story | Yip Jia Qi, Staff Editor
photo | Aditya Karkera
In our daily grind towards graduation and (hopefully) employment, interrupted only by pockets of Facebook bickering, it is easy to lose sight of what is important to the Yale-NUS College community. This article is an attempt to take a step back and catalog some of the discourse that has happened and continues to happen on our campus. I hope that this compilation will serve as a reminder that Yale-NUS has always been a community that is willing to speak up for our many beliefs and have difficult and necessary conversations with each other.
Feb/March Angry Town Halls (2015–Present)
Back when I was a prefrosh and Yale-NUS was still at RC4, someone told me that “if something happens at Yale-NUS two years in a row, then it is a tradition”. By this standard, the annual angry town hall has to be one of those traditions. In 2015, there was a town hall1 to discuss whether some students should have written an apology letter on behalf of Yale-NUS to the College of Alice and Peter Tan for triggering a fire alarm.
In 2016, there was no big town hall but there was a very heated discussion about controversial comments made by a member of our Governing Board. In 2017, following the death of a member of our community, we had a massive townhall2 where the school came together to talk about mental health. In 2018, following a sit-in protest3, we had another massive town hall where, among other things, sexual assault, freedom of speech in our public spaces, and the lack of student consultation and representation in our curriculum were discussed.
Ambassador Chan (2016–2016)
On Jan. 27, 2016, Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, a member of the Yale-NUS Governing Board, spoke in defense of Section 377A, a Singapore law that criminalizes sodomy, at the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review of Singapore’s human rights. An opinion article4 published in The Octant called for Ambassador Chan to have a conversation with the student body and relinquish her position on the board if she was not willing to “defend the rights of LGBTQI+ students” and take a stand against “official discriminatory government policies”.
Subsequently, The Octant conducted a poll5 of the student population and found that the majority of students did not share this stance. On the question “Do you think Ambassador Chan Heng Chee should resign?” 85% of the 117 respondents answered “no.” Still, 62% of those surveyed indicated that Ambassador Chan should engage in a dialogue with the student body.
Controversial posters (2014–Present)
In 2014, The G Spot (Yale-NUS Gender and Sexuality Alliance) hung posters around campus that aimed to prompt viewers to think critically about their conceptions of gender and sexuality. A series of posters which parodied those of the G Spot6 were put up next to them. In response, “A Statement On Creating A Safe And Inclusive Environment That Promotes Civil And Open Discourse”,7 co-signed by 12 students, spoke out against the parody posters. The person who put up the parody posters responded with an article about “Why “Safe”, “Inclusive”, And “Community” Should Not Be Seen In The Same Sentence”.8
In 2016, posters of Mother Teresa were put up in the lifts around campus to commemorate her canonization. Another student put up posters of Nicki Minaj next to the posters of Mother Teresa. This sparked controversy in the community, which prompted a response discussing safe spaces on campus.9
In 2017, white bed sheets with spray-painted messages were draped at the back of selected lifts.10 Accompanying labels announced “This is an Art Installation” and provided the names of the creator of each piece, the title of the work, and the materials used. Later that day, the sheets were removed, and the artists published a post in the Yale-NUS College Students Facebook group requesting the work to be returned for its supposed sale.
Making Yale-NUS a Safe Space (2014–2015)
The topic of safe spaces is too broad and complex for me to try and summarize. The parody of the posters about transgender people seems to have sparked this debate, which has continued through to 2016 but has since stopped. Instead, I have compiled a reading list of many of the articles that have been written on this topic by members of our community.
- Statement on Creating a Safe and Inclusive Environment that Promotes Civil and Open Discourse (October 13, 2014)
- Why Safe Inclusive and Community Should Not Be Seen in the Same-Sentence (November 3 2014)
- Safe Haven Not Your Call (November 10, 2014)
- Est-ce Quon est Charlie Hebdo (January 19, 2015)
- The Slow Death of the Academy (March 10, 2015)
- To the Infants of Yale-NUS (August 26, 2015)
- A Defense and Delineation of Safe Spaces (September 1, 2015)
- Trigger Warning: Safe Spaces (September 14, 2016)
Halcyon Days (2017–2018)
In 2017, an article titled, “Yale-NUS’ Halcyon Days Are Over”11 became the most read article in the history of The Octant. The article highlighted the many problems with the school’s policies and the strained relationship between the student body and school administration, and it could be credited with fueling the anger and enthusiasm for the 2017 town hall. The article prompted a response from then President Pericles Lewis titled “Halcyon Days Ahead”.12 Finally, in the 2018 graduation issue of The Octant, a more optimistic but cautionary article was written by a member of the graduating class, titled, “Our Halcyon Days Are Truly Over, Now Let Us Cultivate Our Gardens”.13
Academic Freedom on Campus (2014–Present)
Before the college was even opened, there were objections from Yale faculty and other observers14 about the ability of Yale-NUS to uphold the academic freedom that is integral to a liberal arts education. In 2014, there was controversy over the student newspaper, then called PANOPT (which could unfortunately also be interpreted as short for “panopticon”), having a monopoly as the only student publication on campus,15 and an article, “In Defence of Free Speech”,16 was also written addressing its independence from the institution. Subsequently, the discussion over freedom of speech and academic freedom was directed outwards.
In 2014, the NUS Office of Housing Services (Yale-NUS was still housed in RC4 at the time) told a Yale-NUS student to remove a poster reading “In Solidarity with Hong Kong students”17 from the elevator. In 2015, an article in The Octant pointed out that a lack of a clear value system18 makes it very difficult for us to define what we stand for with respect to freedom of speech, and another article was published where then-President Pericles Lewis reiterated our commitment to academic freedom.19
In 2017, organizers of a student event, “Occupy: The Politics of Youth and Space”, were told by a security officer to take down their installation for the event in the Elm gateway. An article was written questioning how such politically controversial events seemed to always be met with a policy of containment,20 followed by an article about the difficulties faced by students when organising these events.21 Finally, the concept of “the Yale-NUS Grey space”22 was brought up in a feature article about the response of the community to what happened with the Occupy event.
In response to the events in 2017, the administration set up the public spaces task force23 in 2018 to make recommendations for changes to the school’s policies. An article titled “The Promise Of Academic Freedom At Yale-NUS”24 was published in light of the task force. It summarized many of the issues and promises that had been made, and interrogated the concept of “grey space”. The recommendations of the task force were published later in the year,25 but many questions still remain.
The Ending Yale-NUS Confessions (2013–2014)
Confession pages were an internet fad back in 2012. Pages would be created on social media where members of an institution could post anonymous “confessions” to and about each other. Yale-NUS had a confessions page, which eventually devolved into a toxic cesspool.26 This led to an open letter signed by 99 people27 (a significant portion of the school back then) to shut the page down. Today, Yale-NUS confessions is no more.
Negotiating Our Place in the World (2014–Present)
Yale-NUS is a diverse community, and as a new institution, has been grappling with issues of elitism, privilege, and identity since the beginning. Many have worried whether the college has been responsible in the position we occupy in society and how we should engage with the world around us.
- Check Your Privilege (November 3, 2014)
- In (What?) Asia, For The World. (November 17, 2015)
- Octalks: Is Yale-NUS Elitist? (October 27, 2016)
- Revisiting The Yale-NUS Bubble (February 10, 2017)
- Where’s The NUS In Yale-NUS? (October 14, 2018)
- Stepping Out Of The Steel Gates And Ivory Towers: A Guide (Part 1) (November 4, 2018)
- Yale-NUS in a Malay World: A Case for Decolonizing our Common Curriculum (January 29, 2019)
Arguing with the Press
2015 was not a good year for Yale-NUS in the press, and it was observed that we may be too fixated on the bad news.28 In 2017, a Quartz article29 commented that “Yale-NUS has also been accused of delivering poor academic quality to students; one of the main criticisms is that its course curriculum is superficial and fails to deliver on the promise of meaningful, intimate seminars.” A Yale-NUS student responded with an article titled “Quartz’s Misleading Article On Yale-NUS Reflects Journalism’s Sad State Of Affairs”.30
Starting in 2017 and continuing into 2018, controversy arose surrounding an article published in the Yale Daily News31 where a comment was made by a Yale University professor that Yale-NUS was a “product of a misalliance between a university that claims to support human values and a regime that represses them”. This prompted an article in response titled “What’s The Point Of Yale-NUS If The Gays Are Still Oppressed?”.32 Subsequently, Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale University and longtime critic of Yale-NUS, wrote a piece titled “A Liberal Education Should Interrogate Wealth And Power, Not Just Serve Them”.33 Finally, the conversation ended with an article titled “One Night In Singapore: The Illiberal Asian Body In Yale’s Missionary Position”.34
This compilation of articles, almost entirely from The Octant, is merely a fraction of the conversations that happen on campus, but it is a start. I have tried to keep this record neutral, but no record of history is ever neutral. I hope that you will be kind if I have misrepresented any event or person, and allow us a chance to correct it by contacting me or emailing The Octant at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- https://docs.google.com/document/d/1qZ5Sn8YPTbPWIa-pnIetiU4NV0oKvZ9ok7ueuI__Wdg/edit (March 27 2015)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/vi-4/opinion/yale-nus-town-hall-student-government/ (Feb 16 2017)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/ix-6/news/frustrated-college-administration-yale-nus-students-stage-sit-protest/ (March 15 2018)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/issue/opinion/on-the-yale-nus-governing-board-tolerance-is-not-enough/ (Feb 3 2016)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/iv-15/news/students-reject-call-for-ambassador-chan-heng-chees-resignation/ (Feb 16 2016)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/issue/opinion/transman-or-transcendental/ (October 5 2014)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/issue/opinion/statement-on-creating-a-safe-and-inclusive-environment-that-promotes-civil-and-open-discourse/ (October 13 2014)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/issue/opinion/why-safe-inclusive-and-community-should-not-be-seen-in-the-same-sentence/ (November 3 2014)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/v-4/opinion/trigger-warning-safe-spaces/ (September 14 2016)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/vi-6/arts/less-uplifting-art-interaction-public-space/ (March 24 2017)
- https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/27/world/asia/27iht-educlede27.html (Aug 27 2012)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/ii-2/opinion/in-defence-of-free-speech/ (Oct 4 2014)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/issue/editor/panopt-forum-joyan-spandana-jay-lusk-nik-carverhill/ (Nov 10 2014)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/issue/news/yale-nus-upholds-free-speech-on-campus/ (Oct 20, 2014)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/iii-11/opinion/a-hollow-core/ (Apr 7, 2015)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/iii-12/news/academic-freedom-integral-to-yale-nuss-future/ (Apr 14, 2015)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/vi-3/opinion/designated-parks-notes-academic-freedom/ (Feb 19 2017)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/vi-3/features/behind-scenes-organising-controversial-events-yale-nus/ (Mar 14, 2017)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/viii-12/opinion/yale-nus-gray-space/ (Dec 15 2017)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/issue/news/public-spaces-taskforce-seeks-student-feedback/ (Feb 8 2018)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/ix-7/opinion/the-promise-of-academic-freedom-at-yale-nus/ (Mar 23 2018)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/issue/news/latest-task-force-report-raises-new-questions-in-public-spaces-debate/ (Nov 12 2018)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/ii-1/opinion/meditations-on-first-ideology/ (October 4 2014)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/ii-7/opinion/a-call-against-confessions/ (Nov 17 2014)
- https://qz.com/965680/yale-nus-in-singapore-is-now-harder-to-gain-admission-into-than-the-yale-harvard-or-any-of-the-ivy-league/ (April 24, 2017)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/vi-8/opinion/quartzs-misleading-article-yale-nus-reflects-journalisms-sad-state-affairs/ (April 25, 2017)
- http://features.yaledailynews.com/blog/2017/10/09/up-close-yale-nus-a-partner-in-name-only/ (Oct 9, 2017)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/viii-8/opinion/whats-point-yale-nus-gays-still-oppressed/ (Oct 27, 2017)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/x-1/opinion/a-liberal-education-should-interrogate-wealth-and-power-not-just-serve-them/ (May 2, 2018)
- https://theoctant.org/edition/x-1/opinion/one-night-in-singapore-the-illiberal-asian-body-in-yales-missionary-position/ (May 24, 2018)