The Queen’s Scholarships were a government scheme which enabled two promising students each year to enrol at a British university. From 1885 this provided most Singaporeans and Malayans with their only opportunity for tertiary education before Raffles College opened in 1929. It was the colony’s most prestigious academic prize until its abolition in 1959, and despite various criticisms it fostered enthusiasm for education and produced numerous distinguished alumni.
Foundation, cancellation and restoration
In late 1884 Colonial Secretary and Acting Governor Cecil Clementi Smith announced the establishment of the Higher Scholarships (as they were called until 1890). These would send two scholars annually to pursue a tertiary degree in Britain or India and also aimed to encourage English-speaking boys, who found employment readily available, to remain in school and obtain ”a really useful education”. This was a major step as the Straits Settlements had only started providing secondary education that year and few parents could afford further schooling abroad.
The scheme faced some criticism for fostering intense competition, teaching impractical subjects like Latin and French, and absorbing a disproportionate share both of teachers’ energies and financial resources for an elite few. (By 1902, $30,000 was reportedly spent on ten scholars.) There were also fears of India’s experience, where the newly-created educated class questioned the colonial status quo. Legislative councillors finally voted on cost grounds to grant no more scholarships after 1910 and reinvest the savings elsewhere in education.
Educators approved but pressure from parents and former scholars, led by legislative councillor Lim Boon Keng, secured their revival in 1923 and the first new competition was held the following year. Girls were made eligible and Maggie Tan became the first female recipient in 1930.
(From 1931 the government of the Federated Malay States (FMS), which had made single awards in 1901 and 1904, yielded to public demand and offered two Queen’s Scholarships annually, reserving one for Malays. These lasted until Malayan independence.)
Particulars of the scheme
Scholars were selected through a competitive examination for which Raffles Institution introduced a special class to prepare students. No candidates passed the locally-administered and widely-criticised examination of 1885, and so the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) took responsibility and awarded scholarships in 1886. The first recipients, Charles Angus and James Aitken, became a civil engineer and Song Ong Siang’s law partner. Some young candidates, including Song and Wu Lien Teh, disregarded the age requirement of sixteen (later seventeen) and had to sit the exam multiple times.
From 1903 the UCLES supplemented the Senior Cambridge Examination with another examination tailored to Malayan requirements. After 1923 scholars were chosen from among the top five candidates by a board which also considered factors like character and personality. The examination’s central role in the process was discontinued as part of reforms in 1940 (see below).
After the awards resumed in 1923 educators urged making them graduate scholarships. As schools were struggling to prepare candidates and some young scholars had had difficulty at university, teachers believed that Raffles College, which had not existed in 1885, would offer a better grounding. Therefore from 1940 candidates had to be graduates of Raffles College or King Edward VII College of Medicine (these became the University of Malaya in 1949), or Raffles students with a degree from another institution. In 1954 one of the scholarships again became an undergraduate award, allowing the pupil with the top Higher School Certificate Examination results to study at Oxford or Cambridge.
An annual two-year Queen’s Fellowship was also introduced in 1940 enabling graduates of between five and ten years’ standing to undertake further study, though not necessarily a degree course. None of the 1940-41 scholars or fellows were able to travel until after the war.
Value and conditions
Scholarships initially covered return steamer fare and paid £200 each year for four years (later a maximum of six and still later, three). From 1927 they paid between £150 and £400 a year with an extra £100 upfront; students normally received the maximum amount. By the 1930s these were reportedly the most valuable scholarships in the world.
Until 1896 most scholars studied in London or Edinburgh but around this time two scholars did not finish their courses and a desire to impose more discipline led the government to restrict students to English or Irish residential universities. This eliminated the option of study in India, which no scholar had ever chosen. The restriction was later relaxed but most students still attended Oxford or Cambridge.
In 1951 scholarships and fellowships became tenable at any overseas university, and at least two Queen’s Fellows studied outside Britain. But the awards also now entailed work in Singapore or Malaya for at least two years after graduation; this had previously been encouraged but not required.
Soon after Singapore attained self-rule in 1959 the Queen’s Scholarships were replaced with Singapore State Scholarships for University of Malaya undergraduates, and State Research Fellowships for postgraduate study overseas. The requirement to work at home became an obligation for government service. In 1964 these became the Yang di Pertuan Negara Scholarships, tenable anywhere, and have been known since 1966 as the President’s Scholarships.
There was some evidence that the program succeeded in keeping boys in school longer. Enrolment beyond Standard VII fell sharply in 1911 after the cancellation and one headmaster estimated in 1923 that for each scholar chosen, forty or fifty boys had stayed in school who would have otherwise left. According to a senior colonial official many became teachers themselves.
For returning scholars, the civil service was not an option as during much of this period only its lowest ranks admitted Asians. Yet they blazed a trail in the professions, especially law and medicine, and their examples encouraged Chinese acceptance of Western education and enthusiasm for professional success. There was keen public anticipation of the annual announcement of the new scholars and eventually many wealthy parents sent their children to British universities and schools. The resulting new English-educated elite helped to facilitate the modernisation of Asian communities.
1887 : Dr Lim Boon Keng, first Straits Chinese medical doctor, community leader, philanthropist, president of Amoy University.
1888 : Sir Ong Siang Song, first Straits Chinese barrister and knight, historian.
1889 : C. M. Philips, principal of Raffles College.
1896 : Dr Wu Lien Teh, renowned doctor who suppressed the 1910-11 Manchurian plague. Wrote book on Queen’s Scholarships.
1904 (FMS) : Dr Noel Clarke, Eurasian Association president, legislative councillor.
1904 : Chan Sze Jin, lawyer, legislative councillor.
1908 : Tun Leong Kew Yoh, Governor of Malacca, Malaysian Justice Minister.
1924 : Tan Ah Tan , first Asian Singapore Supreme Court justice.
1929 : Tan Thoon Lip, first Asian Registrar of the Singapore Supreme Court.
1935 : Tan Sri Professor Ahmad Mohammed Ibrahim, state advocate general who drafted Singapore constitution, attorney general, ambassador.
1937 : Ismail bin Mohammed Ali , first Malay Governor of Bank Negara.
1937 (FMS) : Tun Dr Lim Cheong Eu, longest-serving Chief Minister of Penang.
1938 : Lim Kok Ann, University of Singapore’s youngest professor, later its Dean of Medicine.
1940 : Dr Maurice Baker, educator, ambassador.
1946 : E. W. Barker, Speaker of Parliament, Minister for Law, National Development, Environment, Labour.
1947 : Kwa Geok Choo, co-founder, Lee and Lee; leading conveyancing lawyer; wife of the future prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
1955 : Hwang Peng Yuan, Economic Development Board chairman, Temasek Holdings vice chairman, ambassador.
1955 : Wong Lin Ken, first Singaporean Ambassador to the USA and the UN, Home Affairs Minister, historian.
1957 : Lim Pin, Vice Chancellor, National University of Singapore.
1940 : Prof Ernest Monteiro , leader in preventive medicine; Dean of Medicine, University of Singapore; ambassador.
1941 : Kenneth M. Byrne, first PAP Minister of Labour and Law.
1941 : Benjamin Sheares, leading obstetrician, second President of Singapore.
1954 : Dr Kanagaratnam Shanmugaratnam, leading pathologist; Dean of Medicine, University of Singapore.
Baker, Maurice. (2006). In Singapore: The Encyclopedia (p.53). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE)
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Fernandez, W. (2001). Without fear or favour: 50 years of the Public Service Commission (pp.80-81). Singapore: Times Media for the Public Service Commission.
(Call no.: RSING q352.63095957 FER)
Higher scholarships to enable students to qualify in Great Britain (or India) for a professional career (Straits Settlements Govt Gazette, 14 November 1884) at pp.1455-1456.
[Microfilm: NL 1013]
Lee, E. D. J. (Ed.). (2005). To sail uncharted seas: Commemorating 100 years of medical education (1905-2005) (p.111). Singapore: Faculty of Medicine, National University of Singapore.
(Call no.: RSING q610.7115957 NAT)
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[Microfilm: NL 1022]
Queen’s Scholarships to enable students to obtain in Great Britain a degree at a university with a residential system under discipline (Straits Settlements Government Gazette GN No. 138/1896)
[Microfilm: NL 1033]
Raffles Institution. (2001). Raffles Institution: The album (p.17). Singapore: Raffles Institution.
(Call no.: RSING 373.5957 RAF)
Regulations for the Queen’s Scholarships, Straits Settlements, 1924 (Straits Settlements Government Gazette GN No. 2051/1923)
[Microfilm: NL 1217]
The regulations for Queen’s Scholarships and Fellowships for graduates of the University of Malaya (Colony of Singapore Government Gazette GN No 647/1951).
[Microfilm: NL 1258]
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(Call no.: RSING 347.5957035 IN)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR [HIS])
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN)
Wu, L.T. (1904, May). The Straits Settlements Queen’s Scholarships: A brief history [Microfilm: NL 267]. Straits Chinese Magazine, 8(1), 18-25.
Wu, L.T. (1904, June). The Straits Settlements Queen’s Scholarships: A brief history [Microfilm: NL 267].
Straits Chinese Magazine, 8(2), 85-91.
Wu, L.T., & Ng, Y.H. (1949). The Queen's Scholarships of Malaya 1885-1948 (pp.2-3, 6, 17, 19-21, 24, 26, 35, 38-39) [Microfilm: NL 10772]. Penang: Penang Premier Press Co., Ltd.
Wyndham, H.A. (1933). Native education: Ceylon, Java, Formosa, the Philippines, French Indo-China and British Malaya (pp.205-206). London: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RCLOS 371.97 WYN)
Young, R. M. (1955). Department of Education Annual Report 1954 (pp.47-48) [Microfilm: NL 9335]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Wu, L. T. (1955). Plague fighter: The autobiography of a modern Chinese doctor (pp.152-157). Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons Ltd.
(Call no.: RDTYS 926.1 WU)
List of images
Song, O.S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore (Portrait of scholars from 1886-88, facing p. 224). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON)
Queen’s scholarships. (2006). In Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Portrait of early scholars, p. 436). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN)
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.
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College students--Great Britain--Scholarships, fellowships, etc.