Richard James Wilkinson



Richard James Wilkinson (b. 29 May 1867, Salonika, Greece–d. 5 December 1941, Izmir, Turkey) was a colonial administrator and scholar.1 In addition to being the schools inspector for the Federated Malay States (FMS) and the colonial secretary, Wilkinson was also remembered for writing the classic Malay-English dictionary and his contributions to Malay studies.2

Early years and education
Wilkinson lived in the Greek city of Salonika as well as Malaga in Spain, where his father was British consul. He left for England in 1881 to study in Felsted School in Essex, and then Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1886. In Cambridge, Wilkinson obtained a scholarship and was provisionally accepted for appointment to the Indian Civil Service (ICS). For his bachelor’s degree, he read history and received his degree with second-class honours. However, he did not formally collect his degree until 1901. After completing his studies, Wilkinson failed to convert his ICS probation to an appointment after failing a required riding test. As a result, he joined the Malayan Civil Service instead and moved to Malaya in 1889. Between 1889 and 1891, Wilkinson took on various roles including sheriff and magistrate. He passed the government examination in Malay in 1891 and then the Hokkien one in 1895. Dissatisfied with his assignments, Wilkinson sought a transfer to China in 1895. Wishing to retain his services, Governor William Maxwell made Wilkinson acting secretary of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society to keep him engaged.3

Contributions to learning
Improving schools and promoting Malay
Besides joining the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Wilkinson was made superintendent of education in Penang, and a deputy inspector of schools of the Straits Settlements, where he impressed the Colonial Office with his annual report for 1899, prompting an invitation to write The Education of Asiatics for presentation to parliament. During this time, Wilkinson also opened the first Malay teacher training college in Malacca in 1900; produced his magnum opus, A Malay-English Dictionary, between 1901 and 1902; and returned to Cambridge to complete the formalities of his graduation.4 On his return, Wilkinson was made district officer of Dindings in Perak before becoming schools inspector for the Federated Malay States (FMS) in 1903.5

To inculcate a love of reading in both teachers and pupils, and not merely the ability, Wilkinson reprinted classic Malay tales and established small school libraries.6 He commissioned culturally appropriate texts to replace those with unfamiliar British references. This task, however, took years to complete.7 He also 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.8

Malay College
Wilkinson was less prejudiced than most officials when it came to improving the Malays’ English education which was needed to qualify them for posts in the Malayan Civil Service.9 As few were bothered by the Malays’ exclusion from their country’s administration and economic growth, Wilkinson’s ideas were met with suspicion or outright hostility.10 Nonetheless, with the strong backing of the influential Sultan Idris, Wilkinson was able to establish a Malay Residential School in Kuala Kangsar.11

Although the school began as a trial in January 1905 with three teachers and eight students, it marked the first time an effort was taken to train local Malays for admission into the civil service. By October, the total enrolment of the school had increased to 70 students. In 1907, the experiment was considered a success and plans were made to turn it into a permanent institution. The school was renamed “Malay College” and officially opened in 1909.12 By then, however, Wilkinson had left his education department. This came following the decision to merge the Straits Settlements and FMS school departments in 1903, and Wilkinson was not chosen to lead the new body by his superiors, with whom he had a difficult relationship.13

Scholarship
Papers on Malay Subjects
Shunted to Batang Padang as district officer, he was quickly reposted as the deputy to Ernest Birch, the Resident of Perak.14 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 to enlarge their knowledge. Known as Papers on Malay Subjects, Wilkinson was appointed as general editor of the series.15

Wilkinson edited the first, more extensive series of papers, and contributed several papers to the first and second series. Among the topics he covered were games, law and literature, aboriginal tribes and the vocabulary of the lowland Semang people. Wilkinson’s writing style has been described as lively and readable. 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 landmark in the scholarship of Malay culture.16

A Malay-English Dictionary
The Royal Asiatic Society introduced him to other linguists such as W. W. Skeat, and Wilkinson saw the need for a comprehensive Malay-English dictionary. To complete the task, Wilkinson had to draw upon word lists from existing works such as the Hikayat Abdullah and Malay literary works from Dutch and English manuscripts. Further, he had to consult the local Malays and tradesmen to check on the meaning of technical terms. The two-volume dictionary was published in 1901 and 1902 and became one of Wilkinson’s best-known works.17

Later, Wilkinson wanted to republish it in romanised form rather than Jawi script, but his administrative career preoccupied him. He began working on the dictionary in 1918. Three-quarters of his manuscript was lost when invading Turks seized his house in Smyrna in 1922. However, the expanded, all-romanised edition was restored with his wife’s help and published in Greece in 1932. The dictionary was reissued by the Japanese during World War II.18

Colonial secretary
After a short stint as Resident of Negeri Sembilan (1910–11), Wilkinson became colonial secretary of the Straits Settlements. He acted as governor in 1911 and again in 1914, when he helped to maintain public calm after Britain declared war on Germany, managing food and tin questions. Wilkinson gained respect for consulting widely and accepting responsibility for his decisions.19

In 1916, Wilkinson was made governor of Sierra Leone. After a five-year term, he retired to Myteline on the Greek island of Lesbos but fled to Izmir (formerly Smyrna), Turkey, when Germany invaded. He died there in 1941.20

Honours
1912: Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George.21

Selected publications
1901–1902: A Malay-English Dictionary22
1906: Malay Beliefs23

1907–1911: Papers on Malay Subjects (general editor; author)24
1908: An Abridged Malay-English Dictionary (Romanised)25
1912–1927: Papers on Malay Subjects (Second Series) (general editor; author)26

1932: A Malay-English Dictionary (Romanised)27



Author

Duncan Sutherland



References
1. Winstedt, R. O. (1947). Obituary – Richard James Wilkinson, CMG [Microfilm no.: NL 24342]. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 20(1), 143–144; 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. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
2. Wilkinson, R. J. (Ed.). (1971). Papers on Malay subjects. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 WIL); Nunn, B. (1991). The government. In W. Makepeace, G. E. Brooke & R. St. J. Braddell (Eds.), One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 145. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
3. 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), 22–24. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
4. 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), 25–26, 28. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS); Stevenson, R. (1975). Cultivators and administrators: British education policy towards the Malays, 1875–1906. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 103. (Call no.: RCLOS 370.9595 STE)
5. 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), 28. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
6. Stevenson, R. (1975). Cultivators and administrators: British education policy towards the Malays, 1875–1906. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 104–106. (Call no.: RCLOS 370.9595 STE)
7. 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), 73–74. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
8. Stevenson, R. (1975). Cultivators and administrators: British education policy towards the Malays, 1875–1906. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 106–109. (Call no.: RCLOS 370.9595 STE)
9. Loh, P. F. S. (1975). Seeds of separatism: Educational policy in Malaya, 1874–1940. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 20–22. (Call no.: RSING 370.9595 LOH)
10. 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), 29–30. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
11. Loh, P.F.S. (1975). Seeds of separatism: Educational policy in Malaya, 1874–1940. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 22–23. (Call no.: RSING 370.9595 LOH); 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), 30. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
12. Loh, P. F. S. (1975). Seeds of separatism: Educational policy in Malaya, 1874–1940. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 22–23. (Call no.: RSING 370.9595 LOH)
13. 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), 30–31. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
14. 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), 30. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
15. Wilkinson, R. J. (Ed.). (1971). Papers on Malay Subjects. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 5–6. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 WIL)
16. Wilkinson, R. J. (Ed.). (1971). Papers on Malay subjects. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 WIL)
17. A monument of Malay scholarship. (1932, August 14). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. 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), 36–38. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
19. 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), 33–35. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS).
20. 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), 35, 39. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
21. Nunn, B. (1991). The government. In W. Makepeace, G. E. Brooke & R. St. J. Braddell (Eds.), One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 145. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
22. Wilkinson, R. J. (1901). A Malay-English Dictionary [Microfilm no.: NL 24342]. Singapore: Kelly & Walsh.
23. Wilkinson, R. J. (1906). Malay beliefs [Microfilm no.: NL 5878]. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
24. Wilkinson, R. J. (Ed.). (1971). Papers on Malay Subjects. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 WIL)
25. Wilkinson, R. J. (1911). An abridged Malay-English dictionary (romanised) [Microfilm no.: NL 9823]. Singapore: Kelly & Walsh; 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), 27. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
26. Wilkinson, R. J. (Ed.). (1971). Papers on Malay subjects. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 8, 10. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 WIL)
27. Wilkinson, R. J. (1932). A Malay-English dictionary (romanised). Mytilene, Greece: Salavopoulos and Kinderlis. (Call no.: RCLOS 499.230321 MAL-[RFL])



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
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