Story | Daniel Ng (he/him), Daryl Yang (he/him), Guest Writers
Photo | Tan Shan Min (she/her), Managing Design Editor
When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong inaugurated the Yale-NUS College campus in 2015, he noted that the college “cannot be a carbon copy of Yale in the United States” and instead has to “experiment and adapt the Yale model to Asia.”
Since news of the merger between Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme (USP) broke, a litany of opinions on the purported failure of this liberal arts experiment in Singapore has appeared across the Internet across the political spectrum.
According to Mitchell Palmer ‘24, “the experience of this great experiment is likely to teach the lesson that true liberal arts education cannot survive in Asia.” To Brandon Cai, the merger marks the “death of Singapore’s liberal arts experiment.” Calvin Cheng celebrated the news because “American liberal values are incompatible with Singapore” while Li Shengwu observed that “Yale-NUS has collapsed under its contradictions.”
As members of the Yale-NUS and USP community search for answers as to the reasons behind this sudden merger of the two institutions, some may have made up their minds that it points to the failure and impossibility for a liberal arts college to exist or thrive in a non-liberal society like Singapore. We argue that these views are misled and that there is little to suggest that the Yale-NUS experiment has failed or that a liberal arts education is unworkable in the Singapore context. In this article, we address the first point on the success of the Yale-NUS experiment. We will address the second point on the liberal arts in Singapore in a subsequent piece.
Reviewing the results of the Yale-NUS experiment
It is largely unclear what some pundits mean when they claim that the Yale-NUS experiment has “failed.” If anything, the announcement of the merger suggests plans to expand rather than eliminate liberal arts in Singapore. The termination of the partnership with Yale is also not unexpected, since it was contemplated in the original agreement between Yale and NUS that either party can do so in 2025. Many members of the Yale-NUS community are understandably upset and frustrated about the impending merger. However, it would be a mistake to fall for this mischaracterization that this 10-year-old pedagogical experiment has failed.
In 2008, the Ministry of Education’s Committee on the Expansion of the University Sector released its report titled “Greater Choice, More Room to Excel.” Among other recommendations, the report called for the establishment of a liberal arts college which would offer a “broad-based, multidisciplinary undergraduate programme… [that] seeks to develop a passion for inquiry and knowledge, and to develop well-rounded individuals.” Notably, the report acknowledges that a liberal arts college is not merely an interdisciplinary education which at that time had already been offered by USP for about 8 years. Instead, what distinguishes the liberal arts pedagogy from other modes of education is the requirement for students to undergo a common curriculum that spans the arts, humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences before they go on to develop expertise in their chosen major in their third and fourth years of study. Hence, unlike traditional degree programs offered by NUS that train students in particular disciplines, the focus of a liberal arts education is not merely what is studied but also the ability to “think critically and independently and to write, reason, and communicate clearly.”
According to the MOE report, offering a liberal arts education would allow Singapore to “develop well-rounded leaders who are versatile enough to be successful at the highest levels across many different domains in a rapidly changing world.” This is because of the “ability of [liberal arts colleges] to inculcate a love of learning in their students, spurring them on to pursue their areas of interest after graduation,” which leads graduates to “make their mark in society across diverse fields” and pursue postgraduate studies.
By these metrics, there is no doubt that Yale-NUS graduates have done exceptionally well, testifying to the quality of their alma mater despite it being less than 8 years old. Employment rates and salaries for Yale-NUS graduates have matched or even surpassed graduates from other universities, with many joining top multinational companies and organizations. In terms of graduate fellowships, we have produced two Fulbright scholars, two Yenching scholars, two Schwarzman scholars, a Rhodes scholar and two Ertegun scholars. Numerous alumni have also gone on to found start-ups such as Ease Healthcare, Urban Tiller, JustShip, Zac’s Signature and VERE360.
In the arts, Abdul Hamid’s ‘17 parsetreeforestfire was nominated for the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize while Roshan Singh’s ‘18 final-year capstone project, Temujin, an audio drama about the early life of Genghis Khan has won multiple awards at the Asian Podcast Awards and Audio Verse Awards. Like Roshan’s work, Chelsea Cheo’s ‘17 capstone play, Wedding Pig, was staged at the Asian Youth Theatre Festival and recently commissioned and adapted into a digital series for Viddsee. The numerous and varied successes of Yale-NUS graduates are testaments to the impact that their Yale-NUS education had on them.
Guided by a sense of service, Yale-NUS students have also applied their education to create a positive impact in society. For example, many students and graduates have been at the forefront of the local climate movement, founding such initiatives as the Singapore Climate Rally, the Sustainable Solutions Network and GreenCheck. Supported by a Yale-NUS grant, several Yale-NUS students founded I’mpart to help at-risk and underserved youths reintegrate into society. Last year, David Chia ‘17 was part of a team which developed Call Home, an award-winning tech solution to help migrant workers stay connected with their loved ones during the lockdown.
Lest the foregoing paragraphs be misunderstood as self-aggrandizement or hubristic exceptionalism, the point is not to say that Yale-NUS is so special or unique that its closure spells the end of academic excellence and freedom in Singapore. It is unfortunate that in articulating their grief over the loss of Yale-NUS, some alumni and students were misunderstood to have expressed such views. Instead, it is to counter the inaccurate conclusions that have been drawn that the Yale-NUS project has failed. If anything, it was precisely the success that Yale-NUS has achieved that appears to have motivated the merger to offer liberal arts to more students in Singapore.
This desire to expand liberal arts education to more students is clearly a laudable goal. However, it would be unfortunate if the NUS administration believes that it will be able to replicate Yale-NUS’s success with the heavy-handed approach it has taken in making the decision to merge Yale-NUS and USP. If there is one central ingredient to Yale-NUS’s success, it was the college’s emphasis on its existence as a “community of learning.” This meant that students, staff, faculty and administration recognized that we were all equal partners in the Yale-NUS project. College administrators and staff regarded students not as consumers or clients, but as colleagues and collaborators who actively engaged each other.
What now for the New College?
The inception of New College has already been marked by controversy with the NUS administration’s troubling failure to engage with or consult anyone from Yale-NUS or USP until the merger decision had already been finalized; at the time of writing, a petition campaign #NoMoreTopDown calling for the reversal of the mergers has attracted over 10,000 signatories. This careless top-down approach towards the establishment of the New College has been most unfortunate and has raised difficult questions about higher education, bureaucracy, and academic freedom in Singapore.
Given the short runway that the New College has to welcome its first batch of students in August 2022, it is all the more critical that Yale-NUS and USP play a central role in setting up its curriculum, policies, and culture. There are many differences between Yale-NUS and USP, and distilling our experiences to identify the key features to be transplanted to the New College is going to involve much deliberation and debate.
If the New College is to succeed, this spirit of community and partnership must persist as we work towards planning and establishing Yale-NUS and USP’s successor. NUS administrators must recognize the Yale-NUS and USP administration, faculty, students, and alumni as equal partners in the New College experiment. We must be involved at every stage and in every decision to ensure that the New College is the amalgamation of the best of both Yale-NUS and USP. Anything less and we worry that the New College will not only fail to replicate the successes that our respective colleges have achieved, but also mark the real death of liberal arts in Singapore.
This is a crucial process, one which has also been central to the ethos of our respective institutions. NUS administrators must not think themselves capable of replacing this egalitarian process with the technocratic methods that they may find more comfortable or convenient; to do so would be a hubristic recipe for failure.
In making sense of the merger, it may be easy to simply dismiss the Yale-NUS project as a failure. Make no mistake: the liberal arts experiment has not failed. We are now at the next stage of this experiment, which began almost three decades ago with the 1999 NUS Talent Development Programme (TDP) and the 1999 Core Curriculum Programme. These programs led to the establishment of USP, which furthered Singapore’s interest in the liberal arts, and culminated in the partnership with Yale to set up Yale-NUS. The merger may sting for many who struggle with a sense of betrayal and loss. However, not all is lost—yet. Neither Yale-NUS nor USP failed, but the New College very well might. Now is our chance to ensure that it won’t.
Daniel Ng 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. He furthered his studies at Tsinghua University as a Schwarzman Scholar, and is now a practicing lawyer.
Daryl Yang 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. He is currently pursuing a Master of Laws at Berkeley Law School as a Fulbright scholar.