Instead of trying to “decolonize” the university, Faris argues that we can and should take it as a conduit for decolonial possibilities
story | Faris Joraimi, he/him, Guest Writer
illustration | Kimberly Wee, she/her
I am from the Class of 2021, and was fortunate to have spent the last four years at Yale-NUS learning a little bit more about the world and myself. Everyone comes to university for different reasons. To me, a university is a precious place precisely because it cultivates the right conditions for people to devote themselves to inquiry for its own sake, for the sheer delight that it brings, and perhaps even what Aristotle called “human flourishing.”
But even as the work of scholarship is inherently enjoyable, we must also ask ourselves what processes shaped the things we study. Especially so in Yale-NUS, where much of its identity is tied to the Common Curriculum, which informs its self-image—and indeed that of Singapore—as a site of mediation between multiple cultural and intellectual traditions.
In my sophomore year, I participated in debates about the Common Curriculum as part of wider conversations about “decolonizing” Yale-NUS. I wrote a piece for The Octant entitled “Yale-NUS in a Malay World: Decolonising our Common Curriculum,” highlighting the need for Yale-NUS to consider its place in Singapore and our immediate region, starting first with the Common Curriculum as an ideological manifesto that conveys what Yale-NUS deems a good and worldly education.
My position remains that there should be a Malay text included, as long as it complements the other readings in the course, makes sense to the Curriculum’s broader objectives, and there is someone to teach it. I still believe that a facet of Singapore’s indigenous intellectual tradition should be taught in the Common Curriculum, as failing to do so potentially implicates Yale-NUS in the coloniality of present-day Singapore’s continued alienation from the Malay World.
It’s a Small World After All
Looking back on that piece now, I want to revisit the topic of ‘decolonizing’ Yale-NUS, and how centering decolonial ethics and politics offers a basis for such reformative work in the context of our college. Beyond the historical phenomenon of European and American colonialism understood in the conventional sense, coloniality—as advanced by thinkers like Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo—denotes sets of unequal relationships that continue to shape interactions between groups of people, cultures, and countries patterned by the legacies of colonialism. In that 2018 article, I briefly touched on two main features of Yale-NUS that risk perpetuating these dynamics.
The first concerns the ideological project of Yale-NUS, as an international space where a United Nations of peoples gathers to ponder the great questions of their time, and through shared experiences supposedly partake in the making of global citizenship.
It’s incumbent upon us, students of Yale-NUS past, present, and future, to continuously question this project in which we willingly participate. A utopic “international” has featured in multiple historical imagined communities, from the global ummah of modernist Islam to the proletarian internationalism of socialist revolutions. Some spaces associated with global cosmopolitanism, like the Tangier International Zone or the concessions of old Shanghai, were built and sustained by colonial racism and militarized violence.
The triumph of the American-led global liberal order at the end of the Cold War further materialized the post-war ideal of nation-states coming together in a spirit of cooperation, and it is arguably after this vision of liberal internationalism that Yale-NUS models itself. But a pageant of nationalities does not spell a more equal world. It does not take long to notice how “diversity” on our campus looks a certain way: We have a diversity of passports, perhaps, but little variety in our elite high-school certificates.
We are, in many ways, a microcosm of independent Singapore’s historical transition to a ‘global city’ that participates in that liberal order. Singapore the global city is a site of multicultural diversity not much less stratified than the colonial emporium it was before, and certainly a far cry from the polyglot port-city societies in Southeast Asia from which Singapore derives its pedigree.
Not only are all of today’s global cities sustained by the exploitation of underpaid migrant labor often indistinct from indentured servitude; this elite globalism is typically oblivious to earlier, vernacular modes of cosmopolitan interaction that had existed in places like the Malay World for centuries. We must consider the historical precedent of the “international” make-up of our community and realize that it is not as exceptional as we think, especially given this region’s historical legacy of multicultural coexistence.
The second feature of Yale-NUS that raises questions is the Common Curriculum’s vision to foster dialogue between the intellectual traditions of the East and the West. One position holds that works are “great” because they transcend cultures and eras, and collectively speak to a common humanity. The very practice of the liberal arts itself is believed to liberate the mind from context.
But can we really decontextualize knowledge from cultural specificity? All canons, as we know, are political, and insisting that they represent some transcultural human ideal obscures the fact that they are the product of unequal discourses and apparatuses of evaluation. Successive classes of Yale-NUS students have grappled time and again with these questions. In my 2018 article, I raised that the Common Curriculum seems to reflect what is diverse and radical from a mainly American perspective.
Modeled after small liberal arts colleges in the United States, Yale-NUS does draw upon the traditions and historical experience of higher education there. The outsize global influence of the U.S.—and its universities, such as Yale—is a key factor behind the viability and success of the Yale-NUS experiment.
This isn’t, however, a discussion about whether an “American” college like Yale-NUS should exist in Singapore. Note that arguments against Yale-NUS’s existence have also been made based on colonial assumptions that a despotic Asian society like Singapore does not deserve liberal education.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Yale-NUS is still a product of, and remains shaped by, a coloniality of power enacted on a global scale. But what can decoloniality look like at all for a university in Singapore today, let alone Yale-NUS?
Towards a Decolonial Politics
There was once a time in Singapore when attending university also implied commitment to the struggle for merdeka [Malay: liberty; independence from colonial rule]. Nanyang University, established in 1956, actively positioned itself against Singapore’s British colonizers. Widely regarded as a true “people’s university,” its founders and students believed in the creation of an independent and socialist Malaya, participating in mass demonstrations against the colonial government and learning Malay, the national language.
The English-educated students of the University of Singapore also formed an important force in the anti-colonial movement, especially members of the University Socialist Club, who expressed solidarity with anti-colonial struggles around the world through their mouthpiece, Fajar (“Dawn”). Many of its members became the leaders of Barisan Sosialis Singapura (Singapore Socialist Front), once the main rival to the People’s Action Party (PAP).
Because the independent nation-state reproduces some, if not many of those systems of control bequeathed by the colonial state, the struggle to build a better democracy also constitutes decolonial praxis. Trained to recognize fascism and imperialism wherever it appeared, the students of Nanyang University and the University of Singapore continued to protest the draconian policies of the PAP until the late 1970s.
While that ecosystem of dissent has been largely dismantled, the recently increasing involvement of university students in civil society offers hope. Student organizations like the Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE) do invaluable work promoting civic participation and political literacy.
But Yale-NUS’s ostensible image as an “American” college with a large international student body and identity makes it hard for it to take a leading role in shaping Singapore’s political debates and cultural politics. This makes it all the more imperative for Singaporean Yale-NUS students to participate in civil society beyond our campus walls. Our international student body provides opportunities to connect with, and potentially contribute to, global struggles against right-wing ultra-nationalism, racism, and neo-liberalism.
As for faculty, an orientation to Singapore and the fraught historical and political context it inhabits may equip them to better understand local students’ frames of thinking, and inform decisions related to academic policy and syllabus design.
Our College has also seen petitions to decolonize curricula through demands that certain racist or misogynistic texts be removed and faculty called to account.
As much as classrooms should be safe spaces for everyone, confronting historical evils and structural injustices sometimes necessitates the courage to encounter terrible words and read hurtful passages in the spirit of critical understanding and attentiveness to their peculiar time and place. Because the study of the humanities is about humanity in its messy and complicated legacies, it often leads us down dark and disturbing roads.
A university must be a place where these difficult conversations can take place. If there are texts in the curriculum we find objectionable, this is exactly the place to learn to articulate our discomfort, to tease out what it is exactly we disagree with and why, to have those long discussions continue even outside the classroom after the seminar ends. One of my teachers at Yale-NUS once said that the university should strive to be the very opposite of social media: a place of careful reasoning that makes room for doubt and shades of grey, in contrast to a discursive economy of clap-backs and hot-takes.
The call to “decolonize the university” is a fraught one. Decolonization presupposes a finite goal since the rubrics of its success are hard to determine. Instead of centering outcomes, we should think about decoloniality as an ongoing process. Allowing a decolonial politics to inform our work as students and scholars gives more room to acknowledge the fractious power relations that define spaces like the university while also enabling us to develop the language and capacity to subvert them in generative and useful ways.
Just as how we can read colonial texts in decolonial ways, we can reclaim the university as a space to reimagine more just futures. Rather than thinking of it as an object to be decolonized, we can and should take the university as a vehicle for decolonial possibilities.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org