Revisiting a legend aged 90

University Professor Wang Gungwu looks back on his life, and his relationship with history

| By Asad Latif |

University Professor Wang Gungwu needs no introduction. That is well and good because, otherwise, the rest of this article would have consisted of a list of his academic achievements and awards.

The great historian, who is a Sinologist and Southeast Asianist alike, knows that the world knows him. However, he is a cheerfully easy man to talk to. He wears his credentials lightly, does not stand on ceremony, and speaks with a clarity that not everyone possesses even in writing. He is courteous to an Asian fault, but every word of his is informed by the contentious intellectual legacy of the West. His Chinese upbringing is impeccably Confucian, his English accent is effortlessly patrician, but his mind is restlessly global.

He is a few days short of his 90th birthday. The question, then, is: What does he make of his place in time? Technically, we are seated at the canteen of the NUS Bukit Timah campus at 9.30 AM on a Monday, but the ambit of the question touches obviously on the lasting contours of his extraordinary life. What does Professor Wang make of himself, his life, and his relationship with history at this moment of a peripatetic quest for truth and certainty that spans decades?  

He recalls his life, from the time that he was born in Surabaya on 9 Oct 1930. He grew up in Ipoh, studied in Nanjing at the end of World War II, returned to Malaya at the beginning of the Emergency in 1948, joined the University of Malaya as an undergraduate in 1949, and received his doctorate from the University of London in 1957.


The writer (left) and Professor Wang at the interview

So began a life-long involvement with the imprint of history on his life and those of others that continues to this day. Witnessing the emergence of post-colonial Malaya and Singapore in a Southeast Asia marked by the global Cold War, Indonesia's Konfrontasi against Malaysia (which included Singapore), and the hot war in Vietnam sharpened his sense of both the "Anglo-American informal empire" and its limits.

His years at the Australian National University from 1968 to 1986 gave him access to hard data with which to study and understand the Communist People's Republic of China's transformation from an autarchic polity to its membership of the Anglo-American system based on free trade. However, China embraced the economic possibilities of that system without ceding political ground to Western impulses that privileged individualistic freedom and the buying power of the economically successful over the heritage of a strong state that could withstand the centrifugal pulls of liberal capitalism. The Sino-US conflict today highlights the political differences between the Western and Chinese models of capitalism.

As Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong from 1986 to 1995, he witnessed first-hand the intricacies of the British colony's eventual handover back to the Chinese mainland, which was a case of "decolonisation without independence". Its unfolding consequences can be seen in Hong Kong's political turmoil today. The Chinese do not hate the West, he avers. However, most of them would not wish to reject their national heritage, as citizens of the country with the longest continuous recorded history, to fit into a world order created by much younger civilisations.

One of the greatest advantages of talking to Professor Wang is to be able to understand that, unlike lawyers who argue their side of a case (as they should), historians argue all sides of a case (as they must). Whether in speaking about Southeast Asia, China and Hong Kong, and the West; or in examining the claims to final global leadership made by the Communist and Capitalist camps during the Cold War, he preserves an intellectual distance from all systems, whatever their geographical or ideological provenance. As a historian, he allows himself only one partisanship: that with the quest for evidentiary truth. Modestly, he declines to be identified as a public intellectual, preferring to be known as a scholar and teacher.

Without saying so explicitly, he has answered the question posed to him at the beginning of the interview: Moving into his 90s, what does he make of himself, his life, and his relationship with history? Clearly, it is what a scholar and teacher would make of the passage of time in which he has been and continues to be a participant-observer.

That relationship is evident intimately in his connection with NUS, where he is University Professor and a faculty member of NUS Arts and Social Sciences. He was the founding Chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, and the former Chairman of the NUS East Asian Institute. He was conferred the Distinguished Service Order at the National Day Awards this year, and he also was awarded the Tang Prize for Sinology for his work on the history of China and, in particular, the history of Chinese overseas. Given his rich association with Singapore's premier university, what does it represent to him?

Professor Wang recalls his years of companionship with the country's oldest institution of higher learning by focusing on a single thread: intellectual freedom. As a student, as a scholar and as a teacher, "I was never told what to do". The university excels in "offering freedom to the scholar". Today, NUS answers to a dual function. It continues to serve as an intellectual bedrock of nation-building, but it does so in a Global City whose success requires its young to be equipped intellectually to compete with the best elsewhere. NUS is obliged to function in a free world, and it is "amazingly successful" in doing so, including by hiring staff who, local or foreign, contribute to Singapore's intellectual capacity to operate globally.

Professor Wang is worried about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on close contact between teachers and students, and among students themselves. The face-to-face sharing of knowledge and opinion is crucial to the functioning of campuses as a forum of communication, he says. He looks around the canteen. It is not deserted, but it could have been busier, as it used to be before COVID-19 struck. The canteen feels lonely.

The interview is over. As Professor Wang prepares to leave, a degree of loneliness is discernible in him as well. Earlier this year, he lost his beloved wife, Margaret, to whom he had been married for 65 years. Their children live elsewhere. The story of his life – that of love, family, and identity – is well-documented in the two volumes of his memoirs, the second of which was co-written with his wife and published just last month.

But while the sprightly 90-to-be is a friend of history, the future lies but a footstep away. There is nothing elegiac in his movements.

The eternal professor walks back to his office in NUS, where the footfalls of his student years had arrived many years ago. History never stops.


About the writer

Mr Asad Latif, an editorial writer for The Straits Times, is the author of several books, including Wang Gungwu: Junzi: Scholar-Gentleman in Conversation with Asad-ul Iqbal Latif (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010). He graduated with Honours in English from Presidency College, Calcutta, was a Chevening Scholar in History at Cambridge, and was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Harvard. He also was a Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.  


Like this story? Join the NUS News Telegram channel or sign up for the email newsletter for regular updates.