Sir John Fearns Nicoll

John Fearns Nicoll (Sir) (b. 1899 - d. 12 January 1981, Scio House, Putney, U.K.), former 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.

Education and career
Nicoll was educated at Carlisle Grammar School and at Pembroke College, Oxford. He started his career in the Colonial Service as a cadet in British North Borneo in 1921. 

In 1937, Nicoll was promoted to the post of Deputy Colonial Secretary in Trinidad, before becoming Colonial Secretary in Fiji in 1944. From 1949 to 1952, he was Officer Administering the Government (OAG) and Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong.

Career in Singapore

Nicoll succeeded Sir Franklin Gimson as Governor of Singapore in 1952, amid growing clamour for independence. In 1951, the Singapore Progressive Party (SPP), the preeminent party in the Legislative Council, announced a ten-year target date for achieving self-governance, which was to be followed by full independence through merger with the Federation of Malaya. The SPP also proposed changes to the existing Legislative Council.

Nicoll recognised that the existing Constitution of 1948 and the Legislative Council, of whose 25 members only nine were elected, did not satisfy the nationalist aspirations of the community. He also believed that, in order to gradually move Singapore towards self-government, more opportunities had to be provided for locals in government and more voters enfranchised. In July 1953, he announced in the Legislative Council his intention to convene a commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the constitution of the Colony of Singapore, including the relationship between the government and the city council. The commission would be chaired by Sir George Rendel.

The Rendel Commission convened in November 1953 and published its recommendations in a report in February 1954. Under the new proposed Rendel Constitution, as it came to be called, Singapore would have a 32 member Legislative Assembly, with 25 elected representatives, three ex-offico 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. This Cabinet would be the chief policy making body in all affairs except for foreign policy, internal security and defence matters, with the governor holding a veto over legislation. Under the Rendel Constitution, the number of eligible voters also increased from 76,000 to 300,299.

For the elections in 1955, Nicoll initially favoured SPP.  He saw the SPP as a reliable party which could undertake the transition to self-governance in a stable and orderly manner, without massive disruption to the economy. However, the new Labour Front party emerged as the big winner with 10 seats, while the SPP won just four seats. The Labour Front formed a coalition government with the UMNO-MCA alliance (three seats).  In order to shore up the new coalition, Nicoll named two Labour Front executives into the Assembly. Labour Front leader David Marshall became the first Chief Minister of Singapore.

Tensions with Marshall
Before coming into government, the new chief minister already had tense relations with Nicoll. The governor had initially consulted Marshall after student riots in 1954, but came to see Marshall's anti-colonialist rhetoric as destabilising for Singapore. Marshall's anti-colonial manifesto, I Believe, published in late 1954, angered Nicoll. The governor called a meeting in which Marshall received an over-an-hour-long dressing-down. "Complete contempt" was Marshall's verdict of Nicoll's attitude towards him.

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

Nicoll viewed Marshall as a headstrong, emotional and flamboyant character. Nicoll himself was considered by some to be stiff and formal in his manner, and unconciliatory when handling official matters, giving the impression that he was obstructionist and uncooperative in his dealings with the new chief minister.  But at the heart of the conflict were differing expectations. Nicoll wanted a gradual transition towards self-government and believed the chief minister's role was to initiate legislation in the Assembly and occupy himself with the work of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, while the governor was ultimately responsible for the key policies and decisions. Marshall, however, expected the executive powers of a prime minister.

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


As a public servant, Nicoll was efficient, forceful and determined to get things going. He was proud of colonialism's achievements in Singapore, but, despite his public image of being unsympathetic to nationalist aspirations, Nicoll did genuinely want self-government for Singapore, albeit on British terms and timeline.

Nicoll had Government House rebuilt for the new Legislative Assembly and installed a new private lift which 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 not one minister used the lift during Nicoll's tenure.

He also promoted restoration work on many public buildings and facilities during the post-war period. Nicoll Highway, a project he took much interest in, is named after him. Nicoll was succeeded by Sir Robert Black as Governor of Singapore in June 1955.

Wife: Irene
Son: Anthony

Alvin Chua

Chan, H. C. (2008). A sensation of independence: David Marshall, a political biography (pp. 69, 80-81, 92). Singapore: Singapore University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA)

Deaths. (1981, January 17). The Times, Deaths, p. 28, col. A. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from The Times Digital Archive database.

Kirk-Greene, A. H. M. (1991). A biographical dictionary of the British colonial service, 1936-1966 (p. 267). London; New York: H. Zell.
(Call no.: RSING 325.341092 KIR)

Nicoll, Sir John. (2006). In Singapore: The encyclopedia (p. 383). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet/National Heritage Board.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])

Corsfield, J., & Corfields, R. S. (2006). Governors and residents. In Encyclopedia of Singapore (p. 92). Singapore: Talisman Pub..
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 COR -[HIS])

Sir John Nicoll. (1981, January 17). The Times, Obituaries, p. 16, col. G. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from The Times Digital Archive database.

Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore, a biography (p. 362). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN)

Further readings
End of a chapter [Microfilm: NL1773]. (1955, February 3). The Straits Times, p.6.

Labour wins Marshall will be chief minister [Microfilm: NL3693]. (1955, April 3). The Straits Times, p.1.

Mr. Black is Sir John's successor [Microfilm: NL1772]. (1954, December 23). The Straits Times, p.1.

New governor may take office on April 1 [Microfilm: NL2628]. (1952, January 17). The Straits Times, p.5.

The next move is Sir John's [Microfilm: NL1771]. (1954, October 29). The Straits Times, p.8.

Nicoll: Home rule poll makes 1955 a crucial year for Singapore [Microfilm: NL1773]. (1955, January 1). The Straits Times, p.1.

Nicoll: This House will do us proud [Microfilm: NL1769]. (1954, July 21). The Straits Times, p.8.

Power goes to the ministries [Microfilm: NL1815]. (1955, April 4). The Straits Times, p.1.

Rendel men meet [Microfilm: NL3307]. (1953, November 11). The Straits Times, p.1.

Rendel will sign report on Monday Nicoll to see it first [Microfilm: NL6965]. (1954, February 20). The Straits Times, p.8.

These foolish youths [Microfilm: NL3692]. (1954, June 6). The Straits Times, p.1.

Sir John gets big reshuffle proposals [Microfilm: NL1768]. (1954, June 23). The Straits Times, p.4.

Sir John points way to a strong Govt [Microfilm: NL1773]. (1955, January 29). The Straits Times, p.9. 

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.

Nicoll, John Fearns,Sir, 1899-1981
Colonial administrators--Singapore--Biography
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Colonial administrators
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