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Spaces of Autonomy, Spaces of Hope: The place of the university in post-colonial Singapore

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 September 2018

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This article explores the background to and consequences of the resignation of B. R. Sreenivasan as the vice-chancellor of the University of Singapore in October 1963, after a public clash with the People's Action Party state government, led by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Sreenivasan's resignation has been the subject of radically different historical interpretations. It has been celebrated by some nationalist historians as part of a process of cultural decolonization, but criticized by others as precipitating a two-decades long erosion of academic freedom in Singapore. Careful attention to the event and its context, however, offers a powerful heuristic concerning the place of higher education in the process of decolonization, and the manner in which colonial universities came to be symbolic repositories of nationalism that enjoyed some degree of autonomy from the state. Debates on the role of the university that arose in Singapore after the resignation were plural, and diverse, and have much to teach us not only about the past, but also about a future in which international research universities such as the National University of Singapore embrace contradictory roles and yet still strive for new forms of academic autonomy.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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1 Lee Kuan Yew, ‘University autonomy, academic freedom and social responsibility’, address at the Historical Society, University of Singapore, 24 November 1966, in The Papers of Lee Kuan Yew: Speeches, Interviews and Dialogues. Vol. 3: 1965–1966, Gale Asia, Singapore, 2012, p. 589.

2 Ibid., p. 569.

3 See in particular Gopinathan, S., ‘University education in Singapore: the making of a national university’, in From Dependence to Autonomy, Altbach, P. G. and Selvaratnam, V. (eds), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 1989, p. 214Google Scholar; Lee, E., Singapore: The Unexpected Nation, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2008, pp. 381407CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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5 Colonial Office, Report of the Commission on Higher Education in the Colonies, HMSO, London, 1945, p. 10; Draft Report of the Commission on Higher Education in Malaya, 1939, CO 273/651/9, The National Archives of the UK (TNA), Kew, p. 156.

6 Darwin, J., ‘Was there a fourth British empire?’, in The British Empire in the 1950s: Retreat or Revival?, Lynn, M. (ed.), Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2006, p. 24Google Scholar.

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9 Sydney Caine to Robert Yeo, 2 March 1968, quoted in Robert Yeo Cheng Chuan, ‘Problems of university development, with reference to Malaysia and Singapore, 1947–67: a case study’, Master's thesis, University of London, 1969, p. 8.

10 Singapore, Legislative Assembly, Report of the Commission of Enquiry on the University of Malaya 1957. Sessional Paper No. Cmd. 54 of 1957, 13 November 1957. Government Printing Office, Singapore, 1957, p. 19.

11 Ibid., pp. 22–23.

12 For a comprehensive account of the development of the University up to the early 1960s, see Stockwell, A. J., ‘“The crucible of the Malayan nation”: the University and the making of a new Malaya, 1938–62’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 43.5, 2008, pp. 11491187CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Stockwell's account is very strong on explaining British policy and its projection, but weaker on the internal politics of the University and local responses to its social role.

13 Sreenivasan to G. Hall, 31 December 1945, CO 953/1/1, TNA. Petition: ‘Alumni Association of the King Edward VII College of Medicine’ Singapore.

14 Interview with Navaratnam Balachandran, Accession Number 002154/13, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore, Singapore (OHC, NAS).

15 Interview with Eu Chooi Yip, Accession Number 001359, OHC, NAS.

16 Interview with Navaratnam Balachandran, OHC, NAS. See also Alexander Oppenheim's (admittedly partial) account of the introduction of Sreenivasan as one of the government's ‘own men’ at his inauguration as principal. Interview with Alexander Oppenheim, Accession Number 000220, OHC, NAS.

17 ‘Yong: University cannot remain an “ivory tower”’, Straits Times, 11 June 1960, p. 5.

18 ‘Hands off the varsity’, Straits Times, 12 June 1960, p. 1.

19 Ashby, African Universities, p. 87.

20 Ibid., p. 90; Curle, A., ‘Nationalism and higher education in Ghana’, Universities Quarterly, vol. 16, 1961–62, p. 238Google Scholar.

21 Enright, D. J., ‘Robert Graves and the decline of modernism’, Essays in Criticism, vol. 11.3, July 1961, p. 321Google Scholar.

22 Enright, D. J., Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor, Chatto and Windus, London, 1969, pp. 126Google Scholar, 129. While the letter was signed by Ahmad Ibrahim, in his capacity as acting minister for labour and law, Enright strongly hints that he—in all probability correctly—considered Rajaratnam the author. Summoned by Ahmad for an interview following the publication of his remarks, Enright found himself berated in Malay, the national language, which he did not understand: Rajaratnam proceeded to translate his colleague's lecture to Enright. ‘It was,’ Enright noted, ‘a case of the translation preceding the original’ (p. 127).

23 Carr-Saunders, New Universities Overseas, p. 202.

24 Al'amin Mazrui, Ali, ‘The African university as a multinational corporation: problems of penetration and dependency’, Harvard Educational Review, vol. 45.2, May 1975, p. 192Google Scholar.

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28 Oakeshott, M., ‘The idea of a university’, The Listener, no. 1102, 9 March 1950, p. 426Google Scholar.

29 ‘Books of the year—1: chosen by eminent contemporaries’, Sunday Times, 25 December 1955, p. 4.

30 Shattock, M., The UGC and the Management of British Universities, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Buckingham, 1994, p. 3Google Scholar.

31 Singapore, Legislative Assembly, Report of the Commission of Enquiry on the University of Malaya 1957. Sessional Paper No. Cmd. 54 of 1957, 13 November 1957. Government Printing Office, Singapore, 1957, p. 56.

32 Singapore, Legislative Assembly, Report of the Joint Committee on Finance on the University of Malaya, 1957. Sessional Paper No. Cmd. 30 of 1958, 27 September 1958. Government Printing Office, Singapore, 1958, p. 9.

33 ‘Hands off the varsity’, Straits Times, p. 1.

34 Colonial Office Information Department, ‘Internal Security Measures in Singapore’, 2 February 1963, CO 1030/1573, TNA.

35 See Ball, S. J., ‘Selkirk in Singapore’, Twentieth Century British History, vol. 10, 1999, pp. 162191CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jones, M., ‘Creating Malaysia: Singapore security, the Borneo territories, and the contours of British policy, 1961–63’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol. 28.2, 2000, pp. 85109CrossRefGoogle Scholar; various articles in Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa (eds), The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years, Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, Petaling Jaya, 2013; and Poh Soo Kai, Living in a Time of Deception, Function 8, Singapore, 2016. For an alternative opinion, see Kumar Ramakrishna, ‘Original Sin’? Revising the Revisionist Critique of the 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore, ISEAS, Singapore, 2015.

36 Interview with Navaratnam Balachandran, OHC, NAS.

37 ‘Midnight “birth” of a varsity’, Straits Times, 2 January 1962, p. 9.

38 ‘A university of our own’, Singapore Free Press, 3 January 1962, p. 6.

39 Ministry of Education, Singapore, ‘Meeting Held in the Office of the Perm. Sec. on 29th January 1962 at 10 a.m.’, Correspondence with the University of Singapore. MOE 15/55 V2 (1961–1965), National Archives of Singapore (NAS); Sreenivasan to S.Thong, 29 January 1962, Correspondence with the University of Singapore. MOE 15/55 V2 (1961–1965), NAS.

40 ‘Student exchange in universities’, Straits Times, 24 February 1962, p. 7; ‘Varsity seeks experts for sixty vacancies’, Straits Times, 23 March 1962, p. 4; ‘Fine arts in university soon’, Straits Times, 8 May 1962, p. 21.

41 ‘New faculties plan for Singapore University’, Straits Times, 20 October 1962, p. 8.

42 ‘Singapore University to raise $40 million’, Straits Times, 23 February 1963, p. 1.

43 ‘Broadcast by Sreenivasan’, Straits Times, 28 February 1963, p. 6; B. R. Sreenivasan, ‘How to guarantee the future’, Straits Times, 24 February 1963, p. 6; ‘We must hurry or we shall lose the survival race’, Straits Times, 3 March 1963, p. 6; ‘The next 5 years. . .’, Straits Times, 17 March 1963, p. 6.

44 University of Singapore Senate Minute 112 of 17 October 1962, ‘Further discussion of Report of Committee on University Expansion’, p. 173, Office of the Registrar, National University of Singapore (OR). See also Appendix A to Senate Minute 123 of 17 October 1962, ‘Expansion Programme for the University over Five Years: Note by Vice-Chancellor’, p. 186, OR. A full copy of Sreenivasan's request is reproduced as an attachment to the correspondence between B. K. Sreenivasan, F. A. C. Oehlers and Lee Kuan Yew in a folder entitled ‘With the Compliments of the Prime Minister of Singapore’ in Lee Kong Chian Papers, Miscellaneous Correspondence—Education (1945–1954), NAS.

45 Lee, Singapore, pp. 565–566.

46 Sreenivasan to Lee Kuan Yew, 5 July 1962, Lee Kong Chian Papers, NAS.

47 Lee to Sreenivasan, 20 July 1962, Lee Kong Chian Papers, NAS.

48 Lee to F. A. C. Oehlers, 15 February 1963, Lee Kong Chian Papers, NAS.

49 Sreenivasan to Thong, 9 July 1962, Correspondence with the University of Singapore. MOE 15/55 V2 (1961–1965), NAS.

50 Sreenivasan to Lee, 12 February 1963, Lee Kong Chian Papers, NAS.

51 Lee to Sreenivasan, 12 March 1963, ibid.

52 Sreenivasan to Lee, 29 April 1963a, ibid.

53 Sreenivasan to Lee, 29 April 1963b, ibid.

54 Lee to Sreenivasan, 7 May 1963, ibid.

55 See ‘Federation's restrictions on Singapore students’, United Kingdom Commission Fortnightly Summary No. 20, 23 November–6 December 1962, CO 1030/1364, TNA, p. 32.

56 Colonial Office Information Department, ‘Internal Security Measures in Singapore’, 2 February 1963, CO 1030/1573, TNA.

57 Yeo, ‘Problems of university development’, p. 46.

58 Poh Soo Kai, email to author, 20 July 2015.

59 ‘Question of funds for university if Sreenivasan stays in office’, Straits Times, 1 November 1963, p. 11.

60 ‘Free inquiry’, Straits Times, 16 June 1963, p. 6.

61 University of Singapore Senate Minute 80 of 18 September 1963, p. 71, OR.

62 Sreenivasan to Tay Teck Eng, 25 September 1963, Lee Kong Chian Papers, NAS.

63 University of Singapore Senate Minute 96 of 18 September 1963, p. 94, OR.

64 Sreenivasan's resignation was first discussed in an August issue of the Plebeian Express, the typewritten newsletter of the Barisan Sosialis. This had replaced the party's organ, the Plebeian, when printers refused the Barisan's business after the Coldstore detentions. See ‘University autonomy and academic freedom’, Plebeian Express, November 1963, p. 1.

65 Sam, Jackie, ‘Shadow of $40 million dispute over S'pore University’, Straits Times, 25 October 1963, p. 1Google Scholar.

66 ‘Reporting the issues’, Straits Times, 6 November 1963, p. 8; Eng, Tay Teck, ‘That varsity silence’, Straits Times, 9 November 1963, p. 10Google Scholar.

67 ‘Decision on Sreenivasan put off’, Straits Times, 30 October 1963, p. 7; ‘Question of funds for University if Sreenivasan stays in office’, Straits Times, 1 November 1963, p. 11.

68 University of Singapore Senate Minutes of Special Meeting of the Senate of 1 November 1963, pp. 112–113, OR.

69 ‘Student Union expresses support for Sreenivasan’, Straits Times, 4 November 1963, p. 8.

70 Sam, Jackie, ‘University: “go” for expansion’, Straits Times, 7 November 1963, p. 9.Google Scholar

71 See University of Singapore Senate Minutes of Special Meetings of 27 December 1963 and 6 February 1964, OR.

72 Toh stepped down from his deputy premiership when he became vice-chancellor of the University, but he remained minister for science and technology throughout his seven years in the academic governance post.

73 Gopinathan, ‘University education in Singapore’, p. 220.

74 See Seng, Loh Kah, Liao, Edgar, Tju, Lim Cheng and Guo-Quan, Seng, The University Socialist Club and the Context for Malaya: Tangled Stands of Modernity, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2012Google Scholar.

75 ‘S'pore varsity students vote for day's boycott of classes’, Straits Times, 23 November 1963, p. 20: 1,116 students supported the boycott, with only 22 opposed. ‘A day to remember. . .’, Malayan Undergrad, vol. 14.7, January 1964, p. 5.

76 ‘Former vice-chancellor made an honorary member’, USSU Bulletin, vol. 2.1, 23 September 1964, p. 6.

77 USSU Bulletin, vol. 2.2, December 1964, p. 6.

78 ‘The academic freedom day issue’, USSU Bulletin, vol. 3.4, November 1965, p. 5.

79 ‘University autonomy and academic freedom’, USSU Bulletin, vol. 3.10, September 1966, p. 2. Then USSU president David K. K. Tan, who led the delegation, was particularly upset by an article in the Straits Times mentioning the fact that his father was a Malaysian politician. See ‘Lee trying to browbeat students, says Dr. Tan’, Straits Times, 2 September 1966, p. 8. See also ‘Meeting the P.M.’, Malayan Undergrad, vol. 15.4, September 1966, pp. 4, 7.

80 ‘The action committee reveals the plan’, USSU Bulletin, vol. 4.4, October 1966, pp. 4, 5.

81 ‘Protest march and rally great success’, USSU Bulletin, vol. 4.7, October 1966, p. 2. See also ‘Campus protest’, Straits Times, 12 October 1966, p. 20, which estimated the turnout at 1,000.

82 Singh, Gurdial, ‘Our fight to repeal the Suitability Certificate Bill shall continue’, USSU Bulletin, vol 4.9, October 1966, p. 2Google Scholar.

83 ‘Reds are behind student unrest, says Goh’, Straits Times, 16 November 1966, p. 1.

84 ‘“Get out” and “stay out” orders in Singapore for 71 students’, Straits Times, 19 November 1966, p. 1.

85 University of Singapore Senate Minute 145 of 18 December 1963, ‘Memorandum submitted by Professor L. C. Green—academic freedom and security’, p. 134, OR.

86 University of Malaya (Singapore) Academic Staff Association, ‘Draft constitution of the Academic Staff Association of the University of Malaya in Singapore’, UMSASA, Singapore, 1959, National University of Singapore (NUS) Library.

87 Baker, M., ‘President's message’, Suara Universiti, vol. 1.1, October 1964, p. 1Google Scholar. At the time the two associations were often referred to as the ASA (Academic Staff Association) and the MSA (Malaysian Staff Association).

88 ‘The University and the community’, Suara Universiti, vol. 1.1, October 1964, p. 3. See ‘Memorandum on the founding of the University of Singapore Local Staff Association (ULSA)’, 1964, and ‘Rules, 1964’, Kesatuan Akademis Universiti Singapura (KAUS) Records, NUS Library.

89 See ‘University autonomy: student demand to staff’, Straits Times, 14 September 1966, p. 7; ‘Resolution from Executive Committee to be put before the house for discussion’, 16 September 1966, KAUS Records, NUS Library; ‘Varsity staff take up the challenge’, Straits Times, 6 October 1966, p. 4. The Annual General Meeting resolved to hold an EGM on 24 October 1966 to vote on the resolution, but this failed to attract the requisite quorum of members. Annual Report for 1966/1967, item 2d, ‘The University and The State’, KAUS Records, NUS Library.

90 Lee Kuan Yew: ‘What I want a university to do’, speech given at the seminar on ‘The role of universities in economic and social development’ at the University of Singapore, 7 February 1966, in The Papers of Lee Kuan Yew, pp. 329, 334.

91 Thong Bee, Tommy Koh, ‘The concept of the university’, Suara Universiti, vol. 2.1, March 1966, p. 7Google Scholar.

92 Ibid., p. 8.

93 Ibid., p. 9.

94 For a detailed account of the evolution of the Student Union after 1965, see Edgar Liao Bolun, ‘Reclaiming the ivory tower: student activism in the University of Malaya and Singapore, 1949–1975’, Master's thesis, National University of Singapore, 2010, pp. 58–59.

95 Lian, Koh Leng, ‘The University of Singapore Academic Staff Union’, USASU Newsletter, vol. 1, 1971, pp. 36Google Scholar.

96 Tan, June, ‘Varsity union settles for quiet death’, Straits Times, 7 August 1980, p. 32Google Scholar.

97 Gopinathan, ‘University education in Singapore’, pp. 222 and 223.

98 Interview with Lim Pin, Accession Number 001817, OHC, NAS.

99 Gopinathan, ‘University education in Singapore’, p. 223.

100 Autonomous Universities: Towards Peaks of Excellence: Report of the Steering Committee to Review University Autonomy, Governance and Funding, Higher Education Division, Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2005.

101 Lee, M. H. and Gopinathan, S., ‘University restructuring in Singapore: amazing or a maze?’, Policy Futures in Education, vol. 6.5, 2008, p. 577CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

102 Harvey, D., Spaces of Hope, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000, p. 196Google Scholar.

103 Ibid., p. 167.

104 Ibid., p. 274.

105 Ibid., p. 275.

106 Ibid., p. 3.

107 Annual Report 1946–1947, Raffles College, Singapore, 1947, p. 4.

108 Ibid.

109 Harvey, Spaces of Hope, p. 243.