My Old Days at Nantah

── VC ──

My Dear Friends,

In this email, I write from memory on my long road to Singapore to study in Nanyang University (known affectionately as Nantah), back to Thailand, then to New Zealand and Canada. These are the events I personally experienced or witnessed.

I was brought up in a town in Thailand, and left to study in a high school in Penang. After graduation in Penang High School in December 1962, I went back to Thailand wondering where to go next for my further study -- to Singapore to study in Nantah, or to Bangkok, Taiwan, or Australia.

One day my dear elder sister, a Chinese School teacher in Chung Hwa School, brought back the newspaper Xing Bing Ri Bao(星槟日报) with the results of Malayan government sponsored Chinese High School examinations (Gao Zhong Li Xiao Wen Ping, 高中离校文凭考试) and the news of Nantah entry examination. There were eight out of more than two thousands students in Penang who got all 3 A in Chinese, English, Mathematics. My sister persuaded my grandmother to allow me to enroll for the Nantah Entry Examination. I finished the enrollment in Penang just two days before the deadline.

In early 1963, the results of Nantah entrance examination were announced in newspapers. Like a few hundreds of other happy Chinese high school graduates from all over South East Asia, I had passed the examination and looked forward to study in Nantah.

With some friends and senior students from the northern states of Malaya, I arrived at Nantah in early1963. As a first year student, I felt like joining a big happy family. The senior students were friendly and helpful to new family members. I was scared of the "tradition" to fool new students which happened in University of Singapore and University of Malaya under the influence of western culture. However, such "tradition" did not happen in Nantah. As one of the new Nantah "children", I was so happy to begin my life at university and with full hope to study well.

The year 1963 was an election year in Singapore. There were campaign cars from almost all political parties including the ruling PAP coming to the campus to spread propaganda. As it turned out, the PAP in government won the general election with a majority. In the next day, the founder of Nantah, Mr. Tan Lark Sye was deprived of his Singapore citizenship. A few days later, there was a raid by riot police and army in the middle of night in the campus. They knocked and/or kicked the doors open, searching from room to room and arrested "suspected" students. In the next year, the Vice-Chancellor Dr. Zhuang Zhu Lin was forced to resign.

I remember the episode of "Huang Gen Wu Report"(王赓武报告书) which disgraced Nantah. It began in September 1965. I witnessed riot policemen chasing, whipping and hitting Nantah students in the campus, at the library and in the canteen. The riot policemen or army even fired bombs of tear gas to student hostels around midnight or in early morning. Like many other students I had to evacuate from hostel and ran toward the new stadium to get away from the smoke of tear gas.

The torturing of Nantah and its "children" continued from my first year at Nantah until my third year at Nantah and thereafter for a few more years.

In my third year (1965-66) I was elected as the head of academic section of the Nantah Mathematical Society. I was approached by someone who threatened me to quit the position. In September 1965, I was forced to sign a "hui guo shu"(悔过书) like many Nantah students in order to continue the registration to study at Nantah.

The reasons given were: being the head of academic section of Nantah Mathematical Society, "jie dui you xing" (joined street demonstration 结队游行), "wu ru shi zhang" (insulting teachers 侮辱师长). My God is my witness. Have any of my teachers ever been insulted by me? I kept the copy of "hui gou shu" with me to this day to remember the dark days and such an unbelievable event that could happen in this world.

During my final examinations of my third year, something very unbelievable happened to me again. Being a foreign student at Nantah I extended my student permit yearly. During my final examination I could only get daily extension of "special permit". I was told by the immigration office that someone had reported that I did not come to Nantah to study and if I wanted to have my student permit extended for the final year of study, I had to see a ruling government minister. That scared me off. Therefore, I had to do the examination in the morning, then went to the Immigration Department in the city 15 miles away from Jurong campus, to extend the "special permit", then rushed back to Nantah campus to study for the next day's examination. Finally, the final examinations were over.

In early 1966, the end of academic year vacation started. Most Nantah students went home for Chinese New Year. Hearing the rooster in the early morning in the quiet campus, I walked several times around the muddy Nantah Hu (Nantah Lake, 南大湖) after the storm and rain. Finally, I decided not to wait for the extension of final year student permit and left Nantah with pain in heart and without a degree.

In May 1966 I got a job in a logging company that was owned by some businessmen from Sandakan, East Malaysia to do accounting and secretarial works in Chinese, English and Thai. My plan was to save enough money to continue my study in Taiwan, Bangkok or New Zealand. I worked for the company for about two years.

During these two years, worse things happened to Nantah alumni. From the newspapers Xing Zhou Ri Bao(星洲日报) and Nanyang Shang Bao(南洋商报), I learned that several members of parliament, including one Nantah top student in Physics, Xie Tai Bao(谢太宝) were arrested in 1966. Many Nantah students, including some of my classmates, were put into prisons or expelled from Singapore back to their original country of residence. Some years later, both Xing Zhou Ri Bao and Nanyang Shang Bao disappeared from the stage of Singapore's history. Xie Tai Bao was jailed without trial for 32 years and therefore became one of the longest held political prisoners in the world.

In February 1968, I went to the Victoria University of Wellington of New Zealand and obtained my Bachelor degree in the same year. When I left for New Zealand, one of the owners of the logging compary where I worked gave me a reference, Mr. Zhuang Ri Kun(庄日昆), an influential Nantah senior to contact in case I had troubles at Singapore airport. Fortunately, I did not have any trouble at the stop over. Two of my classmates came to meet me at the airport, one of them is now a professor in a university in California. I did not have to contact Mr. Zhuang in 1968 but met him in 1992 at the Nantah Reunion in Toronto 24 years later.

In my first year in a "foreign land", I lived in a Salvation Army hostel. There nightly, apart from doing homework, I loved to sing a song called "yi xiang han yue qu"(异乡寒夜曲). The song begins with "li bie dao zhi li, buzhi duo shao nian yo, na liu nian di zhu guo,..."(离别到这里,不知多少年哟,那留恋的祖国,……). To me and most other Nantah "children" in New Zealand, "zhu guo" means South East Asia. One cold night near dawn, my books including the bible provided by the hostel fell down from the shelf. I followed hostel mates ran out to street. This time, it was not caused by the infamous tear gas (of Nantah campus), but a minor earthquake which happened near Wellington.

To help earn my study and living expenses, I worked daily in the afternoon in a Wellington tuition school teaching New Zealand children Mathematics. At end of year holiday in 1968, I went to work in a refrigerated food factory butchering sheep and to pick beans in a farm for two pennies per pound somewhere in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. There were quite a few other Nantah graduates and non-graduates working during the southern summer. (December is summer in New Zealand but winter in the northern hemisphere countries such as Canada.)

In early 1969, I started to study for my master's degree in Auckland University and completed the master degree with first class honours. In my class, there were two Nantah and two University of Singapore graduates. It was interesting that there were eight students getting first class honours including the two Nantah boys but not the University of Singapore graduates. I do not mean that University of Singapore is no good, but that Nantah students have been too much discriminated against in Singapore. Auckland University provided me an opportunity to be a Junior Lecturer in 1970.

In September 1970, I came to Canada to proceed with my Ph.D. degree in the Combinatorial and Optimization Department of the University of Waterloo. After obtaining my Ph.D. degree, I intended to go back to teach in South East Asia, but did not have the luck to do so. Again my favourite song continued to be "yi xiang han yue qu"(异乡寒夜曲).

In the years after leaving Nantah, I dreamed of returning to Nantah to continue my study there. However, the reality is so cruel that my "nantah mu qin yi jin shi le"(南大母亲已经死了)! It is a consolation that my future was not totally sabotaged by my not being able to complete my study at Nantah. I am proud that I am a Nantah "child" even though I could never be a Nantah graduate. I do hope that future students with Chinese cultural background can have better luck and a better life in Singapore.


自强不息 力求上进

2007年12月26日首版 Created on December 26, 2007
2007年12月28日改版 Last updated on December 28, 2007