Dr John Crawfurd (1783-1868): The Scotsman Who Made Singapore British

Ernest C. T. Chew, Associate Professor of History, National University of Singapore

Ernest Chew has graciously shared this essay, which first appeared in Raffles Town Club, vol. 8 (July-Sept 2002), with readers of the Postcolonial Web. It appears with his permission and that of the Raffles Town Club, which retains the copyright.

3. Contributions to Singapore

Crawfurd visited Singapore for the first time in January 1822, in the course of his diplomatic mission to Siam and Cochin-China, and was impressed with the settlement's development. He also made some careful observations of the geology of the Island, as he did of surrounding areas, which have earned praise from later professional geologists.

In 1823, as Raffles grew increasingly unhappy with Farquhar, he backed Crawfurd as his replacement, and despite some reservations still considered him to be 'bold and fearless', 'devoting his mind exclusively to objects in which my heart and soul are deeply interested' (cited by Turnbull 25).

However, Crawfurd had a mind of his own, and a personality rather different from Raffles' and Farquhar's. Munshi Abdullah, who admired the latter for their warm sympathy with the Malays, later observed that Crawfurd was

by nature inclined to impatience and outbursts of temper. He did all his work slowly, without hurrying. He was conscientious as well as capable, and he was also a man of education.[...] He was tight-fisted and gave himself airs. His temperament made him intolerant of listening to long-winded complaints. He preferred short, abbreviated statements of fact (Hill 223-224).

Raffles himself had misgivings over Crawfurd's administration. In January 1824, he wrote to his sister in Singapore, "I am sorry Crawfurd does not give so much satisfaction as I could have wished, and that he is not superior to the influence of personal feelings in his public administration. I never placed much confidence in his judgment or experience, but I hoped from his public professions that he would have taken a different course [....] he is new in office and may mend" (cited by Bastin 697).

Did Crawfurd follow Raffles' course and "mend" his ways? Dr Mary Turnbull gives this verdict:

Crawfurd regarded Raffles' provisions for representative government, higher education and moral upliftment as visionary, utopian, and premature. He jettisoned them in order to promote what he held to be Raffles' most sensible ideas, notably his commercial policy (Turnbull 26).

More specifically, he tightened and reformed Raffles' judicial system, licensed gambling (which Raffles' disapproved), and in a final report urged the Company Directors to concentrate realistically on primary education: "The native inhabitants of Singapore have not yet attained that state of civilization and knowledge which would qualify them to derive advantage from the enlarged system of education held by the Singapore Institution [i.e., Raffles' pet project]" (cited by Turnbull, ibid.) No doubt thanks to Crawfurd's conscientious and canny administration, Singapore continued to thrive in terms of population, trade and revenue. The first official census of January 1824 showed that the Island had 11,000 inhabitants. The rise in population and trade brought increased revenue from opium and gambling farms and the sale of licences for certain goods. Crawfurd was also instrumental in the start of the first local newspaper, The Singapore Chronicle, and was its principal contributor.

Of course, what is arguably his most significant contribution to colonial Singapore was his negotiation of a treaty with the Malay authorities, which when concluded in August 1824, made Singapore and its surrounding islets a British possession.


Bastin, John. "Malayan Portraits: John Crawfurd", in Malaya, vol.3 (December 1954), pp.697-698.

Hill, A.H., trans.The Hikayat Abdullah. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford UP,1970.

Turnbull, C.M. A History of Singapore 1819-1988. 2nd ed. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988, ch.1.

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Last modified: 12 October 2002