Yale-NUS Is Not A Failed School: How Liberal Arts Thrives In “Conservative” Singapore

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Yale-NUS College - Popspoken

Guest written by Daryl Yang

Yale-NUS College has not been without its critics, having attracted criticism since its inception. I was thus not surprised to read the recent Quartz article by Amy Wang on our college’s low acceptance rate and surrounding controversies around our college’s short six-year journey. In this piece, I hope to first correct the factual inaccuracies that Wang made in her article before clarifying the oft-repeated myth that the liberal arts are at odds with Singapore’s supposedly conservative political culture.

The history of Yale-NUS College

It was unfortunate that Wang misunderstood the history behind Yale-NUS College. Unlike satellite campuses such as NYU Abu Dhabi or the University of Nottingham’s branch campus in Malaysia, Yale-NUS College is not a branch campus of Yale University. Instead, the Charter of Yale-NUS College clearly states in its very first paragraph that Yale-NUS College is an autonomous college of the National University of Singapore.

This is a critical difference because Yale-NUS College is not a Yale export as Wang and like-minded critics may believe; we are our own project to engineer a new way of education to meet the demands of the new global environment. This is reflected by the time and effort invested by world-renowned academics from both Yale University, NUS and other institutions into developing our novel curriculum that brings together diverse intellectual traditions beyond the conventionally Western experience in the most prestigious universities.

Yale-NUS Professor Anju Paul described our peculiar endeavour best in a rousing speech she gave at the commencement for the Class of 2020 last year: “We are not Yale in Asia, and we are not NUS-lite. We are more than comfortable in our liberal-arts-college-in-Singapore skin. In our difference and diversity, we find freedom and richness. In our intimacy, we find the opportunity to learn from one another.”

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In light of this ongoing pedagogical project that is Yale-NUS College, it is inevitable that there will be some who find that they prefer the road more travelled. It is no secret that we have classmates who transfer to other universities for more specialised or professional degrees but context is important. The article that Wang cited reported a 3% drop-out rate, which in absolute terms, is 10 people. To conclude that the Yale-NUS curriculum is superficial and fails to deliver based on such a small sample seems extraordinarily myopic. While I agree that there is always room to improve which the college recognises and has consistently sought to do, it seems unfortunately uncritical to take such criticisms at face value.

In the first place, Yale-NUS College was never meant to be the solution and the answer; it is and will always remain an ongoing project that faculty, administration and students are constantly working together to make better. As the pioneering batch prepares to graduate at the end of this semester, I am sure that we must be doing something right as they head off to graduate school and meaningful careers ahead.

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Liberal arts in an illiberal state?

Wang cited an article regarding a defamation suit between the Prime Minister of Singapore and a blogger as proof of Singapore’s political conservatism. While it was slightly ironic that her article was published just two days after the March for Science took place across the US, I hope to clarify the sleepy illusion that the liberal arts cannot thrive in a supposedly authoritarian society like Singapore.

Three main criticisms were put forth by opponents of the Yale-NUS project with regard to Singapore’s human rights record in relation to LGBTQ rights, migrant workers’ rights and freedom of expression.

It is odd that such criticisms continue to fester despite the vibrant LGBTQ community that we have built at Yale-NUS College and beyond. I was President of The G Spot, our college’s gender and sexuality alliance. During my tenure, we also established the Inter-University LGBT Network together with student leaders from LGBTQ organisations across the various public universities in the country. While there remains challenges for us to overcome, such as the repeal of the colonial anti-sodomy law and media censorship of queer relationships, it may be a useful reminder that the modern history of Singapore is only about as long as that of the contemporary American gay rights movement. The Stonewall riots happened 4 years after Singapore gained independence from the British empire in 1965. Put in context, I am very proud and optimistic about the past and future progress of our queer movement.

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Our students have also done much with regard to migrant workers’ rights, having collaborated with the NUS Faculty of Law to organise an annual campaign while many students are actively involved with local and regional migrant rights’ organisations to advocate for and improve the treatment of migrant workers in Singapore. I am not sure what the spirit of the liberal arts is, if it is not the admirable values of social justice and community-mindedness that I see embodied in my peers and the very institution of Yale-NUS College.

The final criticism that the curtailment of free speech in Singapore is antithetical to the liberal arts is also a misguided one. Given that unfettered free speech has led to what many are calling the “post-truth” society today, it is questionable whether there should be absolute free speech that extends to false statements. Singapore’s courts have taken a different approach from the US in relation to the freedom of expression and are more willing to impose harsh punishments on such forms of “free speech” such as contempt and defamation.

Nonetheless, I agree that Singapore can do better in giving more space and freedom to civil society. Yet, there are many better examples of how this tension manifests in our college than Tan Pin Pin’s decision to not show her film “To Singapore, With Love” on our campus. Our college has been grappling with our existence as a liberal bubble, which was fluently analysed by Shawn Hoo here, and we will continue to grapple with these difficult questions, as we should in the spirit of the liberal arts.

Liberalising the il(liberal) arts

In Hoo’s article, he ended with the poignant imagery that “kites have no need for designated parks”. In the same way, the spirit of the liberal arts cannot be undermined simply by institutions or systems that seek to control or subjugate knowledge and human curiosity. To suggest that the liberal arts should be reserved only for already “liberal” societies seems strangely self-defeating and no more than chronological snobbery. A liberal education that avails itself only to those deemed worthy because they subscribe to certain “liberal” values is perhaps more illiberal than it likes to think itself to be.

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Ultimately, there are many valuable lessons and questions from our fledgling institution that American universities may find useful as they face the challenges of a Trump presidency. Indeed, a renowned local journalist has even gone further to share lessons that Americans may find useful in living in a less than completely liberal society. Rather than build walls to buttress one’s own exceptionalism, it may be more crucial than before for those concerned about the future of the university and the future of liberal values to adopt a more liberal attitude towards what the rest of the world has to offer.

After all, as I once read in our philosophy class where we studied texts across the continents, Confucius said, “Walking among three people, I find my teacher among them and choose that which is good in them and follow it, and that which is bad and change it.”

Daryl Yang co-founded and currently serves as Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network. Previously, Daryl was President of The G Spot, the Yale-NUS Gender & Sexuality Alliance, from 2014 to 2016. He is currently a third-year student pursuing a double degree in Law and Liberal Arts at Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law.

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Images: Facebook / Yale-NUS College

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