Sunday, March 26, 2023

Op-Ed: How (Not) to Decolonize Faculty at Yale-NUS College

Story | Alcan Sng, contributing writer

Michael Sagna ‘23’s “On Yale and Yale-NUS: Why Yale won’t Save Us” was an interesting piece on the relationship between Yale University and our college. However, in the final part of his speculations, he asks a loaded question:

“I also speculate that our faculty would stop being so overwhelmingly American—it is quite clear that the current system privileges professors from American institutions. I contend that it’s time we had decolonized our faculty selection process anyway. After all, what business do white American professors have teaching Chinese studies in Singapore? [emphasis added]”

While Sagna makes the laudable contention that we should decolonize our faculty and faculty selection process, his rhetorical question implies that white American professors should not be teaching subjects outside of their cultural and ethnic sphere, such as Chinese studies. I argue that this is a problematic attitude.

I contend that such an attitude cannot be the ground for discrimination against such faculty, for such willful discrimination against qualified white American professors is counterproductive to learning and education.

For example, at a recent Chinese Philosophy roundtable, I witnessed an experienced white Chinese Philosophy professor being talked down to by a Singaporean Chinese graduate student. Instead of responding to the objection the white Chinese Philosophy professor gave, the student dismissed it by claiming that “this white man knows nothing because he is not Chinese.”

Clearly, this sort of response is unwarranted and rude. Importantly, attendees of the roundtable did not learn anything (except that the student was rude) from such disparaging remarks. Similarly, to say that white American professors have no business teaching Chinese studies in Singapore is unwarranted and rude. Such attitudes exclude students from having a productive discussion on the professor’s particular reading of a subject or text.

Problematically, the attitude that Sagna asserts implies that the study of Chinese Philosophy, or any other form of cultural knowledge, should be limited to those that bear its color, culture, ethnicity, or some implicit, but nebulous, identity marker. As I have shown, this attitude of willful discrimination is counterproductive to learning.

To be clear, I agree with Sagna that we need to decolonize our faculty and faculty selection process. However, it cannot come with the attitude of willful discrimination against faculty who are clearly qualified to be teaching outside of their cultural and ethnic spheres.

Instead, a just manner of decolonization should involve scrutiny of hiring and tenure data. Then, we should ask the proper question: “did the hiring of a white American professor displace a non-white, non-American professor who is more qualified for the role?”

Further, in teaching these subjects and texts surrounding specific cultures and ethnicities, are the faculty respectful of the lived experiences of students, staff, and other faculty that are embedded in them?

In asking these questions, we should also scrutinize whether certain subjects and texts have been canonized over time to systematically select for certain professors that have been privileged in their learning of such canonical texts. After all, their familiarity and inclinations to such canonical texts might otherwise form barriers to decolonizing our curriculum.

To be fair, there has been some progress in decolonizing our curriculum. Beginning with the Class of 2023, the Common Curriculum module Literature and Humanities 1 now includes the 17th century Malay Annals (Sejerah Melayu), and the epic of Sundiata (Sundiata Keita). Still, more can be done, and for good reason.

Lastly, in having conversations about decolonizing our faculty and faculty selection process, let us also remember to include non-academic faculty and the staff of Yale-NUS.

It is only then that we can say that we have begun to justly decolonize faculty (and staff) at Yale-NUS College.

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


  1. clearly someone is highly ignorant and has never lived outside sg to experience different perspectives, having lived in a privileged bubble his whole life.

    no one is saying “THE STUDY of Chinese Philosophy, or any other form of cultural knowledge, should BE LIMITED TO those that bear its color, culture, ethnicity.” how you came to that conclusion idk. people should be free to learn about different schools of thought. generally it is encouraged. I would love for people to learn more.

    what it implies instead is the fact that these foreigners who already benefit from the global power dynamic are now acting like an AUTHORITY over a culture that is not theirs. and that can feel very insulting, as well as arrogant and ignorant on their part. how weird is it to have your own traditions be taught to you by an outsider…esp one who has a bolstered status from a centuries-long system. they already have so much power and control, now they want the same over your identity, almost as if they are dictating how you should see yourself.

    this thought does not arrive from a vacuum. there is a whole history of the ‘white saviour’ narrative that you may not be aware about. so this is a real concern people can have regarding westerners coming in on our soil and telling us deep insights about our culture that are meant to ‘enlighten’ us so that we will finally be as educated and civilized as they are.

    I’ve spent enough time outside to realize that no matter how much they learn about the heritage, the language, the memes…they will never fully grasp the nuances and feelings associated. the inner consistency that is just intuitive. it’s shown in the little things. there is something about being raised in a culture that will always shine through.

    so it makes people feel uncomfortable for a reason. you yourself may not, but others may be and perhaps you should not dismiss their feelings on the matter. and it has nothing to do with being close-minded and judgy. calling it ‘discrimination’ is laughable and your own privilege in this country is obvious. thinking that anyone ‘qualified’ for this role regardless of cultural background when this sort of thing is all about culture doesn’t make you open-minded and humble. it is not unwarranted, you just don’t understand due to your limited experience.

    the way I see it, is that you can still attend these sorts of classes, but with a grain of salt. as in, you have to be constantly aware that it is merely an outsider’s view of another culture and philosophy. no matter how unbiased and open it may appear, everyone comes from a different background and perspective. so you may just be an observer observing another outside observer’s take on it. realize how many lenses are being stacked, and how warped they are.

    thanx for reading

  2. Hi Jae,

    Thank you for the comment. I think you might have misunderstood the intention of the op-ed. My larger intention was to urge caution in decolonising faculty but it seems like that was lost on you.

    Nevertheless, I address your points one at a time:

    1) I’m not sure what you count as a privileged bubble. If it is living outside of Singapore, I certainly have not had the privilege like you to have lived abroad for an extended period of time to understand the myriad perspectives that you hold, except on occasion where financial aid or sponsorships have been available. We could go on comparing privilege and non-privilege, but that clearly is not going to a very nice conversation.

    2) I interpreted the initial author’s comments as such. Nevertheless, I think we are both in agreement that we would love for people to learn more. That was the crux of my op-ed. I address your point about power asymmetry, forms of cultural knowledge, and historical injustice below:

    3) Indeed, lauding one’s authority over a student’s lived experience is problematic for the reasons you have mentioned. That is precisely why I insisted on “respect toward a student’s lived experience” embedded in these texts as a question to be asked. In the interest of space, I did not also include that respect toward subaltern forms of knowledge also be another criterion. If indeed the faculty attempts to force a student into a mould of identity that their positions of power have dedicated, then of course, corrective action needs to be taken. But if they are respectful of a student’s embeddedness, as many Yale-NUS faculty have tried to be, then I see no merit in your point.

    4) Perfectly aware of white saviour complex — especially when one is personally subjugated by it. I too, am worried about other people lauding a certain institutionalised form of cultural knowledge over lived experience. I won’t belabour the point, but this is exactly what the criterion for respect toward a student’s lived experience” and other subaltern forms of knowledge, is for.

    My normative judgement is that pushing them out of academia when they could be our allies and can fight for greater recognition on our behalf is misguided. Surely you too want it that we may one day properly represent ourselves with our own voice and identities. Firing them or dismissing them in the interim would be an incredibly hasty and misguided decision.

    I hope you have also paid heed to read the other normative aspiration — whether the hiring of a white American professor displace a non-white, non-American professor who is more qualified for the role — that tries to correct for historical injustice. Perhaps I was not clear enough so I’ll modify it further: did a white American professor displace a non-white, non-American professor who is more qualified in a certain mode of knowledge for the role?

    5) My point was not about qualifications alone overriding cultural sensitivity. Read closer.

    6) “there is something about being raised in a culture that will always shine through.” That’s exactly right!

    7) I’m not sure how you came to the conclusion that I was dismissing their feelings. Instead, I was urging caution. In your own words: “how you came to that conclusion idk”. Perhaps you should also not dismiss other people’s feelings when you write such comments.

    8) Rude and unwarranted is not the same as “close-minded and judgy”, whatever that means. If anything, I’m trying to encourage respect toward each other’s cultures and recognising it for what it is. That is, not whitewashing cultures into oblivion (“oh look I don’t see race/culture/identity marker”), but also not trying to reverse oppression onto the oppressor (“my knowledge is more valid than yours because we were historically subjugated”). It’s a fine line to thread — one that I hope your myriad cultural experiences abroad have prepared you for.

    9) “you have to be constantly aware that it is merely an outsider’s view of another culture and philosophy” And it is exactly that proviso that most faculty, regardless of background, culture (or identity marker) should be cognisant of. So far, from my “privileged bubble”, I have been content with the respect accorded to us by most faculty here, and I think we can also extend that respect to them.

    I welcome your reasoned response.


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