Singapore’s First (Failed) School Merger: The Star-Crossed Union of the Anglo-Chinese College and the Singapore Institution

Eugene Lim


This article is part of the RI at 200: History Series.  

Could Raffles Institution have been the “Raffles Anglo-Chinese Institution”? After all, that was Sir Stamford Raffles’ original plan for what was then called the Singapore Institution. From the very beginning, Raffles sought to merge the fledgling Singapore Institution with Malacca’s older and more established Anglo-Chinese College. Why did not one, but two, attempts at merger fail?


In 1818, the missionary Robert Morrison (after whom Raffles Institution’s Morrison House is named) founded the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca to “become the seat of a Seminary where the Chinese, Malay and other Ultra-Ganges languages could be cultivated.”1 Back then, Malacca was viewed as a prime hub for missionaries to reach out to various regions and peoples in Asia – a position later usurped by Singapore. Despite initial challenges, the College gained its footing and eventually attracted the attention of Raffles. He sent a letter in 1822 inviting William Milne, the first headmaster of the Anglo-Chinese College and Morrison’s fellow missionary, to Singapore to discuss building a college there.2 Due to Milne’s untimely demise, Morrison went to Singapore, where he and Raffles agreed to merge the College “with the proposed Malayan College, under the general designation of the ‘Singapore Institution.’”3 For the two founders, it was a win-win situation: the Singapore Institution would benefit from an influx of experienced missionary educators and funding from Morrison’s London Missionary Society, while the Anglo-Chinese College would be able to latch on to the fast-growing hub of Singapore and expand its evangelical mission to the flood of migrants from all over Asia, especially China.

Despite these promising beginnings, the plan quickly fell apart. Following Raffles’ departure, the Singapore Institution failed to materialise due to poor management and lack of financial support.4 John Crawfurd, the Resident of Singapore, feared that such a college was ill-suited to Singapore’s status as a trading post and restricted education to the elementary level, thereby halting any further development of the Singapore Institution. The unfinished site of the institution quickly fell into disuse and became known as “a convenient shelter for thieves” – a far cry from its original ambitions.  By 1827, Morrison declared that the merger was cancelled: “The failure of the Singapore Institution alters very materially the circumstances of our College since I visited it in 1823 […] The removal of the Anglo-Chinese College (from Malacca) is therefore now quite out of the question.”5

  Failed Merger - 1.2

Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 20 December 1832, Page 2
Taken from the e-Archives of the National Library Board Singapore


It was only in 1834 that the Anglican chaplain of Singapore, R. J. Darrah, revived the Singapore Institution and with it the question of merger with the Anglo-Chinese College.6 However, the respective institutions’ fortunes were by then reversed: while the Singapore Institution was enjoying renewed attention and funding from the colonial authorities to build an educated class to support Singapore’s expanding economy, the Anglo-Chinese College was in decline. Following the death of Morrison in 1834, the College’s new stewards John Evans and Samuel Dyer focussed their efforts on baptisms. Malacca, having returned to Dutch rule in 1818, now paled in comparison to the flourishing port city of Singapore, which attracted flocks of new migrants - and potential students. One pseudonymous critic “Scrutator” argued that the “dormant” College had become “a useless burden on a Christian Society” and that its funds were better applied “by giving them over to the Trustees of the Singapore Institution Free School.”7


While a marriage of convenience would have addressed practical challenges faced by the schools, a deeper conflict arose over the educational goals of the Singapore Institution and the evangelical ethos of the Anglo-Chinese College. The Singapore Institution, having started out as “essentially a Christian I might almost say a Missionary establishment,”8 had begun to shift towards a more secular outlook in order to attract more students and funding. The school committee, which managed the direction of the institution and comprised of colonial officials such as William Napier, signaled this change in 1838 when it agreed to excuse non-Christian students from Bible studies. This prompted the school’s superintendent Edward White, who oversaw the overall day-to-day running of the school alongside the headmaster John Henry Moor, to resign “in the absence […] of all assurance from [the committee] that the word of God shall be restored to (as I consider) its proper place among the class books of the Institution.”9

 Failed Merger - 2

Singapore Institution Free School Fourth Annual Report, 1837-1838
Taken from e-Archives of the National Library Board Singapore

This episode played out in the public eye via a series of letters to The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, bringing to light a deep-seated debate over the primary focus of mission schools. While White argued that “Christianity itself is not excluded, but rather the recognised basis of instruction” of mission schools, one of the committee members Thomas McMicking responded vigorously that “the bigotry would be on our part were we to plant the Bible at the threshold of knowledge and say, no entrance shall be given except to those who... read our Bible whether they believe it or no.” 


In Malacca, the Singapore Institution’s pivot did not go unnoticed by the missionaries of the Anglo-Chinese College, who criticized the secular nature of the Singapore Institution and argued that it would compromise the evangelical mission of the College.10 As a result, the College rejected the merger and eventually moved to Hong Kong in 1843 to capitalize on the opening of China after the Opium War. This permanently ended all hopes of a union.


The failed merger between the Anglo-Chinese College and the Singapore Institution raises many important questions, especially with the recent wave of school mergers, as well as the reintegration of RI and RJC in 2008. How would merger have changed the trajectories of the two institutions – along with the histories of education in Singapore, Malacca, and Hong Kong? Was the marriage of convenience doomed to fail, or would greater negotiation and compromise have resolved the differences in educational visions? The contingencies in RI’s early history reveal that the fate of institutions are not cast in stone, but constantly reshaped, contested, and reimagined.


Eugene double majored in History and Computer Science at Yale University and presented his thesis on the history of mission schools in Singapore. His current academic interest is qubits.



1 William Milne, 1820. A Retrospect of the First Ten Years of the Protestant Mission to China. Malacca: The Anglo- Chinese Press, 136.

2 O'Sullivan, R. L., 1988. “The Anglo-Chinese College and the Early ‘Singapore Institution’,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 61, no. 2 (255), 48.

3 Formation of the Singapore Institution, A.D. 1823. 1823. Malacca: Mission Press, 4.

4 Theodore R. Doraisamy, 1969. 150 Years of Education in Singapore. Singapore: TTC Publications Board, Teachers’ Training College, 10.

5 Eliza Morrison, 1839. Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Robert Morrison, D.D., Vol. 2 (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Greene, and Longmans, 402-403.

6 Charles Burton Buckley, 1902. An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, from the Foundation of the Settlement under the Honourable the East India Company, on Feb. 6th, 1819, to the Transfer to the Colonial Office as Part of the Colonial Possessions of the Crown on April 1st, 1867. Singapore: Fraser & Neave, 128-129.

7 “Correspondence,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, December 19, 1839, 2.

8 “Singapore Institution,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, September 12, 1844, 1.

9 Singapore Institution Free School, Singapore Institution Free School: Fourth Annual Report, with Appendix and Catalogue of Books Now in the Library, 1838 Singapore: Singapore Free Press Office, 9-10.

10 O'Sullivan, “The Anglo-Chinese College and the Early ‘Singapore Institution’”, 56-57.

Tagged Topics

#Alumni #RI at 200 History Series #RI200 #RIBicentennial

Related Articles