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The honourable children of Nantah, and the worms

By Tan Wah Piow

Nantah, or Nanyang University of the 1950s and 1960s was an institution whose history, without exaggeration, was written in blood, tears, political persecutions, and banishments. Nantah should not be mistaken with the present reconstituted institution of the same name. Many of its alumni of the 1950s and 1960s generation regard the current Nanyang University as a plastic copy of the real thing. The intervening story is a deserving subject for a book, and not the purpose of this short article.

Recently one of Nantah's alumni has painstakingly compiled a list of Nantah alumni who were persecuted in the 1950s and 1960s (including those undergraduates and graduates who were expelled, and detained without trial). If one adds to this list those who were banished, exiled, or forced to leave for the jungles; and those whose professional careers were stunned as Nantah alumni, the length of the list would shock the non-Chinese educated Singaporeans.

Nantah gate

In an act of aggravated political vandalism, Lee Kuan Yew in the 1980s demolished the Nantah campus. Out of political expediency, Lee had to grudgingly keep the iconic Gate, but ensured that it was separated from the main campus by a highway. By then Nanyang University was already extinguished through a pseudo-merger exercise with the University of Singapore. This PAP-nization of Nantah is a betrayed of all who helped found the university in the early 1950s, including the thousands of toiling masses in Southeast Asia, Chinese businesses, and one generous benefactor Tan Lark Sye.

Read: Whose decision was it to close Nantah?

One aspect of the dark history of  Nantah which has yet to be told is that of infiltration of the campus by the Special Branch. To keep the students in their place, spies were recruited from amongst the students. Such was the sense of fear on the campus at Nantah in the 1970s that only a handful of  students cared to engage with the larger student protest movement of the time. Nantah alumni are all too familiar with the expression 'white terror', and that may explain why very few are engaged in opposition politics today. The political suppression at Nantah was responsible for the intellectual stagnation of the Chinese-educated progressive movement in Singapore.

Apart from whatever that exists in the secret police archives, retired ISD directors are the living keepers of this dark secret. Who and where are these spies?  They are not an extinct species.

I believe one of the spies from Nantah who was my one-time acquaintance had reportedly reinvented himself as a politician in the opposition camp! Such a person, paid for by the State, is not a patriot, but a despicable worm subverting the democratic process of the nation. There should be a more honourable way to make a living in Singapore.

Hopefully, a day will arrive where there can be a National Reconciliation process in Singapore so that  justice can eventually be returned to the victims of repression and discrimination. For such a monumental event to take place, we need catalysts, we need people like Edward Snowden, and we also need people to search their conscience and play their rightful role in history. At the moment there is a short supply of politicians and people with such calibre in Singapore.

However, when such a day does arrive, this list of names from Nantah should be etched on the wall at Nanyang University under the caption – The Spirit of Nantah. Only then could the present day Nanyang University be restored to its rightful honourable place in history.

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