story | Justin Ong, Editor-in-Chief
image | Paul Gallagher, Vice Rector of Cendana College
As the new semester is around the corner, we are pleased to introduce two new Vice Rectors in Yale-NUS College. One of them is Professor Paul Gallagher, the incoming Saga Vice Rector, who will be taking over from Professor Eduardo Lage-Otero. Besides the usual college website introduction, The Octant decided to do something a little different. Edited transcripts from an exclusive interview with Mr. Gallagher follow.
The Octant: Tell us a bit about your life before Yale-NUS.
Mr. Gallagher: I was born in Canada where I had a stereotypical Canadian childhood: playing ice hockey on frozen ponds, tobogganing, and fishing and hunting with my father. I really like the outdoors, and I had the intention of becoming a game warden when I was in my teens. But I also had a love for literature and languages. In the end, I chose education over the wilderness.
My wife, Chui Eng (Annie), and I met in Canada and got married in 2005. Southeast Asia is a region of the world to which I had never given much thought before I met Annie, a Malaysian from Sarawak. Malaysia has since become a real home for me because this is where I have my in-laws to whom I am very close. We moved to Australia just a few months after our wedding, when Annie got a research post at the University of Melbourne. We spent the last twelve years there during which time I became an Australian citizen. I taught theology and philosophy as an adjunct professor, but my primary roles were in the residential colleges of the universities of Melbourne and Sydney. We have been living in residential colleges without interruption for eleven years now!
O: What do you love and hate most about Singapore so far?
G: I especially love the hawker centres! I like the variety of the food, the bustle of these places, and the late opening hours. The hawker centres also lack the structure and formalities of restaurants, another plus. The flavors of Singapore are a world away from where I began—I had never even tasted rice until I was in my 20s.
To speak of “hating” anything about Singapore is a bit too strong. I’m a guest here [and] the responsibility of a guest, I believe, is to listen, to learn, and to adapt. It’s a special country to which I hope to make some small contribution in the years to come. Yet I can say, light-heartedly, that I find the indoors in Singapore to be quite challenging: the air-con everywhere is much too cold for me. I would have never guessed that I would need to wear my sweaters in the tropics.
O: What is your favorite book, and why?
G: My favorite book is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. This story explores the fundamental problems of human existence: good and evil, love, jealousy, justice, the tension between spiritual and sensual life. It can be read on several levels as well, the literary or philosophical; psychological as well as theological.
O: What do you think is the biggest challenge of being a Vice Rector?
G: The biggest challenge in my career has always been saying “No” to students. I don’t like to say “No”, but the denial of permission is sometimes in the best interest of the student. Though it is hard, I won’t enable a student to make a foolish choice if I can prevent it. Also, as a ViceRector, one needs to consider the bigger picture of the whole RC community as well as the policies and procedures of Yale-NUS when entertaining various requests of students. However, when I must say “No”, I’m always transparent with students in my reasoning.
O: Is there a life ethos that you believe strongly in, and what is it?
G: I strongly believe in showing courtesy to every person regardless of their occupation. Human lives are so brief, yet we spend one third of each day in the company of strangers and colleagues rather than our families. And too many people have to perform jobs that they do not like. The least that we can do for each other in this circumstance of the modern world is to be friendly and respectful of each other while we are missing the company of our families for those eight hours or more every day. If I cannot teach students anything else, I want to develop them to become generous and patient bosses to the people they will one day manage.
O: What do you miss most about home (wherever home is for you)?
G: I miss my family the most, all of whom live in Canada. I also miss winter, especially the snow and early sunsets.
O: Do you have a role model in life? If so, who, and why?
G: I don’t really have a role model but there are people close to me as well as historical figures whose stories inspire me. One of my heroes is the German literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Born in Poland and brought to Germany as a child, the teenaged Reich-Ranicki and his family were deported to Poland when the Nazis seized power, being Poles as well as Jewish. Not long after that, when the Germans invaded Poland, Reich-Ranicki was forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. The horrors of life in the Ghetto, and the threat of deportation to the death camps, did not diminish his passion for German literature. On the contrary, the German classics sustained his spirit through the darkest days of German occupation. After the war, he joined the Polish army and later became a diplomat. Yet Reich-Ranicki’s passion was German literature, and he eventually gained a livelihood as a freelance writer in East Germany. Reich-Ranicki managed to emigrate to West Germany in the late 1950s; over the next few decades, he became the most renowned literary critic in the German-speaking world, writing for and editing several major newspapers and magazines. At the height of his celebrity (yes, a celebrity literary critic!), Reich-Ranicki even had his own television show. He died in 2013. Of the dozens of books he wrote, only his autobiography has been translated into English. The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki (Princeton University Press, 2001) is a moving and peculiar story of how a Jewish man’s passion for German literature prevailed over the evil of Nazism and led him to an incredible career and life.
O: What do you look forward to the most in your time in Yale-NUS?
G: The students! Their company, their stories, their laughter, their intellect. I am looking forward to learning what Saga means to its students, and I want to challenge the Sagans to move their RC toward the next stage in its social and intellectual evolution.