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Liberal Arts in Singapore: How Raffles Got There First

All PostsArtsLiberal Arts in Singapore: How Raffles Got There First

story | Kan Ren Jie, contributing reporter

photos | National Library Board, Kan Ren Jie

There was once a college in Singapore that was established in collaboration with a leading overseas university. It focused on cross-disciplinary learning and residential life; students lived on campus in a closely knit residential community, with small class sizes and much interaction with their professors. Indeed, the idea of a liberal arts curriculum in Singapore first took shape through this innovative venture.

You may be wondering why I am describing Yale-NUS College; however, these were actually qualities of Raffles College. Not to be confused with the current Raffles Institution, Raffles College was established in 1928 as a higher education institution, in collaboration with the University of London. The similarities between Yale-NUS College and Raffles College are extraordinary, as I discovered at a research talk entitled “A Building with One Side: Liberal Arts and Illiberal Modernities in Colonial Singapore”, held in the Elm Common Lounge on Oct. 14.

During the talk, Professor Philip Holden from the NUS English Department emphasized the similarities between Raffles College and Yale-NUS. Raffles College was established in collaboration with the University of London to confront the challenge of “global competition of higher education”, which resulted in a “brain drain” from Singapore. Interestingly, the College had the philosophy of an “uninstrumentalized, cross-disciplinary study in the arts, sciences and social sciences”. These terms are familiar to Yale-NUS students.

Raffles College and Yale-NUS College: The ‘Then’ and The ‘Now’.
Raffles College and Yale-NUS College: The ‘Then’ and The ‘Now’.

Beyond the similarities, Dr. Holden also highlighted several illuminating instances of tension within the College. In spite of its far-reaching aims, there was an undercurrent of elitism; the faculty members were all European, and gramophones (what little of a mobile phone they had in those days) were banned, making it a highly westernized, if not insular, environment. The few non-residential students of Raffles College stressed how the college “seemed completely cut off from the rest of its surroundings”.  

Students were forced to negotiate the disparity between their lives outside the College and the environment within, as evident in an anecdote given by Dr. Holden. After seeing other students wearing frocks and dresses, a female student felt so insecure wearing her traditional Chinese dress, the samfu, that she soon switched attires to conform. Male students were required to dress in formal western attire for every lecture, while professors wore gowns in spite of the heat.  Hearing these interesting facts made me extremely thankful that we can now go for lectures in our Performance Hall in plain t-shirts and shorts!

Dr. Holden also highlighted a particularly interesting conflict between the University of London and Raffles College about the curriculum. While subjects such as local and regional geography were offered, Dr. Holden argued that Asia was studied in a detached manner, as an “object” instead of a reality. Raffles College wanted to remove the compulsory study of “Anglo-Saxon” aspects of literature, replacing it with ancient languages or Latin. However, the University of London argued that Raffles College could not “change so important a part of the English syllabus”. We see in the conflict the great struggle to produce a new generation of cosmopolitan Asians, not bound by the English literary traditions. Ironically, this same struggle between the foreign and the local would be played out even after Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965. Dr. Holden noted developments such as “the marginalization of Chinese language (e.g., dialects) under Mandarin, and the rise of English as lingua franca” as contributing towards this ongoing struggle. Indeed, the freedom that we now have in reading diverse and at times controversial texts as part our curriculum may be seen as a product of this struggle, and we should not take that for granted.

Professor Philip Holden at the research talk.
Professor Philip Holden at the research talk.

Today, Raffles College no longer exists; it was merged with several other institutions to form the NUS we know today. However, Dr. Holden observed that “the liberal arts never vanished”its legacy lives on in the resurgent popularity of cross-disciplinary studies in recent times. In the late 1990s, amidst Singapore’s new focus on “thinking schools, learning nation”, intellectual flexibility in local universities was seen as desirable. This sparked interest in creating a residential college system with interdisciplinary learning, and led to the establishment of NUS’s University Scholars Programme, and subsequently, the construction of University Town in 2011. As such, Dr. Holden remarked that there has been signs of “returning back to a reinvented expression of the liberal arts ideal” in Singapore’s education landscape. In this vein, Yale-NUS College is not an isolated phenomenon, but hearteningly, we are the “conclusion of a two-decade-long narrative”, a “startup college” with roots far deeper than we realized.

Dr. Holden ended his talk by elaborating on the current state of the Raffles College campus.  Upon being reobtained by NUS in 2005, it was renovated and is now the campus of the NUS Faculty of Law.  As suggested by the title of Dr. Holden’s talk, the college campus is now “a building with one side”it is incomplete, with the apparent façade (and original marble plaque) of Raffles College, but with a greatly different function and purpose. However, perhaps not all is lost for Raffles College. Perhaps our college, established with rather far-reaching goals as well, may be considered an intellectual successor to the previous model of liberal arts in 20th century Singapore. If that is so, may we become the other side of the “one-sided building”, that final piece in a jigsaw puzzle that reveals a beautiful image.

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