Opening of NUS Museum’s exhibition “Between Here and Nanyang: Marco Hsu’s Brief History of Malayan Art”

Speech by Professor Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
NUS Museum, National University of Singapore
21 August 2013

Ms Christine Khor, Director of the NUS Centre for the Arts;
Mr Ahmad Mashadi, Head of NUS Museum;
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

1. Introduction

I am pleased and honored to be here this evening for the opening of NUS Museum’s exhibition “Between Here and Nanyang: Marco Hsu’s Brief History of Malayan Art”.   I certainly hope this will be the first of many instances where Yale-NUS College and NUS Museum come together in collaboration.

2. Liberal arts in Singapore.

August is an exciting time for Yale-NUS College.  Our inaugural class and faculty members stepped into the classrooms for the very first time just last Monday, extremely excited about what and how they can learn from one another. At Yale-NUS, we are offering a broad liberal arts education, which provides an alternative to the more specialized and technical education common in much of Asia.   Our curriculum and pedagogy, built from scratch by the inaugural faculty, seeks to draw on the strengths of established liberal arts traditions, while introducing our students to the diverse intellectual traditions and cultures of Asia and the world. In designing the curriculum, we have asked ourselves this important question: “What must a young person learn in order to live a responsible life in this century?”  The result is a broad-ranging education in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, taught in small groups using active learning.  Besides imparting knowledge, we hope to instill in our students good intellectual habits, which will be useful to them for life.

Our aim is to build a community of learning at Yale-NUS.  The meeting of minds where colleagues, classmates and friends learn together and from one another, should not be limited to just the classrooms, but should spill out into the halls and the dining rooms – when you have conversations over a cup of teh tarik at the local coffee shop, or over a late-night game of scrabble in the common lounge in the residential college.  Students will also learn by pursuing all kinds of activities on campus – sports, performing arts, clubs and societies – that will create lively exchanges in parallel with the official curriculum.  I am hopeful that the Yale-NUS community will be a pulsing and vibrant one, where we will see an ongoing exchange and confluence of ideas and opinions.

In the same vein, NUS Museum’s mission is to facilitate the intellectual and cultural life of the wider NUS community. The Museum’s focus is on Southeast Asian art and culture.  It contributes to the production and reception of cultural knowledge through its curatorial practice and collections development. The Museum’s curatorial approach is unique to its context as a university museum; the audience is encouraged not to be merely passive recipients of knowledge, but rather to be active participants who are able and keen to engage critically with the works and curatorial strategy in terms of their reading and understanding.

3. About the exhibition

First published 50 years ago, Marco Hsu’s Brief History of Malayan Art may be considered an inaugural account of Singapore’s Art History, written just on the cusp of Singapore’s independence from Britain and merger with Malaysia. The work was originally written in Chinese.  Marco Hsu was the pen name of Koh Cheng Foo, the principal of Ai Tong School, who wrote widely on the arts—in fact, he wrote fourteen books.  The Brief History of Malayan Art was translated into English by Dr. Lai Chee Ken in 1999.

Hsu’s book is a remarkable document, well illustrated by the exhibition that we have the privilege of opening today.  He writes not only of the art of the Malay Peninsula, but also of how that art intertwines with the social and political history of the region.  He writes not only about the figurative arts, but also about architecture, dance, and music.  And he writes not only about the history of art, going all the way back to Prehistoric times, but also about the avant-garde artists of mid-twentieth-century Singapore and Malaya, such as the Ten Man Art Group and the Equator Art Society, whose works are represented in the exhibition today.

Marco Hsu opened his thesis on the art history of modern Malaya with a question: “Malaya is often called a cultural desert: is it that bad in reality?”  The background to this question is the common perception by Hsu’s contemporaries, that Malaya and Singapore were places where commerce was the main driving force and those who dwelled here were interested in, and capable of, very little else.  This question mirrors one that Yale-NUS College faced when establishing the first liberal arts college in Singapore. The common perception is that Asian students and parents are similarly pragmatic in orientation and doubt the value of liberal studies for future careers.  Hence, Asian students, it is said, tend to favor specialized or vocational subjects.

When I discuss the founding of Singapore’s first liberal arts college with educators, journalists, and parents here, they often ask whether a liberal arts education is compatible with the “kiasu” mentality.

My own experience, as founding president of Yale-NUS College suggests that on the contrary, Asia has a great hunger for pedagogy that truly encourages critical thinking and a model of liberal arts and science education adapted for the 21st century.

I have had wonderful conversations with some of the students admitted to our first class, and they are anything but kiasu.  At a Halloween party where the student hosts were memorably dressed as Mao Zedong and Mahatma Gandhi, we talked about the history of Asian state formation and the relevance of American democracy as a model for Singapore.  Over Chinese New Year “lo hei” dinners, we have discussed the poetry of Catullus, the relevance of Jorge Luis Borges to the future of the internet, and the best ways to protect the islands of Southeast Asia from future tsunamis.  On a student blog, our prospective freshmen debate gender and sexuality, the clash of civilizations, and the future of stand-up comedy in Singapore.  These students are eager to take risks and to build a great future for their country.

We have found that there is great demand for the broad education we are offering, with thousands of students applying from all over the world. We are seeing students with opportunities at Ivy League schools and leading universities throughout the world choosing Yale-NUS.  Our student body includes outstanding students from 26 countries on six continents.

So I was very pleased to read Marco Hsu’s findings that Malaya is not a cultural desert, as reflected in today’s exhibition at NUS Museum. In fact, one of the distinctive features of Malaya and Singapore that Hsu captures so well is the multicultural blending of influences from the local culture and from Islam, from India and China, as well as from the West, that make this such a lively region.

Our students at Yale-NUS are very fortunate to have direct access to NUS Museum with its wealth of cultural resources.  We look forward to opportunities for future interactions and exchanges with NUS Museum in curriculum development, research fellowships, and teaching collaborations.

I would like to thank the team at the NUS Museum for working hard to organize this exhibition. On this note, I am pleased to declare the “Between Here and Nanyang: Marco Hsu’s Brief History of Malayan Art” exhibition open. Thank you.