In (What?) Asia, For the World.
story Timothy Lim, Guest Columnist
The last line of the school’s vision statement, “In Asia, for the World” is a line we are all well-versed with. It adorned the walls of Residential College 4, while our admissions booklets continue to proudly state what kind of school it is trying to sell. We have all heard it one too many times at speeches that have delayed our dinners at formal ceremonies. Dare I add that even the upperclassmen have grown tired of using it for drinking games, for fear of alcohol poisoning?
The vision statement is a good sign of what our founders “from two great universities” intended for the school: a grandiose statement for grandiose ambitions. However, three years since its first class of students were admitted, there is a question that remains to be answered: In what Asia is the school located in, both in the geo-political sense as well as the intellectual sense? There is no doubt that this institution is “for the World”, with a community of students and faculty that thus far hail from 40 over countries; but what does it mean to be a globally-minded institution that is “in Asia”?
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent speech at the inauguration of the Yale-NUS campus talked about how Yale-NUS had to be more than “a carbon copy of Yale in New Haven”, and instead should look to adapting the Yale model to Asia. He hoped that Yale-NUS would “be relevant to students from other Asian countries, as well as other international students who wish to understand Asia.”
Nevertheless, how much does the school understand about its place in Asia, let alone understand Asia? For all the Prime Minister’s talk about adaptation in Asia, let us not forget where Yale-NUS is; not at the crossroads of this fabled “Asia”, but rather the crossroads of three distinct groups of civilizations: the Indus Valley, Alam Melayu (the Malay World), and of course, China. While these three groups have shaped and controlled a good part of Asia as we know today, they are but three of many other civilizations that have shaped the history of this continent. If we wish to live up to our vision statement, to even begin to understand what Asia really is, then we need to recognize this limitation of where we are in Asia: a country born of the migrations of civilisations and born of colonial actions, something uniquely Singaporean and unrepresentative of this continent of conquerors and the conquered. After all, no one would take it seriously if an institution opened in New York City, and then proclaimed itself “in the Americas, for the World”; but just because the paint has dried on our own walls, does not mean we have to stop taking ourselves seriously.
For one, we can begin to realize the diversity among our own students: 20 different Asian territories are represented, with multiple cultures and linguistic groups in between them. Furthermore, some among us have flown for hours to come experience Asia, but let’s not pretend that Asia begins in India and ends in China, with Singapore in between. We tout the Common Curriculum as a meeting of the Eastern and Western canons, but what about everything else in between? As an example, the Class of 2017 read Indonesian author Armjin Pane’s Shackles, but in subsequent years it has disappeared from the Literature & Humanities’ reading list. Sure, the Centre for International and Professional Experience has provided opportunities for many of us to discover the world from Week 7 trips to summer travel grants; but how much of it has been devoted to understanding Asia through its distinctive parts, instead of Asia as Greater China and not-China? This of course is not to say there’s anything wrong with wanting to study China and Chinese, but to solely focus on China (which in itself is anything but a homogenous whole) at the expense of the wealth of experiences of the Chinese here and the region would be a shame. Singapore may not be at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, but it’s a good enough start; being “in Asia” is a reduction that cannot possibly capture the diversity of Southeast Asia, let alone the wider continent.
At the end of the day, we, from administrators and faculty to students, need to ask ourselves this: at the end of our time here, when we walk out of the ivory tower for the last time, what do our students really know about Asia? It would be a shame if all we could do is describe the political state of China and the curiosities of hutongs in Beijing, but when asked about Singapore, the only image beyond our four walls conjured up is that of Holland Village, or Changi Airport; dare we be asked about its neighbors?