Ker Sin Tze For The Straits Times

Let the Nantah spirit and name live on in NTU

After the merger of the University of Singapore and Nanyang University in 1980 to become the present National University of Singapore, Nantah's campus was abandoned until 1982 when the Nanyang Technological Institute was set up. It was upgraded to Na
After the merger of the University of Singapore and Nanyang University in 1980 to become the present National University of Singapore, Nantah's campus was abandoned until 1982 when the Nanyang Technological Institute was set up. It was upgraded to Nanyang Technological University in 1992.ST FILE PHOTO

THE issue of whether to rename Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Nanyang University (Nantah) has been debated in recent weeks.

At the launch of his book charting the history of the Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI), NTU's immediate precursor, Professor Emeritus Cham Tao Soon was reported as saying that the name of Nanyang University should be restored. Professor Ng Yew Kwang, Winsemius Professor in Economics at NTU and a Nantah graduate, also argues that NTU should be renamed Nanyang University.

Nanyang University was set up with public donations in 1955.

In the 1950s, there were separate English and Chinese streams. The former received financial support from the colonial government, something the latter was denied. The Senior Cambridge school-leavers of the English stream could work in the civil service, or further their studies at the University of Malaya, Singapore campus. But the Higher School Certificate holders from the Chinese schools could not work in the government sector as their standard of English was generally below the required level. They were also denied entry to the local university.

The Chinese community in Singapore and Malaya at that time felt that there should be a university for Senior Middle Three school- leavers, who were equivalent to A-level school-leavers, to further their studies. The Singapore Hokkien Association donated 211ha in Jurong. Various Chinese communities, including people from all walks of life in Singapore and Malaya, contributed cash donations to build the university.

As the university aimed to recruit students from Singapore, Malaya and other South-east Asian countries, it was named Nanyang University, which in Mandarin means the University at the South China Ocean.

Initially, Nanyang University did not get financial support from the government. The teaching medium was mainly Chinese and its degrees were not recognised by the government until 1968. The majority of students, about 60 per cent, came from Malaya, known as Malaysia after 1963, and about 40 per cent were from Singapore. The academic standard of the students varied. Some had adequate academic ability but others lacked the necessary academic preparation.

Some students felt that they were being discriminated against by the government. As a result, they adopted a confrontational attitude. The Student Union organised left wing activities, and some were suspected to be pro-communist sympathisers. The relationship between Nanyang University and the government did not improve even after the People's Action Party came into power.

The new government decided that Nanyang University should provide places mainly to Singapore students. It cut down on the number of permits for Malaysian students. At the same time, the Chinese secondary school stream was merged with the English stream, and the number of students from Chinese stream schools reduced.

As a result, in the 1970s, student enrolment of Nanyang University started to decline.

In 1980, the government decided to merge the University of Singapore and Nanyang University to become the present National University of Singapore. Nantah's campus was abandoned for two years until the Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI) was set up in 1982. In 1992, the NTI was upgraded to Nanyang Technological University and gradually developed into a full-fledged university.

The issue at the heart of the debate is whether it is necessary to change the name of NTU to Nanyang University, and what purpose this would serve.

The building of Nantah represented the realisation of a dream by our pioneer generation in establishing a complete Chinese education system from primary, secondary to university level. Their efforts on behalf of future generations should be encouraged and commended. Unfortunately, its development was not smooth and eventually it had to be merged with the University of Singapore.

The closure shattered dreams and created a sense of loss for many people, including those who donated, those who taught there and those who studied there. The university's graduates carried a stigma that their alma mater, which was no longer in existence, was not something they could be proud of. In their view, the university had been taken over, closed and abandoned. It was this deep sense of regret that filled the minds of those who contributed to the birth of the university.

Now that a period of nearly 60 years has passed and a new university NTU has been firmly established at Nantah's campus, it may be the right time to consider whether NTU should be viewed as the continuation of Nantah. To restore the name Nanyang University will connect the present NTU to the original Nantah. This will allow Nanyang University to continue and flourish despite an extended hiatus. It will also ensure that Nanyang University will not be forgotten and the efforts of its founders will not be wasted. It is true that the name restoration is not absolutely necessary, but it would help to preserve Singapore's heritage.

It would also be an official form of appreciation for the contribution of the pioneer generation to educational development in Singapore.

There are pros and cons to the proposed restoration or change of name.

Those who support the change argue that as NTU is now a full-fledged university offering courses of a general university, the word "technological" should be dropped. There are also those who feel strongly that the name Nanyang University should be restored simply because it was taken away by the government.

Many of those who object to the name change are students and graduates of NTU. They want to distinguish themselves from the former Nantah graduates. Current NTU graduates also do not wish to hold a degree granted by a university which is no longer in existence.

But changing the name of a university is not something unusual. The University of Malaya in Singapore, for example, was renamed University of Singapore, and subsequently changed to National University of Singapore. Surprisingly, the people who object most strongly are former Nantah graduates, including a number of MPs. As one of them once put it: "My mother is dead. Don't ask me to accept another lady as my mother."

In spite of its inherent weaknesses, Nanyang University nevertheless contributed to Singapore's nation building. It produced more than 10,000 graduates who have contributed to economic growth over the last few decades.

The Nantah spirit, which is the spirit of standing on one's own feet to resolve difficult problems, is also part of our Singapore spirit, and it should be duly recognised.

In my view, the logical development of Nanyang University, had it not been merged or closed, would be today's NTU. As we all would like to preserve the history of Nantah, let us support the renaming of NTU to Nanyang University so that the old and new Nantah can be reconnected and the Nantah spirit can be carried on by the students of the new Nanyang University. The chapter on the closure of Nantah can thus be closed.

The writer, a Nanyang University graduate, is a former Minister of State at the Ministry of Education.