Richard James Wilkinson

Richard James Wilkinson (b. 29 May 1867, Salonika, Greece - d. 5 December 1941, Izmir, Turkey) was a colonial administrator and scholar. He was an energetic and creative Schools Inspector for the Federated Malay States (FMS) and a capable Colonial Secretary but is better remembered for writing the standard classical Malay-English dictionary and his contributions to Malay studies.

Early years and education
Wilkinson lived in Salonika and Malaga, where his father was British consul, before studying at Felsted School, Essex, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He excelled at Cambridge, winning five prizes and becoming president of the Union, but did not collect his B.A. until 1901. After failing the riding test required for the Indian Civil Service he instead joined the Malayan Civil Service and moved there in 1889. Dissatisfied with his assignments he sought a transfer to China in 1895, but Governor William Maxwell, wishing to retain him, made Wilkinson acting secretary of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society to keep him engaged.

Contributions to learning
Improving schools and promoting Malay
That year he became Superintendant of Education in Penang. He was required to act as Schools Inspector for the Straits Settlements and impressed the Colonial Office with his insightful annual report for 1899, prompting an invitation to write The Education of Asiatics for presentation to parliament. Wilkinson established the first Malay teacher training college, in Malacca, which only partly met personnel needs. After a year as District Officer of Dindings he was named Schools Inspector for the FMS in 1903.

To give both teachers and pupils a love of reading, and not merely the ability, he reprinted classic Malay tales and established small school libraries. He commissioned culturally-appropriate texts to replace those with maths lessons using pounds and shillings and baffling references to fox-hunting and Christmas robins. However these took years to complete. He led the effort to standardise the romanisation of Malay to protect classical Malay against the spread of "Bazaar" Malay, which officials considered inferior, and to encourage its use by the region’s Chinese and Indians.

The Malay College
He was less prejudiced than most officials and his desire to improve Malays’ English education to qualify them for clerkships and government jobs was radical. Few were bothered by Malays’ exclusion from their country’s administration and economic growth and his ideas faced suspicion or outright hostility. But the strong backing of the influential Sultan Idris helped Wilkinson establish the Malay Residential School (later the Malay College) in Kuala Kangsar on a trial basis in 1905. By 1915 twenty-five graduates of the school worked in the civil service alongside Europeans, as well as those in the Malay Administrative Service, which was reserved for Malays. This put Malaya ahead of many other colonies in recruiting locals. His one disappointment was that the college became the preserve of elites rather than open to all.

Wilkinson was in Malaya for just two years as inspector (spending 1905 on leave) and his "new era" was short-lived. In 1906 the schools inspectorates for the Straits Settlements and the FMS were merged and Wilkinson was not chosen to lead the new body by his superiors, with whom he had a difficult relationship. Though the college endured the state of Malayan education declined following his departure.

Papers on Malay Subjects
Shunted to Batang Padang as District Officer, he was quickly seconded as deputy to Ernest Birch, the Resident of Perak. Both wanted to increase British officials’ understanding of Malaya and Birch presented to the 1906 Residents’ Conference Wilkinson’s proposal for a series of papers on Malay topics. The residents agreed and appointed Wilkinson, who had attempted to start his own series in 1905, as editor.

Wilkinson edited the first, more extensive, series of papers, and contributed several papers to the first and second series. Among the topics he covered in his lively, readable style were games, law and literature, aboriginal tribes and the vocabulary of the lowland Semang people. While the residents had simply wanted textbooks for civil service cadets, the papers were read more widely than intended and some were republished decades later. Although some were superseded they remain a valuable source and a scholarly landmark.

Malay-English Dictionary
The Royal Asiatic Society had introduced him to other linguists and Wilkinson assumed the challenge of meeting the widely-acknowledged need for an authoritative, comprehensive Malay-English dictionary. His tremendous linguistic skill equipped him to draw upon Dutch sources and he purchased valuable manuscripts as sources for word lists. He consulted widely among Malays, including checking the meaning of technical terms with various tradesmen. The two-volume dictionary was published in 1901 and 1902 and became the definitive work.

He soon wished to republish it with words in romanised rather than Jawi script but his administrative career preoccupied him. He continued work on the dictionary after leaving Malaya in 1916. Three-quarters of his manuscript was lost when invading Turks seized his house in Smyrna in 1922, but the expanded, all-romanised edition was restored with his wife’s help and published in Greece in 1932. The dictionary was even reissued by the Japanese during the occupation, complete with his introduction, and remains in use today.

Colonial Secretary and later life
After a short stint as Resident of Negeri Sembilan (1910-11) he became Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements. This was a surprise appointment but he proved to be a very able administrator. He acted as governor in 1911 and again in 1914, when he helped to maintain public calm after Britain declared war on Germany and capably managed food and tin questions. Wilkinson won respect for consulting widely but accepting responsibility for his decisions. After Governor Arthur Young returned his hands-off approach enabled Wilkinson to take a lead and continue exercising his administrative skills.

He was made Governor of Sierra Leone in 1916 but later regretted leaving Malaya. In 1922 Wilkinson retired to Myteline on Lesbos but fled to Izmir (formerly Smyrna), Turkey, when Germany invaded. He died in 1941.

1912 : Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George

Published works  (selective)
1901 - 1902 :
A Malay-English Dictionary
1906 : Malay Beliefs
1908 : An Abridged Malay-English Dictionary
1932 : A Malay-English Dictionary (Romanised)

(General editor/author)
1907 - 1911 : Papers on Malay Subjects 
1912 - 1927 : Papers on Malay Subjects (Second Series)                   
Parents: Richard and Jane Wilkinson
Wife: Edith Baird, m.1912.

Duncan Sutherland

A Monument of Malay scholarship (1932, August 14). The Straits Times, p.12. Retrieved  April 23, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.

Gullick, J. M. (2001, June). Richard James. Wilkinson (1867-1941): A man of parts. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 74(1), 19-42.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)

Heussler, R. (1981). British rule in Malaya: The Malayan Civil Service and its predecessors (pp.132, 157, 255n). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
(Call no.: RSING 354.5951006 HEU)

Loh, P.F.S. (1975). Seeds of separatism: Educational policy in Malaya, 1874–1940 (pp.21-26).  Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 370.9595 LOH)

Nunn, B. (1991). The government. In W. Makepeace, G. E. Brooke, & R. St. J. Braddell (Eds.), One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1, pp.144-145). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE)

Stevenson, R. (1975). Cultivators and administrators: British education policy towards the Malays, 1875–1906 (pp. 104-106, 108-111). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RCLOS 370.9595 STE)

Wilkinson, R. J.  (Ed.). (1971). Papers on Malay Subjects (Introduction by P. L. Burns, pp.1-10). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSEA 959.5 WIL)

Winstedt, R. O. (1947). Obituary -  Richard James Wilkinson, CMG [Microfilm: NL 24342]. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 20(1), 143–44.

List of images
Heussler, R. (1981). British rule in Malaya: The Malayan Civil Service and its predecessors (p.133). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
(Call no.: RSING 354.5951006 HEU)

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.

History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Malaysia
Colonial administrators
Colonial administrators--Singapore--Biography
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Language and literature>>Languages>>Austronesian and Oceanian languages>>Malay
Wilkinson, Richard James, 1867-1941
Personalities>>Biographies>>Colonial Administrators

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