Nanyang University’s student activism

Singapore Infopedia


On 27 June 1964, 52 students were arrested in a massive pre-dawn crackdown at Nanyang University,1 on grounds of their involvement in "communist subversive activities".2 It was the last of a series of anti-communist actions conducted by the Federal government in Kuala Lumpur.3 These actions included Operation Coldstore in February 1963 when a majority of the radical left was taken into preventive detention.4 The Nanyang University crackdown was seen as a mopping up operation.

The aftermath of the crackdown on the radical left in Nanyang University was the introduction of the controversial suitability certificate for all students of institutions of higher learning. The certificate was aimed at discouraging student activism and subversion.5

Until the crackdown, Nanyang University had been the setting for student agitation and resistance to a reorganisation of the university to raise its standards. Such a reorganisation was seen as an attack on Chinese education and used as a pretext for student agitation. The Federal government which had ordered the arrests saw Nanyang University as the last remaining bastion from where the communists in Malaysia had hoped to bring the Singapore and Federal governments down on issues involving Chinese education.6 The arrests were regarded as necessary to free the university of unhealthy political influence.

An operation involving over 1,000 officers
The operation to arrest the students commenced at 2:00 am on 27 June and involved more than 1,000 police officers from the Special Branch, Federal Reserve Unit, Criminal Investigation Department, Divisional Police, and the Mobile Traffic Police.7
The road to the Jurong campus of Nanyang University was kept clear of traffic by the traffic cops who escorted the 60 police vehicles and Black Maria vans. The half-mile-long (about 800 m) convoy took an hour to traverse the 10-mile (about 16 km) journey to Nanyang University.8

Upon reaching the campus at 3:00 am, a road block was set up at the
Jurong police station which was located about three-quarters of a mile (about 1.2 km) from the university. The road block checked all vehicles and their passengers against a list of names and photographs of persons on the "wanted list". The police began making their way through the student hostels where 1,300 Nanyang students were housed.9

The officers arrested their first student at 5:15 am. By 7:00 am, small sections of the convoy loaded with student detainees began leaving the campus.10
The operation ended at 10:00 am with the arrest of 52 students, including at least four girls. More than half the detained students held positions in various university societies, and at least 10 were members of the Nanyang University Students' Union executive committee.11

Soon after the arrests, press conferences were held simultaneously in Kuala Lumpur by then Malaysian Minister for Home Affairs
Ismail bin Abdul Rahman, and in Singapore by then Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam. During the conferences, a government white paper titled Communism in the Nanyang University was distributed.12 Tracing the communist exploitation of Chinese education and culture back to 1949, the paper concluded that the pro-communist political agenda was rampant at Nanyang University. The student leaders in particular were opposed to the Malaysian government and had been active in recruiting cadres and disseminating pro-communist propaganda. They had established contact with international communist groups and took part in political activity on public issues that were anti-national and pro-communist in nature.13  

The Singapore government expressed agreement with Kuala Lumpur’s security action as necessary in the public interest. It pointed out that Nanyang University had communist elements entrenched in the university council, administrative, hostel and canteen staff, as well as the student body. All were being exploited in the training of communist cadres.14

The Singapore government highlighted the fact that no attempt was being made to interfere with Chinese education at Nanyang University, that in fact the arrests would clear the way for Nanyang University to be developed into a noteworthy centre of learning.15

Reorganising the university
On 4 July 1964, a five-man delegation from the Nanyang University Council met three government representatives – Lu Yaw, then assistant director of Education, Lee Keng Tuan, then deputy secretary of the Treasury, and Suen Y-Chern, then vice-principal of the Teachers' Training College. The meeting was to discuss the report of the Nanyang University liaison committee on the reorganisation of the university along the lines of the Nanyang University Review Commission report.16

The meeting ended in a stalemate after extended debate and disagreement as to whether the meeting should be considered as the first of the new council in accordance with the agreement on the reorganisation of the university.17

By 6 July, the university's vice-chancellor Chuang Chu Lin had resigned from his position.18
Soon after, the acting chairman of the Nanyang University Council, Lau Geok Swee, announced that he, too, would soon resign from the council, citing his age as the reason for his resignation.19

A week after, on 17 July, the founder of Nanyang University and former chairman of the Nanyang University Council,
Tan Lark Sye, had his citizenship revoked. Prior to the arrests in June, a three-man committee chaired by E.H.  D'Netto had investigated Tan and established his complicity in the pro-communist activities in Nanyang University. The committee had recommended unanimously that Tan be deprived of his citizenship because his activities had been prejudicial to the security of Malaysia and to the maintenance of public order.20

On 11 July, a five-man pro-tem committee headed by Liu Kung-kwei took over the administration of Nanyang University from the outgoing vice-chancellor.21
It was the first step towards implementing an agreed reorganisation of the university. On 16 July, the pro-tem committee dismissed 20 non-academic staff and dissolved the canteen committee, which comprised 35 canteen workers.22

Ninety-eight students including the 52 arrested on 27 June were expelled.23
Of the 52 arrested, 33 had been released earlier by the Special Branch. The expelled students included 48 who had agitated on behalf of the 52 immediatelyafter their arrests.24 Two days later, the expelled students were barred from the university campus. On the same day, parents of about 150 undergraduates were warned about their children's involvement in "communist political subversive activities". In order for their children to recommence their studies after the university reopened, these parents were asked to sign a "good behaviour" bond for their children before the university reopened on 3 August 1964.25

Suitability certificates for students
In response to the problem of student activism highlighted by the activities at Nanyang University, the House of Representatives in Kuala Lumpur discussed a controversial Internal Security (Amendment) Bill at its session on 13 July 1964. The amendment would require all students applying for admission into institutions of higher learning to tender a certificate of suitability issued by the state's Chief Education Officer or Director of Education. The bill was moved by then Malaysian Minister for Home Affairs Ismail bin Abdul Rahman, and backed by then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.26
Although socialist representatives – S. P. Seenivasagam, Tan Tsak Yew, and Tan Chee Khoon – raised objections against the bill, it was passed on 14 July the next day.27

At Nanyang University, a seven-man committee headed by
Wang Gungwu, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts in the University of Malaya, was set up in February 1965 to review the curricula of three of Nanyang's colleges – arts, science and commerce.28

In December 1965, the government-appointed committee released its report, with recommendations for university reform that would serve the country’s needs. When students sent a memorandum of protest over the committee's recommendations, 16 of them were expelled.29
As a result, student agitation fizzled out. The Wang Gungwu Committee recommendations were eventually implemented, raising standards in Nanyang University and bringing an end to the pro-communist activism in the university.30

Kartini Binte Saparudin & Lee Meiyu

1. The number of students arrested varies across the newspaper sources. The number is cited as 51 in a 28 June 1964 Straits Times Article titled 3 a.m. crackdown: 51 held at Nanyang, as well as in The work of vandals at Nantah dated 21 November 1964. Elsewhere in various Chinese papers, including Min Pao, 28 June 1964, p.1 and Xing Zhou Ri Bao June 28 1964 p. 5 and p. 6, the figure cited is 41. In addition, a Straits Times article dated 11 July 1964, also states that, “nine out of the 54 Nanyang University students arrested in the big university swoop… [had been] released”, while an article dated 13 July 1964 states that “ten of the 52 Nanyang University students in the recent police swoop [had been] released”.
2. Philip Khoo, “3 a.m. Crackdown: 51 Held at Nanyang,” Straits Times, 28 June 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Between 1963 and 1965 when Singapore was in the Federation of Malaysia, internal security was in the hands of the Kuala Lumpur-based Federal government.
4. Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-war Singapore, ed. Michael D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008), 171. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 PAT-[HIS])
5. “The Student Screen,” Straits Times, 14 July 1964, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Student Body Must Remain Free – Ismail Explains Action Taken against Communists at Nanyang,” Straits Times, 28 June 1964, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Khoo, “3 a.m. Crackdown.” 
8. Barr and Trocki, Paths Not Taken, 171.
9. Barr and Trocki, Paths Not Taken, 171.
10. Ben bang zheng fu wen gao – tong yi zhong yang cai qu an quan bu zhou ren wei gong zhong li yi you ci xu yao 本邦政府文吿 同意中央採取安全步驟 認為公衆利益有此需要 [The government of this state agrees with the central government to take safety steps, believing that the public interest is necessary], Sin Chew Jit Poh 星洲日報, 28 June 1964, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Peter H. L. Lim, ed., Chronicle of Singapore: Fifty Years of Headline News 1959–2009 (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Library Board, 2009), 67. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 CHR-[HIS])
12. Khoo, “3 a.m. Crackdown.” 
13. Malaysia. Ministry of Internal Security, Communism in the Nanyang University (Kuala Lumpur: [s.n.], 1964), 21. (Call no. RCLOS 335.4 MAL); “The Undergraduates Who Took Control of a University,” Straits Times, 28 June 1964, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Singapore Govt Backs the Arrests: 'In Public Interest',” Straits Times, 28 June 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Singapore Govt Backs the Arrests”; “Ben bang zheng fu wen gao.”
16. Nanyang University. Curriculum Review Committee, Report of the Nanyang University Curriculum Review Committee (Singapore: Nanyang University Curriculum Review Committee, 1965). (Call no. RCLOS 378.5957 SIN)
17. “New Nantah Set Up: Agreement Ratified,” Straits Times, 4 July 1964, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Dr. Chuang's Resignation Focus of Meeting on Nantah,” Straits Times, 8 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Lau: I Am Resigning to Make Way for Younger, Abler, Man,” Straits Times, 10 July 1964, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Jackie Sam, “Lark Sye Verdict,” Straits Times, 18 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Five Silent Minutes in History of Nanyang University,” Straits Times, 11 July 1964, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Nanyang Committee Sacks 20 Varsity Workers,” Straits Times, 16 July 1964, 18; “Nanyang 'Purge': 102 Students Expelled,” Straits Times, 17 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. The number of expelled students is cited as 102 in the 17 July 1964 Straits Times article. However, the actual number of expelled students was later corrected to 98, in a follow-up article released on 18 July 1964, after cases of double counting were identified and eliminated from the list; “Nanyang 'Purge'.”
24. “Nanyang 'Purge'.”
25. “Campus Is Barred to Expelled Nanyang Students,” Straits Times, 18 July 1964, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “House Told of Red's Bid to Recruit converts,” Straits Times, 14 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “‘Suitable Students’ Bill Is Passed by Voice Vote,” Straits Times, 15 July 1964, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Nantah Study Review,” Straits Times, 3 February 1965, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Nantah: Parents Threaten Legal Action,” Straits Times, 7 December 1965, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Andrew William Lind, Nanyang Perspective: Chinese Students in Multiracial Singapore (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1974), 121. (Call no. RSING 301.45195105957 LIN); Barr and Trocki, Paths Not Taken, 186.

The information in this article is valid as at 9 April 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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