Cecil Clementi

Cecil Clementi (Sir) (b. 1 September 1875, Cawnpore, India–d. 5 April 1947, Buckinghamshire, England, United Kingdom) was Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Straits Settlements as well as High Commissioner for the Federated Malay States from 1930 to 1934.1 Proficient in Chinese languages, primarily Cantonese and Mandarin, Clementi had extensive experience dealing with problems relating to the Chinese communities during his career.2 He imposed strong measures to suppress Chinese anti-colonial propaganda and sought a Malayan unity among the Malay States during his governorship.3 Clementi resigned due to ill health in 1934.4

Early life
Clementi was the eldest son of Colonel Montagu Clementi, who was a former Judge Advocate General in India.5 Clementi was educated in St Paul’s School, London, and later Magdalen College in Oxford, where he was one of the most outstanding students of his cohort.6 He obtained a Bachelor of Arts in 1898 and a Master of Arts in 1901, garnering a number of scholastic accolades during his studies.7

In 1899, Clementi joined the British Colonial Service as a cadet and was posted to Hong Kong, where he became an enthusiastic student of the local culture.A year after his arrival, he passed the Civil Service Examinations in Cantonese, an achievement almost without parallel in the history of the colony. In 1902, Clementi was appointed as a member of the Board of Examiners in Chinese. He later took up Pekingese (Beijing dialect) and passed a proficiency examination in 1906. Clementi was seconded for special service under the government of India in 1902, and in the following year, was given charge of the famine relief work in Kwangsi (Guangxi), China.9

Clementi performed well in his career in Hong Kong. From 1903 to 1906, he held successive office as a member of the Land Court, Assistant Land Officer and Police Magistrate. In 1907, he was promoted to Assistant Colonial Secretary, and in 1910, he became the private secretary to the officer administrating the government.10 From 1911 to 1912, he was Acting Colonial Secretary and a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils.11

Clementi left Hong Kong in 1913 for his appointment as Colonial Secretary of British Guiana (Guyana). In 1922, he moved to Ceylon (Sri Lanka today), where he remained as Colonial Secretary until 1925. On more than one occasion in both colonies, he served as Acting Governor.12 In recognition of his outstanding performance as an administrator, Clementi was appointed Governor of Hong Kong in 1925.13 He was bestowed the title of Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in the following year.14

Governorship of Straits Settlements
In November 1929, it was announced that Clementi would be appointed as Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Straits Settlements as well as High Commissioner for the Federated Malay States, following the resignation of former Governor Hugh Clifford.15 Before his arrival in Singapore and officially taking up the post on 5 February 1930,16 John Scott, formerly Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements, served as Acting Governor.17 In 1931, Clementi received the honour of Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG).18

However, Clementi was quite unpopular with the local populace. His measures to suppress anti-colonial propaganda included censoring the vernacular press, banning the Kuomintang branch in Singapore on the grounds that the China-based political party aimed to sever the loyalty of the local Chinese to the local government, and disallowing fundraising efforts for the Kuomintang. Clementi further aroused the anger of prominent Straits Chinese with his policies on education and immigration, which they found racially discriminatory and anti-Chinese. For instance, Clementi stopped providing grants in aid for Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools. This meant that only Malay education was provided free and that primary education in English was subsidised.19

In 1931, Clementi introduced plans to decentralise federal powers in the Malay States. He saw this as a precursor to uniting the whole peninsula into a Malayan league, leading to “the emergence of a brotherhood of Malay nations”.20 The decentralisation proposal recommended abolishing the post of Chief Secretary to the government and granting more power to the state councils. It was aimed at preserving the individual identities and administrative independence of the historic Federation states – Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang – in order to reduce the apparent status differences with that of the Unfederated States – Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu and Perlis. Clementi’s proposed policies were met with vehement opposition from the majority, including the Unfederated Malay States, Federation businessmen and their Singaporean counterparts as well as Chinese in the Federation who were worried that their interests would be undermined in a united Malaya. The British government sent Samuel Wilson, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, to investigate the situation; in the resultant report published in 1933, Wilson largely endorsed Clementi’s unification strategy but recommended that changes be carried out gradually.21

Clementi also advocated a Malayan customs union to eliminate internal customs barriers across Malaya. His proposal came to naught, however, as it failed to gain traction with the mercantile community in both the Straits Settlements and the Malay States. The proposal was unequivocally rejected by an unofficial committee in 1931 and again by the official committee later appointed by Clementi.22

Nonetheless, Clementi proved to be a man of vision, projecting in 1931 that Singapore would become the site for an international airport.23 The result was Kallang Airport, which opened in 1937 and was noted as the finest airport in the region then.24

On 16 February 1934, Clementi left Singapore for London. While on leave in England, the Colonial Office announced on 14 June Clementi’s resignation as Governor on the grounds of ill health with effect from 18 October 1934.25

Clementi had a great passion for travel, and made many trips deep into the interior of China, India, British Guiana and Ceylon and to many far-flung locations in Continental Europe. These adventures were the subject of his many publications. For his extensive travels, he received the Cuthbert Peek Award from the Royal Geographical Society in 1912.26

Clementi wrote a number of books and articles during his lifetime, including:

1904: Cantonese Love-Songs – a bilingual (Chinese–English) volume of Cantonese love songs translated by Clementi.27
1911: Summary of Geographical Observations Taken During a Journey from Kashgar to Kowloon (1907–1908).28

Clementi married Marie Penelope Rose, daughter of Admiral Cresswell J. Eyres, in 1912. The couple had one son and three daughters.29
His uncle and godfather, Cecil Clementi Smith, was Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1887 to 1893.30

Vernon Cornelius & Valerie Chew

1. James S. Olson, Robert Shadle and Patricia Ashman, et al. eds., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, vol. 1 (Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996), 305–06 (Call no. RSING 941.003 HIS); “Death of Sir Cecil Clementi,” Singapore Free Press, 8 April 1947, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Olson, Shadle and Ashman, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 305; C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 133. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
3. Olson, Shadle and Ashman, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 305–06; Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 133.
4. Olson, Shadle and Ashman, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 305–06; Sir Cecil Clementi Resigns,” Straits Times, 15 June 1934, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Olson, Shadle and Ashman, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 305; Colony’s New Governor,” Straits Times, 21 November 1929, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Olson, Shadle and Ashman, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 305; Colony’s New Governor,”
7. “Sir Cecil Clementi’s First Speech,” Straits Times, 5 February 1930, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Colony’s New Governor”; “Sir Cecil Clementi’s First Speech.”
9. “Colony’s New Governor”; “Gold Coast Governor to Succeed,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 15 June 1934, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Sir Cecil Clementi Resigns,” Straits Times, 15 June 1934, 11 (From NewspaperSG); Colony’s New Governor”; “Gold Coast Governor to Succeed”; Olson, Shadle and Ashman, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 305–06.
11. “Sir Cecil Clementi Resigns”; “Colony’s New Governor.”
12. “Sir Cecil Clementi Resigns”; “Colony’s New Governor”; “Sir Cecil Clementi’s First Speech.”
13. Olson, Shadle and Ashman, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 305.
14. “New Year Honours,” Straits Times, 2 January 1936, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “New Governor,” Malayan Saturday Post, 23 November 1929, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Sir Cecil Clementi Assumes Office,” Malayan Saturday Post, 8 February 1930, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Acting Governor,” Malaya Tribune, 21 October 1929, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Sir Cecil Clementi’s First Speech.”
19. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 133; Gold Coast Governor to Succeed.”
20. “H.E.’s Speech to Durbar,” Malaya Tribune, 20 August 1931, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Gold Coast Governor to Succeed”; Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 151–52; Man of Vision,” Straits Times, 8 April 1947, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Man of Vision”; “Gold Coast Governor to Succeed.”
23. “Man of Vision”; “Kallang and the Future,” Singapore Free Press, 14 December 1953, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 137.
24. “Kallang and the Future.”
25. “Governor in Penang,” Malaya Tribune, 17 February 1934, 11 (From NewspaperSG); “Sir Cecil Clementi Resigns.”
26. “Gold Coast Governor to Succeed.”
27. Cecil Clementi, Cantonese Love Songs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904). (Call no. RCLOS 895.11 CLE-[RFL])
28. “Papers of Sir Cecil Clementi,” Bodleian Libraries, n.d.; “Gold Coast Governor to Succeed.”
29. “Colony’s New Governor.”
30. Olson, Shadle and Ashman, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 305; Sir Cecil Clementi’s First Speech.”

Further resource
Governor and Kuomintang,” Malaya Tribune, 19 July 1934, 13. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at February 2020 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.


Clementi, Cecil, Sir, 1875-1947
Colonial administrators
Colonial administrators--Singapore--Biography

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