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History & Culture / Southeast Asia

What was Singapore like 100 years ago? (Education)

Curious, we gathered answers from official colonial records. The British, in their administrative precision, kept tedious records of almost every aspect of their jurisdiction over the Straits Settlements, including public education, civic organisations, and public health. An investigation into these seemingly mundane colonial records yields an interesting picture about the daily lives of the communities living in Singapore 100 years ago.

In this series, we cover different segments of life and society in 1920s Singapore. The 1920s were among the most prosperous periods of the century. Singapore benefited greatly from the global recovery then as soldiers rejoined the economy after the First World War. The “Roaring Twenties”, as the period was known in the USA, reflected the economic dynamism and social exuberance of the time. Throughout these boom years, Singapore’s social services expanded, largely funded by the colonial government.

Previously, we looked at the population, immigration, births, and deaths in Singapore in the 1920s—“What was Singapore like 100 years ago? (Demographics)”. Here, we look at colonial Singapore’s education landscape.

Colonial Spending on Education

Even though formal education existed in Singapore during the 19th century, it was still an enterprise largely undertaken by foreign missionaries. But by the 1920s, the colonial government had set up state-provided education while also providing aid to private schools. There was a significant increase in spending in government schools, which more than doubled by the end of the decade.

Primary School Education

As society matured, it was seen as increasingly important for the young to get an education. The colonial authorities also believed this would foster loyalty to Britain. Several new schools were opened in this decade, including Telok Kurau School in 1926 and Radin Mas Elementary English School in 1927, versions of which still exist today.

While the number of government schools and government-aided private schools grew slowly over this decade, education for girls remained stagnant. Education for girls was still largely provided by missionaries and private schools, with only limited government-provided girls’ schools the entire decade.

Demographics of Students

It is not clear why girls’ education was not expanded, but this is likely due to societal prejudices of the time. Despite the lack of increase in the number of girls’ schools, there was a steady rise in both the number of girls and boys attending school throughout the decade. Aided-private primary schools saw a slight dip in boys’ attendance towards the end of the decade.

While education for girls started in the late 19th century, there was a greater push for it in the early 20th century, especially by the Straits Chinese community. Singapore, plugged into a globalising world, also saw influences of the “modern girl” during this period.

Who attended these schools? The students’ ethnic composition reflected Singapore society at the time. Interestingly, there were slightly more European and Eurasian girls in schools than boys of those ethnicities.

Vernacular Schools

Vernacular schools were prevalent in colonial Singapore, although it was largely the result of ground-up initiatives by members of the community giving back to society, setting up schools that taught in their respective languages. The exception were Malay vernacular schools, which appeared to be largely supported by the government. The decade also saw the closure of the only existing Tamil vernacular school in 1927, though more Tamil schools were opened in later decades.

Enrolment across the different language schools varied greatly. Enrolment in Malay vernacular schools rose steadily through the 1920s, while enrolment in Tamil vernacular schools tapered to zero due to the school's closure. Chinese vernacular schools saw a surge in student enrolment in 1924, causing the schools to also double from two to four. This may have been related to the increased presence of communists in Singapore, who opened many night schools during this time.

Higher Education Institutes

These facilities for higher education, especially for commercial reasons, perhaps indicate a maturing society and settlement. The King Edward VII College of Medicine, founded in 1905, aimed to train doctors to serve the growing population of the Straits Settlements.

Raffles College, founded in 1928, was to provide higher education in the arts and sciences. It was also intended to produce a pool of fully trained local teachers to address the shortage in teaching staff and reduce reliance on European teachers.

These two colleges would go on to form the nucleus of the National University of Singapore.

The enrolment of the King Edward VII Medical College saw a slight decrease over this decade. Raffles College, however, saw an almost twofold jump in enrolment in its first two years. Higher education at this time was still severely limited to young men, and few young women had the opportunity to enter university.

This story is the second part of a series on the life and society in 1920s Singapore. The first story was “What was Singapore like 100 years ago? (Demographics)”. In the next chapter of this series, we will be looking into the civil life of colonial Singapore

Story by Loh Pei Ying and James Lui
James Lui is a passionate and experienced historical researcher who has more than a decade of experience in the publishing industry. An established editor, his greatest wish is to marry his passion for history with his experience in publishing, and he is currently researching the British founding of Singapore in 1819.
Research by Gwyneth Cheng
Code by Siti Aishah
Design and illustrations by Joceline Kuswanto, Griselda Gabriele, Avel Chee
Background image by Philip Chew


Data used in this article was taken and compiled from the Annual Departmental Reports, Colonial Office: Straits Settlements Sessional Papers (CO275/103-126), and the Blue Books, Colonial Office: Straits Settlements Miscellanea (CO277/72-82). It is important to note that data collection methods were not specified in the colonial records, and the numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt and room for error or bias in collection.

  • References (click to expand)


  • archives,
  • colonialism,
  • education,
  • history,
  • singapore

Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at


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