Thursday, March 30, 2023

Explaining Liberal Arts to a Singaporean

story | Yip Jia Qi, Opinion Editor

photo | Serena Quay

Explaining liberal arts to a Singaporean can sometimes be very frustrating. But as members of the first four classes of Yale-NUS, we cannot escape from it. Even as the first batch of seniors graduate this year, there is still a lack of understanding in the wider Singapore population about what we actually do in this school.

A conversation about liberal arts is a conversation about education. When we talk about our education after being immersed in it for years, we can sometimes be ambushed by the existing notions some Singaporeans have about what an education is.

The conversation below is between a liberal arts student and a generic skeptical Singaporean. It could be a taxi driver on the way to the airport, a pesky relative at a wedding, your ex-classmate at a gathering, or your job interviewer.


“What are you doing now uh? Still studying?”


“Where you studying?”


“Ohhh when you flying off?”

“No I’m staying in Singapore.”


“Its Yale-NUS.

“Huh so NUS?”

“No lah, its Yale-NUS, it’s a collaboration between Yale and NUS, but we are our own school.”

“Wah, so chim. So you study what?”

“Liberal arts”

“ So FASS lah!”

*silently judging you for not being a doctor, lawyer, engineer*


“No it’s not FASS!”

“Then what is it? Study arts what!”

“No I can study anything I want. It’s a broad based education where I study a bit of everything before deciding on my major, and which includes arts, humanities and natural sciences. For example in the first sem of our compulsory common curriculum we have some Philosophy, literature, Social Science and Science

“Huh so chapalang one ah?”

“….Yah, very chapalang”

“Then next time what work you do sia?”

*judging you even more than they were already judging you*

“I don’t know, it depends”

“You don’t know then you study for what! Next time cannot find job how?”

“I study because I like to study, not because I want to get a job”

*Error messages start appearing in “pragmatism” subroutine and he/she/they does not know what to say. the other person’s Brain hangs and gets BSOD and needs to reboot*

“People go uni not find job then do what?”

“Get an education”

*this is such a radical thought the other person takes three seconds to recover from the shock. More error messages start popping up along with loud warning sirens*

“If learn already cannot find job, then learn for what?”

“To satisfy my curiosity”

*complete system failure*


The above scenario, or some variation of it, is way more common than we’d like. Liberal arts is an education philosophy, not a field of study, and this is not just semantics. It’s a very important distinction to put forth. We need to ask people to suspend what they think they know about education. Singaporeans are always simultaneously proud that we have a good education system and worried about the amount of stress we place on very young children. I think having the conversation above many times over with as many people as possible is the minimum it will take to improve the education paradigm in Singapore.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to:

Previous articleClockwork
Next articleLetter to the Editors


  1. The archetypical Yale-NUS arrogance is on full display here. I’m glad you’re not hiding it. Most people actually care about the economic benefits their education will bring them, because for them education is a tool of social mobility, and the primary means by which they can increase their earning potential. Just because you are well able to spend what is probably to others a vast sum of money ‘satisfying your curiosity’ does not mean that others must acknowledge your intellectual superiority and serene detachment from the grubby material things of this world. If you cannot even reason this out, perhaps you really are overpaying for your education.

  2. I think you guys should up the ante, to simulate more of a true liberal arts environment! Select the most minor social issue you can think of, and overreact in the most dramatic way you can! People destroying the environment by trimming grass? Stage a demonstration, replete with torches ablaze, and set fire to your campus! March up and down city hall with posters reading Occupy Shenton Way! The possibilities are endless!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Latest articles

Skip to content