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Before the Presidency: Tan Tai Yong as a Historian

All PostsFeaturesBefore the Presidency: Tan Tai Yong as a Historian

story | Reza Alam, Senior Writer

photo | Yale-NUS Public Affairs


On the third floor of the East Core of Yale-NUS College lies the Senior Administration office. As you walk into the office area, you can find Yale-NUS’s treasured college mace encased in a glass box next to a small statue of one of Yale University’s most revered alumni: Nathan Hale.

At the corner of the room, there is a door that leads to President Tan Tai Yong’s office. The office is filled with books and artifacts and has a picturesque view of the main courtyard. It looks, at least to me, like the modern equivalent of an old-fashioned explorer’s study. I went there one Friday evening to interview Mr. Tan to find out more about him and how he applied what he learned in school to his current career as President of Yale-NUS.

Mr. Tan did his graduate studies at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, in a compound filled with brutalist 1960s architecture tucked away in a mostly antiquated English countryside. There, he studied contemporary Northwest Indian history (19th to 20th century) and, as if that was not niche enough, the Sikh diaspora during that period in particular.

What fascinated me was how Mr. Tan was able to use what he learnt and apply it to real world situations. After graduating from the University of Cambridge, Mr. Tan became a career academic at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then became a part of then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s project to, in Mr. Tan’s own words, “spark a little Indian fever”, where he worked to get more Singaporeans interested in India in order to strengthen the relationship between the two countries.

To meet this end, Mr. Tan helped establish the South Asian Studies Program in 1999 at NUS to allow both undergraduate and graduate students of various academic fields to study India. A few years later in 2004, Mr. Tan also established the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), a think tank created to develop research on South Asia for policymakers and businesspeople who are keen in investing in that region.

I then asked Mr. Tan about the connection between his knowledge of history and diplomacy in order to truly understand the impact of his works. In response, Mr. Tan explained, “I think in diplomacy and international relations, one needs to have a good sense of history to understand the issues of national interest and the national orientation of a particular country”. For example, Mr. Tan explained that in order for Singapore to engage in India in bilateral relations, both parties must recognize the deep connections between them that goes back to the colonial era to understand the current interests and concerns each party has.

Mr Tan’s work in establishing the South Asian studies and ISAS did exactly that. During his tenure as director of ISAS, for instance, Mr. Tan engaged in track two diplomacy or non-governmental relations with India through not only academic research but multiple visits, engagements, and strategic dialogues. This promoted mutual understanding and more crucially the notion of, as Mr. Tan said, “how India is important to Singapore and how Singapore can contribute in some positive way to India”.

All of this shows that knowledge in a seemingly niche topic can have real-world applications which may affect the livelihoods of many people. In Mr. Tan’s case, the strengthening of relations between Singapore and India is ever crucial today considering the rising tension between the United States and China, both of whom are Singapore’s close partners. This is where Mr. Tan’s works and his deep insights into Indian history will come into play.

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