The British came to the Malay peninsula following the establishment of the British East India Company’s administered settlement on Penang island in 1786 led by Captain Sir Francis Light. Soon the local magistrate, a George Caunter, was appointed a Lay Clerk/Acting Chaplain to provide spiritual ministry to the British settlers. Under his ministry the first entry into the Church Register was made in 1799. Anglicanism officially came in 1805 with the building of the chapel at the south-western corner of Fort Cornwallis in Penang.
The See of Calcutta provided episcopal supervision for the chaplaincy work on Penang island. The first Anglican Church building, the Church of St. George’s the Martyr, was built in 1817 and consecrated by the Metropolitan, Thomas Fenshaw Middleton, in 1819.
The See of Calcutta extended from India to New Zealand and was thus practically unmanageable. As a result, in 1855, the Bishopric of Labuan was created by Letters of Patent for the better administration of these outlying areas. This new diocese became a missionary diocese of the Archdiocese of Canterbury, Sarawak was added in 1856.
In 1867 the whole of Penang island together with Singapore and Malacca came under direct British rule, precipitated by the foreclosure of the East India Company. Consequently, the chaplaincy from the See of Calcutta in the Straits Settlement ceased. In 1869, by an Act of the British Parliament, the churches in Straits Settlement was transferred to the new Diocese of Labuan, Sarawak and Singapore. Meanwhile, a major shift in mission outlook took place with the Society for the Propagation of Gospel in Foreign Parts taking an active role in procuring ‘chaplains’ for the Crown in its colonies. This led to a time of great missionary activity in the new Diocese and a period of Chinese and Indian immigration.
For better administration in-line with the political changes taking place in the region, in 1909, the Diocese of Singapore, Labuan and Sarawak was further reorganised into the Diocese of Borneo with its See located in Kuching and the Diocese of Singapore with its See located in Singapore. After 120 years, the Anglican church in South-East Asia was finally positioned to take responsibility for its own mission and growth.
Church life and ministry was drastically affected by World War II and the Japanese Occupation of the peninsula between 1941 and 1945. In the midst of great hardship and war-time atrocities, Christian witness continued to thrive. Bishop Wilson, the incumbent, proved a great example of godly leadership in times of great distress. Without the benefit of its expatriate clergy who had been interred, the work of the church fell on Asian shoulders. These Asian workers operated with surprisingly responsible independence.
The War and the loss of its expatriate leadership precipitated a sense of self-determination among the local Christian community, and an urgent need for training Asian leaders for this developing part of the Anglican Church. This need led quickly to the establishment of Trinity Theological College, Singapore in 1948.
Malaya gained her independence from British rule in 1957. Following this, in 1960, the Diocese was renamed the Diocese of Singapore and Malaya to give due recognition to the political importance of Malaya. In 1963, Malaya became the Federation of Malaysia with the inclusion of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak under one central government. In 1965, Singapore left the Federation to be an independent nation.
On the 8th April 1970, a new and independant Diocese, the Diocese of West Malaysia was created from the Diocese of Singapore and Malaya. In 1971, it was incorporated by an Act of the Malaysian Parliament.
In 1996, the Province of Church in South East Asia consisting of the Dioceses of Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and West Malaysia was created by the Archbishop of Canterbury as the 37th Province in the Anglican Communion, thus making the Anglican Church in the region self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating and and truly indigenous.