The USP community mourns the loss of Professor John Richardson, who passed away on 16 Nov 2018. Professor Richardson was a much-respected figure at NUS, and was particularly responsible for shaping the USP. As our director from 2009 to 2015, he guided — with vision and compassion — the USP through many of our recent developments, such as our transition into a residential college. After his directorship, he continued to contribute to our community through his teaching, and as a USP Fellow. He has also been Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, and a Vice-Dean at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. But his impact transcends his leadership positions; he was a teacher, a mentor, and a friend to many.
USP alumni and students, his colleagues and friends have much to remember him by. We have tried to compile messages for and memories of him here on this page, which will be updated as and when.
To Prof Richardson, you will be very dearly missed.
To the family of Prof Richardson, we are very sorry for your loss. Please take care and be well.
Timothy Fang (Class of 2015)
I last spoke to Prof Richardson in Sri Lanka a year ago, when a bunch of us were on holiday. As our bus passed by the beach on a breezy night, a poem he had read out at our commencement dinner in 2015 came to mind. But we couldn’t remember the title of the poem or what it was about – only that it was about the sea.
So I texted Prof Richardson to say hello. He replied a few minutes later and immediately recalled that he had read out a translation of the Saxon poem The Seafarer, a poem about a voyage, hardship and seafaring. He asked how I was doing, as it was the first time we had spoken since graduation. Ever the literature professor, Prof Richardson signed off by saying that it was “always good to remember poetry and that’s a lovely one”, and wished me well.
I never had the opportunity to take any of Prof Richardson’s classes in USP, but I did have the opportunity to work with him on USC-related things over two years. He always had an open door and a listening ear for all kinds of complaints and feedback that we students had. And although he had a dry wit it was not without a sense of humour. He cared deeply about making life in Cinnamon College better for everyone.
Farewell, Prof. Your voyage in this life has reached its destination, but many of us have been impacted along its journey – including me.
Goh Wei Leong (Class of 2017)
Found some notes in my phone of a speech from End-of-Semester Dinner AY14 Sem 1. For those whom this might mean something to:
What does it, then, mean to be from/in/part of USP?
Scholarly detachment. Cannot be part of this community, cannot embody its spirit without being slightly (critically) detached.
We're born into groups, big and small. If we should choose groups to join, we should be aware of what these groups stand for, and where necessary, change the qualities. If not, we should leave these groups.
Jean-Paul Sartre. l'existence précède l'essence. existence precedes essence. Don't worry too much about identity. Focus on what you do, (for) that will define you.
I keep coming back to the last bit about not worrying too much about identity. And it frees / motivates me each time, to know that I can simply focus on what I do, and that will define me more than any name I take or label I wear.
Lai Wei Xuan (Class of 2018)
I remember when he spoke to all who were helping out for USP Open Day 2014. That was the first time I was introduced to the three qualities of a USP scholar. A scholar who is curious, critical and engaged.
These three qualities deeply inspired me throughout my university life and how I approach scholarly work. I made an effort to be curious about areas outside my discipline, be critical about my work and pledged a commitment to be engaged in the USP community and beyond.
I wonder if Prof Richardson intended for his words to have such a profound impact on those within the USP community. Perhaps he did know about the change he could make, simply with a few words. Either that or he was simply discharging his duties as director of USP. Regardless, I am eternally grateful for the impact he made on my life. Perhaps this is a reminder to all of us that we make a profound impact on the lives of those around us, whether we intend to, or knowingly do so.
Thank you for all that you have done for USP.
Aaron Maniam (USP colleague)
Very sad to hear that John Richardson, Professor of English Language and Literature at NUS and former Director of NUS’ Scholars Programme (USP), passed away late last week.
Ours was a friendship of mutual passions and projects (literature and USP, a community we both loved). My government work meant I could never volunteer with USP as much as I’d have liked — so our passion projects moved in fits and starts, lined with corridor conversations too small to be eventful in the traditional sense, but also much too deep to be purely casual.
I’ll always remember John for the many, quiet ways he supported these projects: always patient, always kind, always open to new ideas in a way that many academics, bound by the borders of their disciplines, sometimes forget how to be. He trusted someone with little more than enthusiasm to run a leadership module at USP, and later a winter course on futures thinking. He agreed to slightly madcap ideas like running a “pre mortem” discussion for the USP residential college, so we could troubleshoot its potential problems; and having a graphic recorder at a session USP hosted for international “heroes” during the Youth Olympics; somehow we managed to have a coherent, even inspiring panel discussion with more than TEN speakers! I remember his generous interpretations of teenage poetry in the forewords he wrote for the Creative Arts Programme publication, “Eye on the World”, the loving care he brought to a “USP Life” committee he set up to look into students’ pastoral development. Most recently, just before stepping down as Head of the NUS English Language and Literature Department, he was instrumental in supporting and establishing a new award for pre-University literature students.
A lesser man would have found all manner of reasons to avoid the additional work these projects created, but John was nothing if not gung-ho. He always found reasons to support new ideas; even if he did find some of them a little quirky and removed from straight-laced academia. But he was at heart, I think, an educator in the purest sense. His foremost priority was each student’s quality of experience; he was always willing to do what was necessary to enhance that. In a profession where it’s easier to fixate on metrics and measures, I always appreciated how John chose the harder, more substantive and ultimately more meaningful path: often at personal inconvenience, but always with a smile and his characteristic, hearty laugh.
Our last conversation was on a sunny April day. I was on my way to see a colleague we both admired, and John’s office was serendipitously next to the staircase I had to take. A far too brief, but also lovely chat - about all the things we loved, and how much I was enjoying the PhD that he had regularly encouraged me to start, in his own quiet ways. It was the kind of easy, comfortable conversation between friends who thought we had more time.
So many of us wish we had more time. We will miss you, John: your love for words, for ideas, for learning, and most of all your abundant love for people. But we will also remember you, and try to carry on the immense generosity of your life. RIP my friend.
Don Favareau (USP colleague)
I'll always remember John for his warm smile and ready generosity of spirit. He had a wonderful sense of human frailty and absurdity, including his own, and could always find the humour in any situation. A laugh was never far from his face, and I will always cherish and remember both the serious discussion and the many laughs we had together on our frequent talks over cigarettes, back when we both were smokers. NUS, and me, are immeasurably poorer by his absence. Thank you, John, for all the kindness, wisdom, patience and fun. You were one of a kind and I am honoured to have known you.
Stuart Derbyshire (USP colleague)
I didn't know it at the time, but John was the first person I met at USP. That was 2012 and I was interviewing for a position in Psychology; John, I believe, was the FASS faculty contact. We talked about expat life in Singapore and he reassured me that Singapore was definitely an interesting place with curious contradictions worthy of exploration. To illustrate, he pointed to a building and to the students sitting on the open platforms outside their windows. He explained that Singaporeans are mad about safety and yet there they were, just a few centimetres from catastrophe. In exchange I told him about the first ever brain imaging experiment by Angelo Mosso, who in the 19th century lay his subjects on a delicately balanced table while they relaxed. Then Mosso had them perform a calculation, or speak, or otherwise think, and the bed tipped at the head end thus demonstrating that blood flows to the head during mental exertion. John thought that was just superb! I next saw John when he applied to be the Dean of FASS. During his presentation to faculty he was asked what the measure of a good department would be for him. John avoided any easy answer based on league tables or graduate employability and said that a good department would be one that had "interesting conversations". I thought that was brilliant, and told him so afterwards. From then we struck up regular conversations about the meaning of university and how to deliver an education worth having. I was also then starting to teach at USP, and I began to fully recognise what a terrific asset John was for NUS and for all of us working there. He was always bright, supportive, and full of the interesting conversation he advocated for everyone at NUS. John was stolen from us far too prematurely; there was so much more for him to give.
Gregory Clancey (Master, Tembusu College)
Tembusu College expresses its heartfelt sympathy to our friends at Cinnamon College for the loss of their founding Master, Prof. John Richardson. John was a friend and close colleague of mine, first during the four years we worked together in the FASS Dean’s Office, and later when we became the first Masters of, respectively Cinnamon and Tembusu colleges. Tembusu actually began in an office in the “Old Administrative Building” (now demolished) which then housed the USP Programme, and which John graciously loaned to us during our planning year of 2010. In 2011, John and I walked together across the bridge over the AYE, along with students from our two colleges, to joyously open UTown.
John was a passionate advocate for his programme, and his college. The two colleges were friendly rivals in those first few years, but John and I always respected one another, and cooperated to keep things steady. Once, when a dispute between student leaders at the two colleges threatened to get out of hand, John and I arranged to very publically have dinner together in the middle of the our shared dining hall to cool tensions and demonstrate our friendship. I like to think the current good and easy relations between Cinnamon and Tembusu were forged through such mutual efforts in our early years.
John was tough-minded, but also self-deprecating, reflective, and possessed of a sense of humor. He did his best at every task, and for that reason was given many responsibilities over the course of his career at NUS. It is no exaggeration to say that John gave his life to this university. His passing was a shock, and came too early. But I’m truly glad to have known and worked with John Richardson, and will cherish his memory.
This tribute first appeared on Tembusu College website.
Christopher Chok (Class of 2014)
I'm so glad you're having a good time. And I also remember some very good meals I had in Chapel Hill. Though I was never there long enough to put on the pounds.
It's an excellent programme you're on. All the students I know who've done it have benefited a lot from it. So, make the most of the chance! I'm sure you are doing.
All's bowling along nicely here. I'm spending more time thinking about broken doors and drainage than I ever thought possible, but even that is quite interesting. We've had some very good visitors and talks and so forth, and the college life seems to be growing. Not that everything's perch. It's not. But it's a good challenge, and I'm enjoying it. I hope the students are too.
Look after yourself, Christopher, and make sure you see something of the country as well as your books. Study is important -- obviously, I believe that -- but other things are too.
Rest in peace, dearest Prof. Richardson. I'll be keeping you and your family in my prayers.
May the choir of angels,
Come to greet you.
May they speed you to paradise.
May the Lord enfold you
In His mercy.
May you find eternal life.
Wendy Ong (Class of 2014)
Prof Richardson was the director of the programme when USP moved from Block ADM to Cinnamon College. It was a period of change for all of us and many of us were all worried that things would be very different and the spirit of the programme would be lost during the transition. Under the leadership of Prof Richardson, the transition was smoother than any of us could imagine. Thank you Prof Richardson for your contribution to the USP community. You will be remembered. Thank you for inspiring us to follow our passions, stay curious and give back to the community through our own ways.
Mikail Lo (Class of 2010)
May/June 2012 (I googled it), Cyberbullying in NUS. I remember there was an article that got published on The Straits Times, and it was on several news outlets. I remember feeling a lot of insecurity and defensiveness in the community; a lot of finger pointing and blaming and shaming.
For some reason, I was on campus; maybe it was the beginnings of what would become We Will Dance, or maybe I was hanging out with Marvin Kang and gang. It was late that evening and a small group of us happened to walk past the office to see a light still on - it's JR's office. He's at the desk, window open and we knock to say hi. We find out he's working on a statement to submit to The Straits Times. It wasn't a rebuttal or a defense; it was an honest open letter on the state of things in USP, and how we (everyone in USP) was addressing the issues that USP was facing. He wasn't done with it. I think it was already 11pm or something. I don't think there was ever going to be a right response, just the one that spoke the truth. He wrote it, and he signed it. It was his hill to die on, and he stood by it. That spoke volumes of JR's character and how he viewed USP. Up till that point, I never thought that the Director needed to handle things like this. But he did, and with dignity.
His time at USP was challenging. All these changes, and these events. He did his best to make it better. Every time I would see him, there's always a smile on his face, even though it was obvious that he was dealing with some new %$#^ that was happening at USP. I mean, even I gave him a hard time about organising We Will Dance, and he'd always just let us decide even if it wasn't in his favour.
That's what I remember most about JR. No ra-ra, no fan fare, no big parade. You just felt his support, and it was always needed whether you knew it or not. That was something very rare indeed.
Clara Lim (Former NUS colleague)
Prof Richardson’s ever ready wit and great sense of humour always brighten long meetings. When I was ‘desperately’ looking for a home faculty for the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme, he was the only person who stepped forward. I can remember how we planned and presented to the donor together. Because of his encouragement and help to start CTPCLP, the programme was housed in USP. Now it’s a University Level centre.
Lakshminarayanan (USP colleague)
I came to know John through my OEA interview in 2005 and later when he listened to the proposals of student feedback on teaching reforms and GE redesign. Through these interactions, it was clear he was strict in questioning, critical in his assessment but absolutely fair and encouraging of meaningful change. There was always a clarity in my mind after listening to his views. He won my respect beyond just admiration. We will miss him dearly.
Leung Wing Sze Evelyn (USP colleague)
I did not have the most conversations with John or was terribly close to him. But I am grateful and remember him fondly. While he could see my weaknesses very well, he was also very willing to acknowledge my strengths and I felt assured that he believed in me. He was always ready to give me the sternest career advice, but was at the same time always encouraging and never patronizing. May he rest in peace.
Johan Geertsema (USP colleague)
I’ll simply say that, to me, John was the kindest and most generous of men. He really cared for people and looked out for those of us who had the privilege of being faculty and staff members of the USP, when he directed it and also subsequently. He had our best interests at heart, as he did those of his students. So very often he gave people the benefit of the doubt.
Yet at the same time, John, with his dry sense of wit—his ironic view of the world—did not suffer fools gladly, nor did he stand for ideas that had not been thought through. He compelled me, and I would imagine many others, to question our assumptions about so many fundamentally important issues. Can we measure learning outcomes? Should we? Are there not things beyond quantification—creativity, questioning, critical thought, making connections across disciplines and domains, that cannot be measured nor should be? His sense of irony marked him as someone deeply sceptical of dogma and orthodoxy. This enabled him to push people towards the previously unthought and made them see the world in new ways. I will miss him terribly.
Peter Vail (USP colleague)
I am so deeply saddened to learn of John's passing. My words will be few, but I hope my brevity will be understood for its intent: to underline what (to me) was John's most compelling trait: his fundamental humanity. A few years back I found myself in a tremendously difficult position, looking for ways to reconcile career with family, responsibilities at work with responsibilities of home. My prospects for doing so were bleak and my choices stark. But John, who was at that time director of the USP--my boss--intervened. With compassion and understanding, open-mindedness and clarity, John helped me to arrange my university responsibilities in such a way that has enabled me to also attend to my family overseas. I will never forget his kindness: the help he provided has rendered all the principal dimensions of my life tenable. For that I am truly grateful. John's profound humanity is an inspiration to me and my family. He will be sorely missed, and certainly in my family he will never be forgotten.
Francis, Mariana and friends from Sciences Po
You decided to leave us behind. And you did it in your own way, catching us by surprise.
We shall remember preciously our conversations in Paris, Reims, Menton and Singapore. They resonate through your deep sense of humour and your desire to get as close as possible to the true.
We shall also remember your commitment, dedication and legacy to education in the humanities and the social sciences that allowed us to make real the projects we worked together on. You were the best advocate to find ways to address and overcome all the obstacles we did find on our way.
Thank you for your trust and for your friendship. We already miss you! Always smiling, bringing stimulating ideas to the table and with great sense of humour!
Our most sincere condolences to your loved ones who feel so much the grief of your loss.
Do rest in Peace.
I still remember Prof Richardson interviewing me for my role at USP and will always remember his kind, calm presence and sense of humour. I’m grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to be a part of USP and feel honoured to have worked with him.
- Jun Searle (Former USP colleague)
I did not have the opportunity to read Prof Richardson's modules in English Literature but I’m grateful for his openness and willingness to hear us out about how we want USP to be. Prof Richardson steered USP through its difficult transition into the present Residential College model aka Cinnamon College, where he had to stand up on behalf of the USP community to affirm what USP is, and that USP would remain grounded in being an inclusive community even after the move to University Town in 2011.
- Zelig Dhi Lee (Class of 2012)
Don Shiau (Class of 2005)
I’m from the first batch of students who matriculated directly into the USP in 2001. I’d graduated by the time John became Director of the Programme, but we quickly became acquainted because he made a special effort to reach out to alumni. He was really sincere and committed about it. We met regularly in small groups and in large groups, at NUS and in town, always to discuss what could be done to keep alumni involved and visible to current students.
One idea came to fruition in 2011. John decided to teach an undergraduate module and open it to alumni.
It was a leap of faith, and John was just the kind of guy who would take it. In a way, his little experiment failed, because only two alumni signed up (I was one of them). I believe it wasn’t an inherently bad idea; it was just ahead of its time. Now we have NUS’ SCALE doing exactly what John tried to do. Their motivation, however, is different—lifelong learning is something of a national directive now. John did it for the sheer love of it, and the USP community. That’s who he was.
He ran the classes on Saturdays at Cinnamon College. It was a full module, with the standard amount of readings, coursework, and contact hours. I found it difficult to keep up as a working adult, and there was no extrinsic motivation because alumni couldn't get academic credit. But I stuck it out along with my undergraduate coursemates, because I loved the idea and I loved the topic.
The module was ULT2299A: Understanding Irony. The subject lent itself easily to fun class discussions and playful texts (I remember we read Gulliver's Travels and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, among others).
John closed out the module on a surprisingly dour note. He candidly shared with us his personal thesis on the role of irony in literature, and life in general. He felt that irony was a response to death. Because if we are all dead in the long run, nothing really matters. So irony was one way for people to reclaim the arbitrariness of meaning, by intentionally inverting / subverting it. These are not John’s exact words--but I believe this was what he had in mind.
I understood it, but I still felt it was such a downer--albeit a very profound one--to end the class on.
Now, his words have taken on added poignancy. They have been haunting me since I heard the news of his passing. I shared them with some of my other former professors—his colleagues—at his wake. Before taking my leave, I whispered to John: "Death may have taken away all meaning for you. But it has meaning for the rest of us, because in death, you have given us the completeness of your life."
Rest in peace, Prof.
Sam Cahill (NTU colleague)
Professor John Richardson was a gracious, kind, and generous man and scholar. I will always remember how he helped the NTU Division of English when I first arrived in Singapore over nine years ago. We were trying to purchase an expensive literature database and needed several scholars to vouch for us in order to justify the enormous expenditure. Even though NUS and NTU are (friendly!) competitors, Professor Richardson didn't hesitate in sending us a written testimonial of the scholarly value of the database. Ever since then he has represented to me the best qualities of eighteenth-century studies--collegiality, scholarly generosity, kindness, and all-round personal and professional excellence. Meeting him in person only confirmed what a gracious and magnanimous scholar he was. His passing is a great loss for the eighteenth-century studies community.
Hillary Lau (Class of 2015)
Reading the many notes left here by fellow USP friends, I came to see Prof Richardson as a person who took the time to listen and respond thoughtfully in every interaction. Perhaps as a literature professor he understood the power of words written and spoken, and took great care in communication; so much that what he left behind were uncountable memories of conversations, emails, and messages. How rare it is for someone to keep this up in an age of rapid replies and distracted answers. How much it speaks of someone that moments with him counted for so much in so many of my peers' lives.
Most of all, through this period of remembrance, I learnt how firmly Prof Richardson believed in the idea of the USP. His dedication to building it up was plain to see. My university experience and identity as a USP 'scholar' were inconspicuously but undeniably shaped by his work.
Not all of us had the opportunity to know Prof Richardson at a personal level. The sense of loss I felt on hearing of his passing was immediate, though muted for this reason. But in searching for a reason to grieve, I found again the comfort of this community and its thoughts. Because of his vision and heart in building the USP, I found a place where I came to know myself better. Thank you, Prof, and may you rest in peace.
Dr Christopher Yap (NUS colleague)
I had the great pleasure and privilege of interacting with John in the period 2005 to 2015, when I was serving in the Office of Undergraduate Programmes of the Faculty of Engineering. John was then Vice-Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences as well as Director, University Scholars Programme. In all my interactions with him, he clearly displayed the qualities of love, patience, kindness, humility, goodness & gentleness. To me, he was a most warm-hearted and hospitable Christian gentleman, always ready to listen and assist in any way he could! With many others, I am thankful for His life, many contributions to NUS and very positive influence on many lives (students and colleagues alike). We shall all greatly miss him!
Toh Hui Min (Class of 2018)
Prof Richardson was a great teacher and mentor, and I look back very fondly at the time I spent under his supervision for an ISM.
But beyond all the serious and sombre things that can be said in appreciation of him, I also wanted to remember him in lighter moments like this. He was always up for whatever students threw at him, and that was a rare and wondrous thing in university.
Irving Goh (Colleague at NUS English Language and Literature)
For John Richardson:
I owe my gratitude to John for my current position. It would not have been possible if he didn’t keep me in mind, and so I remain indebted to him for that. And I must say he did keep a lookout for opportunities for younger or more junior scholars, helping them get jobs or postdoc positions. As a senior faculty mentor, he constantly checked in to see if I was settling in OK. I definitely enjoyed the lunches we had where we shared our thoughts on research and pedagogy over a mix of serious discussion and laughter, after which we would take the slow walk back to the department. I will definitely miss those lunches and those little walks, or just seeing him on the department’s fifth-floor corridor.
Goodbye, John. You’re a good man.