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In Memory of Professor Mary Turnbull, Historian (1927-2008)

By Jesley Chua Chee Huan, Senior Oral History Specialist

The National Archives of Singapore and Oral History Centre pay tribute to one of its eminent interviewees - Professor Mary Turnbull who passed away on 5 Sep 2008.

An only child, Prof Turnbull was born near Wooler, Northumberland, England in Feb 1927. Though born and bred in England, Prof Turnbull's career spanned across Asia.

Prof Turnbull joined the Malayan Civil Service from 1952-55 before becoming a lecturer in the University of Malaya (Singapore) from 1955-60. She also lectured in the University of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur) from 1960-63, University of Singapore (1963-71) and the University of Hong Kong (1971-88).

In her oral history interview with the National Archives in 2006, she recalled how she joined the Administrative Service in the Malayan Civil Service:

"I came with the Colonial Office but normally speaking they didn't have women in the Malayan Civil Service or normally they didn't send women overseas in the administrative service, in the colonies anywhere...But by 1952 here in Malaya, at the time of the Emergency...they reached a stage where they were really short of Administrative Officers. They had a lot of District Officers out in the country, in difficult areas and they didn't have the people to man them. And they didn't want to increase the recruitment of men; permanent men to the service because they knew that independence was coming sometime..."

Prof Turnbull gave an interesting account how she managed to escape censure from the Chief Secretary who tried to stop recruitment of European women into the service:

"The University of Malaya which had only been setup in 1949; this was just about to produce its first graduates. So, it was really a short term tiding over and so they decided to recruit six women and we were to work in the towns. And this was to release men to go and do proper jobs, you see, out in the countryside...Only two of us (female) came out here because the Chief Secretary, a man called David Watherston who was very conventional and cautious and the decision to recruit women had been taken while he was away. And he came back and said, 'Good heavens! What have you done? You are bringing these young European women out and you are going to expect Asian men to work for them and we have an emergency on the house. We are going to have another emergency, cancel it.' So, it was cancelled but it wasn't cancelled quick enough. Two of us were already... I'd already arrived and the second one on the way".

Prof Turnbull was also a highly-regarded historian on the history of Singapore. Her authoritative and yet easy to read "History of Singapore" first published in 1977 is still widely in use as a standard text book for history students of higher learning. In her oral history interview, she explained how it had its root from Prof Cyril Parkinson, who was a fellow lecturer in the University of Malaya in Singapore. He encouraged staff to research and write books on Malayan history which was lacking at that time ; thus leading Prof Turnbull to write her thesis on the history of Straits Settlements, which possibly served as a foundation for her book :

"One of Parkinson's good ideas when he came out that he realised that like most colonial universities the education was almost the same as it was in England, as it was in the schools. So that History was largely the history of Britain and Western Europe in the same way as it was in London or in Oxford or in Nigeria or in Canada and all over the place. And so he said, "Oh, this is absolutely ridiculous. We must teach Asian History." And if the books are not there and in the case of Malaya, particularly, he was very, very keen to push this'... So, all of those records had gone and it wasn't possible to do it. But it was possible to look at the government records and the early newspapers for the period that I was studying. So, I did a lot here and then whenever in the summer vacation I would go back to England and then look at all the records there. It was quite tough going actually doing that and teaching at the same time and switching over from European or British history into Asian history. But it was very lively, it was good for all of us and, I think, it was what the country needed. But that was really largely due to Parkinson".

After her retirement, Prof Turnbull continued writing books, doing book reviews and travelling. Among the books she wrote after retirement was a history of The Straits Times to mark its 150th anniversary in 1995.

" ... looking back at the history of the press, the press has always been, from its very beginning, the Straits Times has taken the attitude of being a paper of record. And originally the early papers, their main function was not only to inform people in Singapore itself but also overseas... And, I think, that right up to the present day you could say that the Singapore newspapers have got that attitude".

Information extracted from the Oral History Interview of Prof Mary Turnbull which is open access. To find out more about her, please refer to her interview, accession number 3025.