Saturday, December 17, 2005

Names, Spirit and Politics in Singapore

I am Xenoboy. I am the Political Savant.

"We wanted to retain the name 'Nanyang' as the institute would rise from the campus of the old Nanyang University. We also wanted the word 'Technology' to reflect the mission of the institute. An obvious name was 'Nanyang Institute of Technology'. It had resonance like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But unlike MIT, a NIT graduate would be regarded as a fool. And when NIT became the 'Nanyang University of Technology', its graduates would be NUTs.” – SM Goh Chok Tong

The logical question that every NTU graduate will have to ask then is why the name Nanyang University was erased. Why was a renaming necessary?

There is a forgotten generation of Singaporeans. The Chinese intelligentsia. Graduates of Nanyang University (Nantah or 南大), the last student activists in Singapore. The last Singaporeans with political fire to truly challenge the PAP government.

But like all before, they failed. In a geo-political climate which equated Chinese culture as synonymous with Communism (this was the Iron/Bamboo Curtain era of the 70s) and the pressing exigencies of a young nation to create a generation of Western intelligentsia, able to compete in a Western-dominated economic market, Nanyang University fell.
It fell not without a fight. It students fought to retain the school’s name, the school’s spirit. They fought but they failed. And there remains amongst us Singaporeans, this generation of fighters. Pushing into their 60s and very much still bitter at how their spirit was robbed from them. This forgotten generation was the percentage that voted for the nameless businessman, one of their own, who stood against the PAP-endorsed, Ong Teng Cheong, in Singapore’s first and only Presidential election.

The last advocate of this Nantah spirit, who sought to invoke the fire of the Nantah spirit was an Opposition politician, Tang Liang Hong; himself an alumni. He was named a Chinese chauvinist and given the usual treatment as an enemy of the State. Promulgating racial division. A threat to racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

Nantah is still one of the silenced episodes in Singapore’s education history. It remains awkwardly treated by Singapore history and politics today. Especially so, in the face of new geo-political realities of a resurgent China. The quote above by SM Goh reflects this historical tension whenever NTU is mentioned. He wanted to retain Nanyang only so that the new institute can rise from the ashes of the old university. It is a statement of staggering semantic elision, like a crippled waltz across the violence in the very act of Naming.
Retain “Nanyang” because it still has resonance. Power. But it cannot be Nantah or Nanyang University. That has too much power, too much resonance, carries too much History inconvenient for the development of Singapore. It has power because it is "old". ?. Past Tense.

This entry is not about lamenting the loss of a bastion of Chinese education nor is it about arguing the pride of Chinese culture. It is not about rebuilding something that has been effectively erased into Singapore's forgotten past.

This entry searches desperately for the spirit that so invigorated a generation of students. The spirit which quickened a group of young Singaporeans who believed in and fought for something dear to them. They fought for a Name which symbolized who they were. A Name which shaped their minds and their belief systems. They fought for a Name which held places where their memories lay.

This entry searches for that elusive political spirit that has been bled away by the regime.

Bled away? … but yet … the regime knows that it must still instill a spirit to Singaporeans. HeartBeat Singapore. Remember that? To stem that slow tide of quitters and manifest a political spirit, devoid of politics, to root people like me and you to Singapore. But what happens is the oblique, we become more lost because we cannot feel a political spirit when there is no politics in it. It is a self collapsing paradox.

The Nantah students had something to fight for. A name. An institution. A history.

What am I or other young Singaporeans fighting for? Singapore without politics?

I am Xenoboy. I am the Political Savant.

Quote of the Day :

人 生 自 古 誰 無 死 ,
留 取 丹 心 照 汗 青

-- 文 天 祥


Blogger Mock Turtle said...

Postcards from a Quitter.

3:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

cool quote, ur chinese also powderful one ah?

12:01 AM  
Blogger Mykel said...

Wah seh 文 天 祥!

Where's the "正气歌" and "过零丁洋"? Viva la revolution, mate!

P.S.: Xenoboy, please email me at I wanna chat with you ;)

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

when lao goh said "rise from the campus" also a bit weird, usually people say rise from the ashes, rise from [something taken down] ...

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the question you raise is one which stumps a lot of Singaporeans. We aren't really able to conceive of S'pore other than in its present self. The PAP provides the unsurprising answer to this unwritten page: relative chaos if they aren't around to hold the reins. And I've been wondering, let's imagine that an opposition party succeeded in winning, what would happen? Are the govt structures able to function independently with a new govt? I wonder just how efficient the state of S'pore is without the PAP. This is not a concession that
we must have the PAP around to work; in fact if we find that our much vaunted efficency turns out to be less than what we've always believed/been told, then the PAP has done a greater disservice to S'pore than we imagined. I think for many S'poreans who vacillate between dislike of the PAP and fear of the unknown, it's really a choice of "don't rock the boat" for the sake of exploring uncharted waters, so to speak.

10:11 PM  

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