Straits Settlements’ Flooding: Considering Nature-Induced Disasters in Historic Context – a seminar by Dr Fiona Williamson (Wed, 14 September 2016)

Speaker: Dr Fiona Williamson (Research Fellow, NUS Asia Research Institute)
Date: Wednesday, 14 September 2016
Time: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
Venue: AS8, Level 6, Conference Room (06-46)


This presentation considers the nineteenth century history of flood disasters in colonial Singapore and, to a lesser extent, Kuala Lumpur. It pays close attention to how the British authorities understood and reacted to serious inundations and adapted their policy in accordance. Disaster, and disaster governance shaped the development of both towns, each managed through a combination of local municipal councils, the British government in India, and in London. This was an arrangement that both hindered and advanced flood management. The premise is that flood history can be a window into how knowledge was shaped, shared and developed. It will consider how contemporary governments thought about floods, from cause, to impact, to future mitigation. Moreover, it will contend that long-term context and precedent allows fresh perspectives on urban disaster today. We can learn from patterns of flood frequency, intensity, and geographic impact; assess their correspondence to rainfall and/or ENSO, or human urban environmental impact. We can also learn from past failures and successes in prevention methods and determine not to repeat the same errors. This is important in addressing disasters in todays complex anthropogenic world. Based on primary archival sources relating to governance and urban development in the British Straits Settlements, including colonial records and contemporary newspapers, it takes a multi-disciplinary approach to conventional historical analysis.

About the speaker

Dr Williamson received her PhD in History from the University of East Anglia in 2009. Since then she has been working as a lecturer in the UK and in Asia, as well as working with the UK Meteorological Office on a series of projects relating to historic weather. Her current research focuses on the interconnections between flooding and urban development in Singapore and colonial Malaya. Her published and forthcoming work examines a range of issues connected to flooding, public health, climate, and the history of meteorology. She is especially interested in comprehending how cities developed in response to past floods and exploring how historic events provide critical context for our modern city. The history of science, floods and urban governance provide the framework for better understanding these processes.


Dr Williamson has commenced a two-year appointment as a Research Fellow in the Asian Urbanism cluster with effect from 4 July 2016. While at ARI, Dr Williamson will join the Disaster Governance project team, continuing her work on flooding and meteorological history in British Southeast Asia with the expectation of expanding this into a monograph on space, floods, and society in Singapore.