Yale-NUS brouhaha

I have been meaning to blog about this since I first read E-Ching’s article last year, but clean forgot about it until I read Mummybean’s comment on this thinking post.

I also just realised that the Yale-NUS college is opening this month! 157 successful applicants will be starting school, and working towards a liberal arts degree.

I didn’t think much of this collaboration when it was first announced in 2010, and saw it as just yet another partnership along the lines of Duke-NUS etc. I only paid slightly more attention when I read her article, written from the perspective of a Singaporean and a Yalie.

Specifically, E-Ching had written this article in response to a Yale faculty resolution expressing concern about the Yale-NUS college. Her article’s title “Can Yalies think?” referred specifically to the Yale faculty, and is also an allusion to Prof Kishore Mahbubani’s book “Can Asians think?”

For a start, I was surprised that the faculty was concerned enough to spend 2.5 hours debating the minutiae of this resolution. It was finally voted through, 110 for, and 70 against.

We, the Yale College Faculty, express our concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore, host of Yale-National University of Singapore College. We urge Yale-NUS to respect, protect and further principles of non-discrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers; and to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society. These ideals lie at the heart of liberal arts education as well as of our civil sense as citizens, and they ought not to be compromised.

I must say I was even more surprised by a letter to Yale Daily News from 5 professors containing the excerpt below.

…an act of the Yale Corporation and the advocacy of a small group of Yale-New Haven administrators and professors…(has) thrust us into the politics of an authoritarian regime, in partnership with a university with seriously, dangerously compromised standards of academic freedom, including surveillance of faculty.

I found it a bit bizzare that the faculty, 80% of whom I dare say, have never visited Singapore or bothered to understand the country comprehensively, saw it fit to issue such a statement against this collaboration.

To me, this was a commercial effort, a win-win perceived by:

(a) an Ivy League university deigning to put its name (but not to dilute its brand by conferring degrees there, mind you – the Yale-NUS grads will not have Yale anywhere on their certs) to the first liberal arts college in Asia; and
(b) a Singaporean university always on the lookout for partnerships with the “best in class” to boost their standing in the region.

So I felt it was a bit of a storm in the teacup. As a Singaporean, I don’t feel that my freedom of speech is curtailed. Perhaps that is because I have little interest in speaking publicly of issues that the state deems sensitive (for good reason), most of the time. And to my knowledge, academics and teachers here are free to teach what they will, so long as they do not deliberately stir dissent for dissent’s sake.

I suppose E-Ching puts it best, and I excerpt:

The key problem is that Yalies and Singaporeans have fundamentally different assumptions about political culture.

Americans are outraged at certain Singaporean laws. (…) But usually, where freedom of speech and sexuality are concerned, written laws and enforcement are very different things. It’s a bit cognitively complicated, but if we can handle that, so can you.

We prioritize our values differently, and different doesn’t mean wrong. (…) You don’t have to like the way Singapore works, …but disliking it doesn’t make our political culture any less real, and to change it, you have to start from that reality.

Singapore is not an isolationist or stagnant society — it’s extremely open to foreign influences, as long as they’re seen as our own choice, not the preoccupations of hecklers. The aims of the faculty resolution can best be achieved by simply having a Yale presence in Singapore, not preaching but demonstrating — with steadfastness but also humility — what is admirable about Yale.

I think there is room for a liberal arts education to thrive in this small island. I don’t view this collaboration through rose-tinted glasses – it is certainly, first and foremost, commercial. But I believe that the students who pursue an education in the liberal arts will benefit from Yale’s faculty, at least those who are willing to get to know the country before dismissing it lock, stock and barrel.

p.s. I just came across this post by an American professor teaching sociology at the NUS. Great points there too.

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