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Education, Singapore

Let the Nantah spirit and name live on in NTU

The Straits Times | Ker Sin Tze | Friday, Apr 25, 2014

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.

SINGAPORE - 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.

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