Sunday, September 26, 2021

From Curd to Butter to Ghee: On Post-Merger Possibilities

Story | Daryl Yang (he/him/his), Guest Writer 
Photo | Kimberly Wee (she/her/hers)

In my first year at Yale-NUS College, I had the privilege to take Philosophy & Political Thought (PPT) 1 with Professor Jay Garfield. One of the readings we read was the Milinda Pañha, which records the dialogue between Nāgasena and King Milinda on profound topics in Buddhist thought. 

As I reflected on the shocking news that Yale-NUS would soon be no more, I was reminded of part of the dialogue (slightly edited for readability). King Milinda had asked Nāgasena, “He who is born, Nāgasena, does he remain the same or become another?” 

In response, Nāgasena asked the king, “Suppose a man were to light a lamp, would it burn the night through?” To this, the king agreed that it would. 

“Is it the same flame that burns in the first watch of the night, and in the second? Or the same that burns in the second watch and in the third?” To this, the king responded: “No.” 

“Is there one lamp in the first watch, and another in the second, and another in the third?” Again, the king responded: “No.” 

“Just so is the continuity of a person or thing maintained. One comes into being, another passes away; and the rebirth is, as it were, simultaneous. Thus neither as the same nor as another does a man go on to the last phase of his self-consciousness.” 

The king asked for another example, to which Nāgasena responded: “It is like milk, which when once taken from the cow, turns, after a lapse of time, first to curds, and then from curds to butter, and then from butter to ghee.” 

Perhaps, like how milk turns from curd to butter and from butter to ghee, so did the University Scholars Programme (USP) inspire the Singapore government and NUS administration to take a gamble on the liberal arts experiment that is Yale-NUS. Now, the experiment has come full circle as USP and Yale-NUS amalgamate to form the New College. 

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That there would – could? – be some continuity from Yale-NUS and USP to the New College comforted me. While this is the end of Yale-NUS as we know it, it is not really the end. After all, this is technically supposed to be a merger and if anyone knows how to bring together the best of two disparate, even conflicting, entities, it is us. That’s what we have been working on at Yale-NUS since our inception: the project of transplanting liberal education from the “liberal” West to the Singapore context. 

I think it is neither helpful nor accurate to view this merger as the death knell of Yale-NUS, or, for that matter, USP. Rather, it is an opportunity for both of our colleges to come together and demonstrate our ingenuity, innovation, and idealism in co-creating the New College in our collective image. While the merger decision was entirely out of our hands, the establishment of the New College might not be. This would of course not come freely; students, staff, faculty, and alumni will have to exercise our civic muscles to demand that the NUS administration recognize that our involvement is necessary, even essential, if the New College is to succeed. 

At this time, we must work together. It is not about whether the New College will be remade in either USP’s or Yale-NUS’s image. We are in fact not as different as some among us might like to think. I say this as a former Yale-NUS student who spent much of his time at USP during my years in college because of my deep personal and professional connections to USP. Both Yale-NUS and USP students—past and present—dream of and work towards a better world. This is not the time for petty rivalries or tribalistic exceptionalism. It is the time for collective action. We are not each other’s enemies; we are respectively the stone and sling of David. The merger was Goliath’s first move, what will ours be? 

I don’t think it is productive to fantasize about returning to the world before August 27, 2021. The deed is done: the institutions have morphed from milk to curd to ghee. These changes were inevitable and I believe everyone knew that this merger would happen someday. We simply didn’t expect it to occur so soon. What we can do now is decide how the ghee will turn out. We can put our hands up in defeat and let the powers that be decide, or we can demand our rightful seats at the table.  

Minimally, I believe there are three essential features of Yale-NUS and USP that the New College must retain. Otherwise, it would not be an evolution of  milk to curd to ghee; it would just be milk and something entirely different, perhaps vinegar. The continuity across our institutions must be the central guiding principle in the conceptualization and establishment of the New College. 

Firstly, the success of Yale-NUS as a community of learning and USP as a transformative learning environment rests on the academic freedom we currently enjoy. The success of the community rested on the freedom to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations, experiment with new and unorthodox solutions, and immerse ourselves in the world beyond the classroom. The New College must guarantee that its students and faculty will continue to enjoy this freedom to inquire, investigate and innovate. Without this freedom, any promise of critical thinking or engaged learning at the New College would ring hollow. 

Second, one of the key contributions of Yale-NUS and USP to both NUS and larger Singapore is the revitalization of active student engagement with the social problems confronting our college communities and beyond. USP was the first university program in Singapore to publish a set of guidelines on sexual respect in the college in consultation with its gender equality student interest group, Gender Collective. 

A few years later, Yale-NUS introduced gender-neutral housing on the NUS campus for the first time after the inaugural batch of students, led by the College’s gender and sexuality alliance, The G Spot, campaigned to ensure that their trans and non-binary classmates could feel at home in our community. Together, The G Spot and Gender Collective were two of the five founding member groups of the Inter-University LGBT Network, which has since supported students in other institutions of higher learning to set up their own support networks. 

I have focused on LGBTQ+ inclusion because I am most familiar with the progress we have achieved over the years, but there is also the Singapore Climate Rally, the Fossil Free campaign, the Community for Advocacy & Political Education, and the student organizing that took place in response to the 2016 sexualized orientation games controversy and the 2019 Monica Baey saga

The New College must ensure that existing student groups at both Yale-NUS and USP will be able to continue to operate, particularly those that the NUS administration and the Singapore state might find troublesome or thorny. These student groups are an essential feature of our colleges and their absence will severely limit the nature and quality of education that students in the New College will receive.  

Finally, the New College must enshrine our colleges’ policies on diversity and anti-discrimination, mental health, sexual misconduct, and survivor support. These policies are an outcome of the years of advocacy, engagement, consultation, and experimentation by students, staff, and faculty at both Yale-NUS and USP. Students of all identities, backgrounds, and beliefs must be able to feel safe and supported at the New College to pursue their interests and achieve their potential. In addition, the New College must commit to working closely with its students, just as students at Yale-NUS and USP did with their respective administrations, in improving these policies and implementing new policies. Students and faculty must be viewed as partners in the college-building process, not passive consumers or employees. 

If these three essential features are guaranteed, I believe that the New College will have the chance to be our institutions’ joint reincarnation. Holding on to this hope, I feel excited by the opportunity for our college communities to be a part of the next chapter of Singapore’s story of higher education. All is not lost; it all depends on what we do next in the coming weeks, months, and years. The New College can still be our ghee, both Yale-NUS and USP’s.

Daryl Yang ’19 graduated in 2019 from the Double Degree Program in Law jointly offered by Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law. He is currently a Fulbright scholar pursuing his LLM at Berkeley Law School. While at Yale-NUS, Daryl served as President of The G Spot and co-founded the Inter-University LGBT Network and the Community for Advocacy & Political Education (CAPE). 

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The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com

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