story | Tee Zhuo, Guest contributor

photo | Hannah James

This is the second part of a two-part series. In the first part, Tee introduced the under-addressed problem of leaving our international friends behind in an empty campus on the weekends. Part one appeared in the Orientation issue of The Octant.

In Part 1, I discussed the empty suite and how it is linked to inequalities in the local versus international experience at Yale-NUS College, including issues of homesickness, wellness, and mental health.

Yet I also noted at the end that the individual act of returning home on weekends doesn’t immediately appear to be an ethically complex issue, if even an ethical issue at all! So, how exactly is it that seemingly harmless private decisions can result in unfortunate collective outcomes?

Micromotives and Macrobehavior

In trying to explain persistent racial segregation in the United States, the economist Thomas Schelling noted that individuals who are not necessarily racist or otherwise malicious may still prefer to stay with others of the same race. But each person of a particular race who leaves in order to satisfy this preference also reduces the concentration of their race in the area they vacate. Those of the same race who remain become increasingly more likely to move as well, as their personal threshold for tolerance of other races or just dislike at being in the minority is met.

Thus, as more people leave at an increasing rate, this has the potential to result in single-race clusters, and eventually an “equilibrium” of complete segregation. Nobody at the individual level might have consciously wanted racial segregation, but that was the collective effect in any case. Singapore provides a classic example of this problem, with the development of racial enclaves eventually resulted in the government’s infamous public housing racial quotas in 1989.

Our situation is not exactly one of race issues (I don’t think a similar “cascading” effect occurs at our school, for example), but similarly, the mass weekend exodus does not stem from ill intentions. Most people agree spending time with family is good, and everyone wants the conveniences and comforts of home. I don’t think anybody really thinks to themselves, “I really want to make my suitemate lonely this weekend,” or “I wonder how empty we could make the campus if every Singaporean left on Friday evening?” Neither was this a collective effort by the Singaporeans to leave all at once on Friday evening.

We affect not just the environments we enter but also those we leave. Intentional or not, these are the consequences on the whole when we aggregate the seemingly insignificant decisions of individuals, and we have to take responsibility for them. We need to be conscious of our actions and their effects on the community around us.

A community of learning

So what? Why care about this community? I know (hope) most of us don’t actually think this way, so a likelier and more benign version of this question could be: “Why should I care more than I already do?”

Perhaps you feel that you already spend lots of time with your international friends on the weekdays and that should be enough. But it isn’t. Quantity matters, but the quality of the time spent together matters more. With weekdays filled with classes, CCAs, and meetings, social interactions are often obligatory and passing.

Or maybe you’re secretly thinking, “Can’t the internationals just suck it up?” Homesickness does come with the territory of being international, and international students do know that this is what they signed up for. But do local students remember what we signed up for?

“I think it’s hard to remember that the only ‘thing’ grounding us international students to Singapore is this school—this small strand of land from Saga to Cendana,” said Hannah James ’18. “Many international students go home only once or twice a year to see their loved ones. This reality is driven home when the only family we have in this country—our Yale-NUS family—leaves our home base to go to their home.”

A farewell piece in The Octant by our former Executive Vice President Doris Sohmen-Pao is titled “Stay”—a headline which would have been just as appropriate for this piece. Ms. Sohmen-Pao stressed the importance of connections, encouraging us to “enjoy our interactions with each other”.

“In your application to Yale-NUS you impressed us with how you have made an impact on your community (remember that essay?). Keep asking yourself that question and make sure you have an answer,” Ms. Sohmen Pao wrote.

It’s not just about some abstract, capital-C “Community”. As Professor Catherine Sanger, former Vice-Rector of Cendana College, pointed out in part one of this series, everyone, including Singaporeans, stands to gain from a better community that builds on deeper investments in friendships and larger social networks. A uniquely international community multiplies those benefits, bringing with it an international spread of ideas and traditions. In the sharing of diverse perspectives and life experience, our own mindsets and worldviews are expanded, and we become better and smarter people—while having more fun in the process.

The same study of U.S. schools I cited in part one of this series also found that students who have at least one roommate in on-campus housing are more likely to report higher levels of institutional commitment, peer connections, social integration, and satisfaction with their on-campus social environment than students who do not have a roommate. They are also more likely to have a higher first-term grade point average and to re-enroll for both their second term and their second academic year.

The choice not to spend the entire weekend back home also makes more sense when we place this in perspective of the already precious little time we have to be undergraduates (as I’m sure any member of the recently graduated Class of 2017 will readily attest).

“Don’t take these four years of your life for granted,” Jordan Bovankovich, a former student of Yale-NUS cautioned. “Your family will be with you for many more years, but you only have this short time to be this crazy with these people.”

Ultimately it comes back to what we want this school to be about. Do we want to merely tolerate each other’s differences and pass our college lives away, “diverse” only in our admissions pitch but not in spirit? Or do we want to make time to stop and appreciate this diversity, thus truly celebrating it?

“Natural” behaviour and social engineering

So what is to be done? A knee-jerk reaction might be to ask the school to hold more weekend events (bouncy castle, anyone?) to incentivize more people to stay on campus. But the central issue isn’t about a physically empty campus as much as it is about the lack of interaction between people with different backgrounds and experiences, and a community that is “diverse” just for the sake of it.

On a fundamental level, changing “natural” human behaviour is hard. Schelling’s model shows us the effects of one such natural tendency, the tendency to stick with those similar to us. College first-years from the same high schools tend to gravitate towards each other, and yes, people sharing the same ethnicity or nationality in a residential community tend to clump together. As the acclaimed biologist E.O. Wilson notes, we are naturally tribal animals.

But “tribalism” can express itself in less benign ways. As an example of everyday racism, Singaporean landlords are known to discriminate against some foreigners and races, sometimes being as explicit as stating “No Indians, No PRCs” in rental advertisements. On a larger global scale, extreme nationalist, xenophobic, and supremacist movements are gaining traction everywhere.

Just because something seems natural, doesn’t mean it’s right. Often it just means it’s harder to do the right thing.

And it is hard. We can’t really place the blame on the administration for not trying. The demographics of freshmen orientation groups and suiting arrangements are suspiciously balanced, proportional to the overall college’s 2:3 international-to-local ratio. The school is full of events designed to get people mixing and socialising, with Dean’s Fellows (DFs) and Residential College Advisory Councils (RCACs) flipping pancakes, holding movie screenings and karaoke sessions, etc. Don’t we have enough?

Such events are also somewhat of a “chicken-and-egg” issue, as Yonatan Gazit ’18 points out. “Sure, the school could try to do a bit more programming like brunch and hang-outs—the milk (and cookies) brought all the boys to the yard! So I do think we need these events. But on the other hand, these events are also very touch-and-go. What if no one turns up?”

Well-intentioned social engineering can only do so much. Consider once again Singapore’s public housing racial quotas. While learning to live with each other has been better than huddling in single-race clusters, toleration and integration are not the same thing. Many scholars have noted that racial harmony in Singapore has “remained superficial and [is] premised on the tolerance of difference rather than a genuine appreciation and valuing of cultural difference”.

Should we mandate the international-to-local ratio in suite room assignments beyond the first year? Or implement security checkpoints to prevent Singaporeans from leaving school on weekends? Beyond an administrative nightmare for Student Life Senior Manager Andrew McGeehan, these ideas also sound ridiculous, draconian (probably because they are) and treat young adults like children. The moral of the story is: when push comes to shove, a society ultimately depends on the civic and moral fiber of its constituent individuals.

No home without family

“Participation doesn’t need to be confined to the campus.”

Yale-NUS is a family that exists on a culture of building. But to keep this alive, each of us needs to actively maintain it, and remember that Yale-NUS is actually a residential community, not just a place where you eat and study on the weekdays. At the Town Hall earlier in February, Yale-NUS students reminded administrators that they were partners, not just passive receivers, in this College-building project. Now, just as it was then, it falls back down to us, as individuals.
Little gestures make a big difference. For example, Professor Sanger notes that many students she has talked to have “found more balance” in going home for dinner once a week or joining family just for Sundays and not the entire weekend. This way, they stay connected to family while still participating in the residential college experience they signed up for.

Participation also doesn’t need to be confined to the campus. James shared that after she raised the issue of weekends, her Singaporean friends invited her and other internationals to their homes for dinners or to hang out.

“The hospitality from friends’ families is an incredible feeling I hold dear to my time here in Singapore. I can still smell the aroma of Feroz [Khan ’18’s] mom’s biryani wafting through the kitchen to the living room and picture opening the door to Cliona’s home and her dog Princeton running around,” she recalled. “The simple feeling of being in a home instantaneously floods you with a sense of belonging.”

As Singaporeans, we may feel that our homes are boring and uninteresting because we grew up in them, and thus, in Bovankovich’s words, “Not really (a place locals would) want to show some random ang moh around”. But as someone who grew up in suburban America, Gazit felt Khan was “clutch 10 out of 10” for inviting him to his home.

“When people ask me how Singapore is like, I tell them that the touristy stuff is ok but gets boring after awhile. But having a home-cooked meal in a HDB flat—that’s super interesting and cool—an experience I would never have had as a foreigner without Singaporean friends inviting me.”

So, as you start to make plans for what will undoubtedly be yet another hectic and enriching semester, make some small commitments. No one will begrudge you heading back home for dinner on Friday nights, or even staying back home once or twice in the semester.

But don’t vacate the school weekly for the entire weekend for your families in Eunos, Boon Lay, Yishun or Toa Payoh. You have a family right here at Yale-NUS. Make Yale-NUS our home, not only because it should be, but because for many of our fellow schoolmates this is their only home away from home—and there is no home without family.

Tee Zhuo ’18 is a member of Aloe, a student group focusing on mental health and wellness policies at Yale-NUS. (To learn more about Aloe, contact the author or Alex Meyer ’18.) He lives in Saga Tower A, cohabiting peacefully with a South Korean poet-cum-musician-cum-philosopher, an Australian-American radio personality-cum-stand-up comedian, and three other Singaporeans of varying height but equal levels of religious indoctrination.

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