Straits Philosophical Society
The Straits Philosophical Society was founded on 5 March 1893 with the objective of engaging in critical discussions on philosophy, theology, history, literature, science and art. The society played a developmental role in the intellectual and cultural life of colonial Singapore.1
Membership and activities
The society’s founding members were Charles Warren (president), George Murray Reith (secretary and treasurer), John Winfield Bonser, Walter Napier, Henry Nicholas Ridley, Richmond William Hullett, John Bromhead Matthews, John McKillop, David J. Galloway, Arthur Knight, Tan Teck Soon, Thomas Shelford, George Darby Haviland, Robert Norman Bland and Charles W. Kynnersley.2 The society largely comprised the intellectual elite of the colonial administration and society, such as members of the Legislative Council and high-ranking civil servants.3 Active membership, which was capped at 15, was opened to Singapore residents only. Priority for admission was given to university graduates, fellows of European learned societies as well as people of distinguished merit. Active members paid an annual subscription of $25 and an additional entrance fee of $5 to attend each meeting. Corresponding membership for residents in the other two territories of the Straits Settlements – Penang and Malacca – and Peninsular Malaya was available at a reduced rate.4
The society held regular meetings on the second Friday or Saturday of each month. Fines were imposed on members who were absent without valid reasons. Members usually met up for dinner before the commencement of the evening’s proceedings. Meetings were conducted in a structured and orderly manner, with members taking turns to present their essays. Each presentation was followed by a critique by another member, and a discussion on the essay and critique. The discussion concluded with a summary from the president, and replies by the presenter to questions raised during the discussions.5
The essays presented by members were on diverse topics ranging from literature, science, art, philosophy, religion and anthropology to economics and politics. Around 17 of these were published in The Straits Chinese Magazine: A Quarterly Journal of Oriental and Occidental Culture. Lim Boon Keng, one of the magazine’s founding editors, was a member of the Straits Philosophical Society.6 One such essay published in the magazine was written by founding member Tan Teck Soon. His paper, “Chinese Local Trade”, was praised by Song Ong Siang in his classic text, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, which examined 19th-century Chinese society in Singapore. Song described the paper as “ably written and highly informative” and that it would “well repay the reader who desires accurate information as to the part played by Chinese in the opening up, maintenance and development of local trade”.7
The works of the society were also compiled into bound volumes entitled Proceedings of the Straits Philosophical Society and Transactions of the Straits Philosophical Society. Copies were kept by the society and presented to public libraries in Singapore and Penang.8
In 1913, a collection of essays on local topics and interest presented before the society between 1893 and 1910 was published by Kelly and Walsh in a volume titled Noctes Orientales, under the editorship of Henry Nicholas Ridley, former director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.9
The society had a high member turnover rate. Some members moved to other parts of the Straits Settlements or left the colony altogether, while others returned to England. By the end of 1906, only five of the original founding members – Galloway, Hullet, Knight, Ridley and Tan – remained. In 1915, Tan was the only active member.10
The onset of World War I compounded membership problems, as many members were conscripted to fight the war in Europe. Those who remained had business commitments and could not contribute to the society.11 The year of the society’s cessation is not known, as no records beyond 11 February 1916 have survived.12
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia
1. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 301–02. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
2. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 301–02.
3. Jim Jose, “Imperial Rule and the Ordering of Intellectual Space: The Formation of the Straits Philosophical Society,” Crossroads, 12, no. 2 (1998): 29, 30, 36. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
4. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 301–02.
5. Straits Philosophical Society (Singapore), Noctes Orientales: Being a Selection of Essays Read before the Straits Philosophical Society Between the Years 1893 and 1910 (Singapore: Kelly and Walsh, 1913), i (Call no. RRARE 080 STR; microfilm NL5823); Jose, “Imperial Rule and the Ordering of Intellectual Space,” 27.
6. Jose, “Imperial Rule and the Ordering of Intellectual Space,” 25–26.
7. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1985), 343. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
8. Straits Philosophical Society (Singapore), Noctes Orientales, i; Jose, “Imperial Rule and the Ordering of Intellectual Space,” 25.
9. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 302; Straits Philosophical Society (Singapore), Noctes Orientales.
10. Jose, “Imperial Rule and the Ordering of Intellectual Space,” 28–29.
11. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 302.
12. Jose, “Imperial Rule and the Ordering of Intellectual Space,” 26.
Straits Philosophical Society (Singapore), Transactions of the Straits Philosophical Society for the Year 1893–1910 (1894–1910) (Call no. RRARE 106 TRA; microfilm NL5718, NL5719, NL5720])
Straits Philosophical Society (Singapore), Proceedings of the Straits Philosophical Society for the Year 1910–1911 (Singapore: Methodist Pub. House, 1911). (Call no. RRARE 106 PRO: microfilm NL5138)
Straits Philosophical Society (Singapore), Proceedings of the Straits Philosophical Society for the Year 1913–1914 (Singapore: Methodist Pub. House, 1914). (Call no. RRARE 106 PRO; microfilm NL5138)
The information in this article is valid as at April 2019 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.