The Dawn of Higher Education in Malaysia

loading College of Medicine building

They may appear solid today, but our schools had challenging beginnings.

According to Alexander Carr-Saunders, the architect of colonial universities, there was “little sympathy with local aspirations for university education” before the Second World War.[1] While the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies (ACEC) once envisioned a system in which every colony would have elementary and secondary schools, as well as technical and vocational institutions up to the tertiary level by 1925, the idea of a university was not yet a priority in British policy.

The empire, after all, only had four universities at the time, in the regions of Malta, Jerusalem, Ceylon and Hong Kong.[2] While requests were aired for a Malayan university, it was not until after the war that they were granted attention.

“No” to a Malayan University

The general reluctance to develop a university grew from bad experiences in India, along with financial constraints. University expansion in India since the mid- 19th century was perceived as a mistake, given the production of overqualified, unemployable, politically ambitious and intractable young men.[3]

William Hailey, a patrician member of the Indian civil service, once noted the question of university development was underpinned by the dilemma of “what it was going to do with the educated product.” [4] Already doubtful to begin with of the capacity of non-Europeans to benefit from higher education, the colonialists were wary of not repeating the same “blunder” in other colonies.

Finance was another consideration, given the colonialists’ principal reliance on locally generated revenue. The metropolitan funds that could be secured under the Colonial Development Act 1929 were marked for economic development. Education was perceived as a product of social welfare, which had to be met by locally available channels.

With Hong Kong University maintained at an annual figure of $435,000, [5]it was obvious that unless there was regular income, the establishment of a Malayan university remained unlikely. Shenton Thomas, the governor of Malaya, informed the colonial office in October 1939 that “Malaya cannot finance a university at the present time,” and that it could “only carry on with existing arrangements.” [6]

Since the twentieth century, colonial higher education took place within the setting of King Edward VII College of Medicine and Raffles College in Singapore. Apart from these two institutions, Malayans had little option but to self-finance their studies overseas or obtain available scholarships – of which the Queen’s Scholarship was the most prestigious.[7]

The Dawn of Higher Education in Malaysia

The Tan Teck Guan Building was the site of Singapore's first medical school to train local students in Western medicine.

King Edward VII College of Medicine

In 1904 leading Chinese and other non-European communities of Singapore petitioned the governor for a medical school, stressing the need for qualified Chinese medicine 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 that “sought no European medical advice partly from prejudice and much more from the inability to pay high fees.” [8] In those days, one Chinese medical man was considered to be of greater service to his countrymen than dozens of lawyers or engineers.

The governor, in reply, threw down a challenge, and promised the establishment of a medical school on condition that a sum of $71,000 was raised. The challenge was promptly accepted, and soon after, a total of $87,077 was collected – including a sum of $12,000 from Tan Jiak Kim, a prominent Straits-born merchant who headed the petition. [9]

As a result, the Straits and Federated Malay States Government Medical School opened its doors on September 18, 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 $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”, the name King Edward VII College of Medicine was adopted in 1920. [10]

Classes in medicine, clinical medicine, surgery, clinical surgery and midwifery were conducted and, following a Rockefeller endowment of $350,000, professorships of bacteriology, biochemistry and biology came into being. The standard of licence of the college stood up in comparison with that of any European school of medicine. [11] By 1936, owing to the call for more doctors in Malaya, the college’s roll rose to 206. [12]

Raffles College

Until his last days in Singapore, Stamford Raffles held hope for the establishment of an institution which would “collect the scattered literature and tradition of the country…to be useful and instructive to the people.” While his dreams crystallised in the form of Singapore Institution, which later became Raffles Institution – one of the finest secondary schools in the Straits – 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, the committee was “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.” [13]

This was quickly adopted, and a separate committee under H.W. Firmstone, the director of education, was formed to advise on a scheme for the advancement of a preparatory to a university in Singapore. It was the Firmstone Committee that recommended the establishment of a College for Higher Education, known as Raffles College.

Raffles College killed two birds with one stone – through it 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.[14]

Among the Committee’s interesting recommendations were, among others, that the college be affiliated to London University; women admitted on equal terms with men; and religious bodies allowed to have their halls, subject to certain regulations. The fees had to be “reasonably high” with scholarship provisions, and the teaching staff should be “in no way inferior to those engaged in University work in England.”[15]

The government favoured the proposal, and the collection of subscriptions for Raffles College began. The initiative was well-attended by prominent parties, such as Lim Boon Keng, W.T. Cherry, M.V. Pillai, E.S. Manasseh, B.L. Eber, Tungku Ibrahim and several others, [16] with the highest subscriptions received from Manasseh Meyer and Ooi Teong Ham, each of whom provided a sum of $150,000. [17]

Raffles College was opened on July 22, 1928 by Hugh Clifford, then governor of the Straits Settlements, and offered three-year courses in English, history, geography, mathematics, economics, physics and chemistry. It had 43 students, including two women.[18]

Responsible for the training of teachers for middle and secondary classes of English schools, Raffles College shared a policy of cooperation with the King Edward VII College of Medicine, where it taught chemistry and physics to first-year medical students, while its students were permitted to enroll in physiology and biology courses at the College of Medicine.[19]

The future of the Raffles became uncertain towards the late 1930s. A stark contrast from the College of Medicine, Raffles was far from showing the progress expected of a university; its diploma was given little recognition especially outside Malaya, and its management lacked direction.[20] It was only after the slump of the 1930s that it began to show signs of gradual improvement, and by 1941 the college’s enrollment rose to 300. [21]

University Colleges and a Change in British Policy

The Dawn of Higher Education in Malaysia

College of Medicine building.

The issue of a university college was first raised by the McLean Commission in 1938. Appointed by Malcolm MacDonald, then secretary of state for the colonies, to “survey existing arrangements for higher education in Malaya and to report upon the present work of the Colleges and on any potential development desirable,” William McLean and H.J. Channon concluded that although the time was not yet ripe for an autonomous university, the early fusion of the College of Medicine and Raffles to form a university college was a good first step.[22]

The ACEC did examine the report, but little was done to implement it owing to the outbreak of war. Remarkably, the 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, thereby equipping dependencies for self-government, was propagated and explored. After all, the Atlantic Charter had committed Britain to a new deal for the colonies.

Citing British educator Eric Ashby, A.J. Stockwell points out that this marked “the turning point in British policy for higher education in the colonies” because it “supplied a new momentum and direction.” [23]

Furthermore, since the emphasis of nation-building formed the main crux of British post-war policy, universities were viewed as important instruments for imbuing elites of emerging nations with a “British view of the world,” and to prepare them for postcolonial membership of the Commonwealth. [24]

The Birth of a Malayan University

In Malaya, the Carr-Saunders Commission was formed to reconsider the pre-war arrangement for a university college. In the aftermath of the 1945 Asquith Report, university colleges were established in the West Indies, Uganda and other colonies in Africa, where its graduates would “be indispensable for economic and social development, for political leadership and for contracting the influence of racial differences and sectional rivalries.”[25] Malaya was bound to experience the same.

The Dawn of Higher Education in Malaysia

Main Building of Hong Kong University.

Chaired by Carr-Saunders, who was then the director of the London School of Economics, with notable figures like Haji Muhammed Eusoff, Ivor Jennings, G.W. Pickering and Han Hoe Lim, the commission toured Singapore and the Malayan Union between March and April 1947, visiting educational and research establishments. Interestingly, in their report published in April 1948, the immediate amalgamation of Raffles and the College of Medicine into a full-fledged university with the authority to confer degrees was proposed instead.

While the move was influenced by the political turmoil confronting the Union,[26] the Colonial Office maintained that “Malayan politics…were inseparable from the conception of a Malayan University.” The commission was similarly under 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 Southeast Asia as a whole.”[27]

Notwithstanding that, both colleges made significant progress and attained the characteristics expected of any university. Its enrolment increased to 196 students, including 32 women, in Raffles, while the College of Medicine had 256 students, including 41 women.[28]

The radical suggestion was accepted, and after half a year’s delay, the amalgamation of the College of Medicine and Raffles College took effect via two legislations: the University of Malaya Ordinance in Singapore on March 31, 1949, and the University of Malaya Ordinance 1949, in the Federation of Malaya on April 27, 1949.[29]
Hailed as the “crucible of the Malayan nation,” the University of Malaya was finally inaugurated on October 8, 1949 in the Ooi Teong Ham Hall of the former Raffles College, with MacDonald himself, then the British high commissioner in South-East Asia, presiding over as chancellor.[30]

While the university was founded as a platform for Malaya’s preparation for independence, doubts continued to linger, as the university was modelled and founded on British terms. Nevertheless, it emerged as the largest university in the post-war colonial empire, with enrolment reaching 1,220 by 1956 – and signalled a new dawn in colonial higher education.

  • [1]A.M. Carr-Saunders, New Universities Overseas (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961), 30-1.
  • [2]A.J. Stockwell, “‘The Crucible of the Malayan Nation’: The University and the Making of a New Malaya, 1938-62,” Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 5, (2008), 1150-2.
  • [3]Ibid.
  • [4]Minutes, 96th Meeting of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies, July 20, 1939, CO 859/2/7.
  • [5]“Time Not yet Ripe for Local University,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, June 7, 1937.
  • [6]Stockwell, ‘The Crucible of the Malayan Nation,’” 1152.
  • [7]The Queen’s Scholarships were founded in 1886, and enabled recipients to study in a British university.
  • [8]D.D. Celliah, A Short History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements: 1800 to 1925 (circa) (Kuala Lumpur: Government Press, 1947), 117-8.
  • [9]Ibid.
  • [10]Ibid.
  • [11]Annual Report on Education in the Federated Malay States 1937 (Kuala Lumpur: Government Press, 1937), 15.
  • [12]“Room for More Doctors,” The Straits Times, December 7, 1936.
  • [13]Report on the Scheme to Celebrate the Centenary of Singapore, (Singapore: Straits Settlements, 1918).
  • [14]Report by the Committee Appointed by His Excellency the Governor to Advise as to a Scheme for the Advancement of Education Preparatory to a University in Singapore (Singapore: Straits Settlements, 1919).
  • [15]Ibid., 1-2.
  • [16]“The Raffles College,” Malaya Tribune, May 5, 1919.
  • [17]Celliah, A Short History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements, 122.
  • [18]Lim Chung Tat, University of Malaya 1949 to 1985: Its Establishment, Growth and Development, (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 2013), 13.
  • [19]Celliah, A Short History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements, 119.
  • [20]Stockwell, “‘The Crucible of the Malayan Nation,’” 1156-7.
  • [21]Lim, University of Malaya 1949 to 1985, 14.
  • [22]Ibid., 19.
  • [23]Stockwell, “‘The Crucible of the Malayan Nation,’” 1157-8.
  • [24]Ibid.
  • [25]Ibid, 1163-4.
  • [26]The Commission’s visit coincided with Malay protests against the constitutional arrangements and the subsequent consultative negotiations, which led to the ultimate formation of the Federation of Malaya on 1 February 1948.
  • [27]Stockwell, “‘The Crucible of the Malayan Nation,’” 1165-6.
  • [28]Lim, University of Malaya 1949 to 1985, 25-6.
  • [29]Ibid, 29-30.
  • [30]“A Nation Is Being Born Here,” The Straits Times, October 9, 1949.
Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the History section of Penang Institute who writes to inspire and takes pride in introducing herself as a writer rather than a lawyer.



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