Story | Daryl Yang (he/him), Guest Writer
Photo | Yale-NUS Digital Archives
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.” — George Orwell, 1984
When Yale-NUS College first started recruiting students, it was introduced with the slogan “1 + 1 = 3.” Bringing together the best of both Yale and NUS, Yale-NUS was going to be “far more than the sum of its parts.” For those of us who have been a part of this journey, that is probably not too far from the truth.
So when it was announced last year that Yale-NUS College would “merge” with NUS’s University Scholars Programme (USP), I cautiously held out hope that the new institution could also be better than either Yale-NUS and USP has been alone at providing “broader access to inclusive interdisciplinary liberal arts education at NUS for the longer term.”
As President Tan Eng Chye put it in a Straits Times op-ed, “combining the USP and Yale-NUS would allow us to preserve the distinctive educational approaches that both have been working hard to refine over the years, resulting in a New College which will be greater than the sum of its parts.”
However, I have now realized that my hopes were misplaced. Whereas Yale-NUS College promised to make 1 + 1 = 3, and by and large delivered on that promise, NUS College might more appropriately be represented by the equation 2 + 2 = 5.
From merger to collaboration?
The “2 + 2 = 5” motif was popularized by George Orwell in his novel, 1984: “In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it.”
Of course, in 1984, Orwell was writing about a totalitarian government that engaged in mind control. For the purposes of this article, I am borrowing the motif merely to highlight how the Yale-NUS community as well as the Singapore public at large has been misled to think of it as a merger, when in fact it really is a closure of Yale-NUS—2+2 ≠ 5.
In a recent interview with The Octant, the newly appointed dean of what will be NUS College Professor Simon Chesterman clarified that the term “merger” was “misleading.” Instead, NUS College’s relationship with Yale-NUS and USP will be one of “collaboration, not integration.”
According to Dean Chesterman, he wanted to “push back against the merger language to assure current students that they would not miss out on the student experience they had been promised.”
What I am concerned about instead is whether future students at NUS College will miss out on the student experience that they were promised: the best of USP “combined” with the best of Yale-NUS College.
I have two specific concerns. First, who gets to decide what is the “best” of our respective colleges, and how? In particular, who gets to decide what were the best of Yale-NUS that should be carried over into NUS College? While USP has an official seat at the table with Professor Loy Hui Chieh—a Residential Fellow at Cinnamon College (USP) since 2014—serving as Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) of NUS College, there is no formal Yale-NUS representation in the leadership of NUS College.
Second, the ethos of community that both Yale-NUS and USP have built over the years arguably is one of the defining features, if not the defining feature, of our university experience. Here, I am referring to the student-administration relationship and our colleges’ relative autonomy from NUS, which set both our colleges apart in the larger university landscape.
These concerns are shared by a majority of Yale-NUS and NUS students, based on a poll conducted in December 2021. Most students were deeply unsatisfied with the lack of a collaborative, consultative and open approach in the planning process for NUS College. Only 2% and 5% of Yale-NUS and USP students said that they were satisfied with the planning process.
As the Chinese proverb goes, a tree can grow to a thousand feet because of its roots (树高千尺不忘根). If the planning process for NUS College—in which key stakeholders were not informed and the decision to close Yale-NUS was presented as a “fait accompli”—already betrays the community-centric nature of our colleges, how can the outcome of this process encapsulate the best of what both of our institutions have to offer?
It is no wonder then that our colleges are now mere “partners” and “collaborators.” What was supposed to be a “merger” is really an entirely separate and different project run by the NUS administration rather than a genuine amalgamation of our communities—in fact, as this poll demonstrates, many students felt like they were never a part of the consultative process that led to the merger decision in the first place. The point was never to retain what made both USP and Yale-NUS tick.
How did this happen? How could a “merger” between and “combination” of the best of Yale-NUS and USP become something else entirely? How could two plus two equal five?
How did 2 + 2 = 5?
After the announcement of the closure of both Yale-NUS and USP, the question that many of us grappled with was: why? Was it really the finances? Or something more insidious?
The fact is, we can never know for sure. But what we do know at least is that we—both members of the Yale-NUS and NUS community and the Singapore public—were lied to. What was a “merger” and “combination” is now described as a mere “collaboration.”
The communities that our colleges have built—the student groups, our college traditions and cultures, our ties and memories across cohorts—will be gone too, purportedly to make “room for an entirely new slate of actors.”
To be fair, Dean Chesterman expects that there will be an “overlap in the types of student organizations we will see.” But of course, there will be basketball teams, dance troupes, a debate club, and so on at NUS College. That much is obvious.
The more pertinent question is whether there will—and can—also be a group advocating for NUS to divest from fossil fuels like Fossil Free Yale-NUS? Or groups like the Gender Collective and The G Spot to support women and sexual minorities on campus? What about a political education and advocacy group like CAPE, which was co-founded by both Yale-NUS and USP students?
What I also find interesting is the appointment of Dean Chesterman—who happens to be the son-in-law of former President Tony Tan—as the Dean of NUS College. Lest this be taken the wrong way, I should caveat here that I have nothing but respect and admiration for Dean Chesterman, who served as the Dean of the Faculty of Law when I was a student there. The following paragraphs should not be read to suggest that he is unqualified to serve as Dean of NUS College.
I am reminded here of the perhaps forgotten controversy over his appointment as Dean of the Faculty of Law in 2011. At that time, many had expected that then NUS professor Michael Hor would be appointed Dean. Professor Hor eventually left to serve as Dean of the Faculty of Law at Hong Kong University.
In a 2014 Straits Times interview, Professor Hor was asked whether he did not become Dean at NUS Law because he wasn’t good enough for the institution. According to the report, he responded diplomatically and said “I don’t know.”
However, he noted that there was “certainly a perception that after a certain level, only people with the right kind of politics will make it.” In his view, such a perception, whether right or wrong, was widespread and needed to be corrected. Two plus two should equal four.
More than a decade later, one can only hope that such perceptions will be corrected when NUS College begins operations later this year in August 2022. As Daniel Ng and I suggested in an earlier piece, the NUS College administration can start by affirming its commitment to the principles of academic freedom and free inquiry enshrined in the Yale-NUS Statement on the Freedom of Expression.
Some advice to prospective NUS College students
What does all this mean if you’re an 18-year-old, or the parent of one, reading this article? Should you or your child take up the offer to join NUS College? I think so.
After all, the formal education that you will get at NUS College will probably be somewhat similar to what we currently have at Yale-NUS and USP. I am sure that the faculty joining NUS College—some of whom will be from Yale-NUS and USP—will do their best to ensure that every student receives the best possible experience.
Though NUS College has not committed (and probably won’t) to the principle of free expression like Yale-NUS did, I hope you will embrace the spirit of free inquiry that underpins a liberal arts education. To get the best experience, one as close as possible to a true liberal arts education, be sure to engage actively by arguing and discussing issues—no matter how controversial or politically sensitive—with your professors and fellow students in the classroom.
But if you wanted to go to Yale-NUS and USP because it offers a politically and culturally more open environment for you to learn through active engagement with the community outside of the classroom, then perhaps you will be in for a more difficult time than we had. You probably will not have the same freedom to learn and explore both in and outside the classroom that we once enjoyed.
If you are queer, you might also feel less comfortable than we did at Yale-NUS and USP. Notably, in his response to the Octant reporter’s question on maintaining diversity, there was no mention of this issue.
At the same time, one of the leaders at NUS College is Professor Eleanor Wong who serves as Vice Dean (Residential Programmes & Enrichment). Professor Wong was one of the lead signatories to the Ready4Repeal petition calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality alongside Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong and former NUS Law dean Professor Tan Sook Yee.
Since there may be potential queer allies among the leadership, it remains to be seen whether NUS College will preserve the values of diversity and inclusion that both Yale-NUS and USP embodied after years of advocacy by students at The G Spot and the Gender Collective respectively.
Ultimately, the safe space for minority communities and the “gray space” for student activism that we forged at Yale-NUS (and USP to some degree) did not emerge naturally just because of Yale’s involvement in the project. Instead, it was built over time by our communities through trial and error, sweat, and tears.
If these are things you care about, you—as a prospective NUS College student—can still help to prevent all that we have achieved from simply disappearing when our institutions become defunct. Reach out to and engage with Yale-NUS and USP students, alumni, faculty, and staff who can share their experiences of pushing boundaries, fostering brave spaces and holding the administration to account.
Finally, be wary of misrepresentations, half-truths and corporate spin. Always question the basis for policy decisions, especially those purportedly made on your behalf and for the greater good but without the community’s input. NUS College is as much yours as it is the administration’s and it will be up to you to give life to the principle of #NoMoreTopDown as members of NUS College.
We may not have been able to stop the closure of Yale-NUS and USP, but that does not mean that the fight for collective decision-making, accountability and transparency is over. There is still much for you to do at NUS College. We still have the chance to keep the renewed spirit of student activism—that many Yale-NUS and USP students helped to rekindle—alive in Singapore, try as some might to extinguish it.
In 1984, the character Winston noted, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” Though the freedom to insist on the truth does not always come easy, it is now incumbent upon you to insist that two plus two equals four.
Daryl Yang ’19 is currently pursuing a Master of Laws at Berkeley Law School on a Fulbright scholarship. He graduated in 2019 from the Double Degree Programme in Law and Liberal Arts jointly offered by Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law. As an undergraduate student, he co-founded the Inter-University LGBT Network and the Community for Advocacy & Political Education (CAPE).
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org