In memoriam: William Lim Siew Wai, eminent architect and benefactor of NUS Cultural Studies programme

One of Singapore’s foremost architects and urban theorists, Mr William Lim Siew Wai, passed away on 6 January at the age of 90.

Among the iconic modernist buildings he left behind are the People’s Park Complex and the Golden Mile Complex. The latter was recently gazetted as a conserved building in October 2021. He published many important books on architecture and urbanism in Asia, including the influential Asian Alterity: With Special Reference to Architecture and Urbanism through the Lens of Cultural Studies (2008).

A close associate of Professor Chua Beng Huat from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), his ties with the University started out through the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies journal of which Prof Chua was the founding co-editor. He was one of the journal’s first private subscribers, supporting the journal in its infancy, and had supported Prof Chua’s active involvement through intellectual engagement and advice. The journal aims to serve as a forum for scholars working in cultural studies in Asia and enhance communication and exchanges with other regions of the cultural studies world.

Mr Lim was the impetus for the establishment of the Cultural Studies in Asia PhD programme at NUS. He had been a generous supporter of various arts and cultural practices, including assisting in organising scholarships for young artists, donations to local theatre companies and organising conferences on local culture and heritage.

In 2007, Mr Lim offered to donate S$1 million in endowment for NUS to establish a cultural studies programme. Then Dean of FASS, Prof Tan Tai Yong, supported the proposal and Prof Chua established the Cultural Studies in Asia (CSA) PhD programme and became its first convenor. The annual revenue from the endowment was used to fund an annual one-semester William Lim Siew Wai Fellowship for prominent cultural studies academics working in or on Asia to teach a course to graduate students at NUS. Past fellows include Profs Meaghan Morris, Peter van der Veer, AbdouMaliq Simone, Allen Chun, and Chen Kuan-hsing.

The endowment also supported activities that enhanced the intellectual environment and learning opportunities for our CSA PhD students. For example, it helped fund students to attend the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies conferences and summer schools. In 2021, the CSA programme organised the first Singapore Cultural Studies Conference to honour Mr Lim's sustained cultural leadership in academia and community. Prof Audrey Yue, the current convenor of the CSA programme, says, “With more than a hundred attendees, his suggested conference theme on the role of the arts in addressing the climate crisis captured the zeitgeist of our times and reflects his enduring commitment to critically engage the exigencies of contemporary culture.”

Mr Lim was actively involved with the CSA students. He met them regularly and was keen to hear about their research progress, often engaging them on discussions about cultural theory. He regularly requested for works published by the University’s CSA lecturers and students. Associate Professor Daniel Goh, the preceding convenor of the CSA programme, recalls, “William once asked for copies of several edited books that contained our CSA graduates’ articles. I sent them to him and he responded within a few days with supportive and constructive comments for a number of the articles, which I relayed to the graduates. He was an intellectual force.”

Many of the graduates of the CSA programme have followed Mr Lim’s example and are actively pushing boundaries in cultural fields across Asia. Those who have benefitted from Mr Lim’s generosity include:

  • Dr Annisa Beta was awarded the competitively-funded prestigious Australian Research Council Early Career Researcher Fellowship in December 2022 and is a continuing Lecturer at the University of Melbourne
  • Dr Hilmar Farid is Directorate General of Culture, Ministry of Education and Culture, Republic of Indonesia
  • Dr Adhvaidha Kalidasan is Lecturer at RMIT University Vietnam
  • Dr Jaime Koh is Adjunct Professor at the Culinary Institute of America (Singapore) and Director at The History Workroom, a Singapore-based research and writing consultancy
  • Dr Felicia Low is Lecturer at Nanyang Technological University and Artistic Director at Community Cultural Dimensions, which aims to advance critical discourse and quality arts practices among communities in Singapore and the region
  • Dr Wang Jiabao is Lecturer at Universiti Malaya
  • Dr June Yap is Director of Curatorial, Programmes and Publications at the Singapore Art Museum
  • Dr Tabassum Zaman is Associate Professor, University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh

Dr Wang, one of the graduates, said Mr Lim’s sustained commitment to the CSA programme had enriched her intellectual journey. “I have greatly benefitted from his largesse, which provided rare opportunities for me to learn from prominent cultural studies scholars such as Prof Meghan Morris, Chen Kuan-hsing, Allen Chun, and John Erni through departmental lectures and talks,” said Dr Wang.  

“During the meeting with him, he also gave me timely advice on how to analyse my research from an Inter-Asia perspective. These experiences have trained me not only to be a critical thinker but also to be a cultural studies practitioner beyond academia,” she added.