Nanyang University Alumni Global Reunion and Resolution of the "Nantah Issue"

── Ching Chiang ──

The "Nantah issue" is directly related to the very nature of Nanyang University, which was founded in the early 1950s when Mr. Tan Lark Sye (陈六使) stepped forward to make the resounding call for an alternate university to meet educational and cultural needs of the colonial peoples. Regarding it as apolitical threat, the colonial government attempted to turn it into a stillbirth. Only the thunderous response by people of the various ethnic origins, all walks of life, and from every corner of Southeast Asia, a response unprecedented in the history of the region, and crystallized in the enthusiastic crowds attempting to attend the university's official opening ceremony in 1958, ensured the university's survival.

But there was no shortage of attempts, many of which in academic disguises, to ambush and block the advance of the university. Since independence, continuing to insist on the predominance of the English language and culture, the new regime in Singapore was bent on anglicizing Nantah. Direct political interference on the name of raising academic standards was carried out. In 1980, when even a government-appointed civil servant who, as the head of the university, could not satisfy the ruling party's political desire to change, once and for all, the vernacular character of Nantah, the Singapore legislature adopted a bill which merged Nantah with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore (NUS). Nantah was moved, lock, stock and barrel out of its home and absorbed into the Kent Ridge campus which, until then, had been occupied alone by the University of Singapore. Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI), an entirely new post-secondary college which was also under the umbrella of the NUS, took over Yunnanyuan and was promised to be considered as a second university a decade later.

During the ensuing decade, little was mentioned or heard about Nantah in public. As Nantah faculty and facilities were integrated with those of the University of Singapore, it became obvious that Nantah was the inferior partner and all its vernacular features had to be dropped. Meanwhile its beautiful Yunnanyuan campus was quietly but with determined effort redesigned and turned into the permanent home of NTI.

But the "Nantah issue" refused to go away with nationalization. In 1991, when NTI was converted to Nanyang Technological University (NTU), when the Chairman of the Education Committee in the Singapore legislature suggested that Nantah graduates be excluded from the NUS alumni organization and become attached to the graduate guild of the new university, the "Nantah issue" took centre stage again.

During the silent decade, alumni groups continued to meet and organize reunions. Believing that the merger was in fact the death knell of their alma mater, some alumni did publicly call for its revival. Most of these voices came from west Malaysia where the inclusion of Nantah into the NUS was the culmination of a process of Malaysia's exclusion from receiving benefits from and giving support to Nantah. Having recognized the futility of making an impact on the immediate destiny of their alma mater, Malaysian alumni groups became involved first in the move to establish the private Merdeka University in Kuala Lumpur, and recently in the development of Nanfang College in Johore.

In Singapore, until the suggestion to transfer the allegiance of the Nantah graduates once again was made, the Nanyang University Guild of Graduates, officially designated as the alumni organization when the university was functioning as an independent institution, was conspicuously silent in public. However, the general feeling among the alumni, especially in light of the unfair treatment given to Nanyang faculty in the NUS, was one of extreme disappointment. The alumni were frustrated: while their alma mater had been swallowed up, there was not much they could do in the existing Singapore political climate.

As the usually acquiescent Singapore mass media carried the generally negative responses to the suggestion, including a bold release of pent-up frustration by the Nanyang University Guild of Graduates, a strong sense of public disapproval of the government handling of the "Nantah issue" could be felt.

The Nanyang University alumni global reunion, held in Toronto on June 27-28, 1992, was conceived during the successful North American gathering in the summer of 1990. It was felt that if a reunion on a continental scale could provide so much fun, a world-wide gathering could bring even more happiness for old school friends. On a business visit to Montreal in 1991, former lecturer Han Suyin (韩素音) met some alumni and expressed interest in seeing them and others again the following year. Perhaps behind the minds of everyone, there was the usual desire to keep the Nantah flame alive. But the importance of the global reunion in relation to be "Nantah issue" was not realized until the semi-official suggestion to connect Nantah graduates with the NTU was publicly made. Singaporean and Malaysian alumni began to regard the reunion as providing an ideal opportunity for further discussion of the issue, when alumni from many parts of the world would meet in democratic Toronto, away from the watchful eye of politically sensitive governments.

The Canadian hosts were excited by the additional and extremely important role that has been given to them. Being so far away from their original home, they certainly welcomed the opportunity to discuss the "Nantah issue" with others much more familiar with the subject. Hence it was decided that the Canadian contribution to the resolution of the "Nantah issue" would be to provide a free and democratic forum for the participants to discuss all aspects of the "Nantah issue". The forum would serve as a facilitator for the formation of consensus among all groups. But as the reunion was not formally convened for the specific purpose of discussing the "Nantah issue" by official delegates from all alumni organizations, the implementation of any consensus would remain with the alumni groups themselves, individually or jointly.

As it turned out, participants were overwhelmingly of the view that their alma mater had been in demise. One alumnus after another mentioned the loss of an alternative university for the non-English educated and those who wished to pursue their indigenous cultural roots. The alumni also lamented the occupation of Yunnanyuan by someone else who had proceeded to destroy many important buildings and left others in disrepair. They expressed indignation that access into Yunnanyuan had not only been rerouted, but the gateway arch had also been stripped of the Nanyang University characters and left unattended. Even Chia Ban Seng (谢万森), the Vice President of the Nanyang University Guild of Graduates, in his greetings at the opening of the reunion, alluded to the death of Nantah in 1980. Ch'ng Jit Khoon (庄日昆) argued on behalf of the Alumni Affairs and Development office of NUS that, like the former Raffles College and King Edward VII Medical College, Nantah was very much alive in the body of NUS. But the argument had little persuasive force. Refusing to recognize such association with the NUS, participants declined to accept the invitation by NUS to return to Yunnanyuan to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the beginning of classes at Nantah.

The alumni talked about keeping the memory of their alma mater alive, by going back to Yunnanyuan, on their own, for the next global reunion, and by establishing a museum to house and exhibit educational materials related to Nantah. The museum and other activities to perpetuate the flame of Nantah would be financed by a trust fund which would be set up after some study. The participants would also like to improve communication between their various regional organizations for the purpose of coordination to achieve the above tasks.

But they were especially supportive of Han Suyin's call for the revival of Nanyang University. Han Suyin argued that the historical mission of Nantah as a Chinese university outside China had not diminished, as an increasing number of foreigners looked towards China for trading opportunities, and as East Asia achieved greater importance in world affairs with the approach of the 21st century. Indeed, not only should Nantah be resurrected, as education had became increasingly internationalized and the original mission of Nantah expanded, more than one institution like Nantah could be set up. One such institution could be located in Canada, where the political and economic environment was most conducive. Children of Chinese descent in North America and those who wished to become associated with China, a major political and economic power in the 21st century, could study the Chinese language here, while others could become involved in the learning and research in Asian philosophies and cultures.

There is no reason to believe that the majority of the alumni not present at the reunion would reject the call for reviving Nantah. This being the case, the next step would entail an examination of the whole question of revival, a feasibility study asking such questions as: what kind of a revived university; what are the available options in terms of location; what does each option entail, in terms of the resources required and the process to bring it about; how should the final decision be made. This is obviously a task that can only be performed quietly by a small group of people well versed in the issues relating to financing and management of a modern university. In other words, following the global reunion which has facilitated the formation of a consensus on the need for revival, a Nantah Commission of Enquiry should now be formed to provide a basis for concrete actions to be taken leading to the actual event of revival. As Cham Boon Ngee (詹文义) suggested, Nantah alumni should now proceed beyond reminiscence and seriously look at what they could do for their alma mater.

It is now the job of the various Nantah alumni organizations to take the initiative of forming such a Commission of Enquiry to bring the discussion of the "Nantah issue" to a higher and easily implemented level. The Commission should be made up of alumni from all groups and be given the moral, financial and logistical support it needs to do its job successfully. To do its job of carrying out a feasibility study well, it should refrain from examining the past to apportion blames, but in a calm, cool and collected way look into the future to find practical ways of reviving the alma mater. It should have both public and private meetings and travel to the various towns and cities in Southeast Asia to hold discussions with alumni as well as other people concerned. The Commission should, in consultation with, and under the assistance and cooperation of all the alumni groups, present a report for the consideration and implementation by these groups.

In its short history, Nantah has been inundated with enquiry reports of one kind or another. Written by outsiders who knew little about Nantah, and who also held strong against its existence, practically all of these reports were premised upon Nantah's destruction. The report by the Commission of Enquiry into the Feasibility of Reviving Nanyang University would be very different because it is not only being presented by the graduates which Nantah itself has educated and trained, but also addressing the question of Nantah's rebirth and rejuvenation. Who else can claim to understand Nantah better? Who is more enthusiastic about Nantah's future than those who have benefited so much from being associated with it? But most importantly, this will be a very positive report because it will reflect the collective feelings of, among others, the more than 10,000 graduates Nantah produced over its 25-year history. It will also be a competent report because out of the more than 10,000 Nantah graduates there are many successful entrepreneurs, professionals, journalists, writers, politicians, university professors, high school teachers, etc. who can serve on the Commission directly or become involved in the Commission's work indirectly. As Nantah takes a serious look at itself for the first time, the world would have to take note.

In the remainder of this essay, I will deal with some of the questions with which the Commission may wish to concern itself.

Continue ...

(按:原载 1992 年《南洋大学全球校友联欢会特刊》75页

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2002年5月01日首版 Created on May 1, 2002
2002年5月01日改版 Last updated on May 1, 2002