Constance Mary Turnbull
Documenter of the history of Singapore
Constance Mary Turnbull was a historian, most recognised for her comprehensive literary record documenting the rise of modern Singapore. She published A History of Singapore in 1977 and revised it regularly thereafter. Mary was also an inspiring university lecturer.
An only child, Mary grew up in Coventry, England where her parents moved to after they lost their Northumberland farm during the Great Depression. Her experiences growing up during the war in Britain, with Coventry being particularly badly hit, shaped much of her attitude and approach to life. After graduating from the University of London, she worked briefly in the corporate sector.
In 1952, Mary travelled to Kuala Lumpur to serve in the Malayan Civil Service (MCS). Believed to be the first woman to join the MCS as an administrative officer, she arrived in Malaya at one of the most turbulent times in the country’s history. Although she found it a challenging and exciting environment, as a woman her prospects within the civil service were limited and she decided to move on. Reluctant to return home, in 1955 Mary began teaching history at the University of Malaya, first in Kuala Lumpur and then in Singapore. It was a vibrant department at a critical time in history where students were encouraged to discuss their personal understanding of what it meant to be Malayan, as the country moved towards independence. Many of Mary’s students later held high positions in the civil service and academia.
In 1971 Mary moved to the University of Hong Kong to take up a post in the History Department. There she began to focus on her writing which was to establish her reputation. She was later to be appointed Professor and head of the History Department at HKU.
Mary is most recognised for A History of Singapore 1819-1975, published by Oxford University Press in 1977. With firsthand experience of the milestones leading to Singapore's independence, Mary’s work, which was regularly revised, was widely recognised as the definitive history of the island nation, and became an important part of the National Education programme.
Citations from another of Mary’s books, The Straits Settlements, published in 1972, were instrumental in the sovereignty claim Singapore presented to the International Court of Justice in 2008 over the outlying island of Pedra Branca. The painstaking research she carried out for the Singapore Government in various archives provided the proof they needed to successfully settle the claim.
Retiring from teaching in 1988, Mary was made Honorary Professor and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Hong Kong. She continued writing and in the 1990s she was commissioned to compile Dateline Singapore: 150 Years Of The Straits Times to mark the newspaper’s 150th anniversary.
While researching and writing the book, she had to care for her terminally ill husband and deal with her own battle against cancer. She did this with her usual fortitude and stoicism.
Mary returned to England where she continued to lecture and write. She moved to Oxford in her final years, where she became a Fellow of St Anthony’s College. She died suddenly in 2008 of heart failure, having just completed revising the latest edition of ‘A History of Singapore’ only a few days previously.
"People don’t want to be reminded of the past, but the snag is you’d forget how far you’ve come"