Munshi Abdullah, a scholar who worked for Raffles, was a genius of his day in the 1800s

He was also a linguist.

Joshua Lee | July 07, 2017, 11:33 AM

If chicken essence was available in the 19th century, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir would have been a poster boy endorsing it. He was, after all, a historical high-achiever often overlooked in the present day.

Born in Malacca in 1797, Abdullah, who was of Arab Indian descent, went on to become a multilingual scholar of Islamic studies. Apart from Malay, Abdullah was proficient in Arabic, Tamil, Hindustani, and English.

Munshi Abdullah. Image via NLB.


By the age of 11, Abdullah was already writing Koranic text.

At 13, he was teaching religion to the Muslim soldiers of the Indian Garrison at the Malacca Fort.

Abdullah was considered an accomplished scholar by the ripe old age of 14. He was called "Munshi Abdullah", which means 'Teacher Abdullah'.

Part of his proficiency in writing was due to the strict regime enforced by his tiger dad. Mistakes that young Abdullah made in his writing were always met with severe punishment.


Sure, that's all great about Abdullah, but what was his connection with Singapore?

Well, Abdullah was Stamford Raffles' interpreter when the latter arrived in Malacca in December 1810. Being able to converse fluently in Malay and English enabled Abdullah to act as an effective interpreter for Raffles.

Abdullah also worked in Raffles' office as a scribe – transcribing and preserving Malay literature manuscripts.

When Raffles established the new free port in Singapore in 1819, Abdullah went to Singapore to find work as an interpreter and teacher of the Malay language.

Abdullah documented that in 1819, there were about 100 small huts and 30 families living in boats on the Singapore River. On his subsequent visits, he found that the river settlement had grown substantially along the river.

J.T Thomson, who later translated Abdullah's most famous piece of work, the Hikayat Abdullah (read on below), described him as such:

In physiognomy he was a Tamilian of southern Hindustan: slightly bent forward, spare, energetic, bronze in complexion, oval-faced, high-nosed, one eye squinting outwards a little. He dressed in the usual style of Malacca Tamils. Acheen seluar, check sarong, printed baju, square skull cap and sandals. He had the vigour and pride of the Arab, the perseverance and subtlety of the Hindoo - in language and national sympathy only was he a Malay."

Hikayat Abdullah

Abdullah's work was often praised as being realistic and down to earth - unlike the soaring flowery writing common in Malay literary works at that time. The Hikayat Abdullah (the Stories of Abdullah) embodies this style.

The Hikayat Abdullah provides us with valuable insights into life in Singapore when it first started out as a British colony, including the boom in infrastructure development, and the rapid change in social fabric as new immigrants arrived into the port city. He even had a first-hand account of the initiation rites of a Chinese secret society, the Tian Di Hui, here in Singapore.

Hikayat Abdullah. Image via NLB.

Running themes

Other than featuring the local customs and practices, one of the running themes in Abdullah's stories was also the ingenuity of the Europeans contrasted against the ineffective superstitions of the locals. For example, when bringing back news of the technological wonders, and enlightened knowledge in England, Abdullah was met with resistance.

"I have had to bear a great deal of opposition from [the locals] regarding things that I have learnt from intelligent men, who have competent knowledge of the world, which they say is truly round, and which I have repeated to them; and I have especially been answered, that such a fact could not be believed, for [these things were] never heard of before, nor have our ancestors informed us of it. I showed them numbers of signs and proofs that the world was round, yet they would not believe me."

The importance of knowledge and education was another of Abdullah's pet topics. He would often illustrate how the locals, being oppressed under unscrupulous, power hungry Malay elites, led to them being deprived of education which would help them improve their lives.

Abdullah was truly a man ahead of his time.

Here are totally unrelated but equally interesting articles:

Top 8 moments from short local films that will make you proud of our film industry

These are the most difficult things a Singaporean employee has to learn

Top photo adapted via NLB


1819 is a labour of love by where we tell stories from Singapore’s history, heritage & culture. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!