Whose decision was it to close Nantah?

Last updated on September 10th, 2016 at 09:44 pm

The following is translated from an original article, written by 太史公孙, first posted on the Nantah Alumni website. As far as possible, we have attempted to keep the translation faithful to the original text.

By Terry Xu

The only Chinese university outside of China that was painstakingly built up by community leaders in Singapore and Malaysia , Nanyang University ("Nantah" as abbreviated in Mandarin) closed its doors in 1980, for the "merger with the Singapore University to form the National University of Singapore".

The agency that closed down Nantah started its “Joint Campus”operation in 1978. In 4 March 1978, the Nantah management committee and the Singapore University jointly released a statement to announce that with effect from the new semester year, the Singapore University’s campus at Bukit Timah will become the joint campus of Singapore University and Nantah, to allow Nantah students to learn in an English-speaking environment to improve the standard of English.

After a series of written communication between the management committee of Nantah and Lee Kuan Yew, an announcement was finally made on 4 May 1980: The committee accepts the proposition by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to merge the Singapore University and Nantah to become National University of Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew has spoken about the closure of Nantah on many occasions. The most mentionable quote is in his published memoir, "Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew  1965 -2000". Before this, there had also been two occasions where the closure was mentioned. The first was in a speech during the People’s Action Party’s 25th Anniversary celebration on 1 January 1980; and the other on 29 March 1980, where he wrote a letter to the Chairman of the management committee Nantah.

"In 1978, the situation has developed beyond the point of bearable, the Member of Parliament who have graduated from Nantah has beseeched me to intervene in the declining standards of their alma mater  before it crumbles to rock bottom. Through many years of communications, there is a person, whose decision is one whom I trust, and he was the then education minister, Mr Ch'ng Jit Koon. Mr Ch'ng Jit Koon has his way in handling human relationships and have been closely working with me over many years, including assisting me in the care of my constituent ward. He made me believe that if Nantah was to maintain its status, there would be more problems arising, which includes many students’ prospect in their career to be damaged as a result. By then, those who speak Mandarin or dialect would put blame onto the government for not doing anything about this, allowing Nantah to destroy it (career’s prospect).  Mr Ch'ng Jit Koon’s opinion receive strong support from Ho Kah Leong, Chin Harn Tong and Lee Yiok Seng, who are  parliamentary secretaries and graduates of Nantah." - "Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew  1965 -2000", Taipei worldbook year 2000, page 173

"Even in 1978, when I proposed that we move them into a Joint Campus, there were a number who had very strong reservations. I moved only because all the Nantah graduate MPs asked me to move; my own N.U. base in Parliament was prepared to back it." - Lee Kuan Yew, speech delivered at the People’s Action Party's 25th Anniversary on 20 January 1990

"To get rid of this sort of bondage, is to set up only one university. That is why, Members of Parliament who are also graduates of Nantah proposed to merge Nantah and Singapore University as one national university, to allow the qualifications of the same academic to have the same degree of equal market value." - Lee Kuan Yew, in a written letter to Chairman of the Nandah Management Committee on 29 March 1980

In these three recollections, Lee Kuan Yew gave the impression that the closure of Nantah has never been his intention and has originated from the four Members of Parliament who are also graduates of Nantah, who "called upon", "requested" and "advised" him to do so. In other words, the main culprit for the closure of Nantah has shifted, to allow the four Nantah graduates to take the blame for him.

Lee Kuan Yew’s self explanation of how the decision was made on the closure of Nantah holds plenty of questionable points, which include:

  1. Lee Kuan Yew’s three Chinese educated assistants - Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yun Tong - did not support his decision to close Nantah; even those who were English educated - Toh Chin Chye, Lim Kim San, Edmund W. Barker and Goh Keng Swee - did not give their support. Why was it specifically that only these four PAP MPs who are Nantah alumnus requested for him to close Nantah?
  2. If the four MPs who are Nantah alumnus were so concerned about the prospect of Nantah and felt that the government should intervene and close down the university, why was there no mention of this serious problem in the meeting minutes of the Association of Nanyang University Graduates, an association which they control?
  3. The same day where Lee Kuan Yew made the proposal of merger, the then Secretary General of the Association of Nanyang University Graduates, Ho Kah Leong expressed the wish that Nantah will not close and continue in its development. Did Ho Kah Leong make a public statement as such while secretly going to Lee Kuan Yew to ask him to close down Nantah? Is Ho Kah Leong such a despicable double headed snake?

In the National Archives, there is a record of an oral history interview on Ch'ng Jit Koon made on 9 August 1994. In this interview, there is a segment which mentions the closure of Nantah. Ch'ng Jit Koon’s narration of the story completely does not support Lee Kuan Yew’s story of the closure.

In the interview by He Ai Ling, there was no mention of how they called upon Lee Kuan Yew to intervene, instead saying that it was Lee Kuan Yew who have called up and gathered the Nantah alumni in Parliament, explained to them the reason behind the merger of Nantah and the Singapore University, and that the proposal to have the two universities to be merged was by Lee Kuan Yew himself.

Ho Ai Ling: "Following this, can we talk about the merger of Nantah and Singapore University, and that is in 1980, when the news of the merger of Nantah and Singapore University was received, what is your reaction and what was your feeling?"

Ch'ng Jit Koon: "We did not really hear any news, then Prime Minister Lee gathered the Nantah alumnus in Parliament. He first explained his view points; he felt that although the government is already directly involved in Nantah and have provided a large amount of assistance in terms of resources, the good students are unable to be attracted to Nantah. On the contrary, those students with good grades who are originally from the Chinese schools are attracted to Singapore University. What Nantah attracts are students with poorer grades. Worried that if this carries on, Nantah will become a serious social problem, the students produced by Nantah will be unable to keep up with students of Singapore University or even compete with graduates from Singapore University.Whoever gradutes from Nantah will not be able to enter the top positions of society and will see that as a biasness against Nantah. Gradually the graduates from Nantah will form sentiments of resentment and will not participate in the development of the country, and instead will organise anti-government, anti-society activities, and it is therefore a serious phenomenon for Singapore. Prime Minister Lee put forward his views, and recommend that the two universities to be merged. He did in fact showed this important problem to us and the Nantah alumnus in Parliament also felt that such a view was correct and agreed with Prime Minister Lee's way of handling it."

The memoir in 2000 written by Lee Kuan Yew apparently did not take into account the oral records made by Ch'ng Jit Koon. In 2011, Lee Kuan Yew also realised how that did not gel with the account by Ch'ng Jit Koon, and therefore corrected the story in his new book, "My Lifelong Challenge – Singapore’s Bilingual Journey" and said, "Ch'ng Jit Koon and Ho Kah Leong agreed to intervene  in Nantah before the situation for the university further deteriorates" (page 91). This however proves the authenticity of the narration by Ch'ng in his 1994 interview, overturning what Lee Kuan Yew have said about being asked to close down Nantah following demands from the MPs who have graduated from Nantah.

From here, we see the real story: The decision to close down Nantah was solely the idea of Lee Kuan Yew, reflecting his personal mission, but in consideration of political mileage and other factors which made him create the false image. He forcefully dragged the four MPs down to the water and had them take the blame on his behalf.

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