Sir Robert Black



Robert Brown Black (Sir) (b. 3 June 1906, Edinburgh, Scotland–d. 29 October 1999, Reading, England), also known as Robin, was the governor and commander-in-chief of Singapore from 1955 to 1957.1 An early dispute with the chief minister led to the governor’s powers being curbed, but during his term of governance Black handled a stormy political situation with equanimity and patience, helping to ensure that Singapore was more stable when he left and ready for self-government.2

Education and early career
Black was educated at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, and then Edinburgh University. After starting his career in the Indian Civil Service he transferred to Malaya in 1930, partly because he was fascinated by Stamford Raffles. He worked in Singapore, Pahang, Perak and Johor before being seconded to Trinidad in 1939.3

The following year he returned to Malaya and then joined the Intelligence Corps in 1942, organising guerrilla resistance in the jungle against the Japanese during World War II, but he was soon captured.4 After the war he became the deputy chief secretary of North Borneo from 1946 until 1952, when he became Hong Kong’s colonial secretary. During this time, Black continued to follow Singapore affairs with interest.

Governor of Singapore
Early constitutional dispute
Black became the governor of Singapore in July 1955 at a tense time, during one of that year’s several strikes and just weeks after the Hock Lee bus riot.5 It was also a time of change, as the Rendel constitution had recently given the colony a predominantly elected legislative assembly and ministerial government, led by Chief Minister David Marshall. Black soon faced a standoff with Marshall over the latter’s request to appoint four additional assistant ministers and stated intention to name five more; this was ostensibly to lighten the ministers’ workload but Black recognised it as an attempt to mollify disgruntled backbenchers through patronage. He therefore only agreed to appoint two, noting that the ministry was becoming disproportionately large in relation to the small legislature.6

Assembly members initially agreed with Black but the staunchly anticolonial Marshall shifted the dispute to the wider issue of “whether the governor governs or we govern”,7 insisting that the governor had no discretion over appointments and threatening to resign over the matter. Black told the Colonial Office that he would follow his judgement so long as he could veto ministers, but offered to defuse the situation by surrendering this power. The crisis escalated when the Legislative Assembly strongly backed Marshall on the point of principle and his new demand for immediate self-government. The United Kingdom colonial secretary, Alan Lennox Boyd, visited soon afterwards and feared that Marshall’s resignation would yield a more radical successor.8 Boyd therefore accelerated self-government talks planned for 1959 by three years and removed the governor’s discretion over nominations, leaving him to rubber-stamp them.9

Contribution to governance and progressing towards self-rule
Under the Rendel constitution, the role of colonial officials like the governor was diminished, but Black had experienced ministerial government in Trinidad and hoped to make it work in Singapore. He wanted to be “dispensable” and let Singaporeans manage their own affairs. He chaired the Council of Ministers’ weekly meetings, but let Marshall direct discussions, engaging only in security matters and ensuring that the government remained guided by practicality and good sense.10 Black was said to have a warmer personality than his predecessor, John Fearns Nicoll, and enjoyed a better relationship with Marshall and the civil servants. They had no more serious disagreements after their initial dispute, although power-sharing remained awkward and the chief minister did not seek the governor’s advice as often as the constitution’s drafters had envisaged.11


During the 1956 constitutional talks in London, Black advised the Colonial Office that self-rule was inadvisable until Singapore’s security situation improved. Negotiations foundered over security and Marshall resigned. Marshall’s successor, Lim Yew Hock, was said to be less fiery but took the tough action against pro-communists and rioters, and helped achieve the stability Black felt was a prerequisite for self-rule.12

The other main obstacle to self-government that Black identified was the civil service’s shortage of qualified, experienced locals and its continued domination by Europeans. He felt the Malayanisation process should have started earlier but this was accelerated with inducements for expatriates to retire. Black, himself a Malayan civil service veteran, managed the transition, allaying non-domiciled officials’ concerns and helping them prepare for new careers.13

An agreement on self-rule was reached in 1957, but Black had left office that December14 and was not involved in the final negotiations of 1958. Yet the speed with which self-government was achieved was partly attributed to Black and the ministers for ensuring a smooth transition. According to Lim, the public did not appreciate the difficulty of Black’s position, but on his departure he received the honour of Freedom of the City for his contributions.15

Hong Kong and later years
In 1958 Black became governor of Hong Kong where he encouraged localisation of the civil service, oversaw the revival and expansion of higher education and took measures to address serious housing and water shortages. He served as the chancellor of Hong Kong University from 1958 to 1964, when he returned to Britain.16

Black passed away in 1999.17

Honours
Black received several honours including the Member of the Order of the British Empire (Military) in 1948, and a knighthood in 1955.18 He was promoted to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1962.19

Family
Parents: Robert and Catherine Black.20
Wife: Anne Stevenson (m. 1937). The Aranthera Anne Black orchid, Singapore Botanic Gardens’ first VIP orchid, was named after her.21

Daughters: Kathryn and Barbara.22



Author

Duncan Sutherland



References
1. Ure, G. (2012). Governors, politics, and the Colonial Office: Public policy in Hong Kong, 1918–58. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 232. (Call no.: R 320.6095125 URE); Black here today. (1955, June 30). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, B.L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/1, pp.1–6, 9). Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
2. The last chapter. (1957, December 12). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/1, pp.1–6, 9]; Tan, B. L. (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/2, pp. 16–17, 20, 23]; Tan, B. L. (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/4, pp. 43–45]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
; Change to self-rule ‘quite a success’. (1983, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Corfield, J. J. (2006). Encyclopedia of Singapore. Singapore: Talisman Pub., p. 92. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 COR-[HIS]); Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/1, pp.1–6, 9]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
4. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/1, pp. 7–8]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

5. The last governor. (1957, December 11). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Chan, H. C. (2001). A sensation of independence: David Marshall: A political biography. Singapore: Times Books International, pp.134–135. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA); Mills, L. A. (2001). Singapore. In P. Kratoska (Ed.), South East Asia: Colonial history (Vol. V). London: Routledge, p. 262. (Call no.: RSING 959 SOU)
7. Lee, E. (2008). Singapore: The unexpected nation. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 114. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE); Mills, L. A. (2001). Singapore. In P. Kratoska (Ed.), South East Asia: Colonial history (Vol. V). London: Routledge, p. 262. (Call no.: RSING 959 SOU)
8. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 65. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN)
9. How to save face. (1955, August 17). The Straits Times, p. 3; Self-rule: Will it be 1959? (1955, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Tan, K. Y. L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 281–284, 288, 316, 364. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN [HIS])
11. Chan, H. C. (2001). A sensation of independence: David Marshall: A political biography. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 134–135. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA)
12. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/1, pp. 1–6, 9]; Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/2, pp. 16–17, 20, 23]; Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/4, pp. 43–45]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Drysdale, J. G. S. (1984). Singapore: Struggle for success. Singapore: Times International Books, p. 157. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 DRY [HIS])
13. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/1, pp. 1–6, 9]; Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/2, pp. 16–17, 20, 23]; Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001650/5/4, pp. 43–45). Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
14. The last chapter. (1957, December 12). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. The last governor. (1957, December 11). The Straits Times, p. 8; Freedom for Sir Robert. (1957, October 18). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Spurr, R. (1995). Excellency: The governors of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: FormAsia, pp. 210–214. (Call no.: R 951.25 SPU); Sir Robert to retire. (1964, February 19). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Stewart, A. (1999, November 2). Ex-governor Sir Robert Black dies at 93. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from Factiva
via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
18. Queen knights Sir Robert Black. (1955, June 11). The Straits Times, p. 1 Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

19. The Queen’s new year honours: Sir Robert Black awards G.C.M.G. (1962, January 1). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Eastley, A (1955, July 6). Singapore spotlight. The Singapore Free Press, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. But which orchid is named after whom? (1993, August 21) The New Paper, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. The Blacks – Happy reunion at airport. (1956, August 5). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.




The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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
Colonial administrators
Black, Sir Robert Brown, 1906-1999
Colonial administrators--Singapore--Biography
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Law and government>>Political process>>Leadership
Personalities>>Biographies>>Colonial Administrators