Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society



Singapore Infopedia

Background

The Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society was founded in November 1877 to research and document information relating to the Malay Peninsula and archipelago. It was formed by a group of colonial administrators in Singapore, and started with 150 members. Its flagship publication, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, is the oldest active publication in Singapore and Malaysia.1 The society is known today as the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Founding
The Straits Asiatic Society was formed at a meeting held on 4 November 1877 at the Raffles Library in Singapore. The meeting was chaired by Archdeacon (later Bishop) George Frederick Hose and attended by nine prominent members of the early expatriate community in the Straits Settlements. The goal of the society then was to promote the collection and record of information relating to the Straits Settlements and the neighbouring countries. Its secondary aims included producing a journal and establishing a library of pertinent resources.2

The founding members comprised luminaries such as D. F. A. Hervey (Resident Councillor of Malacca), Charles John Irving (Lieutenant Governor of Penang) and William A. Pickering (first Protector of Chinese in the Straits Settlements). Many of the society’s early members also took on appointments in the society, such as treasurer and secretary, and contributed actively to its journal. The society’s parent organisation was the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which was founded by William Jones on 15 January 1781.3

Name changes
Immediately upon its formation, the Straits Asiatic Society sought an affiliation with the Royal Asiatic Society, a decision that was confirmed at the meeting of 6 May 1878. There, the name of the society was also duly changed to Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.4


In 1923, the society was renamed Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, primarily to reflect the increased British political influence in the Malay States, which by then had extended beyond the original Straits Settlements.5

In 1964, the society became known as Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, because of political changes in Malaysia. The society also moved its headquarters from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.6 

Structure
The first committee of the society was elected on 21 January 1878. A month later, an editorial team was formed. The society was led by a committee of officers made up of volunteers and many high-ranking public servants and distinguished scholars. Regular committee positions were president, honorary secretary and honorary treasurer.7 Bishop Hose was the first and one of the longest-serving presidents. Elected in 1878, he served as president until 1908. The position of honorary editor was tied to that of honorary secretary, but these roles became separate after World War II. However, between 1914 and 1922, the two positions were made distinct, mainly so that the honorary secretary could be relieved during the World War I period when resources were limited.8 From 1909 to 1922, an honorary librarian was appointed until the society’s library was subsumed under the Raffles Library in 1923. In 1984, the position of review editor was established, with Patricia Lim Pui Huen being the first appointed to this role.9


The society’s monthly general meetings were held at the Raffles Library in Singapore until its move to Kuala Lumpur. Closely associated with the Raffles Library and Museum, many of the institution’s staff were also key members of the society.10

The society was exclusive to men for some time. In 1889, a member wrote to the press suggesting the admission of women in order to improve the dwindling membership.11

Journal and other publications
Reflecting the several name changes that the society underwent over the years, the society’s journal was initially known as the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic SocietyJournal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and finally Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.12 The journal was probably styled after the periodical produced by James Richardson LoganJournal of the Indian Archipelago, which had established its name as a premier source for Asiatic information, particularly of the area around the Strait of Melaka.13


The first issue of the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society was published in September 1878 but was dated July 1878. Journal papers were often read at early society meetings.14

The biannual journal carried articles on diverse subjects including culture, anthropology, art, history, language, literature, archaeology, botany and zoology. Among its contributors were eminent scholars such as Maxwell, R. O. WinstedtR. J. WilkinsonRoland Braddell and Henry N. Ridley. In addition to reprints of selected journal articles,15 the society has also published a series of monographs such as Coleman’s Singapore (1986)16 and British Policy and Malay Politics during the Malayan Union Experiment, 1942–1948 (1979).17

Since its founding over 130 years ago, the society has published more than 320 journal issues, 51 monographs, 35 reprints, 3 indexes, a statistical gazetteer, a map of the Malay Peninsula and a textbook on eastern geography.18

The Society’s library
In Hose’s inaugural address as the president in 1878, he noted the need to collect Malay manuscripts of the region. He also warned of the imminent loss of such local heritage, unless effort was made to discover and preserve them.19


Hose started the society’s library collection with his personal copy of the Hikayat Abdullah. The library grew as the society’s journal was exchanged for works of other institutions. By 1879, the collection had grown to 135 volumes. From its early years, the growth and development of the society’s library had competed with that of its host institution, the Raffles Library. For example, the society sought government funding to acquire the J. R. Logan collection of Malayan philological works for its library, but the government decided that Logan’s collection was to be deposited at the Raffles Library instead. Nonetheless, by 1907 the society’s collection of works had grown large enough that it required a larger room in the Raffles Library and Museum.20

In 1909, with the appointment of an honorary librarian, whose role was separate from that of the honorary secretary, a new catalogue of the library collection was produced and library rules were drafted. The Raffles Library and Museum had at least one of its directors (such as Karl R. Hanitsch) and its first librarian, James Johnston, hold the position of honorary librarian in the society’s committee. By 1923, however, the drive to maintain a separate library declined, and the society’s library was transferred to the Raffles Library.21



Author

Bonny Tan


References
1. Tan G. E., “Society Brings Out Book of Articles,” New Straits Times, 31 March 1990 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Tiew Wai Sin, “History of Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS) 1878–1997: An Overview,” Malaysian Journal of Library & Information Science 3, no. 1 (July 1998): 44; “About Us,” Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, accessed 20 May 2017.
2. George Frederick Hose, “Inaugural Address,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 1 (July 1878): 1; “Proceedings of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 1 (July 1878): iii; Walter Makepeace, “A Review of the Forty Years' Work of the Society,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 78 (June 1948): xi–xiii; J. M. Gullick, “A Short History of the Society,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 68, no. 2 (269) (1995): 67. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
3. Gullick, “Short History of the Society,” 67; Makepeace, “Review of the Forty Years' Work of the Society,” x; Tiew, “History of Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” 50.
4. “Proceedings of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” iii, vi–vii.
5. Tiew, “History of Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” 44.
6. Tiew, “History of Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” 45.
7. “Proceedings of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” iv; Harold M. Otness, “The Library of the Straits Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, 1877–1923: A History,” Singapore Libraries 25 no. 2 (1996): 47. (Call no. RSING 020.5 SL-[LIB])
8 Gullick, “Short History of the Society,” 70, 72, 74, 79; Tiew, “History of Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” 46–47.
9. Gullick, “Short History of the Society,” 70, 72, 74, 78–79; Tiew, “History of Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” 48; Otness, “Library of the Straits Branch,” 53.
10. Otness, “Library of the Straits Branch,” 48; Gullick, “Short History of the Society,” 71.
11. “The Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” Straits Times, 18 February 1889, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Tiew, “History of Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” 44.
13. Hose, “Inaugural Address,” 2–4; Makepeace, “Review of the Forty Years' Work of the Society,” xii; Gullick, “Short History of the Society,” 67.
14. Tiew, “History of Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” 44; Gullick, “Short History of the Society,” 68; “Proceedings of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” v–vii.
15. Tan, “Society Brings Out Book of Articles on Brunei”; Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, “About Us.”
16. T. H. H. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society; Pelanduk Publications, 1986). (Call no. RSING 720.924 COL.H)
17. A. J. Stockwell, British Policy and Malay Politics during the Malayan Union Experiment, 1945–1948 (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, 1979) (Call no. RSING 959.51035 STO)
18. Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, “About Us.” 
19. Hose, “Inaugural Address,” 9; Otness, “Library of the Straits Branch,” 48–49.
20. Otness, “Library of the Straits Branch,” 49, 51.
21. Gullick, “Short History of the Society,” 69, 71, 78; Otness, “Library of the Straits Branch,” 52–53; Senex, “Raffles Library,” Singapore Free Press and the Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 October 1920, 7. (From NewspaperSG)



The information in this article is valid as of December 2021 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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