One of the most interesting and fascinating debates that has come up recently is the NUS-Yale partnership. The earliest reactions of the Yale faculty were already ominous – I had read about a meeting which had a very low turnout – possibly a contemptuous or indifferent attitude. Later on, there were plenty of articles that surfaced over the setting up of the Yale-NUS approach.
Here I'll consider many objections to the NUS Yale collaborations. I think that it's generally a good thing for NUS although I have my reservations on certain issues. I'll discuss the objections here.1. Singapore is not liberal enough
Many of the objections of the Yale Faculty for Yale-NUS fall into a broad category of “Singapore is not liberal enough”. It is true that Singapore was an authoritarian government for the longest time, where free speech was restricted. But –and this is a crucial point – the character of Singapore is changing. As things play out, it won’t necessarily be accurate to say that Singapore is too authoritarian for Yale in the years to come.a. US liberal universities should not be collaborating with illiberal societies
This is a variant on the sanctions version of American foreign policy.
There are some people wondering why Aung San Suu Kyii would want to join a parliament under which her powers would be severely curtailed. One good reason I can think of is that even she thinks that sanctions are a stupid policy and she didn’t want to be the cause of suffering for the Burmese.
The idea seems to be the same: turn your back on something which offends you, close your eyes and whistle, maybe it will go away. This is a mentality that serves well for a country which is located far away from most others, but does not work all the time.
It does not really cross their minds that maybe Yale could help to change the character of Singapore.
More pertinently, a more serious point against this is that the US is not as free a country as it likes to think it is. Yale existed in slavery days, in the Jim Crow era, and in the days of widespread voter disenfranchisement. Maybe not in its current liberal education form. Did any of this stop Yale from being a world class liberal arts institution? And if not, I don’t really see why there is an objection to NUS having a liberal arts college on these grounds.b. Singapore’s government is too repressive
Yes, it would be a complete joke to say that Singapore enjoys political freedom comparable to the USA. But the lack of political freedom is very much exaggerated. Yes, Singapore does not have a properly functioning political opposition. It still has a very top-down approach to governing, and people still practice plenty of self-censorship.
There are plenty of incidents that cause concern, such as the “Marxist Conspiracy”, engineering outcomes of elections, plenty of spin on the national newspapers, and suing political opponents into bankruptcy. It is equally important to note that none of these incidents took place over the last 10 years.
Singapore is constantly changing. The citizens are aware that the government has been sometimes less than honest with them. They are feeling the aftereffects of having signed away their civil rights in exchange for the golden straitjacket. People are yelling and demanding their rights now.
Singapore does not censor the internet. Most probably it does not have the resources or ability to do so. Singapore is greatly changing in character, and not always for the better. Yes, it has bowed a lot to criticisms of foreigners. But really, pleasing foreigners is not the right way to run a country.
Fundamentally, the main reason why Singaporeans have very few political rights is not because the government has been very repressive in the past. People are not taken from their own homes in the middle of the night to be interrogated by the secret police. And when it actually happens, there is such a big hoo ha about it that some will harp on it for the next 25 (and counting) years. Seriously, are we going to criticize the US for incidents which took place in 1987? Come on.
Maybe Singapore does not match up to great models of properly functioning government, low crime rate and absence of poverty like New Haven?
What needs to be acknowledged is that there is currently a great debate raging in Singapore, and it is a microcosm of a wider debate that is waged elsewhere. That debate concerns western liberal values: for the longest time, it was assumed that newly independent countries would inevitably end up as liberal democratic societies in the image of the USA which is after all the earliest post-colonial nation of modern times. This is the “End of History” hypothesis. That prophecy was not 100% fulfilled, and it must have been a source of no small concern that the Asian countries that were the first to modernize – namely Japan and the 4 tigers, went through a stage of authoritarian government, followed by a period of liberalization.
Now, China and India are rapidly modernising, and the 4 tigers are pondering over a transition to liberal democracy. To be sure, Singapore has always ostensibly been a democracy. Not a sham Saddam Hussein style democracy, but one with mostly fair and mostly free elections. Will it continue to move away from authoritarianism and grow closer to liberal democracy? And as though the plot wasn’t thick enough, for various reasons, the mature western-style democracies have lurched towards fiscal crises. This severely weakens the case for liberal democracy, or at least makes clear that it is a system with significant weaknesses.
This picture of what can be very crudely depicted as a “democracy vs authoritarianism” debate is a more nuanced view of what is actually happening in Singapore. The reality on the ground is vastly different from Singapore of the 90s. It is certainly different from the caricature of an oppressive regime.c. Academic freedom is not guaranteed in Singapore
This is a more serious concern, and to be fair to Singapore, academic freedom is under threat everywhere. This is apparent in the climate change debates, the budget cuts for higher education in the US, and the proliferation of corporations funding research in universities.
It is too soon to see if academic freedom can be granted to Yale-NUS faculty to the same extent that it is being granted to Yale. It is true that the ability of the faculty to talk about Singapore can be curtailed, but NUS faculty has always been able to comment frankly about other parts of Asia. An analogy is Qatar, which may be an authoritarian state like Singapore, but is also home to Al Jazeera who does not hold its tongue when discussing its Arab neighbours, and has probably contributed as much to the Arab Spring as any other organization.
It was mentioned that Toh Chin Chye was a chancellor of NUS, and this was taken to be proof that Singapore was so tight-fisted in controlling its universities that it appointed its own people to run NUS. Maybe. But another way of looking at it was that Toh Chin Chye was actually the most rebellious of our founding fathers, and the most likely to oppose Lee Kuan Yew. Thus he was shipped out to become chancellor of NUS so as not to get in the way of LKY.
The manner in which Yale Southeast Asia experts have been brushed aside in the discussions for Yale NUS are naturally cause for concern. But the more important issue is whether Yale NUS turns out to be a successful education institution in the long run. If that happened, then the manner in which Yale and NUS reached an agreement with each other would be much less of an issue.d. Christopher Lingle incident / payback for “Asian Values”
One can imagine that some bad feelings – so to speak – lingered over an incident in the 80s when a US academic Christopher Lingle was censured by the Singapore government for interfering with politics in Singapore. At around the same time, in the early 90s, Singapore was flush with confidence as a nation on the rise, and presented a thesis that it had found an authoritarian alternative to the western model of liberal democracy. This was called “Asian Values”. I’m sure that this must have sounded like an affront to the US academics, who did not like some of their most cherished beliefs called into question in such a rude way.
Now for many, it is an open and shut case that a dictatorial and corrupt regime could tell tall tales in order to justify having an iron grip on power. However things are not so simple: apparently it is possible to make the case that “Asian Values” is a successful formula.
There were a few other pricks to the egos of Westerners, like the caning of Michael Fay and the constant hectoring of the hypocrisy of Western powers by LKY. But the payback came during the Asian financial crises, which was to no small degree caused by speculative trading by westerners. These days, you would see fewer incidences of Singapore leaders confronting their US counterparts head on.
Given all this water that’s flowed under the bridge, I’m sure that many on the Yale faculty would find it exceedingly strange that Singapore should suddenly decide that they want a liberal arts college. And I’m sure that this goes some way towards explaining their lack of enthusiasm for this enterprise.2. NUS and Yale are too different from each other
The article brought up the issue that NUS and Yale are too different from each other. Actually, given that Yale was a university founded in colonial times, you have to rethink that. Is it really true that Yale was never a “national university”? It was a new college founded in a young nation, and it also had a mission to bring the light of civilization to a new place.
Both NUS and Yale were substantially different, of course. NUS had a much more utilitarian curriculum, with a focus on science, engineering and medicine. For many years, its arts and social science faculty had been there for the sake of making NUS a complete university, rather as existing as the centre of the intellectual life of the university.
However we should not overly criticize Singapore’s attempt to increase the emphasis on a more liberal education. Indeed, Yale is being brought in to change the character of what is being taught in Singapore. Obviously Yale and Singapore are different. What would be the point of Singapore and Yale linking up if Yale had nothing to impart to Singapore?
The question then becomes: are they too different from each other, and will they prove fundamentally incompatible with each other. This is a tough call to make, but NUS has changed drastically in the past.
The question is not that Singaporeans lack the academic background to be a success at a school like Yale. Singaporeans studying in the US generally make a good account of themselves. The biggest difficulty for Singaporeans is that liberal arts schools require that the various departments to be open with each other, and I’m not entirely sure that that’s in the culture of NUS. In fact, I think that this is where this enterprise might founder.3. Singapore is Southeast Asian rather than Asian
That is like saying that – say Chile should be behaving like a Latin American country rather than other countries, and we know that it is local anomaly – in terms of its culture, its economy and its attitudes, it is fairly different from Argentina and Brazil.
Similarly Singapore is a place which is very different from its immediate surroundings. It is not only a global city like London, Paris and New York, it is also a city where foreign and imported cultures impose themselves to an even greater extent than an indigenous culture. It is almost dominated by foreign culture. Even neighbouring Malaysia markets itself as “truly Asia”. One aspect of the debate over Bukit Brown is Singaporeans’ unease at the government prioritizing foreign culture over our own local heritage.
The question is why should Singapore be the first Asian country to have a university partnership with a great liberal arts college? Should Singapore be more cognizant of its status as “only” a Southeast Asian country, and shouldn’t the first Asian collaboration with Yale come from greater civilisations like India, China or Japan?
There aren’t that many countries in Asia which speak English. Since Singapore is an English speaking country, it obviously deserves consideration. If other countries like China and Japan want to set up liberal arts colleges, they should build up their own campuses and run their own experiments – if the political will for such institutions exist.
Singaporeans are pretty exposed to western culture and it is not very difficult for Americans to fit in here. They will not have to be protected from the local population – as opposed to places like Saudi Arabia.
There is nothing wrong with characterizing Singapore as being “Asian”. Singapore has always looked beyond its shores. Ostensibly it is close to Malaysia, but relations between the countries are uneasy. The Chinese will look towards other Chinese countries, or even Chinese people in other non-Chinese Asian countries. The Indians have their historical ties with India. Even the Malays identify to some extent with the Muslims in the Middle East. In comparison, while we rely greatly on our immediate neighbours for natural resources (and cheap domestic labour), we are Southeast Asian to a limited extent. There is a lack of depth of understanding when it comes to our relations with Indonesians, Filipinos or Thais. Singapore looks outwards. It is equally accurate to characterize Singapore as “Asian” or “Southeast Asian”.
One suspects that Yale would prefer to open its first Asian campus in a place like China or India, if it wants to open an Asian campus at all. I don't see this as a possibility. Cornell opened a campus in Qatar, which is a small country. Generally larger countries would want to use their own extensive resources to develop their university systems, without being beholden to another university from another country.4. American foreign policy
Another concern is that a Singapore campus would be an instrument of American foreign policy. To be sure, you can never be certain that it won’t. I don’t really know where the Yale faculty is coming from. On one hand, there is this concern that Yale-Singapore will not live up to the values of liberal education. On the other hand, there’s this concern that Singaporeans will be too closely associated with Yale, and might learn American values so well that – Yale hardly counts as being unique anymore.
There seems to be a great discomfort among people from Yale that America seems to be an empire, and Yale opening a branch in Singapore would be a form of neo-colonialism. Another aspect of this is the faculty's discomfort at what seems to be the imperial ambitions of the Yale corporation.5. Singapore should aim to be a great place mainly on its own merits, rather than riding on the coattails of foreign institutions.
This point is my own. I’ve had a liberal arts education myself – not exactly a liberal arts education, but I can tell that it is not easy to throw together academics from many different disciplines and make the whole concoction stick together. It is different from more applied disciplines, where you can afford to have a more narrow focus.
Even the more established institutions find it hard to live up to the ideals of liberal arts education. There are always heated discussions about what it means. Many conservative commentators feel that a liberal education is being compromised when institutions embrace multiculturalism to the extent that too much emphasis is being placed on teachings from foreign cultures, at the expense of the “great works” of the Western canon. To be sure, an education in Yale would be pretty lopsided if Shakespeare, Plato and Aristotle were all left out. But it is all too easy for this attitude to degenerate into thinly disguised xenophobia. Which makes me wonder just how much all this talk of “liberal values” is really just an unease that Yale is on its way to becoming less American. Or more specifically less WASP.6. Corporatising of US academia.
This is a more serious issue that merits consideration. Singapore has not been shy to reach out to collaborate with other colleges. It has opened a medical school with Duke, and an engineering school with MIT. Somehow this hasn’t raised the ideological shitstorm that has come our way with Yale-NUS. Maybe it is because engineering schools and medical schools are supposed to be more apolitical.
Even so, for Duke and MIT, there is the risk that you would dilute your brand name, as well as the character of the school for money. The amount of money that has flowed into the coffers of MIT as a result of this collaboration has been fairly eyebrow-raising.
In these cases, an engineering school or a medical school actively collaborate with large corporations, and they are not meant to be totally independent of them. Of course, it can be troubling when corporations have too much say on medical research, because it means that you can start questioning its independence and integrity.
A liberal arts college’s culture is supposed to be more detached from corporate culture. The idea of opening a franchise in a faraway foreign country – for more money in the coffers? – is really in conflict with the purported ideals of a liberal education.
Liberal arts was supposed to be haven away from the crude utilitarianism of learning a trade so that you could earn a salary in the working world. The ideal was supposed to be that it was supposed to be a holistic development of the mind and the spirit. Well, yes. I could see why that might be a problem for Yale. For Singapore, the people are just so darn materialistic that if you didn’t attach a fancy name to the liberal arts degree, it would be very difficult to sell such a prospect to a future employer. It would be hard to open a liberal arts college in Singapore without Yale’s name attached to it.7. Singapore just ain’t cool enough
I had taken a course in Southeast Asian history at Snowy Hill. The professors who taught this course were well prepared, informative and professional. It is very difficult to cram the very tumultuous history of Southeast Asia in the 20th century into a 1 semester course but they did a good job. But there was a conversation with them that troubled me greatly, where I felt that they insinuated that I was a stooge of the state. It’s very funny when people have such instinctive notions of you when the only thing they know about you is that you’re a Singaporean.
This is a very ugly point, regardless of whether there are any merits to it. First thing, Singapore's greatest achievement is Singapore itself. Whatever it has achieved, it has achieved with little help from others. It is far away from other great cities in the world - unlike in North Asia where Taipei, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo are relatively close to each other. Jakarta, Saigon, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur may yet become great cities but it hasn't happened yet. And I'm not denying that those places are full of vibrant energy either btw. So in a sense, it is true that its membership in greater Asia is somewhat suspect. Singapore may have transformed itself from a sleepy fishing village to a great trading post, but it is in some ways surrounded by sleepy fishing villages.
Unlike China, Singapore does not have a great wall. Unlike India, Singapore has not founded any of the great religions of the world. The only thing that Singapore is truly famous for is being the scene of one of the greatest British military fuck ups of all time. Singapore's greatest achievement is negotiating a transition from a war-torn country to a great economic success story - yet this achievement has been duplicated in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea.
At the same time, I would truly question that there is nothing that Yale can learn from Singapore. So it does go down to what liberalism means. Does it mean being open minded to new ideas and cultures? If so you could do a lot worse than coming to a multi-cultural place like Singapore, which has successfully assimilated cultures from all over Asia. If it means holding on to a set of values that are cherished by the Yale faculty, then maybe Singapore, or for that matter, anywhere outside the USA would not be a great place for them. And if it means having a core of western values and disregarding the rest of the world - well that comes awfully close to bigotry.
There is a good case that the Yale faculty are displeased that they have not been consulted on this matter. But they haven't really gotten their act together to speak out on this issue until it's almost too late. That is either a reflection that they weren't previously well organised enough to do so, or that this issue is not of great importance to them. It is of course a valid concern that the Yale corporation concluded this matter over and above their heads, and it could well be that this is just one of many issues where they are displeased with their administrators. But dragging Singapore's human rights record into this is not a desirable way of conducting this debate. First, it is not a very significant issue. It is amazing that people can talk about a human rights record in this way and at the same time ignore how quickly living standards of most people have gone up. OK - things haven't improved very much in Singapore after 2000, but it's at a reasonably high level. How is it even possible to say things like "living standards have improved but not human rights"? Human rights is subordinate to living standards. The raison d'etre of human rights is living standards.
The other things is - you hardly heard very much talk by the faculty over what they thought about the other stakeholders, namely NUS and Singapore. It almost seems like they don't give a shit. Be that as it may, I wonder what would be their views on the state of affairs at present, where the USA is almost the only place where you can get a liberal education? Is this American exceptionalism something to be proud of, or is it something that can easily be rectified by Yale setting up a college in another country? I'm not sure what their views on this matter is.
The other issue has to be the reactions of Singaporeans and NUS students over the Sun Xu incident. Are they concerned about opening a branch in a place that might be xenophobic? Isn't that a much greater concern? Why didn't they mention it?
Recently, the Yale faculty approved a resolution expressing concern about this partnership, and it was upheld by a fairly wide majority. It's not a straightforward condemnation, or a voice of disapproval for the partnership, but rather an expression of discomfort over certain issues. A Yale faculty member opined that the first paragraph lacked precision and eloquence. I suppose it's alright that people are a little insulting here and there because that's what academic freedom is all about. But I think we should have a resolution that expresses concern that the other resolution does not seem worthy of Yale's notable academic standards.
You hardly heard anything from the MIT engineering and Duke medical faculty regarding opening a branch in Singapore. Perhaps, the reality for engineering and medical faculty is that nothing ever gets done without collaboration, whereas for faculty in the arts and sciences, it is still possible that ideas are produced by individuals. The other difference is that NUS medicine and engineering were already fairly good schools, just some way short of world class, in their respective disciplines. NUS arts and science may not have reached those standards, although it would be outrageous to claim that NUS has nothing to teach Yale about Asia.
Another matter concerns liberal education itself. Because of the economic crisis, liberal arts is in small crisis of its own, and more than ever before, people are questioning the merits of a liberal education. Is there an existential angst over this issue? Liberal arts education is in a precarious position: for the most part, it does not contribute directly to economically viable research. Most of the advances are in basic science, and in the exchange and rendition of new ideas. The value cannot be directly measured. My take is, so what if you need to sell out in order to keep it going?
I am agnostic about a joint partnership with Yale. However I definitely think that the establishment of a liberal arts college in Singapore is a good thing. Perhaps we need the Yale name in order to make this a viable proposition, because, in monetary terms, a liberal arts education is fairly useless without a good name attached to it. Of what use would a liberal arts education be if you can't find a job with it after graduation? You can't contribute to society and your liberal arts education would be useless.
But at the same time I think that there is something suspect in rushing into a partnership in Yale. There is this uncomfortable whiff of being in an arranged marriage. I have found out that Yale is also in a joint partnership with Peking university, and they've found a lot of problems with working with them. One suspects that their concerns with academic freedom stem from their experiences with Peking. It is possible, though, that since NUS is a more mature university in the sense that it has had a longer contact with the free world than Peking who has opened up only in the last 20 years, there will be fewer problems.
I do think that there are areas for concern in the establishment of a Singapore campus. One could read the blogs that are published in Singapore, and find that the level of debate and critical thinking isn't really up to the level that you would expect in the USA.
Ultimately the acid test of whether this joint venture has been a success is to examine what this enterprise would be like in 20 years time. Would it have produced groundbreaking research? Would it have participated in the great dialogues of the day? Are the views of its alumni, faculty and grad students respected? The same questions would have to be asked about the collaborations with Duke and MIT. Are the collaborations worthy of the name? Do they give rise to interesting projects? Maybe Yale-NUS would be extremely helpful in trying to configure liberal education into an Asian context.
Some of the most important lessons I learnt from Snowy Hill concern many of the central ideas in the Western intellectual tradition, but also how they have come into contact with other ideas from other cultures, and find themselves transformed in the process. This is my view of the liberal tradition (which is a rather oxymoronic phrase). Don't prejudice yourself, be open to the world, allow your initial assumptions to be challenged or changed, and you just might be better off at the end of the day.Power and Prestige
The elephant in the room, of course, is prestige. It’s a little too vulgar to be discussed directly, and probably a little rude. But this is the crux of the matter. A very important aspect of liberal education is prestige. Whatever the benefits of liberal education are – and I believe that there are many of them – prestige is absolutely important. This is because liberal education is very difficult to quantify. It is very difficult to do it well. It is too easy to go to a substandard college and take fluffy classes, and call that a liberal arts education. I’m not saying that good people can’t come out of less reputable colleges, but they might receive less than stellar teaching in those places. You need to have a good reputation to go with that liberal arts degree, because otherwise it will be difficult to convince people of the value of that degree. A liberal arts degree is only useful if the person holding it is intelligent enough.
Not only that, but for a lot of the social sciences, where it is difficult to quantify your research with hard data, it really helps a lot to be heard, and it really helps to be in a very reputable university. Case in point: Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations” is widely believed to be a crock of shit today. To be sure, it was hard at that point in time to figure out whether or not he was right. The point is that if he wasn’t a Harvard faculty, I’m not that sure that people would have really paid much attention to him.
The point is that a chair in the economics and the political science departments of a university like Yale is also a bully pulpit from which significant influence on public policy can be wielded. After all, wasn’t it Keynes who said that economic ideas are the most powerful political force of all? This power is not lightly given, nor is it lightly transferred. For a small country to assume the name of Yale, it almost feels like an usurpation.
It’s hard to tell whether the NUS administrators picked Yale because of academic reasons – not only the quality of the teaching and research, but also how well the departments of the two parties are a fit for each other – or just because Yale is a big name. Yes, there is the prestige which is a glittering prize in the eyes of Asians. But I wonder if they are fully aware of the political baggage that comes with being in close proximity to all these faculty, or maybe they are all too fully aware of it.
If you look at the actions of the Yale faculty from the standpoint of prestige, it doesn’t make them look too good either. After all what is power, prestige and privilege if you can’t shut people out of it? It makes Singapore look like Mark Zuckerberg in the “Social Network”. If you look at it from the standpoint of power, it looks more reasonable. These are people who have close working relations with many powerful people in the US administration. How would the Americans view them if they suddenly started becoming really close to Singapore?
If Singapore had real guts, it could win a lot of respect by unilaterally cancelling the Yale-NUS project. Once again, I am far from convinced that this is the correct thing to do, but that would certainly be fun to watch.