Thursday, 8 August 2013

Correct Evaluation of the standard-bearer of mother tongue education Contributions by Tan Lark Sye towards the establishment of Nanyang University

Correct Evaluation of the standard-bearer of 
mother tongue education

Contributions by Tan Lark Sye towards the 
establishment of Nanyang University

- An article in commemoration of Tan Lark Sye to be published in conjunction of the memorial gathering to be held by Nanyang University (Nantah) Alumni Worldwide in Ipoh


Tan Seng Hin (from the 6th Batch, Economics Faculty)

(This text is translated by Sahabat Rakyat Working Committee Editorial Board from the original Chinese version released in July 2013)

“Since Perak Nanyang University Alumni Association is organising the memorial gathering for the late Tan Lark Sye in Ipoh on Saturday and Sunday, 7 - 8 September, I would request that a resolution “that the revocation of Tan Lark Sye’s citizenship is an unjust political act, and the Singapore government must reinstate Tan’s citizenship” or words to that effect, be adopted at the gathering.

22 September 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the deprivation of Tan Lark Sye’s citizenship. After 50 years, assuming that Lee could heed this appeal for justice, perhaps this will be the best way for the alumni to promote Nantah’s spirit. It is also the best way to commemorate the late Tan and Nanyang University. I will always be with Nanyang University alumni in this endeavour!”


1. Referring to the "Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Passing of Tan Lark Sye" seminar, Singapore (2012)

The Nanyang University, founded in 1953, commenced classes in the year 1956. It was closed down by the Lee Kuan Yew ruling clique of Singapore in 1980. It has been 41 years since the passing of its founder Tan Lark Sye in 1972. Scholars, including the Nanyang University alumni, have authored articles and books about Tan Lark Sye and Nanyang University. However, their works are not up to the mark in the eyes of those authoritative scholars much appreciated and well trusted by those in power.

The Lee Kuan Yew ruling clique deprived Tan Lark Sye of his citizenship on the very day following the announcement of Singapore 1963 election results. He was forced to give up his position in Nanyang University's Executive Committee. From 1965 to 1979, gradual changes were made to Nanyang University in every aspect, including academic aspect, curriculum, enrolment, and the medium of instruction. Eventually it became an English university.

In 1980, the Nanyang University merged with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore. The merger also ended the century-old Chinese education system in Singapore. (It was replaced by the new program known as "Special Assistance Plan" (SAP) in not more than 10 secondary schools. To suit the political need of the ruling party, the "Nanyang University" (also known as the Yunnan Garden) was changed to "Nanyang Technological Institute" (NTI) in 1982. Later, the NTI was upgraded to "Nanyang Technological University" (NTU). Thereafter, the change in the character and status of the Nanyang University was complete.

While the ruling clique succeeded in upgrading "NTI" to "NTU", it seemed to recognise "the Nantah Spirit" but with ulterior motives. Apart from seeking assistance from the Nantah alumni in the development of the new university, it proposed to add the Nantah Alumni into the list of the NTU. Their intention is clear: to achieve the desired "result of merging the past history of the “original” Nanyang University into the new university." Their attempt to rewrite the Nantah history ultimately met with failure. However, Lee Kuan Yew himself has never loosened up his grip on the issues relating to Tan Lark Sye and Nantah.

The Centre for Chinese Language and Culture (CCLC) of NTU began the "Nanyang University Historical Research" in 2001 from four aspects, namely, the founder of Nantah, the Nantah Students’ Union, Nantah relations with the government, and the leftist ideology in Nantah. An international conference on “National Boundaries & Cultural Configurations" was held by CCLC in 2004 where researchers presented their respective research findings. Then in 2006, CCLC published a book entitled "Ideals and Reality - A Study of Nanyang University (Nantah) Students Union (1956 - 1964)", written by Khe Su Lin. CCLC further published “Images of Nanyang University - from the Historical Perspective” edited by Lee Guan Kin in 2007. It was a compilation of papers written by several scholars. Last year (2012), CCLC published two important books at the same time, namely “The Relationship between Nanyang University and Singapore Government (1953-1968)” by Zhou Zhao Cheng, and “Tan Lark Sye and Nanyang University” by Lee Leong Sze.



The book "Tan Lark Sye and Nanyang University" was praised sky high as "groundbreaking academic works, and self-contained research system." The relevant authorities and authoritative scholars also held a special seminar entitled "Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Passing of Tan Lark Sye". In fact, it was a piece of political propaganda to "launch another attack against Tan Lark Sye and Nanyang University". The political overtone and motive of the above mentioned academic books and remarks are laid bare when they are examined together with the revelations made by Lee Kuan Yew in Chapter 3. Nanyang University 1956 - 1980 of his new book, "My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey”, published less than a year before the seminar.

2. Tan Lark Sye is not only the founder of Nanyang University, but also the great standard-bearer of the movement struggling for the right to higher education using mother tongue of the Chinese community in South East Asia (mainly Singapore and Malayan Peninsula) from the 1950s to 1970s

Even though Tan Lark Sye being the founder of Nanyang University, is an indisputable historical fact, it is still being denied by some with ulterior motives. On the other hand, the world renowned historian, Yen Ching Hwang, a Nantah graduate, now living in Australia, categorically stated that, "The magnificent achievement of Tan Lark Sye establishing Nanyang University can be positioned in the history as such: 'there would be no Nanyang University without Tan Lark Sye; there would be no contribution to the nation building and development from more than ten thousand Nanyang University graduates to Singapore and Malaya (Malaysia), as well as their substantial contributions to the international academic community if not for Nanyang University" (page XV, "Preface by Yen Ching Hwang" “Tan Lark Sye and Nanyang University” by in Lee Leong Sze)

I personally feel that it is insufficient to merely acknowledge Tan Lark Sye as the founder of Nanyang University. He was also a great standard-bearer fighting for the right to higher education, using mother tongue during the period from 1950s to 1970s. My main arguments are as follows:

(1) Without Nanyang University, there would be no New Era College and Southern College [the former will be upgraded to university level, and the latter was upgraded this year (2013)]. They were established subsequently by the Chinese community in Peninsular Malaysia in line with the Nantah Spirit. Before the separation of Singapore and Malaysia, Nanyang University was originally the institute of higher learning of the Chinese education in Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak;

(2) The New Era College and Southern University College can now be regarded as institutes of higher learning established as a result of the resistance of the Chinese community in Peninsular Malaysia against the mono-culturalism and ethnic assimilation. In other words, the two institutions of higher learning form an important component part of the mother tongue education in Peninsular Malaysia, comprising primary, secondary schools and institutes of higher learning;

(3) The establishment of Nanyang University by Tan Lark Sye with his unswerving faith and fighting spirit, was the shining model for the subsequent establishment of New Era College and Southern College. It was the model of Chinese community fighting for the right of survival and development of mother tongue education. From the historical perspective, Tan Lark Sye was indeed the great leader who fought for the use of mother tongue in the institute of higher learning as the main medium of instruction in South East Asia. He is on a par with Lim Lian Geok in stature. Lim Lian Geok was the most outstanding leader who was opposed to the "conversion of Chinese secondary schools to national-type secondary schools". Lim also "fought for the right to mother tongue education" in Peninsular Malaysia. Both figures were the great standard-bearers of the Chinese education movement of the last century in Singapore and Malaya. Their only difference is: Lim Lian Geok was just a commoner whereas Tan Lark Sye a multi-millionaire.

3. Tan Lark Sye was not merely a “prudent capitalist”, but also an icon of national capitalist class who courageously fought against the colonial government and suzerain state for the political, economic, language and cultural rights of the oppressed ethnic community.

Tan Lark Sye’s Biography Chronology, an article written by Tan Yam Seng (a Nanyang University graduate), indicated that Tan Lark Sye was born in 1987, in Jimei, Tong An Country, Fujian Province, China. Tan Kah Kee came from the same village. Tan Lark Sye was born into a poor family which earned its living by fishing and farming. In 1916, at the age of 20, he left his village and made his way to Singapore for a living. Tan Lark Sye started work in Tan Kah Kee’s rubber estate in Malaya. His capability soon impressed Tan Kah Kee, and he was promoted to assist in the operation of rubber trading business.

In 1923, Tan Lark Sye, together with his brother jointly started a firm “Lian Hoe (Lianhe) Rubber” enterprise. Two years later, he formed a company “Aik Hoe & Co Pte Ltd (Yihe Gongsi)” and embarked on his career in the business world from then onwards. He managed to become one of the top ten rubber industrialists in Singapore and Malaya within 10 years. Tan Lark Sye had been the chairman of Rubber Trade Association of Singapore since 1937. At the same time, he was also the chairman of Singapore Rubber Millers Association and then became the leader of rubber industry associations in Singapore and Malaya.

In 1950, Tan Lark Sye was elected chairman of the Chinese Chambers of Commerce Singapore, and also chairman of Hokkien Association. He remained as chairman of Hokkien Association until he passed away in 1972. Tan’s career as an industrialist peaked in 1950s when his rubber company reaped huge profits from the skyrocketed rubber price due to the Korean War. Tan diversified his business into financing, newspaper and insurance industries. He had also been appointed as the board chairman of Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC Bank), Chiyu Banking Corporation Limited Hong Kong and Nanyang Siang Pao. He, in turn his brother, served as board chairman of Asia Insurance Corporation Limited and the Asia Life Assurance Society Limited. [See Selected Papers in Commemoration of Tan Lark Sye's Birthday of Hundred Years (Chinese edition), 1997, pp. 143 – 174)]

The British colonial office made the following comment about Tan Lark Sye at that point of time: Tan Lark Sye was a prudent capitalist who was more interested in business than politics. This successful entrepreneur, who managed the international rubber trading business, started his business from scratch. However, in the eyes of the author of Tan Lark Sye and Nanyang University, he did not deserve admiration or respect. The author described Tan as “just a millionaire who was not highly educated and without any experience in founding universities.”

The author wanted others to believe that “because of Tan Lark Sye’s lack of experience in education, he neglected many relevant aspects. For example, Tan registered Nanyang University as a “Private Limited Company”. Hence, the government’s reluctance in recognising its degree”. “These problems, arising from the lack of overall planning and careful considerations, were raised in 2 reports, when the Nanyang University degree applied for recognition by the government”. (See the conclusion of chapter 7 in the same book, pages 202 and 207). Many scholars and Nanyang University alumni rebutted these nonsensical statements in their articles. [See History of Nanyang University column in Singapore Insight website (www.sginsight.com).]

My personal opinion is, Tan Lark Sye was not merely “a prudent capitalist”, but he was also an icon of national capitalists who fought dauntlessly against the British colonial government and suzerain state for the political, economic, language and cultural rights of the oppressed ethnic community. My main arguments in favour of this view are:

1) Tan Lark Sye, because of his personal experience and the misfortune of the Chinese community, realised that the people under colonial rule must have the right to political participation, in order to change their destiny. He urged the Chinese community to fight for the right to citizenship and the right to political participation. In February 1951, Tan, as chairman of the Chinese Chambers of Commerce, represented the Chinese in submitting a memorandum to the colonial government. The memorandum demanded the relaxing of the citizenship’s terms and conditions for non-English speaking Chinese. He persisted in his struggle and re-submitted the memorandum in February 1952.

When the British colonial government published the “Report of the Rendel Commission” in 1953, Tan Lark Sye led the Chinese Chambers of Commerce, and organised 200 thousand voters to participate actively in the election activities and exercise their sacred rights. The Chinese Chambers of Commerce with the support of the masses finally forced the Parliament of Singapore to pass the Citizenship Act in July 1957. As a result, 220 thousand people who had been residing in Singapore for more than 8 years were granted citizenship that was long overdue to them.

Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew mentioned that Lee Kuan Yew returned from Britain to Singapore and became a lawyer in 1950 – 1959. He then became the legal adviser of several unions. He entered the political arena only when he was elected Secretary General of the People’s Action Party (PAP). The party was only officially formed in November 1954.

2) Soon after World War II, Singapore and Malaya were under military rule by the British. Rubber became a controlled item, and rubber trade was monopolized by the British. All rubber traders were forced to sell rubber at a low price to some organisations from London. The traders were not allowed to trade rubber freely in the market. Tan Lark Sye once again urged the government to lift the control. He managed to force the British colonial government to lift the control on the New Year day in 1947. The price of rubber rose gradually after free trading was allowed to resume.

In 25 June 1950, the Korean War broke out. America and China were involved in the war until the war ended on 27 July 1953. Rubber was an important strategic material. European countries and the former Soviet Union were competing against each other to procure rubber for hoarding purposes. This caused the price of rubber soared, and rubber traders made handsome profit out of it. In the whole decade of 1950’s after the War, “Aik Hoe” (owned by Tan Lark Sye) and “Lee Rubber” (owned by Lee Kong Chian) were regarded as “The Two Giants of Nanyang Rubber”.

Tan Lark Sye and Lee Kong Chian resisted and even broke the control and monopoly of rubber industry in Singapore and Malaya. They fought to shift the international rubber trading centre from the consumer nations [London and New York] to Malaya (the producer) and Singapore (the exporter). They acted in the interests of national capitalists that they represented, and also in the interests of the broad masses of the Colony. These are the great efforts and invaluable contributions made by Tan Lark Sye and Lee Kong Chian as national capitalists towards the development of economy in Singapore and Malaya.

3) In 1954, only English language was allowed to be used in the Singapore Legislative Assembly. Tan Chin Tuan, the assemblyman as well as a representative of the Chinese Chambers of Commerce, raised a motion to remove the language restriction in the Legislative Assembly. In January 1951, Tan Lark Sye led the Chinese Chambers of Commerce, and mobilised all organisations and the masses to launch a signature campaign, to demand for the Chinese and other languages of various ethnic groups to be accepted for use in the Assembly. They managed to obtain more than 100 thousand signatures in the campaign.

When the British Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd came to Singapore from London on 15 August 1955, the Chinese Chambers of Commerce together with the commercial bodies under its wing led a group of 1,600 people to present a petition to Lennox-Boyd at the Kallang Airport. They carried banners. Lennox-Boyd advised that the local government had the authority to resolve the problem. On 9 February 1954, the Legislative Assembly passed a resolution to allow the use of English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil in the Assembly. Tan Lark Sye was resolute in the strife for the use of languages of various ethnic communities in the Assembly. Though no longer chairman of the Chinese Chambers of Commerce, he was still an important driving force in the struggle for multi-lingualism in the Assembly.

Tan Lark Sye’s struggle for multi-lingualism in the Assembly is very much in line with his actions and stand taken in handling the problems relating to the founding of Nanyang University, where he upheld Chinese language as the medium of instruction while resisting the attempts to turn Nanyang University into an English university. He also insisted the participation of society in university's affairs and refused to give in to any government control.

Tan Lark Sye’s position and action towards the British colonial government in striving for using multi-languages in the Assembly is very much in line with his actions and stands in dealing with the problems of founding Nanyang University. Among others are his persistency in peoples’ participation, safe-guarding Chinese as the teaching and learning medium, objecting the government’s control and domination, and objecting Nanyang University from becoming an English-medium university.

4. Tan Lark Sye was merely a national capitalist who dared to fight for democratic rights by legal means. But Lee Kuan Yew regarded him as “a Chinese chauvinist millionaire who supported communists”, and deprived him of his citizenship by accusing him of “being used by the Communist Party to carry out anti-national activities”. This is only a form of political repression of national capitalists, long-premeditated by Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee Kuan Yew’s ruling clique deprived Tan Lark Sye of his citizenship the day immediately after the 1963 Singapore General Election result was released (on 22 September). The reason given by the government was that “Tan Lark Sye had actively and persistently collaborated with an active anti-national group of communists. They were the agitators of Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Students’ Union which came under the control of the Communist Party. He had openly and blatantly intervened in these elections by signing statements drafted by these communists standing as Barisan Sosialis candidates denouncing the government.”

In the past 50 years, none of the pro-establishment scholars could justify the legitimacy of Lee Kuan Yew’s arbitrary action in revoking Tan Lark Sye’s citizenship. Lee Leong Shi, the author of the book “Tan Lark Sze and Nanyang University”, came to the conclusion that, “from the information that I have gathered so far, Tan Lark Sye did not have close relationship with the Communist Party. In the eyes of the colonial government, Tan was simply a capitalist who was more interested in business than politics. A year after Tan lost his citizenship, a statement entitled ‘Communism in the Nanyang University’ released by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Malaysia did not name Tan as the fellow traveller of the Communist Party either.” (P.209).

Lee Leong Shi remarked that “Tan Lark Sye took the risk, as he was so desperate about saving the Chinese education. He really hoped that by his influence, and by Nanyang University students’ power, he could reverse the entire political situation, in the hope of saving Nanyang University and even the Chinese education. However, PAP won the election and Tan paid the price of losing his citizenship and being forced to relinquish his control over Nanyang University. This was the price he had to pay for his adventurous behaviour." I am of the view that such comment is far from being academic, sheer superficial rhetoric, to please the ruling clique.

In The Singapore Story – Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew published in 1998, Lee stated that “The 1963 Election was a watershed for the communists. Soon after the results, two Barisan candidates who won – Chan Sun Wing, my former parliamentary secretary, and Wong Soon Fong, who had subverted the Works Brigade – dived underground. They must have expected to be picked up the moment the Barisan lost. But for the moment our sights were elsewhere. We had decided to make an example of prominent figures who had acted as front men for the communists, believing that their wealth and standing in the Chinese-speaking community gave them immunity. Number one on the list was Tan Lark Sye, then honorary president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the founder of Nanyang University. I had made a mental note to deal with him when the government had the political strength. Now we no longer needed to tolerate his spouting the communist line in the press, using his position in the business world as a shield.”(P. 511)

The abovementioned self-admission made by Lee Kuan Yew and the relevant historical facts have verified the following:

(1) In 1959, Singapore anti-colonial movement brought PAP to power, and Lee Kuan Yew became the prime minister. Soon after that, PAP turned anti-people and anti-democracy. The trade union leaders headed by Lim Chin Siong decided to part company with Lee Kuan Yew. They left PAP in 1961 to form Barisan Sosialis Singapore (BSS). In 1962, Singapore labour-dominated forces saw unprecedented development. The labour movement under the leadership of Lim Chin Siong was seen as a thorn in Lee Kuan Yew's flesh, as Barisan Sosialis had become the 'rival' of PAP in a bid to take over the political power from the British colonial government.

Late 1980: Lee Kuan Yew instructed to remove the characters
"南洋大学" (Nanyang University) from the arch.
(Image source: sginsight website)
(2) In 1963, more than a hundred leaders and cadres of left-wing organisations were arrested in the Operation Cold Store. In fact, that was a massive crackdown on Singapore left-wing forces (mainly trade union leaders and trade unions headed by Lim Chin Siong) by the Singapore ruling clique in collaboration with the British colonial government and the ruling clique from Malaya. The operation was to ensure that the ruling clique headed by Lee Kuan Yew would continue to be in power by way of winning the Singapore General Election in September that year. Obviously Lee wanted those he suspected to be "communists" and dissidents to disappear from the Singapore political arena altogether. For half a century, Lee has been arrogant and complacent about his achieving his ideal.

(3) After the detention of Lim Chin Siong and other left-wing trade union leaders, and the deployment of political repression of left-wing unions, Lee could not wait to revoke Tan Lark Sye's citizenship. By doing so, Lee compelled Tan Lark Sye to quit Nanyang University Executive Committee [so that the government could gain full control of Nanyang University and turn it into a government-run English university], but it was more out of political consideration. This drastic action served as a warning to the other national capitalists. Clearly, it was designed to see that the capitalists would be subservient to the ruling clique, so that the political elites could carry out their big plans for amassing wealth for themselves.

Does the drastic action taken by Lee against the capitalist class as represented by Tan Lark Sye reflect the anti-people and anti-democratic nature of the ruling clique? Has Lee realised his ideal country that matches his concept in the political, economic, linguistic, cultural and other fields? I believe the vast majority of Nanyang University alumni and the Chinese community have already got the answer, and history of the people will give him a fair judgment in due course.

5. The revocation of Tan Lark Sye’s citizenship is an unjust political act, and the Singapore government must reinstate his citizenship for the purpose of doing justice to Tan Lark Sye, his family and the Chinese community!

In conclusion, the revocation of Tan Lark Sye’s citizenship is an unjust political act, and the Singapore government must reinstate his citizenship for the purpose of doing justice to Tan Lark Sye, his family and the Chinese community!

Some members of Nanyang University Alumni have individually published articles calling for reinstating Tan’s citizenship. However, we have yet to come across any one out of the 11 Nanyang University Alumni Associations the world over, that will release an official statement on this issue. Worse still, the bi-annual global reunion functions organised by the Nanyang University Alumni Associations all over the world have yet to make a fair and just appeal for reinstating Tan’s citizenship, even though 13 reunion functions have already been conducted so far. This is highly regrettable.

Since Perak Nanyang University Alumni Association is mobilizing the alumni worldwide to join the memorial gathering for the late Tan Lark Sye in Ipoh on Saturday and Sunday, 7 - 8 September this year, I would request that a resolution “that the revocation of Tan Lark Sye’s citizenship is an unjust political act, and the Singapore government must reinstate Tan’s citizenship” or words to that effect, be adopted at the gathering.

22 September 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the deprivation of Tan Lark Sye’s citizenship. After 50 years, assuming that Lee could heed this appeal for justice, perhaps this will be the best way for the alumni to promote Nantah’s spirit. It is also the best way to commemorate the late Tan and Nanyang University. I will always be with Nanyang University alumni in this endeavour!

(June 2013, Johore Bahru, Malaysia)


Note: The author is also known as Tan Sin or Chen Xin. He is also the present Sahabat Rakyat Working Committee Member.

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人民之友对下届大选意见书
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作为坚守“独立自主”和“与民同在”的立场的一个民间组织,人民之友在上个月对即将来临的第14届全国大选投票,发表了一篇以华文书写的意见书,题为:投票支持"反对国家伊斯兰化的候选人": 反对巫统霸权统治!莫让马哈迪帮派"复辟"!。

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我们希望,我们在意见书内所表达的对下届大选的立场和观点,能够准确而又广泛地传播到我国各民族、各阶层的人民群众中接受考验,并接受各党派在这次全国大选斗争和今后实践的检验。


The English and Malay renditions of Sahabat Rakyat’s opinions about next election will be published here consecutively

As an NGO which upholds “independent and autonomous” position and "always be with the people" principle, Sahabat Rakyat had released a Chinese-written statement of views with regard to the voting in the upcoming 14th General Election, entitled “Vote for candidates who are against State Islamisation: Oppose UMNO hegemonic rule! Prevent the return to power of Mahathir’s faction!”

The English rendition of this statement will be published in our blog in the near future whereas the Malay rendition will be published next month (November). Please stay tuned!

We hope that our position and views pertaining to the next General Election expressed in the statement will be accurately and widely disseminated and also examined by the popular masses of various ethnicities and social strata through their involvement in the struggle of the next General Election carried out by various political parties and their practices in all fields in future.


Akan datang: Penerbitan penterjemahan pendapat Sahabat Rakyat mengenai pilihan raya ke-14 dalam Bahasa Inggeris dan Bahasa Melayu

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