Nanyang University

Singapore Infopedia


Nanyang University was the first university outside of China catering to high school graduates from the Chinese stream. After five years of construction, it was officially opened on 30 March 1958, two years after the start of its first classes. The setting up of a tertiary institution for the Chinese in Malaya was first proposed by Tan Lark Sye in 1950 and again in 1953.1 Tan became the prime driving force for the university and is regarded as the founder of Nanyang University, known as Nantah.2

Before the opening of Nanyang University, students graduating from the Chinese high schools in Malaya mostly had to go to China for a tertiary education. However, by the early 1950s, it had become extremely difficult for Malayan Chinese students to further their studies in China, due to the tight immigration control since the start of the Malayan Emergency in 1948 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. At the same time, the number of students graduating from the Chinese high schools was increasing rapidly.This was a problem that worried Tan Lark Sye and other Chinese community leaders.4

As chairman of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (Hokkien clan association), Tan first mooted the idea of a Malayan Chinese university during an association event in September 1950.5 However, the plan did not take off until 1953, after Tan formally proposed it on 16 January at a meeting of the association’s executive and supervisory committees, at the same time pledging a personal gift of up to $5 million for the project. The idea gained traction quickly this time, with financial support pouring in from the Chinese community across Malaya. The Hokkien Huay Kuan also donated 500 acres (2 sq km) of land in Jurong as the site of the new university.6

On 12 February 1953, representatives from 215 Chinese associations met to discuss the proposal, which they supported unanimously. A preparatory committee was formed with Tan appointed as the chairman. It was at the committee’s first meeting on 20 February 1953 that the name “Nanyang University” was agreed upon.7 In March 1953, the committee set forth the following goals for the new university:

  1. Provide high school graduates in Malaya with opportunities for higher education;
  2. Train teachers for high schools in Malaya;
  3. Develop specialists for Singapore; and
  4. Train new leaders for Malaya.8

However, the colonial government refused to grant permission for the setting up of the university.9 The new institution was thus registered as a company, Nanyang University Limited, on 5 May 1953 under the Companies Ordinance.10 This status was to remain until the Nanyang University Ordinance finally granted it university status on 27 May 1959.11 With the establishment of Nanyang University Limited, the Nanyang University Council was formed to replace the preparatory committee and Tan was elected the council’s chairman.12

Opening of the university
The plan to set up the university received overwhelming support from the Chinese community, with both the rich and the poor donating generously to the building fund. Tan was the chief sponsor and pledged $5 million. Contributions were received from the working class, including taxi drivers, hawkers, trishaw pullers and cabaret dancers. Donations also flowed in from businessmen and associations in countries around the region.13

On 26 July 1953, a groundbreaking ceremony was held to mark the start of construction work at the Jurong campus.14 Lin Yutang, an established Chinese scholar based in the United States, arrived in Singapore on 2 October 1954 to assume the post of the chancellor of Nanyang University.15 However, after six months, Lin resigned over budgetary and ideological differences with the university’s executive council chaired by Tan.16

Despite the resignation of its first chancellor, the university managed to start some classes on 30 March 1956, following a simple flag-raising ceremony officiated by Tan two weeks earlier on 15 March. A grand celebration marking the completion of the first phase of the university building programme was held on 30 March 1958.17 Then Governor of Singapore William Goode, who was the guest of honour, unveiled a commemorative tablet bearing the names of donors during the ceremony. The opening of the university was a major achievement for the Chinese community in Malaya and Singapore, and tens of thousands turned up to join in the celebration, causing massive traffic jams along the roads leading to the campus.18 

Controversies and reviews
Shortly after Nanyang University commenced classes, then Minister for Education Chew Swee Kee announced on 1 May 1956 that the government would not recognise the university’s degrees as the institution had “no right to confer degrees”.19 This issue remained unresolved even when the Nanyang University Ordinance was passed in March 1959.20

As part of efforts to obtain official recognition for its degrees, the university proposed the formation of a commission to look into its academic standards. The government supported the proposal, and the composition of the commission was confirmed by October 1958.21 Chaired by Stanley Lewis Prescott, then vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia, the commission began its work on 17 February 1959 and spent the next one month reviewing the university’s standard of instruction, the adequacy of the facilities used for teaching and the measures taken to ensure satisfactory standards of academic work. The commission’s report, submitted to the government in March 1959, noted the weak organisation and administration of the university, inadequacy of the library and laboratories, poor employment terms and prospects, poorly qualified staff, lack of research culture and heavy curriculum for both teachers and students. The report recommended that Nanyang University graduates be given a chance to enter public service following an assessment of suitability, but it did not support the recognition of the degrees.22

The Prescott-led commission also recommended that an ad hoc committee be formed to review its report and “determine the extent and sequence of the re-organisation deemed necessary”.23 As a result, the government appointed a second committee for this purpose on 23 July 1959. The committee was chaired by Gwee Ah Leng, then acting medical superintendent of the Singapore General Hospital.24 The report was submitted to the government on 20 November 1959, proposing that the university broadens its student recruitment from other language streams, promotes the learning of Malay, increases the use of English in teaching, and raises the standard of English for admission to the university. It also noted the low pay of university staff and the questionable academic ability of the teachers. Similar to the earlier Prescott report, it did not recommend the recognition of Nanyang University’s degrees.25 In February 1960, then Minister for Education Yong Nyuk Lin announced that the government had accepted the findings of the report in principle and decided to recognise the degrees of only the first batch of graduates.26 In 2 April that year, the university held its first convocation.27

Both the Prescott and Gwee Ah Leng reports generated a lot of unhappiness towards the government, a situation that leftists used to further their cause. The resulting increase in student agitation from the early to mid-1960s became a concern for the government and prompted a series of raids and arrests of students who were deemed pro-communist.28 In 1964, the university also expelled about a hundred students for involvement in subversive political activities, though several of them were later allowed to return.29

Amid the unrest, Nanyang University representatives were in negotiations with the government regarding the issue of re-organisation and an agreement was finally reached in June 1964.30 The university then formed a Curriculum Review Committee in February 1965 to examine the organisation and content of its courses and propose revisions to meet the needs of society at a time when Singapore was part of Malaysia. The committee was chaired by Wang Gungwu, then head of the history department and dean of arts at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. The review report was released publicly on 11 September 1965, after Singapore had separated from Malaysia. Among its recommendations were proposals to enhance bilingualism, improve the quality of teaching staff, and form a Malay Studies Department as an important cultural bridge.31 Some students staged a protest against the report’s recommendations, but the university responded swiftly by expelling 85 of them.32

The university’s re-organisation efforts were rewarded in December 1967 when Ong Pang Boon, then minister for education, announced in parliament that the government would recognise the degrees conferred by Nanyang University.33 This was made official at the university’s ninth convocation on 25 May 1968.34

Merger of Nanyang University and the University of Singapore
In the 1970s, Nanyang University faced the problem of falling student enrolment as more parents were sending their children to English-language schools.35 In February 1978, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew highlighted the need for Nanyang University to switch to using English as the language of instruction within the next five years.36 This was soon followed by an announcement in March that a joint campus scheme would be introduced to enable students from Nanyang University to study in an English-speaking environment together with students from the University of Singapore.37 

In late 1979, British academic Frederick Dainton, at the invitation of Lee, presented his views on the future of university education in Singapore. He suggested merging the two universities and having only one campus at Kent Ridge, where the University of Singapore was located.38 The government supported the proposal and the merger was confirmed in April 1980.39

Nanyang University held its 21st and final convocation on 16 August 1980.40 In the same month, the National University of Singapore Act came into effect and with that, the University of Singapore and Nanyang University were merged.41

Establishment of Nanyang Technological University
As part of the merger, Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI) was formally established in 8 August 1981 and classes commenced at the old Nanyang University campus in July the following year.42 In 1991, NTI officially became a full-fledged university and was renamed Nanyang Technological University (NTU).43 Five years later, the alumni rolls of the former Nanyang University were transferred from the National University of Singapore to NTU.44

In 1998, the following were gazetted under the Preservation of Monuments Act: the old Nanyang University Library and Administration Building, the Memorial pagoda in front of it, as well as the original entrance Arch to the University.45 The Memorial commemorated the first phase of the University’s construction. Together with the Library and Administration Building, it is part of the NTU campus.46 However, the Arch stood at the university’s original Jurong Road entrance and is now outside the NTU campus grounds.47

1. Ji Baokun 纪宝坤 and Cui Guiqiang 崔贵强, Nanyang da xue li shi tu pian ji南洋大学历史图片集 [A pictorial history of Nantah] (Singapore: Times Media for the Chinese Heritage Centre, 2000), 22–25, 36. (Call no. Chinese RSING 378.5957 JBK)
2. “Fund Set Up to Honour Nantah Founder,” Straits Times, 16 December 1997, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Nanyang University Review Committee Singapore, “Introduction,” in Report of the Nanyang University Review Committee (Singapore: Printed at Govt. Print. Off, 1960). (Call no. RCLOS 378.5951 SIN); Nanyang University, A Brief Sketch of Nanyang University (Singapore: Printed by Lam Yeong Press, 1958), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 378.5951 NAN)
4. “'Chinese University for Singapore',” Straits Times, 17 September 1950, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “'Chinese university for Singapore'.”
6. “Plan for Varsity Dropped,” Straits Times, 6 August 1952, 8. (From NewspaperSG); Ji Baokun and Cui Guiqiang, Nanyang da xue li shi tu pian ji, 23–24, 43.
7. Nanyang University, Some Aspects of Nanyang University (Singapore: Published by the University on the occasion of the Singapore Constitution Exposition, 1959), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 378.5951 NAN); Nanyang University, Brief Sketch of Nanyang University, 2; “The Name Is 'Nanyang University',” Straits Times, 21 February 1953, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Nanyang University, Brief Sketch of Nanyang University, 2–4.
9. Edwin Lee, Singapore: The Unexpected Nation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 419. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
10. Nanyang University, Some Aspects of Nanyang University, 1.
11. Nanyang University Ordinance, 1958: Promulgated on 29th May, 1959 in Government Gazette to Come into Operation on 27th May 1959 (Singapore: Printed by L. Y. Press, 1959). (Call no. RCLOS 378.5951 SIN); The Nanyang University Ordinance 1959, No. 27 of 1959, Colony of Singapore Government Gazette Supplement, 676. (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SGGSLS-[HWE])
12. Nanyang University, Some Aspects of Nanyang University, 1.
13. Ji Baokun and Cui Guiqiang, Nanyang da xue li shi tu pian ji, 23–24, 43; Nanyang University, Brief Sketch of Nanyang University, 4–5.
14. Nanyang University, Some Aspects of Nanyang University, 1.
15. “'My Job Is Simple – Start a First-Class University',” Straits Times, 3 October 1954, 1; “Colourful Life of a Linguist,” Straits Times, 9 December 1980, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Dr. Lin Tells Everything – and Is Cheered,” Straits Times, 17 April 1955, 3; “Dr. Lin Stands Firm,” Straits Times, 21 February 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Ji Baokun and Cui Guiqiang, Nanyang da xue li shi tu pian ji, 24–25, 29.
18. “Hands Off Nanyang, Lark Sye Warns Politicians,” Straits Times, 30 March 1958, 1; “Governor Gets Caught in Colony’s Biggest Jam,” Straits Times, 30 March 1958, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “These BAs Won't do Says Chew,” Straits Times, 2 May 1956, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Ji Baokun and Cui Guiqiang, Nanyang da xue li shi tu pian ji, 26, 29.
21. “Nanyang Commission Starts Work in February,” Straits Times, 29 October 1958, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Commission Files Nanyang Report,” Straits Times, 18 March 1959, 5. (From NewspaperSG); Nanyang University Commission Singapore, Report of the Nanyang University Commission, 1959 (Singapore: Printed at the Govt. Print. Off, 1959), preface, 28–29. (Call no. RCLOS 378.5951 SIN)
23. Nanyang University Commission Singapore, Report of the Nanyang University Commission, 1959, 29.
24. “Govt. Names 7 Men to Study Nanyang Report,” Straits Times, 24 July 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Review Men Sign Report on Nanyang,” Straits Times, 21 November 1959, 5. (From NewspaperSG); Nanyang University Review Committee Singapore, Report of the Nanyang University Review Committee, 4–5, 7–8, 11–12.
26. “Govt. Pledges Full Aid to Nanyang,” Straits Times, 11 February 1960, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Ji Baokun and Cui Guiqiang, Nanyang da xue li shi tu pian ji, 30.
28. Ji Baokun and Cui Guiqiang, Nanyang da xue li shi tu pian ji, 26; “Action at Nanyang,” Straits Times, 29 June 1964, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “2 Nanyang Students Re-Admitted,” Straits Times, 31 August 1964, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Lim Beng Tee, “On-off-On Talks End in a New Deal for Nanyang,” Straits Times, 6 June 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Nantah Names Committee to Streamline Studies,” Straits Times, 17 February 1965, 6. (From NewspaperSG); Nanyang University. Curriculum Review Committee, Report of the Nanyang University Curriculum Review Committee (Singapore: Nanyang University Curriculum Review Committee, 1965), 1–5, 13–14, 19. (Call no. RCLOS 378.5957 NAN); “Biobox,” Straits Times, 29 March 1998, 41. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Nantah Sacks 85 Unruly Students,” Straits Times, 28 October 1965, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Nantah Degrees: Students Are Pleased,” Straits Times, 27 December 1967, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “New Chapter as Govt Accepts Degrees,” Straits Times, 26 May 1968, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Ngiam Tong Hai, “Nantah to Be Equal Partner,” Straits Times, 24 August 1977, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “English Will Be Medium of Instruction at Nantah,” Business Times, 11 February 1978, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “A Right Course,” Straits Times, 7 March 1978, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Frederick Sydney Dainton, Report on University Education in Singapore, 1979 (Singapore: Prime Minister's Office, 1979), preface, 3–4, 7–8. (Call no. RSING 378.5957 DAI)
39. “Nantah's 'Yes' to Merger with SU,” Straits Times, 6 April 1980, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “This Will Be Nantah’s Last Convocation,” Straits Times, 10 August 1980, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
41. The National University of Singapore Act 1980, Act 21 of 1980, Government Gazette. Acts Supplement, 127–48. (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGAS)
42. Cham Tao Soon, “NTI to Be Developed in Three Phases,” Straits Times, 20 February 1982, 7; “First Day of a New Era at NTI,” Straits Times, 6 July 1982, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
43. “NTU's Special Features,” Business Times, 26 March 1991, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
44. “6 MPs Back Transfer of Nantah Register Bill,” (1996, May 3). Straits Times, 3 May 1996, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
45. Preservation of Monuments (No. 4) Order, Sp.S 605/1998, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 1819–1826. (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS)
46. “Bā jiànzhú liè wèi shòu bǎocún gǔjī,” “八建筑列为受保存古迹,” Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 19 December 1998, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Tan Yi-Ling, “New Look for Old Nantah Arch,” Straits Times, 9 May 1997, 24. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Government Grants Nanyang Interim Financial Aid,” Straits Times, 20 June 1964, 18. (From NewspaperSG)

Keeping Nantah Spirit Alive,” Straits Times, 7 June 1996, 19. (From NewspaperSG)

Leslie Fong, “Future of Nantah – the Options,” Straits Times, 11 March 1980, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Nantah Always to Be the Chinese Varsity of S‘pore, Says Govt,” Straits Times, 16 November 1965, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Nanyang Is Recognised in London,” Straits Times, 23 May 1962, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Three Hours to Clear Jam-Up,” Singapore Free Press, 31 March 1958, 16. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at June 2020 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 material on the topic.

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