Our Fixation with Bad Press
story Daryl Yang, Guest Columnist | illustration by Yap Zhiwen
In a recent article published on Oct. 27 in the Huffington Post, Yale-NUS College’s favourite critic Jim Sleeper suggested that the negative press we have received over the past year may be “politically motivated warning signals” of the dangerous line that our college treads.
A Straits Times article headlined “Erratic grades and confusing lectures” was published earlier in September regarding our recent curriculum review. Another by TODAY reported in June that students were leaving the college because our courses “do not match academic expectations”.
Indeed, it is a wonder why our college seems to attract such controversial attention more so than other similar local-overseas collaborations such as Duke-NUS, the Singapore University of Technology & Design (SUTD) in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and even the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine (LKCSM) in collaboration with Imperial College, London. It probably is not because of the collaborative nature of our college nor the big-name overseas partner university’s involvement that is inviting such scrutiny, since these other colleges do not seem to receive as much media attention. It also cannot be because we are a new college since SUTD and LKCSM are, like us, both infants in the tertiary education landscape here.
It may be important to first consider whether our college has indeed received greater public scrutiny and whether we have been deliberately portrayed more negatively than other similar tertiary education initiatives. While there have been several articles that have drawn flak from students because of erratic titles or confusing statistics, it may be myopic and to our own detriment to focus only on the negative press we have received. For instance, KidsAccomplish, a children’s enrichment program run by Yale-NUS students, was recently featured for its holistic education program on local English-daily The Straits Times and students were interviewed by Malay-daily Berita Harian to share their college experiences.
Yet, because people tend to focus on the negative, this perception of increased public scrutiny and criticism of our college has led at least some of us, staff or students, to become more conscious and cautious about how what we do or say may be interpreted by others outside. For instance, what is essentially gender-neutral housing is termed as open housing instead so as not to appear too “American” or to antagonize the conservative social fabric of Singapore.
Similarly, when I was President of The G Spot, a student organization focusing on gender and sexuality issues, we had intended for our campaign “Doing It Right” to be known as Sex Week, but concerns regarding media portrayal and public backlash changed this. Our fixation with public perceptions is a delicate balance for college administrators, faculty and students to find and maintain, but we should also evaluate what our priorities as a liberal arts college should be: to build a “family-friendly” and uncontroversial image, or to challenge boundaries and ruffle some feathers?
It is inevitable that our college has and will continue to be scrutinized with contempt or cynicism, because we endeavour to combine the modern with the ancient, Asia and the world. There will be some concerned with “Western” values encroaching on and threatening Singapore’s “stable Confucian social fabric”, while others may fear that the American ideal of freedom would be undermined by our “repressive” Asian authoritarianism. Yale-NUS treads a complex, intricate line in balancing between these perceptions and values. We should be aware of and acknowledge this seemingly insurmountable task and our critics’ concerns, but we cannot and should not let their skepticism and censure constrain us as we explore and endeavour to create a college that is truly “in Asia for the world”.
The importance of an American liberal arts education and culture to a very different place like Singapore necessarily requires us to reflect on these questions of how we can best incorporate the best of both worlds, without privileging one over the other based on biases or presuppositions. It is difficult, and I am unsure if anyone has any real answers yet. But this is precisely why I am excited about our college and our future because we are undeniably part of a great educational and cultural experiment.