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Monday, February 26, 2024

Shall Kingfishers burn their books?

All PostsOpinionShall Kingfishers burn their books?

story | Aditya Karkera

photo | Lucy Kuo

Let’s level for a moment. The two of us—you and me—are, beyond the laughs and meals we share, entirely different. Whether it’s your opinion on the role of government in private lives or the best Milo variant (you are damned if you answer Milo Dinosaur), there exists an intimidatingly vast ocean of difference between us. Maybe we’ve never met, or maybe we exchange quiet smiles in the elevator amid glances at the floor display panel, or maybe you’re sitting right next to me as I write these words, but I hope that we have, at minimum, two things in common: one, that we’re both members of the galloping, heaving, evolving idea that is Yale-NUS College, and, two, that we both care very much about this idea and its future.  

This fragile, infant bond between the two of us—which allows me to tolerate your heretical love of Milo Dinosaur—is something we ought to be prepared to do anything to defend. This fragile, infant bond is what ties our community together. It takes work to keep it up and running, and it takes a sort of mutual parenting to mature it beyond infancy. But looming in the shadowy spotlight is another bond that I am here not to praise, but to enlist your help to bury, for it threatens the very essence of the idea that knits us together. This bond is the Tuition Grant Scheme (TGS).

Unequivocally, the present terms and treatment of the TGS stand in contradiction to the values we espouse as a community—values of academic and personal freedom, as well as values of personal destiny and dauntless academic exploration. It stands diametrically opposed to the promise of a liberal arts education—a promise to successfully lead life in any direction that the compass of our conscience chooses. Above all else, it delineates what should not be delineated: what a Yale-NUS College student should find value in, and what they should not. The venom and division that have emerged from the TGS debate—sharply between Singaporean and non-Singaporean Kingfishers—is upsetting on a very personal level for many of us, including myself (even if my Singaporean suitemates endorse Milo Dinosaur), and these words serve to offer to my dear Singaporean Kingfishers a pinhole view into a question troubling their non-Singaporean friends that deserves their empathy, if not their endorsement.    

In a previous piece for this publication, I likened ourselves to the Kingfishers we ought to be—unafraid to flit from branch to branch and pond to pond without panting for a secure, watertight nest to evade the risks of life. The TGS is the tempest that, through one way or another, compels us to seek that watertight nest, even at (indeed, especially at) the cost of finding our way in our lives led by our own passions. By imposing the anchor of minimum wage and location requirements, the TGS forces Kingfishers to decide on their ports-of-call long before they even have the chance to set sail and enjoy the fruits of opportunity all around them. Our institution’s artists find themselves putting down their palettes and hanging their aprons to bitterly embrace the suits and ties of the corporate world when the TGS knocks on their professional doors. The TGS impresses upon diverse, daring, depth-and-dream-filled eyes a myopic lens through which marketability grossly eclipses meaningfulness. To those who believe this to be a practical end for “impractical” dreams, my answer as a student of economics is that the vagaries of the job market are only slightly more predictable than the vagaries of the heart. Outside of the mind of a Kingfisher, pressures exist from the institutions of the College as well, with CIPE (Center for International and Professional Experience) notably pruning the internship choices of those bound by the TGS to have them garner Singaporean corporate experience at the expense of more international opportunities.

Beyond simply killing passions in the crib by forcing students to consider employability over enjoyability, the TGS haunts plans to seek future academic avenues by imposing strict deferral restrictions for graduate studies—in the form of a banker’s guarantee of the entire subsidized amount. To have the coldness of banker’s guarantees and job markets infringe on something as simplistically pure as the future academic path a Kingfisher takes in life robs gravely from the idea, promise, and spirit of a liberal arts education, here or elsewhere—that indeed we are the masters of our fate, we are the captains of our souls.

But what of gratitude? Is this campaign of critique of the TGS an exercise in privileged entitlement? It is without a doubt that the resources afforded to us by the Singaporean government have helped countless individuals access our landmark education. It is understandable for many Singaporean Kingfishers to see those protesting the TGS as a gang of entitled, whining children who disregard the sweat that soaks the taxes of everyday Singaporeans—from their own parents to the sweet uncles and aunties who tend to our campus well into the night. This very human cost of delivering the TGS to us non-Singaporeans is not lost in this debate, but there exists an acutely human cost paid out by those bound to the TGS  which I hope will, by the same token, not be lost or unfairly diminished as well. We, if I may presume to speak for my fellow laowai, are grateful to the extent that our gratitude isn’t servile, for it must be remembered that an iron fist in the tenancy of a velvet glove is still an iron fist.

While the TGS may be argued to be a wonderful thing, it has in parallel been argued that it is entirely incompatible with the Yale-NUS liberal arts spirit—another wonderful thing. Two wonderful things do not mother a third wonderful thing, if my experiments with Milo and prata have yielded any results. Indeed, it is possible to admire the TGS while simultaneously criticizing its terms in the context of our liberal arts tradition, as I have done above. The TGS is a fascinating piece of Singaporean strategic thinking that has Singaporean pragmatism signed all over it, and is built on the dictum that the world doesn’t run on free lunches. But Yale-NUS College, in my view, is built on a very different dictum—the price of raising a group of talented individuals who wish to meaningfully change the world is not measured in free lunches. If anything, the ability to be a grateful critic—to bite the hand that feeds, out of love for that same hand—is, I believe, a cornerstone of our Yale-NUS education that we must all liberally, joyfully indulge.

Liberal indulgences remind one of the final words desperately, frightfully uttered by that doomed scholar, Doctor Faustus, from the Christopher Marlowe play of the same name. Faced with the hellfire of his bond with the devil—where he traded what he thought was a trivial freedom for limitless knowledge—Faustus exclaims to the demon who stands ready to drag him to hell: “I’ll burn my books—ah, Mephistopheles!” It’s a terrifying, cavitating thing when knowledge becomes something you despise because of what you pay to procure it. Shall Kingfishers too come to despise their choices of knowledge after having buckled under the pressures of the TGS? Shall Kingfishers torture their lives’ choices into a minority of “practical” passions? Shall Kingfishers regret the loss of a promise of academic and personal freedom?

Shall Kingfishers burn their books?

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

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