Joanna Tan, ‘Documenting A Long Forgotten Past: Decolonisation and The Nantah Story’

“We have planted the seeds of culture on the barren soil; it shall co-exist with time.”

(Tan 1953; cited in Kee and Choi 2000:24)

This essay seeks to document the existence of a Chinese-medium educational institution, Nantah, that straddles the colonising and decolonising era in Malaya. Touted as the pinnacle of Chinese education in Southeast Asia (Kee and Choi 2000:22; Lee 2008:443; Ong et al. 2015:11; Tan 2017:20), Nantah was established before the ink delineating the nation-state boundaries of Singapore and Malaysia was fully dry. A university where students with youthful ideals could gather and organise, Nantah was a key mobilizing force in the polity’s fight for self-determination and independence from its colonial British rulers. Making considerable contributions to decolonial efforts then, Nantah has left indelible memories for graduates who were fortunate enough to grace their halls. Holding Nantah close to their hearts1, the marks on the Nantah body politic bears witness to the tumultuous process of nation building that ensued after the polity was liberated. Located in present-day Singapore, Nantah eventually shut its doors, foreshadowing the subsequent closure of Chinese Middle Schools and the death of Chinese-medium education in Singapore.

The opening notes of this essay resound in the above words proclaimed by the founder of Nantah, Tan Lark Sye (TLS), on 26 July 1953, at its ground-breaking ceremony (Kee and Choi 2000: 24). More than just physical soil was “broken” that day, as these words represent the virtuous aspirations that formed the cultural ballast for the later foundation of Nantah. Seen as a bastion for Chinese exceptionalism (Lee 2008:441), Nantah was forced to come into being due to a colonial ban. Due to the victory of Communism ⎯ that ushered in the dawn of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 ⎯ the British colonial rulers, fearing the stoking of the Communist flames amongst the local insurgents (Lee 1996:13, 27), imposed a travel ban on China. Restricting passage to and from China, this ban was also enacted to reduce the likelihood of Malaya2 becoming a hotbed for Communist ideals (Huang 2007:168; Seah 2017:98).

A picture of a painting entitled “Yunanyuan”, painted by my interviewee, Yang. Provided by author.

Strictly enforced, this new immigration policy posed obvious problems to the Chinese Middle School students in Malaya; unlike their predecessors, they suddenly found themselves unable to seek out universities in China to pursue higher education. As products of a “thoroughly Chinese education” (Van der Kroef 1967:56), these students also met with considerable difficulty gaining admission into the University of Malaya (Kee and Choi, 2000:22) ⎯ which used English as its medium of instruction. Amplified by the fact that most Chinese schools outnumbered English schools in Malaya then (Wang 2007; cited in Zheng and Phua 2012:201), thousands of students were left stranded.

In addition, the regulation ordained also prohibited the recruitment of teachers from China, creating yet another problem: a significant shortage of high school teachers for the local self-supporting ethnic-Chinese (Lee 1998:167; Tan 2017:75). Colonial indifference to “the community and privately-financed Mandarin-medium schools” (Chua 2009:241), further resulted in these issues not being fully addressed. Hence, analogous to the cutting of the umbilical cord linking mother and child after birth, the ban materialized the severing of ties to Mainland China: from then on, the Chinese-educated people in the Malay Peninsular were left to fend for themselves.

The proposition to establish Nantah was mooted by prominent philanthropist and rubber tycoon, TLS (Van der Kroef 1967:57; Lee 1998:217; Ong et al. 2015:11). Teaching primarily in Mandarin, Nantah, was set up to attract the brightest Chinese-educated minds from around the peninsula (Pang 2015:80). A reflection of a fervent dream to attain advanced education ⎯ a desire that can be traced back to the heritage of the ethnic-Chinese (Van der Kroef 1967:56; Yao 2008:172; Wang 2006, cited in Zheng and Phua 2012:183) ⎯ the founding of Nantah was additionally motivated by the impetus to preserve Chinese culture and tradition (Lee 2008:444; Yao 2008:171).

A cultural bulwark, Nantah was funded through communal effort; wealthy philanthropists donated money ⎯ on top of the initial $5 million contributed by TLS (Ong et al. 2015:3); and others, who were less wealthy, sold their labour as part of the community fundraising drive. As Yao (2008) mentions, “a great deal of collective spirit and earnestness” could be felt (p.174). Built on the grand aspirations of many in the Chinese community, excitement was in the air. Nantah was going to become a symbol of Chinese excellence (Pang 2015:80); an institution that would showcase the supremacy of Chinese scholarship (Lee 2012:132); and bring to light the most glorious chapter in the history of Chinese education in Malaya (Ong et al. 2015:11).

All of these aspirations came to an abrupt halt; as Nantah’s pedagogic aims and administration were soon called into question (Yao 2008:183). A total of four review reports were carried out. Initiated by the government ⎯ the newly minted People’s Action Party (PAP) ⎯ the committees in charge of the reports were tasked to determine the credibility of Nantah’s degrees as well as provide recommendations for Nantah to improve the quality of its education (Kee and Choi, 2000:26). 

Starting with the Prescott Report, harsh criticism was dished out against Nantah’s administration, curriculum, and faculty (Van der Kroef 1967:58). The Prescott Commission eventually reached the conclusion that they could not “in good conscience” endorse the recognition of Nantah degrees (Yao 2008:183). Blow by blow, the subsequent reports released progressively knocked down the credibility of Nantah degrees as well as the morale of its students (Kee and Choi, 2000:25). A loss of public confidence in Nantah degrees and the ability of Nantah graduates soon ensued (Tan 2017:163), much to the dismay of the Nantah supporters. Considering the evaluations and proposed reforms a personal affront (Yao 2008:183), TLS, together with the students of Nantah, criticised the objectivity of the reports and resisted the implementation of the reforms proposed. 

Here, it is crucial to note that Nantah existed during a tumultuous time: political and constitutional arrangements in Malaya were changing, and many external developments that would affect Nantah’s growth were out of its control. As Wang (1986) states, the situation was “very complicated” (cited in Benton 2004:31). This meant that the controversies Nantah was embroiled in possibly carried political undertones on both the side of the government, the PAP, and that of the school authorities, which included members of the Chinese community (Chua 2017:141). The latent unhappiness mentioned earlier eventually exploded at the next altercation with the PAP: the general elections in 1963. Manifesting their discontent at the perceived unequal treatment administered to Nantah, coupled with the encouragement of their founder, TLS, students were reportedly seen throwing their weight behind PAP’s main party contender, the Barisan Sosialis. Travelling in busloads, they visited electoral areas to canvas for the Barisan candidates (Yao 2008:184).

Despite some of the students’ best efforts, the PAP won the elections; and TLS’s citizenship was swiftly revoked (Ong et al. 2015:134; Tan 2017:217). A principally symbolic move, the removal of TLS revealed the PAP’s intent to increasingly reshape Nantah according to national development goals, foreshadowing the subsequent course Nantah took. 

The next traumatic blow to Nantah and its students was inflicted in June 1964. More than a thousand policemen descended onto the Nantah premises in the early morning, rounding up and detaining a total of 51 students (Tan 2017:225). This eight-hour police crackdown, ordered by the Malaysian government to remove “Communist elements” embedded in Nantah, was the largest operation after the arrest of more than 100 left-wing unionists and politicians in Operation Coldstore the previous year (Yao 2008:184). 

The path Nantah embarked on since its inception had certainly been a strenuous one. And the final blow came with the release of the Dainton Report. Proposing that only a single university in Singapore was necessary (Kee and Choi, 2000:33; Tan 2017:320), Nantah’s fate was sealed. Nantah eventually closed its doors in 1980, with the legislated merger with the University of Singapore (Pang 2015:81).

To some of its graduates, Nantah was a chess piece that was unwittingly sacrificed in a game of political power play (Tan 2017:341). To Yao (2008), this affair illustrated the suppressive power of the PAP and reflected its ability of “subsuming alternative political imaginations under the unifying needs of the nation-state” (p.185). The road Nantah was on had reached a dead end. The euphoria descriptively illustrated in the opening cadences of this overture had vanished; the flame representing the raw social energies behind Nantah’s existence, extinguished; only Nantah graduates remain.

A picture of the Old Nantah gate (老南大牌坊). This photograph was taken when Shen brought me around. Provided by author.

Nantah graduates, today, remain remarkably active. The Association of Nanyang University Graduates (ANUG), Nantah’s formal alumni association established in 1964 (The Association of Nanyang University Graduates 2001), still organises a wide array of activities for their alumni to participate in. These activities range from academic conferences to sports, games, social and recreation events. The fact that they have a website up and running, and frequently maintained3 already attests to how involved they are in keeping the bonds within the Nantah community strong. This is especially so if we remember that these graduates grew up in a pre-internet world; Nantah existed and underwent merger before the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s (Bory et al. 2016:1066).

Apart from the official alumni association in Singapore, several Nantah alumni associations have sprouted up in various parts of the world, following the movement and relocation of many graduates. According to the website set up by ANUG (The Association of Nanyang University Graduates 2001), some Nantah graduates have subsequently put down roots in Brunei, Indonesia, Hong Kong; and numerous parts of Canada, Australia, and Malaysia. A total of 16 other alumni groups are listed on the website. These alumni associations also organise their own regular reunions, and have even published multiple books related to Nantah. 

Out of all the countless social gatherings organised, the official “Global Reunion of Nanyang University Alumni (GRNUA)”, deserves an honourable mention due to its sheer scale and reach. Kickstarted in Toronto in 1992, the 16th iteration of the reunion took place in Singapore in June 2018 (The 16th Global Reunion of Nanyang University Alumni 2018). Organised biennially, the reunion, held in a different country each time, brings together many Nantah graduates from around the globe; all of them converge at the prearranged destination and partake in a few days of sightseeing and social activities.

In addition to these officially organised affairs, a multitude of informal events prevail. Class reunions specific to the specialised discipline and batch of Nantah graduates frequently make an appearance. The myriad of activities the Nantah graduates engage in provide clear evidence that they are a vibrant, close-knit community whose interactions outlive their Nantah days. This observation is a peculiar one; one that necessitates further inquiry, especially if we were to consider the fact that Nantah, to most of these graduates, ceased to exist in its physical form 38 years ago. And so, corollary questions begin to surface: what keeps this community together? Could it, perhaps, be some sort of ‘Nantah Spirit’ at work?

1 Due to Nantah being their alma mater, or mother (母校),  the bond these Nantah graduates shared transcended time and space, and still live on through “The Nantah Spirit” today.
2 Following Lee (1996:2), I use the term “Malaya” to refer to the Malay Peninsula. Singapore is included.
3 The website (The Association of Nanyang University Graduates 2001), has been updated with information regarding the Global Reunion of Nanyang University Alumni happening this year, in 2018. It also contains the names and faces of those graduates forming the Central Council of the association for the years 2016 to 2019.

Joanna Tan is a graduate student in the Department of Social Anthropology. Her research interests coalesce at the intersection of the anthropology of religion and historical anthropology. Her anthropological lens is informed by her previous degrees in Sociology and Communications and New Media (CNM). She has interned at the news agency, Channel News Asia Singapore, for the news programme, In Conversation.


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