story Soh Wee Yang

A Hollow Core

(Rachel Johanna Lim)

In his 1978 National Day Rally speech, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew warned the state of losing our “Asian roots” that have served as a blueprint for development. He had felt that while Westernization had served Singapore well in terms of industrialization, he also feared that it might create a “moral crisis” for Singapore. [1]

In the same vein, is Yale-NUS College currently experiencing a moral crisis? Recent events such as a perceived rude comment at Town Hall, whether our college should apologize to the College of Alice and Peter Tan for triggering the fire alarms, and many other incidents both online and offline have sparked intense debates. The lack of a defined disciplinary structure and a dearth of institutional crackdowns have seen increases in misdemeanors. While some have argued that these incidents were mere clashes in opinion, but this is a convenient excuse for a more fundamental problem: we lack a value-system at our core.

Yale-NUS is the first institution that I am a part of which does not have fundamental core values. By values, I mean traditional notions such as Integrity, Honesty, Excellence, Humility, Respect and Compassion. Our current vision, “A community of learning, founded by two great universities, in Asia, for the world”, is ambiguous and vague about what kind of students we are supposed to be, or are supposed to strive to become. We lack an honor code or a code of ethics, and this lack of a strong core has seeped insidiously into other areas of our community learning and living.

Many of us are quick to embrace Western ideals and exalt them to such a high degree that we overlook other important principles such as the values that I have mentioned above. We behave like children rejoicing at newfound freedom from the clutches of our parents and the previous institutions we were in; we hold onto the notions of our rights and individual autonomy dearly, and anything that remotely breaches those boundaries offends us. Without a clear value system, championing for notions such as freedom of speech and individual rights is like trying to build a skyscraper on quicksand. For example, the argument that Yale-NUS should be a “bastion of free speech” has surfaced many times, but our community seems to have a very confused and hazy notion of what that entails. Does free speech include or preclude hate speech? If it does, then does it encompass retaliatory censorship and condemnation?

Issues that should be given top consideration such as safety in our school are treated so lightly by both students and administration that it has left me dumbfounded. Our students fear surveillance and inspections by the College even when the staff are just inspecting our living quarters for fire hazards. We complain and refuse to cooperate with reasonable regulations to keep the corridors free from obstructions. Whenever a fire alarm is triggered, we react in a lackadaisical fashion, and then blame external factors such as the sensitivity of the fire alarms, instead of reflecting on how we can prevent such incidents from recurring. The half-hearted attitude the College takes to these issues is incredibly worrying.

The immense focus we have on individual liberty and autonomy has made us more self-centered in many ways. In general, people are perpetually late for appointments, and when we are late, we don’t apologize. We are ambitious, but we lack the self-discipline and commitment to carry many of our visions out. We sign up for many activities, but either fail to turn up for them, or pull out once the going gets tough. We adopt the “Pitch-Perfect” mentality i.e. we expect great results through spontaneity and without having to put in the necessary amount of hard work. We complain about the curriculum, the food, the community life, but when feedback surveys roll in, we ignore them. We need to be incentivized with food to attend events and do things that we ought to have the initiative to do in the first place. Finally, the perennial paradox: we are the “best and brightest”, and yet we cannot seem to clean up after ourselves.

The lackluster attitude that the Yale-NUS community possesses towards truly pertinent issues is a ticking time bomb. It is only a matter of time before someone is injured or harmed by the culture of negligence in our college. I recommend that the first step to countering these problems is to construct a shared value-system and to remove all forms of incentives that pamper students to do the tasks that we should be doing on our own in the first place. Hopefully, we can cultivate future leaders who are not only highly articulate and talented, but who know how to wash the dishes and leave the toilets in a cleaner state than before they were used.

[1] Lian, K. (2008). Social policy in post-industrial Singapore (p. 202, 203). Leiden: Brill.