There is nothing ostensibly wrong with naming colleges and buildings after individuals who have made generous donations; after all, these hefty gifts would broaden opportunities for students in financial need, and would finance an assortment of academic and co-curricular programmes in the schools. However, my concern is that the present practice would be rendered more meaningful if students knew more about the private gifts and their donors, and if they were given more information about the backgrounds of these personalities.
Within a few short months in the National University of Singapore (NUS), we have seen two buildings named in recognition or honour of donors: the former Angsana College was renamed the College of Alice and Peter Tan, while a multi-purpose complex at University Town has been branded as the Stephen Riady Building. While the university administration has been justifying the naming endeavours – primarily in terms of the substantial sums invested – students, particularly users of the various infrastructure and facilities, have not had the opportunity to find out more. Many would be interested to know about the biographies of these donors, as well as their (potential) non-monetary contributions.
While some of them might be apprehensive about divulging more about themselves, the insistence upon safeguarding their privacy might further the misconception that the sum of money is the sole criteria for having a building named after persons. At the very least, even if the donors reckon the question of “who they are” is not crucial, it would be worthwhile to hear about their views on education and philanthropy in Singapore, specifically through on-the-ground interactions with the students they have impacted.
For instance, I would like to hear from the donors about what they think their donations can do in these colleges. Interactions should not be confined to sessions with the higher echelons of the universities? What are their perspectives on education, and how do they think their contributions could be used? Can they relate to the aspirations of the students? How can their personal stories encourage or inspire more to do their part for their communities?
Some might argue pragmatically that these supposedly pedantic demands might deter future donations; nevertheless, encouraging greater disclosure and hands-on participation by the donors will amplify the significance of the donation. Of course, a line would have to be drawn in terms of the actual influence a donor can have, unless the institution believes that his or her expertise and inputs are worthy of consideration. This is because naming buildings, I believe, should also be a way of honouring accomplishments beyond monetary inputs. Otherwise, we risk giving the impression that every new building now has a price tag, and that cash is the sole determinant for a person’s name to be plastered over it.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.