Recollections of the Pioneer Generation
story Timothy Goh, Guest Columnist
Let me tell you a story about what it was like when I was growing up, a long time ago in a place called Residential College 4 (RC4). Back then, we lived simply. There was no beautiful eco-pond or Oculus. The classrooms were smaller, and we faced overcrowding if we had too many people in one class. Our population was so small that everyone lived in the same building. Whenever the fire alarm was triggered, all three colleges were affected, but there was a sense of unity in suffering.
As a fledgling institution, we lacked natural resources and relied on the National University of Singapore (NUS) for lecture theatres and the gym. We shared a dining hall with the College of Alice and Peter Tan, and whenever one of us had a formal dinner, the other would get kicked out and was forced to eat from bento boxes. We took what was given to us, and sometimes it wasn’t great. The WiFi was unreliable, and many had to become self-sufficient, installing our own routers.
Today, things have progressed. Thanks to hundreds of laborers who toiled tirelessly, our home now resembles a hotel. We even have a performing arts center and studios (did you know we used to have art classes in the garage?). The new campus is huge; when there’s a fire alarm in Pulau Cendana, you only find out about it by reading the papers the next week. Don’t even get me started on free laundry—all of us are fortunate that we no longer have to scavenge for coins.
But you know, we’ve lost some things along the way. While the layout of the new campus is more sophisticated, and student life has increased in comfort, the changes to our common spaces have affected the way we interact. In the past, one didn’t have to be a hardcore stalker to know everybody in the college—we’d see almost everyone on a daily basis, whether in the lifts or the dining hall. Although cramming five hundred people into one building is impossible, the communal experience of dining as a college could have been preserved with a single spacious dining hall. Once Cendana’s dining hall opens, finding friends from other RCs will take even more deliberate effort. Perhaps the beauty of RC4 was that the numerous opportunities for spontaneous interaction gave us an easy network of casual friends across RCs. Although we will still preserve our close friendships by seeking them out, here, casual friends will easily turn into acquaintances. Without casual friends, one runs the risk of living in an echo chamber of sorts, and missing out on the diversity that many of us came to this school for.
Our sense of warmth and community has also weakened within RCs. Now that all rooms have been upgraded to suites, it is tempting to stay closeted in our own social bubbles. The problem is exacerbated by the absence of floor common lounges. The sky gardens are hardly a substitute, with the heat chasing everyone away. In addition to being a conducive place for pillow-fights and random dance parties, lounges provided a neutrality where people who are not well-acquainted can meet. While it was perfectly acceptable for anyone to enter a common lounge occupied by near-strangers, walking into a suite uninvited and sitting yourself comfortably on the sofa is likely viewed as intrusive and rude now. Sadly, kitchens, which used to be on every three floors, have also been replaced with a buttery per RC. Now that students have to work at the buttery before they can get their hands on a wok, the smell of food wafting down the corridor and the sounds of people making Indomie, protein shakes or Milo with their friends are things of the past. We’ve gained a lot aesthetically with a pleasing, sophisticated and (at times) complicated design in our new campus. But in return, we’ve had to give up our kitchens, common lounges and shared inter-RC spaces, and our community has become less close-knit.
With the gradually increasing student body, it is only natural that our sense of community evolves. Most of the first-years, who never experienced life in RC4, have settled comfortably into this environment. As these changes are here to stay, those who lived in RC4 should learn to embrace them. It is a pity that future generations will never know the place and culture which Yale-NUS first started with. But I am sure that the spirit we had in RC4—a close-knit, self-sufficient community—will prevail, and we will find a way to keep the kampong atmosphere going. It’s natural to retreat into our own bubbles of security, but just because it’s difficult to maintain casual friendships doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. And though the days we spent in RC4 may eventually be forgotten, there’ll always be a special place for it in our hearts.