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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…

Shortly after Stamford Raffles established a British trading outpost in Singapore on 6 February 1819, missionaries began arriving here in hopes of spreading Christianity to the people.The first of these missionary groups was the London Missionary Society (LMS) – a non-denominational Protestant society founded in 1795 in England – which sent a missionary named Samuel Milton from Malacca to Singapore. Milton was later joined by another missionary, Claudius Henry Thomsen, who brought with him a small printing press and a few employees. Thomsen most likely translated the Sermon on the Mount into Malay. The Sermon is the longest and one of the most often quoted teachings of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible. The translation by Thomsen is one of the earliest extant Malay publications printed in Singapore. It is a small booklet printed by S. C. Mission Press in 1829 – “S. C.” refers to the Singapore Christian Union, which was formed by Protestant missionaries in Singapore. For the first few years, S. C. Mission Press was managed by Milton, but he…

Quite ironically, the most detailed account of Stamford Raffles’ momentous arrival in Singapore was captured by a man who was not even there. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, better known as Munshi Abdullah, gathered reports from those present to piece together a version of the events that occurred during Raffles’ first arrival to Singapore on 29 January 1819. This landmark narrative is included in his autobiography Hikayat Abdullah, or Stories of Abdullah, one of the most important records of the socio-political landscape in Singapore, Malacca and the southern Malay kingdoms of Johor and Riau-Lingga at the turn of the 19th century. Written in Jawi – modified Arabic script used to write the Malay language – between 1840 and 1843 and published in 1849, the book is considered compulsory reading among scholars of Malay literature and culture and is the most renowned of Abdullah’s works. Until the 1970s, it was used as a textbook in every Malay school in Singapore. Born in Malacca in 1797, young Abdullah studied under the best Malay scholars in his hometown and read all…