Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Yale-NUS Story is a Singaporean Story

Ryan Ma
Ryan ‘25 is majoring in law and liberal arts under a double degree programme. In his free time, he can be found doing literary analysis on his favourite TV shows, or dabbling in creative writing projects. Find him on LinkedIn here

Story | Ryan Ma (he/him), Guest Writer
Photo | Tan Shan Min (she/her), Managing Design Editor

A young country, located at the crossroads of East and West, had to build its own community and forge ties with the world amid widespread skepticism about its chances of survival. Every Singaporean knows this story dearly, as it is the story of Singapore as an independent nation. 

In the 21st century, this familiar story is being retold again, this time in the incarnation of a young college—Yale-NUS—founded by two great universities, in Asia for the world. Indeed, the story of Yale-NUS is a quintessentially Singaporean story, and its development thus far has embodied many qualities that Singaporeans cherish. To borrow the words of a famous National Day song, “There was a time when people said that Yale-NUS won’t make it, but we did.”

Contrary to popular belief, the early classes of Yale-NUS students were not handed a fully functioning college on a silver platter. In fact, they did not even have their own campus. When the college enrolled its first class in 2013, those students had to live, study, and build the college’s fledgling community in the building now known as RC4, until the Yale-NUS campus was finally completed and inaugurated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2015. 

In addition, the Yale-NUS community has had to constantly justify its existence on two fronts. On one hand, it faced a faction of Yale faculty members that repeatedly lambasted the partnership with a country supposedly authoritarian and hostile towards academic exploration. On the other hand, it grappled with Singaporean society that till today scorns the involvement of a foreign university in local higher education and confounds the word “liberal” in liberal arts with popular conceptions of Western political liberalism. 

Challenges such as these are no doubt faced by any new institution trying to establish itself in the world. As such, Yale-NUS’s continued success in the face of these obstacles should not be taken for granted. One might recall that the college was conceived amid Singapore’s push to become a global education hub, which saw a wave of joint higher education partnerships with top foreign universities. However, most of those partnerships met quick and acrimonious ends. Among these were the ill-fated New York University Tisch School of the Arts Asia and the University of New South Wales Asia. Just as Mr. Lee Kuan Yew once remarked that “island nations are a political joke,” it seemed like joint university ventures were a joke in the higher education scene. Today, no one would consider Singapore’s independence a joke. For the same reason, no one should consider the prospect of Yale-NUS’s continued existence a joke either.

I will not belabor the reader with a lengthy account of Yale-NUS’s successes and achievements, because better writers than me have discussed them in detail. It suffices to say that Yale-NUS has pioneered a unique and acclaimed Common Curriculum from scratch, that Yale-NUS graduates have been consistently attractive to employers even during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that Yale-NUS has forged a unified and coherent identity despite having a student body hailing from dozens of countries around the world. 

It is not the magnitude of Yale-NUS’s success that invites amazement; after all, the inaugural class only graduated in 2017 and is unlikely to start winning Nobel Prizes any time soon. Rather, it is the fact that Yale-NUS has achieved this success within such a short timespan while remaining relatively independent of both of its parent universities. In other words, Singapore has witnessed its “third-world-to-first” journey embodied in the growth of a scrappy liberal arts college.

There is no reason why Yale-NUS’s success cannot be replicated in NUS without Yale’s prestigious halo. In fact, if NUS were to devote its resources to starting its own liberal arts college, I believe that it would succeed. 

However, I submit that NUS is misguided in believing that it could dissolve Yale-NUS into an undefined entity while still preserving the best of Yale-NUS’s features. The New College may attract excellent students and it may maintain substantial parts of Yale-NUS’s curriculum and structures. However, the community and culture that enabled those accomplishments would be broken. The New College’s community might inherit Yale-NUS’s tangible accomplishments and they might build something excellent based on these accomplishments, just as settlers have built excellent things based on the legacies of indigenous peoples. But the intangible culture, norms, and practices that Yale-NUS has cultivated over the past decade would be lost to them. 

It is for this same reason that we as Singaporeans insist on defending our national sovereignty—because there are intangible aspects of our culture, aspirations, and way of life which go beyond the corpus of texts and built objects, and which would be lost if our nation is dissolved into another entity. We maintain our gates not to exclude others but to demarcate our perspectives from those of others. It is these differences in perspective that make intellectual discourse at NUS so much richer.

To conclude, I have attempted to push back against a common criticism leveled at Yale-NUS: that it is a vanity project under the auspices of a foreign university, and that it imports values and norms that are alien to what is considered “Singaporean” or “Asian.” One prominent local scholar even compared the partnership to a “civilizing mission” like that conducted by former colonial powers. I disagree with this view. At its core, the spirit of Yale-NUS is characterized by resilience, resourcefulness, multiculturalism, and unity in the face of adversity. These are also the key elements of our national identity as Singaporeans. Yale-NUS values are Singaporean values. Yale-NUS is unique in the same way that Singapore is, has been, and could be, unique.

With that, I am once again asking you for support to save our school from closure: https://www.change.org/NOMORETOPDOWN.

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