The University of Malaya and the making of a new Malaya, 1938–19621

Professor A. J. Stockwell, Emeritus Professor of History, Royal Holloway, University of London

At its inauguration on 8 October 1949, Malcolm MacDonald noted that the University of Malaya was ‘being founded at the same time as foundations are being laid for a nation of Malaya’. He saluted the university as ‘the crucible of the Malayan nation’ and was confident that it would be ‘a cradle where a truly non-communal nation is nurtured’ (University of Malaya Students’ Union, 1954; CO, 1955; Khoo, 2005). MacDonald was Britain’s commissioner-general for Southeast Asia, and he also served as the university’s first chancellor and its indefatigable champion. As a progressive secretary of state 10 years earlier, when neither university development nor nation-building had been fashionable, he had taken a keen interest in higher education in the British colonies.

Like so many aspects of colonial administration, higher education policy was transformed during World War II; in 1945 the Asquith Commission had established the principles for university development in the colonies, and in 1948 the Carr-Saunders Report had made specific recommendations for Malaya. From its foundation in 1949, the university grew at a rate that surpassed expectations, but the aspirations of its founding fathers were challenged by lack of resources, by uneven and sometimes contrary reactions from the Malayan people to higher education, and by the politics of decolonization. The university’s role in engineering a united Malayan nation was hampered by lingering colonial attitudes, local frustration over the pace of Malayanization, student politics, and principally by differences between Singapore and the Federation of Malaya—differences that culminated in the university’s partition in January 1962. In the end it was the politics of nation-building that moulded the university rather than the other way round.
Malcolm J. MacDonald served as Chancellor of the University of Malaya from 1949 to 1961
National Archives Malaysia, Accession No. 2002/0015256W

Carrying on with the existing arrangements?

On the eve of World War II there were only four universities in the colonial empire, in Malta, Jerusalem, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Hong Kong. Recalling the pre-war attitudes of colonial administrators, the architect of post-war colonial universities, Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders, observed that ‘they displayed very little sympathy with local aspirations for university education’. ‘They had’, he continued, ‘little understanding of the part played in the modern world by universities’ (Carr-Saunders, 1961, pp. 30–31). British reluctance to develop higher education was influenced by current principles of colonial government, previous experience in India, contemporary attitudes to race and constant financial constraints. In conformity with the ideology of trusteeship and the practice of indirect rule, administrators favoured traditional leaders and discouraged the ambitions of Western-educated elites. They regarded university expansion in India since the mid-19th century as a mistake that was blamed for producing numerous overqualified, unemployable, politically ambitious and intractable young men.2

In the late 1930s, however, all was not well with existing arrangements for higher education—as for many other aspects of colonial government. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Malcolm MacDonald, called for ‘a seething of ideas’ and sought specialist advisers in labour, social welfare and education (Sanger, 1995, p. 150). In 1939 he appointed Christopher Cox, a Fellow of New College, Oxford, to the new post of educational adviser. Shouldering a formidable workload and drawing upon a vast network of contacts at home and abroad, Cox rapidly established himself as the key figure in determining colonial education policy (Whitehead, 1989; Whitehead, 2003, pp. 188–205; Whitehead, 2004; CO, 1968).

King Edward VII College of Medicine, 1926
The National Archives, United Kingdom

MacDonald’s appointment in 1938 of a commission, consisting of Sir William McLean and Professor H. J. Channon, to review higher education in Malaya was part of a wider appraisal of colonial policies. The McLean Commission’s remit was to ‘survey existing arrangements for higher education, general and professional, in Malaya; and to consider in the light of local needs and conditions whether they require extension and, if so, in what directions and by what methods’ and to consider ‘the question of the possible development of a University in Malaya’ (CO, 1939a; CO, 1939b; CO, 1940a; Great Britain, Commission of Higher Education in Malaya, 1939).

Higher education in pre-war Malaya was provided by King Edward VII Medical College and Raffles College, both in Singapore—some students studied overseas and a few were assisted by scholarships. The Medical College, founded in 1905, had attained professional recognition and international standing. Conceived in the centennial of Sir Stamford Raffles’ foundation of Singapore, Raffles College had opened for teaching in 1929 with scholar¬–administrator Richard Winstedt as its first principal. By 1939, in contrast with the Medical College, Raffles was not making the headway expected of an embryonic university. The commissioners were invited specifically to report upon the present work of Raffles College, and on any additional developments that seemed desirable.

As they toured the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States in October and November 1938, McLean and Channon registered the interest taken by non-Malays in higher education but noted Malay mistrust and the British scepticism of its benefits. The acting principal of Raffles, George McOwan (1938–1941) opposed the College’s advance to university status, maintaining that neither local staff nor students were ready for it (though it may be noted in passing that the 1940 intake would include two future prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Abdul Razak). McLean and Channon presented their report to MacDonald in June 1939 and, although they concluded that the time was not yet ripe for an autonomous university, the commissioners recommended the early ‘fusion’ of the Medical and Raffles Colleges to form a university college.

Notwithstanding the outbreak of war, the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies doggedly examined the McLean Report. The Committee consulted Sir Shenton Thomas, who regarded the recommendations as naïve, if not dangerous. He argued that Malays had no desire for university education; a few were trained for government administration at Malay College—the ‘Malay Eton’—in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, and those who went on to Raffles formed a minority of the College’s intake.

Onn bin Jaafar, who later founded the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and became its first president, had argued in the Johor State Council that a university was not in the Malays’ best interests because most of its beneficiaries would be non-Malays (Roff, 1967, pp. 239–40). On the provision of higher education for Chinese, Shenton Thomas dismissed the recommendation to establish a chair in Chinese studies. He contended that ‘to get rid of Communism and to avoid serious trouble later on’ it was necessary to make the Chinese ‘British-minded’ and that ‘the only course was free English education’. In defence of the report, Channon stated that Malay fears were groundless and that Chinese students should be educated in English at the elementary stage rather than delay until the tertiary level (CO, 1940b). Nothing was done to implement the McLean Report before the Japanese invasion in December 1941 ended academic activity.

An intellectual lend-lease: higher education and colonial partnership

Colonial Office interest in higher education was kept alive during World War II largely through the efforts of Channon and Cox. Channon argued that planners should not be inhibited by either pre-war attitudes or wartime conditions, but ‘must be ready, if possible, to seize the great opportunity which the postwar impulse will provide’ (CO, 1940c). By 1943, the tide had turned in the fortunes of war and the Atlantic Charter had in effect committed Britain to a ‘new deal’ for the colonies: partnership between Britain and ‘subject peoples’ was the order of the day. Such partnership depended on development programmes, which would place a premium on higher education whose success would require the participation of home universities.

Channon's recommendation for a complete overhaul of colonial higher education was a major feature of Oliver Stanley’s historic statement on colonial policy (Ashby, 1966, pp. 211–212). Addressing the House of Commons on 13 July 1943, the Secretary of State for the Colonies pledged ‘to guide Colonial people along the road to self-government within the framework of the British Empire’ and ‘to build up their social and economic institutions’ (United Kingdom Parliament, 1943, Columns 48–52, 57–59, 62–64, 66–69).

Envisaging ‘an intellectual lend-lease between the universities at home and the Colonial centres of higher education’, he announced two commissions. One, led by Walter Elliot, would study the specific circumstances of West Africa (CO, 1945b).3  The other, to be chaired by Sir Cyril Asquith (high court judge and son of the former prime minister) and composed predominantly of academics, had a more wide-ranging remit: to examine the relationship between colonial higher education and British universities (CO, n.d. and CO, 1945a).4

Heavily influenced by the ideas of Channon and Cox, the Asquith commissioners recommended that universities be established as soon as possible and that the normal route to university status be via the dependent stage of a university college. The Asquith Report, submitted in early May as the war in Europe ended, covered governance, curriculum, teaching, research and student welfare. It refined the principles that would underpin the development of higher education in the colonies over the next two decades.

It also made the following stipulations: comparability with the academic standards of home universities both at the point of entry and of exit; availability of a wide range of subjects; balance between academic and professional disciplines as well as between liberal arts and scientific and technical subjects; and pursuit of research alongside teaching. The commission was flexible enough to accept modifications of the British model to suit circumstances. Moreover, by insisting that universities should be residential and open to men and women ‘of all classes’, it sought to secure an environment conducive both to study and to nurturing national identity. Academic standards were inextricable from academic freedom, and academic freedom would require protection from political interference and guarantees of financial security.

In keeping with the concept of partnership, the Asquith Commission argued that colonial institutions of higher education should receive material assistance from Britain. Indeed, none would have been built without capital funds made available by the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1945 and its successors. Initially, £4.5 million was allocated to higher education. In 1950 this sum was increased to £7.75 million. This was an unprecedented amount of metropolitan aid, yet as early as December 1946 it was clear that it would be insufficient to meet publicised commitments. Additional assistance, in the form of personnel and expertise, were to be provided by British universities and channelled through a new body, the Inter-University Council for Higher Education in the Colonies, composed of representatives from each home university in the UK and from established universities overseas (Maxwell, 1980). For at least a generation and during a period extending beyond the end of formal empire, the new universities depended on expatriate academics recruited across the Commonwealth.

The Inter-University Council met for the first time on 8 March 1946 at the Royal Society under the chairmanship of Sir James Irvine, a chemist and vice-chancellor of St Andrews. Irvine was succeeded in 1951 by Carr-Saunders, who had followed William Beveridge as director of the London School of Economics (LSE). The pivotal role of London University, and especially the LSE, is explained partly by its long experience of running an external degree programme, partly by its association since the mid-19th century with Indian universities, and partly by its history of nursing English colleges (such as Exeter and Hull) towards full university status.

A distinctive feature of post-war educational policy was the emphasis on nation-building. The Asquith commissioners declared: ‘we look on the establishment of Universities as an inescapable corollary of any policy which aims at the achievement of Colonial self-government’ (Morgan, 1980, p. 109). Graduates would be indispensable for economic and social development, for political leadership and, as the report put it, for ‘counteracting the influence of racial differences and sectional rivalries’. Colonial universities were also designed to imbue the elites of emerging nations with a British view of the world, to prepare them for post-colonial partnership with Britain and membership of the Commonwealth.

National-building and the foundation of the University of Malaya

Pre-war Malaya had been fragmented both administratively and ethnically, with Chinese an overwhelming majority on the island of Singapore, and Malays forming the largest community in the Malay peninsula except in its west-coast states. In 1946, the British authorities implemented a radically new approach in which the states and settlements of the peninsula were welded into a Malayan Union while Singapore was administered as a separate colony. This arrangement was intended to be the first bold step towards the merger of all territories and the fusion of their communities within a single, self-governing nation-state. One of the instruments for constructing the new Malaya was to be its university.

At the instigation of Malcolm MacDonald (who was now governor-general of Malaya and Borneo), in August–September 1946 Raymond Priestley reconnoitred Malaya with a view to developing a university college. Priestley started from the Asquithian premise ‘that self-government of the type the colonial regions are clamouring for, and to which we are committed, cannot be successfully exerted without Higher Education’. He applied to Malayan circumstances the Asquithian model of a small, residential institution with generous staffing and high standards. Because the colonial university was intended to educate the country’s elite, high academic standards could not be compromised. Halls of residence on campus would help engender a sense of ‘common citizenship or overriding national loyalty’. Priestley advocated a single higher education institution for the whole of British Malaya but, owing to the tension between peninsula and island, and between Malays and non-Malays, he recognized that its location would be controversial. He favoured a site in Singapore mainly for its potential to attract private endowments and the presence of the College of Medicine, Raffles College and the Botanical Gardens (CO, 1946).

In January 1947 the Labour secretary of state, Arthur Creech Jones, appointed a commission of enquiry, chaired by Carr-Saunders, which also included local representatives. The commissioners toured Singapore and the Malayan Union between late March and late April 1947 and submitted their report at the end of September, although it was not published until the end of April 1948. The commission breached Asquithian orthodoxy to bypass the interim stage of a university college and propose the immediate amalgamation of Raffles College and the College of Medicine as a fully fledged university. It would have full power to confer degrees. The commission justified this radical move primarily on academic grounds but it was also influenced by political considerations. Indeed, a Colonial Office official noted that, ‘deplorable’ though it might be, ‘Malayan politics are inseparable from the conception of a Malayan University’ (CO, 1947).

Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders served as chairman of the commission that recommended the establishment of the University of Malaya, 1947

A year earlier, protests by Malays against a new constitution, which they regarded as a seizure of their birth right, had forced the British authorities to abandon the Malayan Union and negotiate a federal alternative that would safeguard the pre-eminence of Malay interests. The commission’s visit had coincided with subsequent constitutional consultations conducted with non-Malay leaders. This consultative process did not deflect the British from inaugurating the Federation of Malaya on 1 February 1948 but it did contribute to communal antagonism and the polarization of local opinion. Carr-Saunders returned to Britain with, it was reported, the strong impression 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 South East Asia as a whole’ (CO, 1947).

Carr-Saunders was impressed by Chinese political consciousness and considered that a university would be a vital factor in deciding whether they would look towards Britain or China (CO, 1948a). Yet he was not blind to the possible adverse repercussions on race relations because fewer Malays than non-Malays were likely to be able to take advantage of a university, at least at the outset. It was to enable Malays to participate in higher education and prevent its monopolization by non-Malays that he urged the simultaneous expansion of rural schools. Indeed, the pedagogical challenge at every level from primary school to university was ‘how to blend the races and the language groups into one nationality’ (CO, 1950b).

Malayan politics were, indeed, inseparable from the conception of the University of Malaya. On the one hand, it was supported by educationalists, the business community and non-Malays. Malays, on the other hand, were more circumspect, just as they had been towards the McLean Commission 10 years earlier. Although few were convinced that it would redress their community’s economically depressed circumstances at the margins of a modern Malaya, Onn bin Jaafar, who 10 years before had argued against establishing a university, now accepted that it would provide Malays with the incentive they needed to meet post-war challenges. He rallied Malay members of the Federal Legislative Council in support of the proposal.

Successes and strains: the university in a plural society

The University of Malaya expanded rapidly under its first two vice-chancellors. Dr George Allen, principal of King Edward VII College, had been identified as vice-chancellor early in the university’s planning stage. He was succeeded in 1952 by Sir Sydney Caine, a Whitehall civil servant. From 1949 to 1956 Allen and Caine presided over an increase in student numbers from 645 to 1,220, exceeding the target that Carr-Saunders had set for 1959. The University of Malaya compared favourably with other universities in the empire on its staff-to-student ratio, the proportion of local to expatriate staff, gender balance, library provision and endowments (Lewis, 1959; CO, 1955; Lee and Tan, 1996, pp. 114–115).

Professors, notably T. H. Silcock (economics), C. N. Parkinson (history), E. H. G. Dobby (geography), L. A. Sheridan (law), Donald Gould (physiology) and Gordon Arthur Ransome (medicine), provided academic leadership and battled for their departments in faculty and senate. Parkinson was appointed to the Raffles chair in history in 1950. Deciding at the outset that his mission in Malaya should be ‘to create for the country the historical background which its varied peoples might share’, he presided over the expansion of the department and its switch in focus from European to Asian history, until he was able to retire on the royalties from what became known as Parkinson’s Law (Parkinson, 1966, p. 118; Turnbull, 2004).

University of Malaya, Singapore, 1948–1965
The National Archives, United Kingdom
Rapid growth, however, stretched resources. Halls of residence were overcrowded, library provision was becoming patchy and equipment in short supply. In the 1950s colonial institutions of higher education were financed from three principal sources: first capital grants from the Colonial Development and Welfare fund (CDW); second subventions by the local, colonial administration for recurrent expenditure, student scholarships and some capital and endowment grants; and third donations from individuals, business organizations and philanthropic foundations. Of the £7.75 million assigned in 1950 by the CDW Acts of 1945 and 1950 to higher education in the whole of the colonial empire, £1 million was allocated to the University of Malaya for capital expenditure. In addition, during its first five years (1949–54), the University of Malaya received from local government a grant of over £2.5 million for recurrent expenditure (which was the largest sum provided by any colonial administration) and a further £816,666 for capital projects; private benefactions swelled the endowment fund to more than £600,000 (CO, 1955, pp. 3, 19–22).

Cost considerations were important in deciding not to build a new campus in Johor Bahru. In March 1954 the decision was taken to abandon the Johor venture and extend operations to a Kuala Lumpur division of the university, where agriculture and engineering were the first faculties to be developed. This marked the beginning of the end of the unitary university. Other features of the Carr-Saunders model were also questioned. Indeed, the very notion of a multi-racial and co-educational university was at odds with ingrained educational practices in Malaya, where significant imbalances had developed between the opportunities and achievements of different communities and regions, and between the sexes.

Until remedial work had been carried out at primary and secondary levels, university entry requirements and English-medium instruction would make higher education virtually inaccessible to most students schooled in the vernacular, notably kampong Malays and children of Chinese squatter families that had been relocated during the Emergency from jungle fringes to New Villages. The principles that university instruction should be in English and that the content, delivery and standards of degree programmes should relate to those in Britain may have been adopted for the best of intentions—to ensure international comparability and to build a non-communal nation—but their rigid imposition risked privileging some, alienating many others and jeopardizing both race relations and the Anglo–Malayan partnership.

The Carr-Saunders Commission argued that it was inequality of educational opportunity, not racial characteristics, that accounted for wide variations in performance (CO, 1948b, p. 18). Indeed, the educational disadvantages suffered by Malays stemmed from problems of access, not indifference, to learning. Malay children were served by vernacular primary schools in their villages but were isolated from English secondary schools, most of which were in towns. As Charles Hirschman concluded in 1972, ‘the colonial education structure which offered secondary education only in urban English schools resulted in a situation where geographic and language barriers kept most Malay students from higher educational achievement’ (Hirschman, 1972, p. 500). This disadvantage was compounded by tuition fees, living costs and the challenges that university life presented to Malay traditional values.

A major step towards correcting inequality of educational opportunity was taken with the enactment of the Education Ordinance of 1952. This embodied the ideal of an integrated system of national primary schools where the medium of instruction would be either Malay or English (Federation of Malaya, 1951). National schools were regarded as ‘necessary to create a united nation, aware and proud of being Malayan’ and they were further promoted as independence approached (CO, 1956b). At the same time, the government improved the access of Malays to English primary and secondary schools to strengthen their chances of university education. At the start of 1956, 34,000 Malays were at English schools, compared with 13,467 in 1949 (The Times, 1956). The impact of these measures on university recruitment would not be felt for some time, however, and in spite of the university’s practice of admitting every eligible Malay candidate and offering Malays a disproportionate number of scholarships and bursaries, Malays accounted for merely 10 per cent of the student body in the university’s early years (CO, 1950a). Their position had scarcely improved by the time the Federation achieved self-government: of the 1,220 students registered in 1955/56, only 149 were Malays, who were most glaringly under-represented in science (18 of 284 science students), engineering (2 of 50) and medicine (27 of 438) (The Times, 1956).

Rural Malays were not the only group deterred from applying to the University of Malaya. The products of Chinese vernacular middle schools were also put off by the requirement for proficiency in English. Tan Lark Sye, who had come to Singapore from China in his youth and become a wealthy rubber merchant and industrialist, was prominent in the campaign for the higher education of Singapore’s Chinese. He was a major benefactor of the University of Malaya’s new library and in 1953 he proposed the foundation of a Chinese-medium university. This initiative was made in response partly to the expansion of Chinese primary and secondary education, and partly to Chinese dissatisfaction with the uncompromising attitude of the university authorities towards those with a poor command of English (CO, 1956a). Funded by a massive public subscription among Singapore’s Chinese community, Nanyang University opened in 1956. Nanyang was modelled on the Sino–American universities of pre-war China, although its declared aim was to ‘embody a new Malayan culture developed from the Chinese, the English, the Malay, and the Indian’.

Student aspirations

In contrast with Nanyang students, those at the University of Malaya during this period have been portrayed as conservative, cautious and diligent. The vast majority had no wish to cause offence either to their teachers or to their future employers. The typical undergraduate was devoted to study, not least because employment opportunities for graduates were greater in Malaya and Singapore than in many other countries emerging from colonial rule. Moreover, the blanket of emergency regulations that curtailed freedom of expression in Malaya during the years of communist insurgency deterred them from risking their future careers by indulging in student politics. In any case, the University of Malaya's Students’ Union was constitutionally bound to take no part in politics and its officers generally avoided dissent.

There were, however, notable exceptions. One of these was a future prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, who was among the few Malays to graduate in medicine in 1953 and who wrote articles for the Straits Times under the pen-name C. H. E. Det. Others were left-wing intellectuals who in 1949–50 gained increasing influence in the Students’ Union. James Puthucheary was prominent among them. During the Japanese occupation, Puthucheary had served in Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army and emerged ardently committed to the crusade against colonialism. He entered Raffles College in 1948, transferred to the University of Malaya the following year and then became general secretary of its Students’ Union.

The university authorities adopted a somewhat ambivalent attitude to student aspirations. On the one hand, they encouraged debate, conceded student representation on the Board of Student Welfare and abandoned attempts to muzzle Malayan Undergraduate (the Union’s organ). On the other, they rejected a proposal for a Malayan Students Party and were complicit in the surveillance activities of the assistant superintendent of police. In January 1951, after months of investigations, the police broke up the English-speaking branch of the Anti-British League and detained left-wing students and other members of the intelligentsia. They made over 30 arrests, though not all the detainees were students. Most were soon released but five remained in custody, including Puthucheary (CO, 1951b; Yeo, 1992; Puthucheary and Jomo, 1998, pp. 8–11, 57–61; Weiss, 2005).

By the end of 1952 the vice-chancellor felt confident enough to lift the ban on political societies. Early in 1953 Puthucheary, who had resumed his studies after release from detention, played a leading part in the formation of the University of Malaya Socialist Club and the Pan-Malayan Students Federation. But in 1954, the police moved in again and rounded up student journalists when, to mark the French colonial defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam,Fajar, edited by Puthucheary, published a strongly anti-colonial article, ‘Aggression in Asia’, which was distributed widely beyond the campus. Eight members of the editorial board, including Puthucheary, were charged with sedition. The “Fajar Eight” came up for trial in August but the case for the prosecution collapsed (Puthucheary and Jomo, 1998, pp. 11–14; Lee, 1998, pp. 161–165; Harper, 1999, pp. 297–299).

In the more liberal circumstances of British society, Malayan students were also discussing the future of their country and preparing for the end of colonialism. From World War II on there had been an influx into British universities of students from the empire. Carr-Saunders reckoned that in 1949 there were 321 Malayans attending higher education institutions worldwide: 30 in Hong Kong, 60 in the United States, 80 in Australia and 151 in the United Kingdom (CO, 1950a). Yet for the same year, O. T. Dussek, who acted as liaison officer for Malayan students in Britain, counted 240 Malayans in his charge (CO, 1949).5 Carr-Saunders may have also under-estimated the numbers of Malayans at Hong Kong University and in Australia (Turnbull, 2003, p. 116; CO, 1955, p. 3; Harper, 1958, pp. 54–64; Ooi, 2006).6

Uncertainty over the numbers of Malayan students in Britain suggested lapses in the provision of both care and security. Some years earlier the Colonial Office’s Advisory Committee for Education had called for improvements in student welfare on the grounds that: ‘If they return discontented, evil results will certainly occur’ (CO, 1943, para 102). The pressure to make amends increased in the early years of the Cold War and Malayan Emergency. Malaya Hall was established as a student base in London’s Bryanston Square while political activists were tailed by home security.

The founder-members of the Malayan Forum, a London-based students’ organization, included Abdul Razak (future prime minister of Malaysia) and Goh Keng Swee (future minister and deputy prime minister, Singapore). Mohamed Sopiee (future member of the government of independent Malaya) edited the Forum’s magazine, Suara Merdeka (Voice of Freedom). Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye (respectively future prime minister and deputy prime minister of Singapore) attended its meetings from time to time (Yeo, 1992, p. 366ff; CO 1951a; CO 1951c; Lee, 1998, pp. 121–122; Shaw, 1976, p. 71).

Like the student activists in the University of Malaya, the Malayan Forum aspired to the creation of a united, non-communal and independent Malayan nation and criticized both the manner and speed in which the colonial government went about this task. That members of the Malayan Forum may appear to have been less militant than Puthucheary and his associates in Singapore was partly because the metropolitan authorities tolerated a degree of political expression and social freedom in Britain that they rarely permitted in the colonies. During the 1950s, however, organized student politics played no more than a minor part in the independence movements of the Federation and Singapore.

Suara Merdeka, the Malayan Forum’s magazine, March 1957
University of Malaya Library

A national university or a colonial university?

In the mid-1950s, growth in higher education had been overtaken by political and constitutional change and, as they prepared to transfer power, the British authorities were alarmed by the relative paucity of Malayans of any race who were qualified for public service positions or interested in applying for them (The Times, 1956). A growing number of Malayans, for their part, were frustrated by restrictions on both the admission of students to the university and the appointment of local graduates to academic jobs. They wondered whether the purpose of the University of Malaya had been to contain self-determination rather than to foster it. Although the founding fathers had stated their intention to use higher education to prepare Malaya for independence, it was difficult to rebut the charge that such preparation was on British terms. After all, the university had been set up, funded and staffed by the British and moulded on a British model.

By 1956, university management was hobbled by disagreements over policies and by tensions between interest groups. Professors and heads of department, who dominated Senate, strenuously defended academic standards and freedom. Non-professorial staff objected to the autocracy of the professoriate. Locals resented the fact that outsiders held plum positions. Expatriates worried about the security of their jobs. The Guild of Graduates and lay members of Council, who were in a majority on the governing body, set their sights on political independence and demanded the Malayanization of posts.

These stresses came to a head in early October 1956, soon after Sir Sydney Caine had left to become director of the London School of Economics. In his valedictory address to Convocation, Caine responded to critics by insisting that the University of Malaya was a ‘colonial University’ only in so far as it had been ‘consciously created by the Colonial power to prepare for the expected death of colonialism’ (CO, 1954). He went on to rebuke senior members of the Guild of Graduates for want of moral and material support. His speech provoked a protest meeting of the Guild who demanded the appointment of a Malayan vice-chancellor.

In 1957, a full-scale review of the university’s record and future direction was authorized, chaired by Dr R. S. Aitken. While it praised the university’s expansion and high academic standards, the commissioners regretted instances of dogmatic adherence to the English model and of insensitivity to Malaya’s ‘rapidly changing society’. The university’s tardy response to Asian aspirations and its reluctance to adjust to ‘the problems and opportunities of developing a modern university in the Malayan setting’ had fuelled recriminations in Senate and Council and resulted in disappointment for children from vernacular schools. The commission’s recommendations included reform of the university’s constitution and administrative structure. On the integration of the university with the wider community, the report proposed, first, a system for the assisted entry (through preliminary English-language classes) of intelligent students from vernacular schools; second, recruitment of more local staff, short of complete Malayanization; and third, the development of the Kuala Lumpur division with a view to its ultimate transformation into a separate university (CO, 1957a; CO 1957b; CO 1957c).

The report of the Aitken Commission was completed in the wake of momentous political events: in 1957 the Federation of Malaya achieved independence on its own and it was agreed that Singapore would shortly be granted full internal self-government. These decisions would have major repercussions for the university and Aitken foresaw ‘difficulties in plenty ahead’ (CO, 1957b). One problem was the apparent determination of the Federation’s government to act independently with other universities. Another was the cleavage, particularly in Singapore, between English language–educated Chinese and Chinese language–educated Chinese. Although the Chinese-medium Nanyang University lay outside Aitken’s brief, the commission could not ignore its powerful appeal to students of Chinese middle schools in both Singapore and the Federation. Nanyang challenged the University of Malaya, which had been remiss in making provision for applicants from the vernacular stream.


The administrations of self-governing Singapore and independent Malaya were now refashioning higher education according to their separate national projects.

Singapore’s ministers had been questioning some of the principles cherished in the Asquith/Carr-Saunders model. The Minister for Education had emphasized that freedom went hand in hand with responsibility and that the university could not remain an ivory tower isolated from the society that funded it. He questioned the ‘colonial anachronism’ of financial allowances for expatriate staff and the need for the costly provision of residential accommodation for students (The Times, 1960a).

The Federation’s government stressed the university’s function both to impart technical skills and to nurture national identity through education in the indigenous language and culture. Education was a burning political issue and it became a bargaining counter in the contest between and within the principal communal parties. The more radical elements in UMNO pressed their essentially moderate leaders to guarantee the supremacy of the Malay language in education and administration. This approach came to prevail in the multi-racial Alliance that UMNO dominated.

After 1955, when the Alliance took charge of internal government, and especially after independence in 1957, three major developments took hold that shaped higher education: construction of the Kuala Lumpur campus, adoption of a Malay-language policy and a transformation in the pattern of Malay admissions. One by one, faculties or departments in engineering, science, education and agriculture were set up on the Kuala Lumpur site. By 1960/61 (the last session of the united university) 654 of a total of 2,316 university students were enrolled with the Kuala Lumpur branch (Khoo, 2005, pp. 63–101). In September 1959 Tun Abdul Razak, Malaya’s deputy prime minister, declared that his government was determined to establish its own ‘truly national university’ (The Times, 1960b).

Partition came in January 1962 with the inauguration of the University of Singapore and the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. It is ironic that the University of Malaya was partitioned when plans were afoot to repair the political breach between Singapore island and mainland Malaya by amalgamating the territories within the greater Federation of Malaysia. Perhaps university development was marginal to the politics of merger; or maybe the forces that led to university partition were symptomatic of a fundamental lack of commitment on both sides to any form of closer association, whether constitutional, economic or educational; or possibly the formation of separate universities was a way of reducing the issues aggravating tensions between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

During decolonization, university colleges and universities throughout the British empire were torn by the politics of regional fragmentation. In the end, resources, race and politics proved stronger than highly principled and closely reasoned strategies in determining whether one or several universities should serve a particular area. In Malaya, although the unitary University of Malaya did not survive British decolonization and although the ideals of its founding fathers in some instances atrophied into formulas, its expansion and standards maintained in the period to 1962 surpassed expectations and compared favourably with other institutions of higher education in the empire.

Further reading: 
Ashby, E. 1966. Universities: British, Indian, African: a Study in the Ecology of Higher Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Carr-Saunders, A. M. 1961. New Universities Overseas. London: Allen and Unwin.
Colonial Office (CO). 1939a. CO 273/651/9. Raffles College: Report of the Commission on Higher Education in Malaya. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1939b. CO 273/651/14. Commission on Higher Education in Malaya: Acquisition of Further Land for Medical Buildings: Inspection of Malay Girls' Schools: Observations Made on the Report. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1940a. CO 273/660/13. Raffles College: Professor Dyer Appointed Principal for One Year in Place of Professor McOwan. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1940b. CO 859/20/12. Social Services Department and successors: Social Welfare. Meeting No. 104. June 1940. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1940c. CO 859/45/2. Cooperation Of British Universities with Institutions of Higher Education in the Colonies. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1943. CO 1045/196. Commission on Higher Education in Colonies (Asquith Commission): reports and background papers; evidence provided. Misc. No. 507, para 102. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1945a. Report of the Commission on Higher Education in the Colonies, Command Paper No 6647. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
______ 1945b. Report of the Commission on Higher Education in West Africa: Elliot Report, Command Paper No. 6655, June. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
______ 1946. BW 90/550. Visit of Dr Priestley to explain the application of the Asquith Report to Malaya, and subsequent appointment of the Carr-Saunders Commission to advise on the setting up of a university. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1947. CO 717/160/8. Publication and Printing of Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders' Report. Minute by H. T. Bourdillon dated 9 October. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1948a. CO 537/3758. Malaya: Chinese Affairs. Sir F. Gimson (Governor, Singapore) reported to Sir T. Lloyd on 8 Dec. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1948b. Report of the Commission on University Education in Malaya. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
______ 1949. CO 537/4781. Political developments: "The Malayan Monitor". Memo by Dussek dated 18 March 1949. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1950a. BW 90/1017. University of Malaya: Draft Report of Visit by Sir A Carr-Saunders, July 1950. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1950b. CO 987/5. Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies: Papers and Minutes. Minutes of Meeting dated 18 May 1950. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1951a. CO 717/193/3. Voice of Freedom (Suara Merdeka): London Malayan Students' Journal. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1951b. CO 717/202/7. Communism: Anti British League: Arrests. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1951c. CO 1022/196. Activities of Malayan Forum. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1954. BW 90/1657. Joint Development of University in Two Divisions (Singapore and Kuala Lumpur) Leading to Separation, 1963; Reconstruction of Kuala Lumpur Division as University of Malaya; Correspondence and Reports. With Report of The Joint Committee on the Future of the University of Malaya (1954). Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1955. Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas 1946–54. Presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament by Command of Her Majesty, June 1955. Command Paper No 9515. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
______ 1956a. CO 1030/51. ‘Despatch No. 232 from MacGillivray (High Commissioner, Malaya) to A. Lennox-Boyd (Secretary of State for the Colonies)’ dated 2 March 1955 in Educational development in Federation of Malaya. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1956b. CO 1030/51. ‘Memorandum Explanatory of Sir D. MacGillivray’s Proposals for National Schools in Malaya’ dated 14 July 1956 in Educational Development in Federation of Malaya. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1957a. BW 90/627. Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the University of Malaya (1957) (Aitken Report); correspondence. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1957b. CO 1030/ 569. Appointment of Commission on University of Malaya. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1957c. DO 35/9773. Report of Commission of Enquiry on University of Malaya. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1968. CO 1045/1045. Employment of Senior Administrators. Papers of Sir Christopher Cox, Educational Adviser. Kew: The National Archives.
______ n.d. CO 958/1-3. Colonial Higher Education Commission (Asquith Commission, 1943–1944). Kew: The National Archives.
Federation of Malaya. Central Advisory Committee on Education. 1951. Report on the Barnes Report on Malay Education and the Fenn-Wu Report on Chinese Education. Kuala Lumpur: Government Press.
Great Britain, Commission of Higher Education in Malaya. 1939. Higher education in Malaya. Report of the Commission appointed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies. CO No. 173. Kew: The National Archives.
Harper, N. 1958. ‘Asian Students and Asian Studies in Australia’. Pacific Affairs, Vol. 31 (1), March, pp. 54–64.
Harper, T. N. 1999. The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 297–299.
Hirschman, C. 1972. ‘Educational Patterns in Colonial Malaya’. Comparative Education Review, 16 (3), pp. 486–502.
Khoo, K. K. 2005. 100 Years: The University of Malaya. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press.
Lee, E. and Tan, T. Y. 1996. Beyond Degrees: The Making of the National University of Singapore. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 114–115.
Lee, K. Y. 1998. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions, pp. 161–165.
Lewis, L. J. 1959. ‘Higher Education in the Oversea Territories 1948–58’. British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol 8 (1), November, pp. 3–21.
Maxwell, I. C. M. 1980. Universities in Partnership: The Inter-University Council and the Growth of Higher Education in Developing Countries, 1946–70. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
Morgan, D. J. 1980. The Official History of Colonial Development. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 109.
Parkinson, C. N. 1966. A Law unto Themselves: Twelve Portraits. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Ooi, K. B. 2006. The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time. Singapore: ISEAS.
Puthucheary, D. and Jomo, K. S. (eds). 1998. No Cowardly Past: James J. Puthucheary: Writings, Poems, Commentaries. Kuala Lumpur: INSAN, pp. 8–11, 57–61.
Roff, W. R. 1967. The Origins of Malay Nationalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sanger, C. 1995. Malcolm MacDonald: Bringing an End to Empire. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Shaw, W. 1976. Tun Razak: His Life and Times. Kuala Lumpur: Longman Malaysia.
Stockwell, A. J. (2009). ‘“The Crucible of the Malayan Nation”: The University and the Making of a New Malaya, 1938–62’. Modern Asian Studies, 43(5), pp. 1149–1187.
The Times. 1956. ‘Education for Self-Rule’, 31 January.
______ 1960a. Yong Nyuk Lin, 13 June.
______ 1960b. ‘Political Spur to Growth of a University’, 11 May.
Turnbull, C.M. 2003. ‘The Malayan Connection’ in Chan, L. K-C and Cunich, P. (eds). An Impossible Dream: Hong Kong University from Foundation to Re-establishment, 1910–1950. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 116.
______ 2004. ‘Parkinson, Cyril Northcote (1909–1993)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
United Kingdom Parliament. 1943. House of Commons and House of Lords: Parliamentary Debates. 13 July. Fifth Series No. 391, Columns 48–52, 57–59, 62–64, 66–69. Kew: The National Archives.
University of Malaya Students’ Union. 1954. Magazine of the University of Malaya Students' Union, 1953–54. Singapore: University of Malaya. Students' Union.
Weiss, M. L. 2005. ‘Still with the People? The Chequered Path of Student Activism in Malaysia’. South East Asia Research, Vol. 13 (3), November, pp. 287–332.
Whitehead, C. 1989. ‘Sir Christopher Cox: An Imperial Patrician of a Different Kind’. Journal of Educational Administration and History, Vol. 21, Issue 1. Pp. 28–42.
______ 2003. Colonial Educators: The British Indian and Colonial Education Service 1858–1983. London: I. B. Tauris, pp. 188–205.
______ 2004. ‘Cox, Sir Christopher William Machell (1899–1982)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Yeo, K. W. 1992. ‘Student Politics in University of Malaya, 1949–51’. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 23 (2), September, pp. 346–380.

1 This article is an edited and updated extract from Stockwell (2009).
2 Attempts were subsequently made, for example by Curzon’s Indian Universities Act of 1904, to develop residential teaching universities. In 1917–19 and running in parallel with the Montagu¬–Chelmsford constitutional reforms, the Calcutta University Commission placed emphasis on teaching functions, residential character, autonomy and provision of subjects relevant to Indian culture.
3 W. Elliot (1888–1958) had held ministerial office in the National Governments of Baldwin and Chamberlain and had refused Churchill’s offer of the governorship of Burma in 1941. The Elliot enquiry recommended three centres of higher education for British West Africa.
4 The Asquith Commission’s terms of reference were: ‘To consider the principles which should guide the promotion of higher education, learning, and research and the development of universities in the colonies; and to explore means whereby universities and other appropriate bodies in the United Kingdom may be able to cooperate with institutions of higher education in the colonies in order to give effect to these principles’.
5 Dussek had been the first principal of Sultan Idris Training College, 1922–36, and from 1925 had combined this position with that of assistant director of education in charge of Malay schools.
6 Notwithstanding the decrease in Malayan Chinese attending Hong Kong University after the University of Malaya opened, the number was as high as 161 in 1950. The figure for Malayans studying in Australia in 1953 was 509. See Harper (1958) and Ooi (2006) for the student experience of this statesman of independent Malaya/Malaysia who proceeded to the University of Melbourne after graduating from King Edward VII Medical College in 1946.

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