Sir Richard James Wilkinson, the son of a British Consul in Greece, was born in 1867 at Salonika, Greece. He was educated at Trinity College in Cambridge. He was multilingual and commanded a few languages, which includes French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish and later, Bahasa Melayu and Hokkien.
He became a cadet in 1889 after joining the Straits Settlement Civil Service.
His other posts while serving in the Straits Settlements are as follows:
- 1896 – 1898 Acting Director of Education, Penang
- 1898 – 1900 Acting Inspector General of Schools in the Straits Settlements, Singapore
- 1902 – 1903 Transferred to Dindings, Perak
- 1903 – 1906 Acting Inspector of Schools for the Federated Malay States
- 1906 – 1910 Secretary General to the British Resident (EW) Birch in Perak
- 1910 – 1911 British Resident, Negeri Sembilan
- 1911 – 1916 Colonial Secretary, Straits Settlements, Singapore
His legacy includes the establishment of the Malay Training College in Malacca in 1900 which was eventually succeeded in 1922 by the Sultan Idris Training College (SITC) at Tanjung Malim. In 1905, he founded the Malay Residential School, later known as the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK).
He was an important contriubutor to the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS). Some of the books authored by him are:
- Malay Grammar, co-authored with Sir R.O. Winstedt, published by Clarendon Press , Oxford, 1913.
- A vocabulary of central Sakai (dialect of the aboriginal communities in the Gopeng Valley), published by J. Brown, FMS Govt. Press, 1915.
- The Achehnese, co-authored with CS Hurgronje and AWS O’ Sullivan, published by E.J. Brill, 1906.
- Malay beliefs, published by Luzac & Co. 1906
- A history of the Peninsular Malays, co-authored with Sir R.O. Winstedt, published by Kelly & Walsh, 1920.
- A English-Malay dictionary, co-authored with Sir. R.O. Winstedt, published by Kelly & Walsh, 1932.
- A history of Perak, co-authored with Sir R. O. Winstedt and SWE Maxwell, republished by Journal of The Malaysian Branch Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS), 1974.
- The incidents of Malay life, published by J. Russell at the FMS Govt. Press, 1908.
- Papers on Malay Subjects, Part I-V.
- Life and Customs, Part 1: The incidents of Malay Life, 1908.
- Papers on Malay Subjects: Law, Part 1-2: Introductory Sketch and the Ninety-Nine Laws of Perak
R.J. Wilkinson was appointed Companion of The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG) in 1912. In 1916, he was appointed the Governor of Sierra Leone and served till he retired in 1922. He died in 1941.
1. Arkib Negara Malaysia
3. British National Library Bibliography
4. Journal of the Malaysian Branch Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS)
5. Journal of the Straits Branch Royal Asiatic Society (JSBRAS)
6. Soda Naoki. The Malay world in textbooks: The transmission of Colonial Knowledge in British Malaya, Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, September 2001.
7. J. M. Gullick. RJ Wilkinson (1867-1941): A man of parts. Journal of the Malaysian Branch Royal Asiatic Society, vol 74. no 1, 2001.