John Fearns Nicoll



John Fearns Nicoll (Sir) (b. 18991–d. 12 January 1981, Scio House, Putney, United Kingdom)2 was the British colonial governor of Singapore from 1952 to 1955. During his tenure, Singapore took steps towards self-government with the establishment of the Rendel Constitution and the legislative assembly in 1955.3

Education and career
Nicoll was educated at Carlisle Grammar School, followed by the Pembroke College in Oxford.4


Nicoll began his career in the colonial service in 1921 as a cadet in British North Borneo. He was promoted to deputy colonial secretary in Trinidad in 1937, and became colonial secretary in Fiji in 1944. From 1949 to 1952, he was officer administering the government and colonial secretary of Hong Kong.5

Career in Singapore

Nicoll succeeded Franklin Gimson (Sir) as governor of Singapore in 1952, amid growing clamour for independence.6 In the following year, the Singapore Progressive Party (SPP), the pre-eminent party in the legislative council, announced a 10-year target for achieving self-governance, which was to be followed by full independence through merger with the Federation of Malaya.7 The SPP also proposed changes to the legislative council.8

During this time, the British perceived a lack of interest in politics among the general public in Singapore, which they considered to be a serious impediment to the development of a viable, democratic government.9 Nicoll also recognised that the existing constitution of 1948 did not satisfy the Chinese community in Singapore. Thus, more needed to be done to stimulate interest in politics and encourage wider political participation. In July 1953, Nicoll announced to the legislative council his intention to convene a commission, chaired by George Rendel (Sir), to undertake a comprehensive review of the constitution of the Colony of Singapore, including the relationship between the government and the city council.10


The Rendel Commission convened in November 1953 and published its recommendations in a report in February 1954.11 Under the newly proposed Rendel Constitution, as it came to be called, Singapore would have a 32-member legislative assembly, with 25 elected representatives, three ex-officio members and four nominated members. There would be a cabinet of six elected ministers and three colonial officials, to be presided over by the governor.12 This cabinet would be the chief policy making body in all matters except external affairs, internal security and defence, with the governor holding a veto over legislation. Under the Rendel Constitution, voters would also be registered automatically, and according to geographical constituencies rather than race.13

For the elections held in 1955 under the Rendel Constitution, Nicoll favoured the SPP. He saw the party as a reliable team that could undertake the transition to self-governance in a stable and orderly manner, without massive disruption to the economy.14 However, the new Labour Front emerged as the winner with 10 seats, while the SPP won four.15

The Labour Front went on to form a coalition government with the UMNO-MCA alliance. To shore up the new coalition, Nicoll named two Labour Front executives into the legislative assembly. Labour Front leader David Marshall became the first chief minister of Singapore, besides also being the minister of commerce and industry.16

Tensions with Marshall
The relationship between Nicoll and Marshall was already tense before Marshall became chief minister.17 Nicoll consulted Marshall’s opinion on how to deal with the increasing unrest among the Chinese school students, but eventually came to see Marshall’s anti-colonialist rhetoric as destabilising for Singapore. Published in late 1954, Marshall’s anti-colonial manifesto, I Believe, angered Nicoll. The governor then called a meeting with Marshall, during which Marshall received a dressing-down.18


The relationship between Nicoll and Marshall did not improve after the latter became chief minister.19 To emphasise his anti-colonial stance, the new chief minister wore an informal bush jacket to his first official meeting with Nicoll, which created an uproar in the press.20 Marshall’s reluctance to crack down on militant unionists and communists after the Hock Lee bus riots in May 1955 further dismayed the British authorities.21

Nicoll viewed Marshall as a headstrong, emotional and flamboyant character. Nicoll, on the other hand, was considered by some as being stiff and formal in his manner, and unconciliatory when handling official matters, thus giving the impression that he was uncooperative in his dealings with the new chief minister.22 At the heart of the conflict, however, was differing expectations. While both men wanted a transition towards self-government, Nicoll desired a gradual, stable transition of power, but Marshall wanted a quicker pace of change. In addition, Nicoll shared the general view held by colonial officials that the chief minister was merely “the senior of a number of ministers”, and that Marshall was firstly minister of commerce and industry.23 Marshall, however, expected the executive powers of a prime minister.24

Public unrest
During his term, Nicoll had to deal with a number of public unrest issues. In 1954, students from Chinese schools protested against the British’s plans to draft them for limited national service.25 The following year, the Hock Lee bus riots claimed four lives and left 31 injured.26


Legacy

As a public servant, Nicoll was efficient, forceful and determined to get things going.27 He was proud of colonialism’s achievements in Singapore. Despite his public image of being unsympathetic towards nationalist aspirations, Nicoll genuinely wanted self-government for Singapore, albeit on British terms and timeline.28

Nicoll had the Government House (now The Istana) rebuilt for the new legislative assembly. He also installed a private lift that went straight up to the governor’s office so that ministers could visit and consult him on a regular basis. He was very proud of this new addition, but none of the ministers had used the lift during his tenure.29

Nicoll promoted post-war restoration work on many public buildings and facilities. Nicoll Highway was named after him.30

Nicoll left Singapore in June 1955, and his position as governor of Singapore was succeeded by Robert Black (Sir).31



Author
Alvin Chua



References
1. Kirk-Greene, A. H. M. (1991). A biographical dictionary of the British colonial service, 1936–1966. London; New York: H. Zell, p. 267. (Call no.: RSING 325.341092 KIR); Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia.  Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 383. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Mr. J. F. Nicoll – Governor designate of Singapore. (1952, January 21). Indian Daily Mail, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 383. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); The London Gazette. (1981, January 23). Retrieved 2016, November 14 from the London Gazette website: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/48503/page/1126
3. Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 76. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA); Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 383. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 215. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
4. Kirk-Greene, A. H. M. (1991). A biographical dictionary of the British colonial service, 1936–1966. London; New York: H. Zell, p. 267. (Call no.: RSING 325.341092 KIR); Mr. J. F. Nicoll – Governor designate of Singapore. (1952, January 21). Indian Daily Mail, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Corfield, J., & Corfield, R. S. (2006). Governors and residents. In Encyclopedia of Singapore. Singapore: Talisman Pub., p. 92. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 COR-[HIS]); Kirk-Greene, A. H. M. (1991). A biographical dictionary of the British colonial service, 1936–1966. London; New York: H. Zell, p. 267. (Call no.: RSING 325.341092 KIR); Mr. J. F. Nicoll – Governor designate of Singapore. (1952, January 21). Indian Daily Mail, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Corfield, J., & Corfield, R. S. (2006). Governors and residents. In Encyclopedia of Singapore. Singapore: Talisman Pub., p. 92. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 COR-[HIS]); Kirk-Greene, A. H. M. (1991). A biographical dictionary of the British colonial service, 1936–1966. London; New York: H. Zell, p. 267. (Call no.: RSING 325.341092 KIR); Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 383. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 215. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
7. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 215. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS]); Yeo, K. W. (1973). Political development in Singapore, 1945–55. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 100. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 YEO); Drysdale, J. G. S. (1984). Singapore: Struggle for success. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 39. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 DRY-[HIS]); Turnbull, C. M. (1977). A history of Singapore, 1819–1975. Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 235–236. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
8. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 215. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS]); Yeo, K. W. (1973). Political development in Singapore, 1945–55. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 100. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 YEO); Turnbull, C. M. (1977). A history of Singapore, 1819–1975. Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 240, 242. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Chew, E. C. T., & Lee, E. (Eds.). (1991). A history of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 126. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS])
9. Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 75. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 215. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS]); Drysdale, J. G. S. (1984). Singapore: Struggle for success. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 38-39. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DRY-[HIS])
10. Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 75–76. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA); Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 383. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 215. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS]); Inquiry into Singapore constitution. (1953, July 21). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 76. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA); Inaugural session open to public. (1953, November 5). Singapore Standard, p. 5; Rendel report is signed. (1954, February 23). Singapore Standard, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 216. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS]); Rendel, G. (1954). Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore. Singapore: Printed at the Govt. Print. Off. (Call no. RCLOS 342.5957 SIN); The complete report of the Rendel Commission. (1954, February 25). Singapore Standard, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 244. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]; The complete report of the Rendel Commission. (1954, February 25). Singapore Standard, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 383. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 215. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
15. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 241. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS]); Labour wins – Marshall will be chief minister. (1955, April 3). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 241, 243-244. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS]); The coalition cabinet. (1955, April 7). Singapore Standard, p. 1; Two front men picked for nominated seats. (1955, April 7). Singapore Standard, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 246. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
18. Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 83, 87. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 226, 229–231, 364. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
19. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 246. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
20. Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 100. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 246–247. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
21. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 275. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
22. Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 111. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 246. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
23. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 249–251, 362–363. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
24. Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 111. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 249–250. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
25. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 227, 257–258, 273. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS]); Dodgers condemned. (1954, June 6). Singapore Standard, p. 1; 800 on hunger strike. (1954, June 16). Singapore Standard, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 273. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS]); The Hock Lee bus riots. (1996, September 16). The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 111. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA)
28. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 246, 362. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
29. The past and the present. (1988, May 12). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 363. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
30. Corfield, J., & Corfield, R. S. (2006). Governors and residents. In Encyclopedia of Singapore. Singapore: Talisman Pub., p. 92. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 COR-[HIS]); Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 383. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
31. Corfield, J., & Corfield, R. S. (2006). Governors and residents. In Encyclopedia of Singapore. Singapore: Talisman Pub., p. 92. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 COR-[HIS]); Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 281. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])



The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Governors--Singapore--Biography
Nicoll, John Fearns,Sir, 1899-1981
Colonial administrators--Singapore--Biography
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Colonial administrators
Personalities>>Biographies>>Colonial Administrators