent twenty months in Amoy (Xiamen) absorbing Chinese culture and language and later learned Malay. Several years afterwards he attended an Irish training course but found that cultural and religious complexities made policing in the Far East more interesting than in the UK.
He rose rapidly and made his mark in the 1910s by defeating the organised gambling syndicate in Penang. His actions netted previously elusive organisers, crooked policemen, ledger-books and the "gambling god" tiger idol whose presence outside a house had revealed the bosses' location and which Onraet presented in court.
Gambling moved to Singapore where it was based in Chinatown. Onraet's flawless Hokkien allowed him to infiltrate the dens, disguised as a Chinese drain inspector, and gather enough information to close many dens and banish thirty ringleaders.
He worked with military intelligence during World War I and afterwards became the first gazetted officer (as opposed to an ex-army man) to head Detective Branch, which handled serious crime and needed reform. During his short directorship he transformed it from a nest of jealous rivals into a cohesive unit.
Head of Special Branch
In 1922 he was made superintendent and director of the Criminal Intelligence Department, later called Special Branch and now the Internal Security Department. Special Branch dealt with racial and religious issues but chiefly confronted political threats in the colony and monitored regional developments. A major threat which Onraet recognised early came from Communist subversives. Onraet provided dogged and clear-sighted leadership but still worked in the field, pulling a rickshaw to help locate Communist agents. The 1920s saw regular raids on offices and printing presses and in 1928 he led the assault on a Balestier Road bomb-making factory, seizing equipment and documents including the unabashedly seditious How to carry out a revolutionary movement in the South Seas.
The Ducroux case
Onraet believed that sedition was invariably foreign in origin and in 1931 he struck hard against Soviet activity in the Far East. Learning that French Communist recruiter Joseph Ducroux was coming to Singapore posing as a salesman, police monitored Ducroux's Collyer Quay office from within the building, intercepted his mail and searched his rubbish. They then stormed Ducroux's office where Onraet recognised one of his visitors as a Balestier Road bomb-maker who was supposed to have been banished.
Ducroux's address book provided information leading to further arrests including those of Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) in Hong Kong and Comintern agent "Hilaire Noulens" in Shanghai. Noulens' documents revealed a pan-Asian contacts network which Onraet hoped would prove the size of the Soviet threat to sceptics in London and elsewhere, though the lenient sentences awarded dismayed him.
Onraet relaxed with sports each day and was a stalwart of the Singapore Polo Club for twenty years, serving as captain (1931) and president (1938).
Special Branch earned an international reputation during nearly a decade of his leadership. After two years as chief police officer of Perak (having earlier held similar posts in Province Wellesley, Malacca and Singapore), Onraet was named Inspector-General of the Straits Settlements Police Force in 1935.
He continued his anti-Communist campaign in 1936 by recruiting from the French sureté in Indo-China double agent Lai Tek, who as secretary general of the Malayan Communist Party provided intelligence for years. The following year Communists exploited outrage over Japans invasion of China by using demonstrations and patriotic boycotts to incite trouble. Onraet flew to Penang to quell a riot which had raged for two days over the sale of soya beans and other goods imported from Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
As well as the problems caused by anti-Japanese feeling he was concerned about espionage and had created a division to monitor this. His call for a limit on Japanese migration to the colony was rejected, however, and he possibly overestimated the threat. Nonetheless, his sterling service saw him made a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George on his retirement in 1939.
In 1937, Onraet wrote a report to Singapore's colonial government stating that "male prostitution" was widespread. Historical correspondence provides evidence that the report was a prelude to making such acts between men a criminal offence so that "male prostitution" could be policed. The government resolved to institute “a policy…to stamp out this evil”.
This led to the introduction by the colonial legislature of Section 377A into the Straits Settlements Penal Code to criminalise all non-penetrative sexual acts between men, eg. mutual masturbation and frottage. Onraet's "Annual report on the organisation and administration of the Straits Settlements police and on the state of crime for the year 1938" (page 414, paragraph 48) published in 1939 noted that "male prostitution and other forms of beastliness were stamped out as and when opportunity occurred."
Wartime and post-war activities
Onraet moved to Britain and joined the British Army when the war started that September; he retired in 1941 as a major. The Colonial Office appointed him to a commission advising the West Indian police and he may have assisted the spy agency MI5. In 1944 he completed his memoirs but a paper shortage delayed publication.
After liberation the British Military Administration in Malaya sought to restore Special Branch and engaged Onraet as their police affairs adviser. He issued a blunt report which led to the formation of the Malayan Security Service (MSS), though some of his recommendations were dismissed as old-fashioned or draconian. Resuming control of the press and compelling registration of secret societies clashed with officials' liberal new mood.
More importantly, the separation of intelligence-gathering from powers of arrest made the MSS less effective than Special Branch had been and his vision of a pan-Malayan/Singapore force was not realised. The eruption of the Malayan Emergency, he felt, vindicated his grave warnings.
After completing this final service Onraet retired to Hampshire in 1946 and died on 8 May 1952. Two years later the road built for the new rank and file quarter of the Police Training School off Whitley Road was named in his honour. Even more fittingly, the Internal Security Department Heritage Centre opened there in 2002.
- Onraet, R. (1938). Something about horses in Malaya [Microfilm: NL 18602]. Singapore: Kelly and Walsh.
- Onraet, R. (1950, August 28). Inspector-General [Microfilm: NL 2503]. The Straits Times, p.9.
- Onraet, R. (1950, September 4). The force's pioneers [Microfilm: NL 2504]. The Straits Times, p.8.
- Onraet, R. (1950, September 11). Birth of the modern detective force [Microfilm: NL 2504]. The Straits Times, p.6 and 8.
- Onraet, R. (1950, September 18). Building the Special Branch [Microfilm: NL 2504]. The Straits Times, p.6 and 8.
Wife: Muriel Purghope. They met and married in Penang in 1914.
- Ban, K. C. (2001). Absent history: The untold story of special branch in Singapore, 1915-1942 (pp.74-77, 104, 169). Singapore: Raffles/SNP Media Asia Pte Ltd.
(Call no.: RSING 327.125957 BAN)
- Coates, J. (1992). Suppressing insurgency: An analysis of the Malayan emergency, 1948-1954 (pp.24-25). Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5104 COA)
- Comber, L. (2008). Malaya's secret police, 1945-60: The role of special branch in the Malayan emergency (p.30). Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.
(Call no.: RSING 363.283095951 COM)
- Death of Mr Onraet, the Singapore policeman [Microfilm: NL 2426]. (1952, May 11). The Sunday Times, p.9.
- Dorset. J. W. (Ed.). (1939). Who's who in Malaya (p.109). [Microfilm: NL10897]. Singapore: Dorset and Co.
- Drysdale, J. (1985). In the service of the nation (p.15). Singapore: Federal Publications.
(Call no.: RSING 354.59570074 DRY)
- Elphick, P. (1997). Far Eastern file: The intelligence war in the Far East, 1930-1945 (p.127). London: Hodder & Stoughton.
(Call no.: RSING 327.12 ELP)
- Federation of Malaya and its police, 1786-1952. (1953) (pp.3, 6, 8). Kuala Lumpur: Charles Grenier and Sons Ltd.
(Call no.: RCLOS 351.712 MAL)
- First director of special branch dies (1960, June). Singapore Police magazine, 6(2), 39.
(Call no.: RSING 354.5957007 4 SPM)
- Fisher, J. S. (Ed.). (1925). Who's who in Malaya 1925 (p.142) [Microfilm: NL 6705] Singapore: J.S. Fisher.
- Heussler, R. (1983). Completing a stewardship: The Malayan civil service, 1942-1957 (p.159). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
(Call no: RSING 354.5951006 HEU)
- Hutton, W. (1983). The Singapore polo club: An informal history, 1886-1982 (pp.51-52). Singapore: Girdwood Enterprises.
(Call no.: RSING 796.3530605957 HUT)
- M., H. (1939, February 20). Red star over Malaya [Microfilm: NL 2370]. The Sunday Times, p.10.
- M., H. (1939, March 5). Communist party in Malaya begins to crumble [Microfilm: NL 2370]. The Sunday Times, p.16.
- M., H. (1939, March 12). Joseph Ducroux, alias Serge Lefranc, is unmasked [Microfilm: NL 2370]. The Sunday Times, p.16.
- M., H. (1939, March 19). Gamblers, gangsters, and goodbye [Microfilm: NL 2370]. The Sunday Times, p.14.
- Metzger, J. (1996, June). Joseph Ducroux, a French agent of the Comintern in Singapore (1931-1932). Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 69(1), 1-20.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
- Miller, H. (1954). Menace in Malaya (pp.23, 26-28, 31). London: George G. Harrap & Co Ltd.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5 MIL)
- Museum to give a glimpse of ISD work. (2002, March 21). The Straits Times. Retrieved January 8, 2009, from Factiva.
- Onraet, R. (1939). Annual report on the organisation and administration of the Straits Settlements police and on the state of crime for the year 1938 [Microfilm: NL 9774]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
- Onraet, R. (1946). Singapore: A police background (pp.9, 22, 33, 37, 53, 81-83, 109, 112, 116, 129, 138-139). [Microform: A00037005D]. London: Dorothy Crisp & Co.
- René Onraet obituary [Microfilm: NL 189]. (1952, May 10). The Times, p.8.
- René Onraet obituary [Microfilm: NL 7598]. (1952, June). Malaya: The journal of the Association of British Malaya, p.45.
- Saubolle, A. (n.d.). Saubolle family connections from colonial India to present day. Retrieved January 12, 2009, from http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=saubolle&id=I1783Savage,
- Savage, V. R., & Yeoh, B. (2004). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names (p.285). Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
(Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV)
- Ban, K. C. (2001) Absent history: The untold story of special branch in Singapore 1915-1942 (p.237). Singapore: Raffles/SNP Media Asia Pte Ltd.
(Call no.: RSING 327.125957 BAN)