Founded in Singapore in 1893, the Straits Philosophical Society was a society for the “critical discussion of questions in Philosophy, History, Theology, Literature, Science and Art”. Its membership was restricted to graduates of British and European universities, fellows of British or European learned societies and those with “distinguished merit in the opinion of the Society in any branch of knowledge”. Its closed-door meetings were an important gathering place for the educated elite of the colony, comprising colonial civil servants, soldiers, missionaries, businessmen, as well as prominent Straits Chinese members. Notable members included the botanist Henry Ridley, the missionary W.G. Shellabear and Straits Chinese reformers like Lim Boon Keng and Tan Teck Soon.
Throughout its years of operation, the Society left behind a collection of papers presented by its members, the vast majority of which conformed to the Society’s founding rule that its geographical position should influence its work. This produced a large corpus of literature on colonial Malaya which provides important insights into the logic and dynamics of colonial thought in the period before the First World War. In reproducing a collection of these papers this volume highlights the role of the Society in the development of ideas of race, Malayness, colonial modernization, urban government and debates over the political and socio-economic future of the colony.
By republishing these papers, The Straits Philosophical Society & Colonial Elites in Malaya seeks to contribute to the intellectual history of colonial and post-colonial Malaysia and Singapore, and to expand our understanding of the ways in which colonial thought has shaped governing systems of the past and present.
"The editors of this thoughtful collection remind us how much Malaya’s past could be differently evaluated with generational change. A small collection of the papers had first been published when the British Empire was at the high point of imperial confidence. After two World Wars, in the face of an unforgiving anti-colonialism, most of the papers were forgotten and nearly lost. Reading them in the twenty-first century, we can see how many of the problems of race, identity and social order that were discussed a century ago are still with us. I recommend that the papers be read afresh. With this selection, the editors have done us a favour by inviting us to ask ourselves: Have we become wiser? Do we have better answers? For that, they deserve our thanks."
Wang Gungwu, University Professor, National University of Singapore
"What a treasure Lim Teck Ghee has unearthed! To complement the dry official record of CO273 and the public pleading of the newspapers, we can now peer into the private passions and prejudices of the British (and some Chinese) elite at just the period they began to see themselves as architects of a new colonial social order. Their views were often well-informed, and ambitious to bring the latest theories to bear on Malaya. Robustly controversial, they were not politically correct even by the standards of the times. The editors deserve much praise and gratitude for having not only assembled these twenty-seven short papers but made them handily available to readers and provided an insightful introduction."
Anthony Reid, Professor Emeritus, Australian National University