Sir Robert Black
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Robert Brown Black (Sir) (b.3 June 1906, Edinburgh, Scotland - d. 29 October 1999, Reading, England), known as Robin, was Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Singapore from 1955 until 1957. An early dispute with the chief minister led to Governor’s powers being curbed but he handled a stormy political situation with equanimity and patience, helping ensure that Singapore was more stable when he left and ready for self-government.
Education and early career
Black was educated at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, and Edinburgh University. After starting in the Indian Civil Service he transferred to Malaya in 1930, partly as he was fascinated by Stamford Raffles. He worked in Singapore, Pahang, Perak and Johor before being seconded to Trinidad in 1939.
The following year he returned to Malaya then joined the Intelligence Corps in 1942, organising guerrilla resistance in the jungle during the war against Japan, but he was soon captured. After the war he was Deputy Chief Secretary of North Borneo from 1946 until 1952, when he became Hong Kong’s Colonial Secretary. During this time he continued to follow Singaporean affairs with interest.
Governor of Singapore
Early constitutional dispute
Black became Governor of Singapore in July 1955 at a tense time, during one of that year’s several strikes and just weeks after bloody middle school riots. It was also a time of change, as the Rendel constitution had recently given the colony a predominantly elected legislative assembly and ministerial government, led by Chief Minister David Marshall. He soon faced a stand-off with Marshall over the latter’s request to appoint four additional assistant ministers and stated intention to name five more; this was ostensibly to lighten ministers’ workload but Black recognised it as an attempt to mollify disgruntled backbenchers through patronage. He therefore only agreed to appoint two, noting that the ministry was becoming disproportionately large in relation to the small legislature.
Assembly members initially agreed with Black but the staunchly anti-colonial Marshall shifted the dispute to the wider issue of "Who governs?", insisting that the governor had no discretion over appointments and threatening to resign over the matter. Black told the Colonial Office he would follow his judgement so long as he could veto ministers but offered to defuse the situation by surrendering this power. The crisis escalated when the Assembly strongly backed Marshall on the point of principle and his new demand for immediate self-government. The UK Colonial Secretary visited soon afterwards and feared Marshall’s resignation would yield a more radical successor. He therefore accelerated self-government talks planned for 1959 by three years and removed the governor’s discretion over nominations, leaving him to rubber-stamp them.
Contribution to governance and progressing towards self-rule
Under the Rendel constitution the role of colonial officials like the governor was diminished, but Black had experienced ministerial government in Trinidad and hoped to make it work in Singapore. In his own words he wanted to be "dispensable" and let Singaporeans manage their affairs. He chaired the Council of Ministers’ weekly meetings but let Marshall direct discussions, restricting his contributions to security matters and ensuring that the government remained guided by practicality and good sense. Black had a warmer personality than his predecessor and enjoyed a better relationship with Marshall and civil servants. After their initial dispute they had no more serious disagreements, though power-sharing remained awkward and the chief minister did not seek the governor’s advice as often as the constitution’s drafters had envisaged.
During the 1956 constitutional talks in London Black advised the Colonial Office that self-rule was inadvisable until Singapore’s security situation improved. Negotiations foundered over security and Marshall resigned. His successor Lim Yew Hock was less fiery but took the tough action necessary against Communists and rioters and helped achieve the stability Black felt was a prerequisite for self-rule.
The other main obstacle to self-government he identified was the civil service’s shortage of qualified, experienced locals and its continued domination by Europeans. He felt the "Malayanisation" process should have started earlier but this was accelerated with inducements for expatriates to retire. As a Malayan Civil Service veteran Black was well-suited to manage the transition, sympathetically allaying non-domiciled officials’ concerns and helping them prepare for new careers.
An agreement on self-rule was reached in 1957 but Black left office that December and was not involved in the final negotiations of 1958. Yet the speed with which self-government was achieved was partly attributed to Black and the ministers having made the system operate smoothly. According to Lim the public did not appreciate the difficulty of Black’s position but on his departure he received the Freedom of the City, becoming the last person so honoured.
Hong Kong and later years
In 1958 Black became governor of the more peaceful Hong Kong where he encouraged localisation of the civil service, oversaw the revival and expansion of higher education and took measures to address serious housing and water shortages.
After returning to Britain in 1964 he was active with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Royal Commonwealth Society. Black died in 1999.
He received several honours including the Member of the Order of the British Empire (Military) in 1948, and a knighthood in 1955. He was promoted to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1962.
Parents: Robert and Catherine Black
Wife: Anne Stevenson, m. 1937. The Singapore Botanic Gardens’ first VIP orchid was named for her.
Daughters: Kathryn and Barbara
Chan, H.C. (2001). A sensation of independence: David Marshall: A political biography (pp.134-135). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 324.2092 CHA)
Change to self-rule ‘quite a success’. (1983, August 9). The Straits Times, p.32. Retrieved April 30, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Drysdale, J.G.S. (1984). Singapore: Struggle for success (p.157). Singapore: Times International Books.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 DRY [HIS])
Foo, K.L. (interviewer). (1981, November 14). Oral history interview with Percy McNeice [Transcript of Cassette Recording No. 99, reel 21, p.190). Retrieved April 29, 2010, from National Archives of Singapore Web site: http://www.a2o.com.sg
Kirk-Greene, A.H.M. (Ed.). (1991). A biographical dictionary of the British colonial service 1939-1966 (p.34). London: Hans Zell Publishers.
(Call no.: RSING 325.341092 KIR)
The last chapter. (1957, December 12). The Straits Times, p.8. Retrieved May 18, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
The last governor. (1957, December 11). The Straits Times, p.8. Retrieved May 18, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Lee, E. (2008). Singapore: The unexpected nation (p.114). Singapore: ISEAS
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE)
Mills, L. A. (2001). Singapore. In P. Kratoska (Ed.), South East Asia: Colonial history (Vol. V, p.262). London: Routledge.
(Call no.: RSING 959 SOU)
Singapore Botanic Gardens. (2007). SBG – Attractions – Central core (VIP orchid collection). Retrieved May 1, 2010, from www.sbg.org.sg/centralcore/viporchidgarden.asp
Spurr, R. (1995). Excellency: The Governors of Hong Kong (pp.210-14). Hong Kong: FromAsia.
(Call no.: R 951.25 SPU)
Stewart, A. (1999, November 2). Ex-governor Sir Robert Black dies at 93. South China Morning Post. Retrieved April 30, 2010, from Factiva database.
Tan, B.L. (Interviewer). (1995, July 6). Oral history interview with Robert Black (Transcript of Cassette Recording No. 1650, reel 1, pp.1-6, 9; reel 2, pp.16-17, 20, 23; reel 4, pp.43-45). Retrieved April 29, 2010, from National Archives of Singapore Web site: http://www.a2o.com.sg
Tan, B.L. (interviewer). (1998, July 8). Oral history interview with Leslie Davis (Cassette Recording No. 1651/5). Singapore: National Archives of Singapore.
(Not available in NLB holdings)
Tan, K.Y.L. (2008). Marshall of Singapore: A biography (pp.281-284, 288, 316, 364). Singapore: ISEAS.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 TAN [HIS])
List of Images
Black, Sir Robert Brown. (2006). In Singapore: The Encyclopedia (p.65). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN)
Drysdale, J.G.S. (1984). Singapore: Struggle for success (opposite p.128). Singapore: Times International Books.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 DRY [HIS])
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Black, Sir Robert Brown, 1906-1999
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