The genesis of higher education in colonial Malaya

Koay Su Lyn, Penang Institute

According to Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders, the architect of British colonial universities and Director of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1957, there was ‘little sympathy with local aspirations for university education’ before World War II.1 Despite the vision of the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies (ACEC)2 for establishing elementary to secondary schools, as well as technical and vocational institutions up to the tertiary level in every colony, the idea for a Malayan university was not a colonial policy priority.

Pre-World War II Education in Malaya

Education in Malaya from early colonial times up to World War II was rudimentary, generally consisting of no more than five years of primary schooling. The teachings were vernacular, each divided along ethnic lines, financed and managed under different systems with different languages and syllabuses. For example, most Malay schools were attended by Malays, Chinese schools by Chinese, and Indian schools by Indians, each taught in their own languages and dialects. Only English schools, in the towns, were attended by all communities, where English was the sole medium of instruction.3 

While Malay schools were created, financed and managed by the government, Chinese supported their own schools, and Indian schools were established and run by the estate owners with government subsidies. Only the English schools, many with roots in Christian mission schools, enjoyed the government’s financial support,4 and were confined to Malayans of the middle and upper classes. 

The British colonial government maintained a tight pocket in the provision of education, especially higher education.5 It regarded the expansion of tertiary education in colonial India from the mid-19th century as a mistake given the production of overqualified, unemployable, politically ambitious and intractable young men. The colonial government prioritised the metropolitan funds that it could secure under the Colonial Development Act 1929 for economic development, seeing education as a product of social welfare that had to be met by local revenues. 

Nevertheless, the development of a small pool of well-educated Malays was necessary to support colonial political and economic policies. Hence in 1905 the Malay College, and in 1922 the Sultan Idris Training College, were established, both of which aimed to groom a class of English-educated, Malay administrators. .

The Malay College, Kuala Kangsar: A Training Institution for Administrators

In 1910, British administrators of the Federated Malay States introduced a scheme for admission of members of the young Malay elite into the lower division of the civil service. While colonial rule had deprived Malay aristocrats of political control, it preserved their royal status to gain their trust and cooperation. Tapping into this capacity aimed to reduce the high costs of recruiting Europeans.6 

A ‘special school in the Federated Malay States for the sons and relations of the Rajas and Native Chiefs’ was suggested by J.P Rodger, the Resident of Perak, and soon after mooted in the Conference of Rulers in July 1903. The proposal, however, received a lukewarm response from the Resident-General, who deemed existing schools sufficient for educating talented Malays who could then aim for higher education at the Raffles Institution of Singapore. Nonetheless, the Malay elite welcomed the notion, seeing such an association with the colonial government as boosting their prestige and their opportunities for an English education.

The Malay College Kuala Kangsar—the ‘Eton of the East’
Source: The National Archives of Malaysia 
The Malay elite at the Malay College, 1906
Source: The National Archives of Malaysia 
In February 1904 R.J. Wilkinson, the new Inspector of Schools for the Federated Malay States, submitted a proposal for establishing a special residential school for the education of Malays ‘of good family’ and for training Malay boys for admission to certain branches of the government service. Hailed as the ‘Eton of the East’, the Malay Residential School opened its doors on 2 January 1905. Founded by the government in the Royal Town of Kuala Kangsar, Perak, rulers of the Federated Malay States provided their political support. While Wilkinson favoured locating the school in the Rembau district of Negeri Sembilan, Kuala Kangsar was chosen for to its good railway facilities and because it was home to Sultan Idris, whose involvement was crucial.

The school began with 40 pupils. Managed along the lines of an English ‘public’ (i.e., private) school, it was soon noted for its exclusiveness. Dubbed the ‘Malay Raja School’ by the new Resident of Perak, E.W. Birch, and one ‘reserved for the sons of the Rajas and Chiefs’ by Sultan Idris,7  the institution was officiated in 1909 and formally became the Malay College. 

In its early years, a handful of ‘commoners’ were admitted.8 Among them was Abdul Majid bin Zainuddin, who became a teacher in the college from 1907 to 1917. But his own son was later denied a place after a strict assertion by the Board of Governors that only the ‘princes and nobles of Malaya should be eligible for admission’. At most, only the sons of very minor headmen were passed by the Selection Boards.9 

The College’s first headmaster was William Hargreaves, the former principal of the Penang Free School who was well known for enforcing high academic standards and encouraging Malay studies.10 Notwithstanding the emphasis on English, Malay was made compulsory, with Friday prayers and religious classes, dismissing potential fears that young Malays would be alienated from their own native tongue while absorbing English ideals. Preservation of their cultural identity was crucial because, as future administrators, graduates were expected to bridge the gap between the government and Malay society. 

Despite the college’s restrictive, class-based admissions, the British solidified the trust and confidence of the ruling class, which helped to consolidate their control over the Malay states. The Sultan Idris Training College (SITC) was intended to serve a similar purpose, but through less exclusive social channels.

Headmaster with the Malay College prefects, 1914
Source: The National Archives of Malaysia 
The Sultan Idris Training College, Tanjung Malim

The Sultan Idris Training College, 1920
Source: National Archives Malaysia 
Having derived its name from the late Sultan Idris Murshidul’ Adzam Shah I, who died in 1916, the SITC was founded to serve the needs of British Malaya by training ‘all Malay teachers in gardening and elementary agriculture so that they may introduce scientific methods in the most remote villages’.11 Officiated by the Chief Secretary of the Federated Malay States, Sir George Maxwell on 1 November 1922, the SITC’s birth stemmed from the idea of Dr R. O. Winstedt, Director of Education of the Federated Malay States, to centralise two of Malaya’s existing teaching institutions, one in Malacca and the other in Matang, to provide a three-year teaching course to meet the demand for trained Malay teachers. 

Against this backdrop, the creation of Malay vernacular schools by the British, that began to spread after the 1874 Pangkor Engagement, was intended to secure the transmission of Malay culture and values in maintaining social and political compliance. Yet the British faced indifference to such schools, as well as suspicion that their real aim was to lure children away from Islam. Thus Malay schools suffered from poor enrolment rates. It was not until 1902 that the government made attendance compulsory at schools within a radius of a mile and a half from homes. This measure, which began in Malacca, saw the gradual improvement of in enrolment rates throughout the peninsula.

Admitting students from all walks of Malay society, the SITC functioned as the medium in which Malay teachers were trained and, later, supplied to Malay schools to equip ordinary Malays with new skills. This strategy of grooming an advanced batch of skilled Malay farmers, agriculturalists, fishermen and manual labourers would reduce the scepticism and insecurities of Malay parents. For that purpose, the SITC’s curriculum was agriculturally centred with a special emphasis on handicrafts, gardening, arts and physical training. Providing the highest degree of vernacular education in the Malay Peninsula, its student enrolment spanned Malaya—around one third from the Straits Settlements, some two thirds from the Federated Malay States and a scattering of students from Kedah and Johore. By 1931, around 130 students enrolled annually with a graduating class that retained as many as 120 students at the end of the three years. That year, the total number of students in residence was 390. By 1938, there were nearly 400 students, including 92 Malay girls.12 

O.T. Dussek and the SITC’s Translation Bureau

While Winstedt wanted ordinary Malays to be trained to function within their traditional roles, things took a different turn with the appointment of O.T Dussek, a British education officer from the Malayan Education Service and the former headmaster of the Malacca College, as SITC’s first principal. A sympathiser of the Malays, he often encouraged them to strive for success through the cultivation of good leadership skills. It was Dussek’s strict policy of teaching only in Bahasa Melayu that sowed the seeds of nationalism by instilling a deep sense of pride in Malay culture, language and identity. The harvest was reaped with teachers like Abdul Hadi Hassan and Buyong Adil, who introduced radical concepts like the ‘Malay state’ and ‘Malay world’ to students. This was followed by the Malay Translation Bureau’s transfer from Kuala Lumpur to the SITC in 1924. Instrumental in its transfer, Dussek appointed the renowned Malay linguist, Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad, better known as Za’ba, to head the Bureau.13 

The gem of the SITC, the Bureau was responsible for writing, translating, editing and seeing through the press educational publications, novels, books and translations for government departments. While it also functioned as a training centre for probationary translators,14 the bureau’s facilities cured the dearth of literature at the SITC. More interestingly, Za’ba arranged the printing of numerous Malay titles, which included banned, revolutionary literature from the Middle East and Indonesia. Inevitably, nationalist ideas became topics of discussion and these cultivated a sense of political awakening among young Malays. The rise of the Malay left in the years before World War II, with the formation of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda in 1938, marks a good example.

King Edward VII Medical College

Higher education in pre–World War II Malaya took place at King Edward VII Medical College and Raffles College in Singapore. Because only the English stream provided post-secondary education, such pathways catered mainly to the sons of the middle to upper echelons of Malayan society educated in English. The only other higher education option was to finance studies overseas or obtain a scholarship. 

In 1904, leading Chinese and other non-European communities petitioned the colonial governor of the Straits Settlements for a medical school, stressing the need for qualified Chinese medical men. Impressed by a Chinese hospital in Hainan, which was staffed with foreign-trained doctors, local newspapers began to urge the government to encourage ‘clever Chinese lads to become medical students and to qualify as dressers and apothecaries’ to appeal to a class which ‘sought no European medical advice partly from prejudice and much more from the inability to pay high fees’.15 

In reply, the governor threw down a challenge and promised to set up a medical school on condition that Straits$71,000 was raised. It was accepted and soon after a total of Straits$87,077 was collected, including a sum of Straits$12,000 from Tan Jiak Kim, a prominent Straits-born merchant. The Straits and Federated Malay States Government Medical School opened on 18 September 1905, and its first licentiates received their scrolls from the Governor, John Anderson, in May 1910. In 1912, the school’s name was changed to the King Edward VII Medical School in recognition of a gift of Straits$124,800 from the King Edward Memorial trust fund for the endowment of a professorship in physiology. To convey ‘the adequate impression of the academic status of the institution giving a professional training of university standard’,16 the name King Edward VII Medical College was adopted in 1920. 

Classes in medicine, clinical medicine, surgery, clinical surgery and midwifery were conducted and, following a Rockefeller endowment of Straits$350,000, professorships of bacteriology, biochemistry and biology were founded in 1926. The college’s training stood comparison with that of any European school of medicine. By 1936, owing to the call for more doctors in Malaya, the College’s roll increased to 206.17  After its merger with Raffles College to form the University of Malaya in 1949, the College produced 429 graduates in medicine and surgery.18

Raffles College

Even until his last days in Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles hoped to see established an institution that would ‘collect the scattered literature and traditions of the country … to be useful and instructive to the people’. While his dreams crystallised in the form of the Singapore Institution, which later became the Raffles Institution, it took another century for the realisation of his great dream through the Maxwell Committee in 1918. 

Appointed to report on a scheme for the centenary of Singapore (1919), the Maxwell Committee were ‘unanimously of the opinion that the most suitable memorial is a scheme which will provide for the advancement of education of the Colony with a view to laying securely the foundation upon which a University may in the course of time be established’.19 This idea was quickly adopted and a separate committee under H.W. Firmstone, Director of Education of the Straits Settlement, was formed to advise on the scheme. The Firmstone Committee recommended founding a ‘College for Higher Education’, to be known as Raffles College. 

Raffles College achieved three objectives through being a product of the Singapore Centenary Memorial and a nucleus of a future university, as well as catering to the urgent need for teacher training in higher technical and scientific subjects. Among the Committee’s recommendations were that the college be affiliated to London University; women be admitted on equal terms with men; and the teaching staff be ‘in no way inferior to those engaged in university work in England’. 

Raffles College was opened on 22 July 1928 by Hugh Clifford, Governor of the Straits Settlements, and offered three-year courses in English, history, geography, mathematics, economics, physics and chemistry. Responsible for training teachers for middle and secondary classes of English schools, it shared a policy of cooperation with the King Edward VII Medical College where it taught chemistry and physics to first-year medical students, while students were permitted to enrol in physiology and biology courses of the Medical College.20  Having started with 43 students, including two women,21 the College had produced a cumulative total of 573 graduates by 1949.22  

Towards a Malayan University: Post-World War II British Policy Change

The issue of a potential university-college for Malaya was first raised by the McLean Commission in 1938. Appointed by Malcolm MacDonald, Secretary of State for the Colonies, the commission concluded that, although the time was not yet ripe for an autonomous university, the early fusion of the King Edward VII Medical College and Raffles College to form a university-college was a good first step. The outbreak of World War II stymied this proposal, however. 

Remarkably, the physical fabric of the two colleges survived the war, and a change in colonial perspective towards higher education was noticeable after 1945. The notion of a partnership that would foster universities throughout the Empire, equipping dependencies for self-government, was explored as the emerging colonial policy. Further, since the emphasis of nation-building formed the main crux of British post-war policy, universities were viewed by the British colonial office as important instruments for imbuing the elite of emerging nations with a ‘British view of the world’ and to prepare them for post-colonial membership of the Commonwealth. 

In Malaya, a commission chaired by Carr-Saunders, with notable figures like Haji Muhammed Eusoff, Ivor Jennings, G.W. Pickering and Lim Han Hoe, was formed to review the old, pre-war arrangement for a university-college.23 The commission toured Singapore and the Malayan Union between March and April 1947, visiting educational and research establishments. It proposed the immediate amalgamation of King Edward VII Medical College and Raffles College into a full-fledged university with the authority to confer degrees.24 Influenced by the political turmoil confronting the Union,25 the commission argued that ‘the successful establishment of a University of Malaya at this juncture could serve a valuable political purpose, firstly by becoming an object of pride and loyalty which would knit together the diverse races of the country and secondly, by enhancing the prestige of Malaya in Southeast Asia as a whole’. 26

The suggestion was accepted and, after half a year’s delay, the amalgamation took effect via two pieces of legislation in 1949: the University of Malaya Ordinance in Singapore on 31 March and the University of Malaya Ordinance 1949 in the Federation of Malaya on 27 April. Dr George V. Allen, former principal of the King Edward VII Medical School, was appointed its first principal.27 The University of Malaya was inaugurated on 8 October 1949 in the Ooi Teong Ham Hall of the former Raffles College, with MacDonald, who served as Governor-General of Malaya from 1946 to 1948 and subsequently Britain’s Commissioner-General in Southeast Asia, presiding as chancellor.

The inauguration of the University of Malaya, 1949.
Source: National Archives Malaysia 
The Carr-Saunders Commission proposed that the university be moved to Johore Bahru.28 The first Malayan university, the commission emphasised its location ‘in a scenery typical of Malaya’ and that the ‘river estuary, undulating plain with rubber and coconut and the distant, jungle-clad hills’ of the site adjacent to Bukit Serene would boost its reputation as a residential university.29 Despite reservations from the Association of the College of Medicine that the university should remain in Singapore,30 the commission insisted that Singapore ‘cannot be regarded’ as ‘typical of Malaya’. It concluded that given their proximity, the university in Johor ‘would still share Singapore’s cultural life’ and at the same time live up to its reputation as a residential university of a ‘typical Malayan character’.31 

Unfortunately, in November 1953, the Straits$145 million relocation plan was shelved in favour of cheaper alternatives on a split site with campuses in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. According to Sydney Caine, Vice-Chancellor of the University, the shift would not be ‘in the keeping of the Federation’s financial difficulties’ because the commission’s initial projection of Straits$30 million had to be reviewed in the light of rising prices of building materials and the increasing enrolment.32 
The university was founded as a step towards Malaya’s independence, but doubts continued to linger among some nationalists because it was modelled and founded on British terms. Nevertheless, it became the largest university among the post-war British colonies, with enrolment reaching 1,220 by 1956, and signalled a new dawn in colonial higher education.

1. The formation of this committee to deal with educational matters of the colonies can be traced to 1923 when the Advisory Committee on Native Education in the British Tropical African Dependencies was formed. In 1929, the committee was given wider jurisdiction and renamed the ACEC. 
2.  The term ‘Malayan’ here refers to the inhabitants of British Malaya. Before 1946, British Malaya consisted of the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States and the Unfederated Malay States. 
3.  Lim Chong-Yah, ‘Economic Development of Modern Malaya’, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 297-98. 
4. In 1937, the Straits Settlements government allocated 71.4 per cent of its educational spending to English education, even though there were far fewer pupils taught in English than attending Chinese or Malay schools (Lim, 1967, p. 298). 
5. In 1931, health spending in the Federated Malay States was only Straits$5.3 million, and education took up a mere Straits$3.3 million of the annual budget (Lim, 1967, pp. 304). In the Straits Settlements, education expenditure accounted for only 4.7 per cent of the total in 1909, a share falling to 3.8 per cent in 1920 (Drabble, 2000, p. 105). 
6. Khasnor Johan, ‘The Emergence of the Modern Malay Administrative Elite’, East Asian Monographs, Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 3-10. 
7.  Almost picking up word for word J.P. Rodger’s initial proposal. 
8. Khasnor Johan, ‘Educating the Malay Elite: The Malay College Kuala Kangsar, 1905-1941’, Pustaka Antara, 1996, pp. 160-163. 
9. Memorandum on the Review of Education in the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States by R.O. Winstedt, Director of Education, Despatch No. 444 of 23 June 1928, National Archives, Kew Gardens, London. 
10. During his time in Penang Free School, the school successfully produced no fewer than 10 Queen’s Scholars. The Queen’s Scholarships (the most prestigious) were founded in 1886, and enabled recipients to study in England. 
11. Syed Muhd. Khairudin Aljunied, ‘Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya’, NIU Press, 2015, pp. 32-33. 
12. D.D. Celliah, ‘A History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements: 1800 to 1925’, Government Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1960, p. 139. 
13. Syed Muhd. Khairudin Aljunied, ‘Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya’, NIU Press, 2015, p. 33. 
14. Memorandum of the Sultan Idris Training College and Malay Vernacular Education, pp. 25-26, Enclosure No. 1 to Federated Malay States, Despatch No. 344 of 30 May 1931, National Archives, Kew Gardens, London. 
15. D.D. Celliah, ‘A History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements: 1800 to 1925’, Government Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1960, pp. 117-118. 
16. Ibid 
17. ‘Room for More Doctors’, The Straits Times, 7 December 1936, p. 13. 
18. ‘Fifty Years of Medical Education in Malaya, 1905-1955’, University of Malaya Publication, 1955, p. 19. 
19. Report on the Scheme to celebrate the Centenary of Singapore, 1 August 1918, p. 1. 
20. D.D. Celliah, ‘A History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements: 1800 to 1925”, Government Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1960, p. 119. 
21. Lim Chung Tat, ‘University of Malaya: 1949 to 1985: Its Establishment, Growth and Development’, University of Malaya Press, p. 13. 
22. Guay Ee Ling and Joanna H.S. Tan, ‘Raffles College’ on Infopedia, National Library Board of Singapore,, accessed 4 April 2018. 
23. ‘Malayan University-College Commission’, The Straits Times, 30 January 1947, p. 7. 
24. ‘Education Commission Recommends Varsity for Malaya’, Malaya Tribune, 30 December 1947, p. 8. 
25. The Commission’s visit coincided with Malay protests against the constitutional arrangements of the Malayan Union and the subsequent consultative negotiations, which led to the ultimate formation of the Federation of Malaya on 1 February 1948. 
26. A.J. Stockwell, ‘The Crucible of the Malayan Nation: The University and the Making of a New Malaya, 1938-62’, pp. 1165-1166. 
27. ‘Education Commission Recommends Varsity for Malaya’, Malaya Tribune, 30 December 1947, p. 8. 
28. Report on a Visit to the University of Malaya by Alexander Carr-Saunders in his letter to W. Adams, Inter-University Council for Higher Education in the Colonies dated 22 September 1950, pp. 7-9, National Archives, Kew Gardens, London. 
29. ‘Johore Bahru site ideal for Varsity’, The Singapore Free Press, 3 May 1948, p. 5. 
30. ‘Singapore as site for University’, The Straits Times, 6 January 1947, p. 5. 
31. ‘The University Site’, The Straits Times, 15 June 1948, p. 8. 
32. ‘Two-University Scheme’, The Straits Times, 13 November 1953, p. 1.

c/o Asia-Europe Institute
University of Malaya,
50603 Kuala Lumpur

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