Nantah’s Sundial, a Time-Telling Relic Lost in Time

At Nanyang Technological University (NTU), one can find remnants of the former Nanyang University, or Nantah, from the fifties and sixties, such as the Chinese Heritage Centre (former Nanyang University Administrative Building), Memorial Pagoda and Nanyang University Arch (the current one at Yunnan Garden is a replica whereas the original arch is at Jurong West Street 93).

One lesser known relic, however, is the marble sundial outside the current NTU’s Student Services Centre. It was made in 1969 to commemorate the 150th year of the founding of Singapore.

The idea and concept of a local Chinese university was first suggested in 1953 by rubber magnate, community leader and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce chairman Tan Lark Sye (1897-1972). In the same year, Singapore’s Hokkien Huay Kuan donated 523 acres (about 2.1 square kilometres) of land for the construction of the university. Fundraisers were organised, and many communities in Singapore and Southeast Asia donated money enthusiastically. Tan Lark Sye himself generously donated $5 million, an astronomical amount during that era.

The Nanyang University Administrative Building was first built in 1953. Two years later, the Nanyang University was officially established as the first and only Chinese university outside China. In 1958, the university had a grand ceremony to celebrate the completion (first phase) of its campus.

Nanyang University’s history was short and turbulent. From the fifties to the seventies, it was plagued with issues such as its students’ involvement in pro-communist activities, the government’s refusal to recognise its degrees and the national policy of English-language education. In 1980, Nanyang University was compelled to merge with the National University of Singapore (NUS) to become Nanyang University Institute (NTI). NTI then became a full-fledged university in 1991 and was renamed NTU.

Three of Nanyang University’s buildings and structures – the Administrative Building, Memorial Pagoda and Nantah Arch – were gazetted under the Preservation of Monuments Act in 1998.

As for the sundial, it was fortunately retained and has become a small part of Nanyang University’s legacy. The original location of the sundial was not known, but it was originally facing the true North at a height of 60m above sea level.

Made of white marble, the sundial has a 12-hour scale – each scale represents an hour – that works between the Spring Equinox and Autumn Equinox. The gnomon, which is the sundial’s project piece that shows the time by the position of its shadow, coincides with the longitude of 103°41’15″E. During noon when the sun reaches its apex overhead, the gnomon’s shadow is casted vertically downwards, indicating the time of 12pm.

The year 2019 was the bicentennial (200th) year of the founding of Singapore. More than half a century has since passed, as the forgotten sundial continues to stand quietly at one corner of NTU.

Published: 5 September 2022

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