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British colonial administrator John Crawfurd once wrote that the Chinese in 19th-century Southeast Asia have a “propensity to form secret societies [that] has sometimes proved inconvenient”. But on the whole “they are peaceable subjects”, he added, and in the event of a foreign invasion, “their cooperation might certainly be relied on by a British government”. This and other nuggets of information about colonial Southeast Asia are recorded in A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands & Adjacent Countries, Crawfurd’s last scholarly publication before his death in 1868. Crawfurd, who was first posted to Penang in 1808 and served as Singapore’s second British Resident from 1823 to 1826, was one of a small school of colonial officials who industriously studied the local languages and cultures of the areas they governed and then published their observations. Their efforts provided the earliest reliable documentations of the region, laying the foundation for modern Southeast…

The National Library’s newest exhibition, “From the Stacks”, presents highlights of its Rare Materials Collection. Chung Sang Hong explains why you should not miss this event.

The implementation of English law in Singapore, along with Penang and Malacca, is detailed in Roland St. John Braddell’s landmark The Law of the Straits Settlements: A Commentary. Although this book is not the first attempt at documenting the legal history of Singapore, it has, nonetheless, contributed significantly to its study, and is regarded as a classic by scholars even today. In the 1890s, a group of Peranakan (Straitsborn Chinese) intellectuals decided to publish a magazine for the Straits community in Malaya. Singapore’s legal system can trace its origins to the British colonial era when it first adopted the English legal system. The First Charter of Justice Singapore was established on 6 February 1819, when Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor and Temenggong Abdul Rahman to establish a trading post in Singapore. Earlier in 1807, the British Crown had granted the British East India Company the First Charter of Justice to establish a Court of Judicature in…

The early Indian Muslims who settled in Singapore in the 1800s brought with them a varied heritage: their skills as shopkeepers and office workers, their unique customs and beliefs, and a tradition of devout poetry. Indeed, their religious faith was a key source of solace for these transplanted Muslims from the southern part of India, who often expressed their piety in the form of verse. One particularly notable poet among them was Muhammad Abdul Kadir Pulavar, whose Islamic religious poetry collection, Munajathu Thirattu, is the oldest Tamil book held by the National Library. Published by J. Paton, Government Printer, in 1872, the book comprises a total of 55 poems and songs in praise of Muslim saints and the Prophet Muhammad. The verses are written in simple Tamil, richly overlaid with Persian and Arabic words, and are appended with tunes and rhythms. They are divided into six genres: introductory poems in praise of the author (four poems); Munajathu Pathikam (four songs); Thanippaakkal (12 poems); Thanippathangal (30 songs); Sindhu, a lyrical form of Tamil (two poems); and Chitirak…

Written in the 14th century and set during the last days of China’s Han dynasty and the tumultuous Three Kingdoms period (circa AD 220–280), the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a well-known Chinese classic of epic proportions and a cast of thousands. In the late 1800s, a Baba Malay version of this classic was published in Singapore – making this popular tale more accessible to the Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) community. Titled as Chrita Dahulu-kala, Namanya Sam Kok, Atau, Tiga Negri Ber-prang: Siok, Gwi, Sama Gor di Jaman “Han Teow” (henceforth referred to as Sam Kok), the series consists of 30 volumes translated from Chinese to Baba Malay. The translation was done by Chan Kim Boon, an administrator at law firm Aitken & Rodyk, with the help of two other people, Chia Ann Siang and Tan Kheam Hock. Published between 1892 and 1896 by Kim Sek Chye Press, the entire series totalled some 4,622 pages, and a single volume was sold at a $1 each. Sam Kok is most likely the earliest complete Malay translation of Romance…

Fundraising activities can tell us a lot about the people in need and those who raise the funds for them. A rare publication titled Singapore Tong Seok Dramatic Association Charity Performance for the Shantung Relief Fund (星洲通俗白话剧团演 剧筹赈山东惨灾会特刊), commemorating a fundraising performance that took place in early 20th-century Singapore, gives us a glimpse of exactly that: how a brutal military clash between Chinese and Japanese troops in faraway Jinan, China, created a wave of patriotism among the Chinese community in Singapore and propelled them to collect money in aid of their fellow countrymen.

Love it or hate it, most people find expatriates’ accounts of Singapore endlessly fascinating. One of the earliest newspaper columnists was Charles Burton Buckley, whose writings on Singapore were published as early as 1902 – the first of its kind at the time. This two-volume work spans 48 years of Singapore history from its founding in 1819 to the transfer from the British East India Company to the Colonial Office in 1867. There are a total of six complete sets in the National Library. One set is part of the Gibson-Hill Collection, two sets belong to the Ya Yin Kwan Collection and another set was donated by Yeh Sui-Yen. Organised in a chronological order, the publication is not so much a serious academic work but a collection of Buckley’s lighthearted columns aimed at entertaining the local reading public. The columns were written by Buckley for the Singapore Free Press, along with some new information. An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore is nevertheless an important publication as it offers a selected archive of historical documents that…