- Dr K. G. Tregonning 1923–2015
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Dr Kennedy Gordon Phillip Tregonning, MBE, formerly Raffles Professor of History at the University of Singapore and a Life Member of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society for more than 60 years, passed away in July, 2015, at the age of 92.
After serving in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, Professor Tregonning studied philosophy and history at the University of Adelaide and earned a Bachelor of Literature from New College Oxford. He joined the history department of the University of Malaya at Singapore in 1953, and succeeded C. N. Parkinson as Raffles Professor of History in 1959. His doctoral dissertation was the first degree awarded at the inaugural convocation ceremony of the university’s campus at Kuala Lumpur in 1958. He left Singapore in 1967 to return to Australia, where he served as Headmaster of Hale School until his retirement in 1988.
During his time in Malaya, Professor Tregonning witnessed a series of major historical events, including the Malayan Emergency, Malayan independence in 1957, the creation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 and Singapore’s exit from the Federation in 1965. His students were part of a remarkable generation of local university graduates who took over key positions as British officials withdrew. In his words, ‘Our graduates were required, urgently, to fill the gaps, and more, of the departing British civil servants, teachers, administrators, businessmen, all leaving Malaya and Singapore.’ Looking back on this period he wrote that these students constituted ‘a rather special medley of people in whose close association on the campus was born a spirit that superseded race, culture, and creed’. The graduates who emerged from the university during this period included future prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore as well as at least one president, a [End Page 157] large number of senior cabinet ministers and ambassadors, and a broad range of professionals who played key roles in the future development of the two countries. Prof Tregonning’s slim memoir entitled Merdeka and Much More: The Reminiscences of a Raffles Professor 1953-67 adroitly captures the atmosphere of this period. (Singapore: NUS Press, 2010; the quoted material is on pp. 4 and 96.)
As a historian, Professor Tregonning was part of a shift away from accounts of colonial activity in the region and toward a locally-based history. In support of this concept, he prepared a small but very useful volume entitled Malaysian Historical Sources: A Series of Essays on Historical Material mainly in Malaysia on Malaysia, (published in 1962 by the Department of History at the University of Singapore), and in 1960 he founded the Journal of Southeast Asian History (renamed the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies ten years later). Now in its 55th year and published by Cambridge University Press, the journal is still edited by members of the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. Professor Tregonning was also an active supporter of the International Association of Historians of Asia, a remarkable body that held periodic conferences that were attended primarily by scholars from Asia. The group strongly supported the idea that there was ‘a need for a new look at Asian history, where not the then dominant European version but Asia itself would be the subject of study’. (Merdeka and Much More, p. 72).
Professor Tregonning’s major publications include:
North Borneo under Chartered Company Rule: North Borneo, 1881-1946 (Singapore: University of Malaya Press, 1958), reissued in 1965 in an expanded edition under the title A History of Modern Sabah (North Borneo, 1881-1963).
Papers on Malayan History: Papers Submitted to the First International Conference of South-East Asian Historians. Singapore: Journal of South-East Asian History, 1962.
Straits Tin: A Brief Account of the First Seventy-five Years of the Straits Trading Company Limited, 1887-1962. Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1962.
The British in Malaya: The First Forty Years 1786-1826. Tucson: published for the Association for Asian Studies by the University of Arizona Press, 1965.
Home Port Singapore: A History of Straits Steamship Company Limited 1890-1965. Singapore: Oxford University Press for the...