R.O. Winstedt

R.O. Winstedt
Richard Olaf Winstedt (Sir) (b. Oxford, England, 2 August 1878d. London, England, 2 June 1966), was a colonial administrator and scholar. He introduced numerous reforms as director of education for the Straits Settlements but is better remembered for his contribution to the study of Malayan folklore, history and language, on which he published hundreds of works over a 50-year period.
Winstedt studied at Magdalen College School and New College, Oxford. He joined the Colonial Service and requested posting to the Federated Malay States, arriving in Taiping in late 1902.

In 1903, he became an assistant schools inspector in Perak. Visiting remote villages by raft, bullock cart, elephant, and even more unusual (at that time) bicycle, he rarely saw other Europeans, which helped him to master the Malay language. From 1904, he was assistant district officer in a series of Perak towns. After nearly dying of blood poisoning he became district officer for Kuala Pilah, in Negeri Sembilan. Here, he attended many rural functions and became very familiar with local culture. This knowledge of Malays' language and customs prompted his appointment as assistant director of education for Malay schools in the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States in 1916.

After fact-finding trips to Java and the Philippines he recommended a greater focus on handicrafts and horticulture to equip Malays for kampong life. He was largely responsible for founding Sultan Idris Training College in Tanjong Malim, Perak, to address the shortage of Malay teachers, and later established a Translation Bureau to produce Malay texts. In 1924, he became Director of Education. His insistence on schooling Malays in Malay, lowering of the school-leaving age and focus on vernacular subjects like basket-weaving, designed to preserve their traditional lifestyles, was later criticised for hindering their advancement. This conservative approach was exemplified in a contemporary’s remark that the system aimed to make the sons of farmers and fishermen better farmers and fishermen.

However, he also widened the curriculum for girls, recruited more inspectors to enforce new standards and centralised the supply of textbooks to ensure comprehensive distribution. One of his own texts, a moral primer, was used in British schools. He drafted the first Education Code and assembled an expert staff which helped him to master every aspect of educational issues. Although he was more interested in elementary education he helped establish Raffles College and was its first president from 1921 until 1931 and chaired a committee which finally secured the College of Medicine’s financial footing in 1928. As Director of Education he sat on the legislative and federal councils of the Straits Settlements and FMS.

In 1931, he became General Adviser to the State of Johore. At the sultan’s request he extended his stay then retired and received a knighthood in 1935.

Winstedt’s fascination with Malaya and ample vocabulary led him to assist the distinguished scholar-administrator Richard Wilkinson with research before publishing his own works. In Perak he met a celebrated poet who interested him in court ceremony and an illiterate old Bugis village chief whose many hours of stories Winstedt transcribed and published. Working in his spare time, Winstedt collected vast amounts of original material and would publish articles on Malay folklore, arts and crafts, law, religion, archaeology and beliefs and customs.

During Winstedt’s long recovery from blood poisoning Wilkinson recommended studying Malay grammar. The result was possibly his most significant book, Malay Grammar, published in 1913. The book established his reputation and earned him from Oxford University the first British doctoral degree for a Malay topic in 1920. He also published a three-volume English-Malay dictionary between 1914 and 1917 and would later produce several more, including an all-Malay dictionary over forty years later. Other notable works included Shaman, Saiva and Sufi, a study of Malay magic (1925).

Winstedt had co-authored a short history of Malaya in 1918, later adapted for school use, which reiterated for Malays the sometimes-forgotten distinction between legend and history. He focused on history more seriously during his final years there. A project to establish the sultan’s genealogy led to a history of Johore, soon followed by histories of Riau, Negeri Sembilan, Selangor and Malaya. The last work had a wider chronological scope than any previous general history and was translated into Japanese during the occupation. Later historians critiqued his unapologetic imperialism, lack of footnotes, and focus on court life, yet these were the most comprehensive works of their kind to date.

As well as publishing Winstedt contributed to local scholarship as president or vice president of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society over several years and a member of the Raffles Library and Museum committee. On his departure from Malaya he was named a pendita (professor) by the Royal Society of Malay Literature, Johore. After retiring to Britain he produced an important new translation of the Malay Annals (1938) and a book of Malay proverbs (1950). He became the first ex-colonial official appointed a Fellow of the British Academy (1945), recognising his History of Malay Literature (1939). He was also awarded the Royal Asiatic Society’s triennial gold medal (1947) and an honorary LL.D. from the University of Malaya (1951).

In 1935, he joined London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, teaching Malay for ten years and serving as one of its governors for twenty. He joined the Colonial Office advisory committee on education, presided over the Association of British Malaya, and served as president or director of the Royal Asiatic Society between 1940 and 1964. From 1940 he made twice-weekly Malay broadcasts on BBC world service and opined on Malayan affairs in the media, predicting Japan’s invasion. After the war Winstedt and other eminent ex-Malayan officials attacked the British government’s controversial and ultimately short-lived Malayan Union plan, particularly the coercion of the reluctant sultans. He remained a prolific writer into old age and died in 1966.

Published works
1909 : Papers on Malay subjects
1913 : Malay Grammar (revised 1927)
1916 : Colloquial Malay – A simple grammar with conversations (revised 1944)
1914-17 : An English-Malay Dictionary
1916 : Malayan memories
1920 : Dictionary of colloquial Malay (Malay-English and English-Malay)
1922 : The early history of Singaore, Johore and Malacca
1925 : Shaman, saiva and sufi: A study of the evolution of Malay magic
1929 : Simple Malay grammar for the use of schools
1931 : A Malay History of Riau and Johore (with Raja Ali Haji )
1932 : The Prehistory of Malaya
1932 : A History of Johore
1933 : Right thinking and right living: A primer on moral and social topics
1933 : Eastern Tales
1934 : A History of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan
1934 : A History of Perak (with Richard Wilkinson)
1934 : A history of Selangor
1935 : A History of Malaya  (Japanese translation 1943, revised 1962)
1938, 1940 : The Malay Annals or Serajah Melayu
1939 : A History of Malayan Literature (with Zainal-Alidin bin Ahmad)
1944 : Britain and Malaya, 1786-1941
1947 : Indian art (edited)
1947 : The Malays: A cultural history (French translation 1952, revised 1950, 1953)
1948 : Malaya and its history
1950 : Malay Proverbs
1951 : The Malay magician: being shaiman, saiva and sufi
1955 : An unabridged Malay-English Dictionary
1958 : An unabridged English-Malay Dictionary
1958 : A History of Classical Malayan Literature
1958 : Pelita Bahasa Ingĕrris – an English Grammar in Malay
1960 : Kamus Bahasa Mĕlayu
1969 : Start from Alif, count from one

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