story | Soh Wee Yang and Joshua Babcock, Guest Writers

photo | StockSnap.io

 

It has been eight years since the Yale-initiated media storm began surrounding the founding of Yale-NUS College. This debate asked whether Yale was betraying its own institutional values by collaborating with Singapore. Much has changed in Yale-NUS College and the world since then. So much, however, has also not changed, such as the continued, cavalier disengagement of many American academics with Singapore under the guise of intellectual concern for Singaporean governance.

Mr. Jim Sleeper, a longtime skeptic of the collaborative project between Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS), recently wrote yet another insipid article in The Octant with the seemingly innocuous title, “A Liberal Education Should Interrogate Wealth and Power, Not Just Serve Them.” In his essay, the “power” that Mr. Sleeper wants students of “liberal education” to question is “authoritarian coercion and fear,” of which the Singapore government is taken to be an agent.

But what is this “power,” and in what forms does it materialize? What does a “liberal education” have to do with it? Are “powers-to-be-questioned” only ever authoritarian? What ends does such questioning serve? And most importantly, according to whose criteria are these acts of “questioning,” “subversion,” or “resistance” even recognizable as such?

Don’t get us wrong. Our argument does not amount to an injunction to sit down and shut up, to concern oneself only with policies and cultural politics happening in your own backyard. Indeed, our reason for co-authoring this piece as, among other things, a Singaporean and an American, is precisely to break down this kind of “methodological nationalism.”  

We are also not apologizing for the Singapore government, or claiming that its managerial methods cannot be subject to careful, measured critique.

Instead, we want to broaden the field of “powers” that a “liberal” education should challenge to include Mr. Sleeper’s brand of “liberalism” itself, because a “liberal” education would not be “truly liberal” if it didn’t scrutinize the ideologies and the historical contexts that undergird it in the first place.

We thought the travesty of the American 2016 presidential election’s outcomes would have more reliably turned the American “liberal” gaze back towards itself, but articles like Mr. Sleeper’s have shown, disappointingly, that outward-facing moral imperialism is alive and well (pace Sleeper’s own claims to the contrary).

Our main point here, however, is not to critique ideology. Nor is it to classify people into two diametrically opposing camps of “liberals” and “illiberals.” Instead, we wish to interrogate the “liberal” gaze itself, and carefully consider what “liberalism” does in Mr. Sleeper’s article, rather than trying to decipher what it is in some existential sense. While Mr. Sleeper does not himself define “liberalism,” his usage of the term is familiar to anyone who has seen self-professed “liberals” brandish “liberalism” as a way to label and write off different, but not necessarily conflicting, perspectives.

The main problem, we argue, is not that “Singapore’s side” has not been cooperating in the “Great Conversation.” Rather, it is Mr. Sleeper’s style of “liberal” gaze that creates and perpetuates the “disengagement” problem of which he accuses Singapore in the first place.

“Liberalism” as a Politics of Exclusion

In reading Mr. Sleeper’s paean for “liberalism,” we were at first confused in trying to figure out what exactly “liberalism” is. Gradually, it became clear that this confusion is a design feature of the article. Mr. Sleeper is not concerned with defining and defending a concept. Rather, he is concerned with excluding non-“liberals” from what he insists is a necessary global conversation.

The closest Mr. Sleeper comes to stating what “liberalism” is comes by way of a quotation from Yale-NUS College itself. He says that “Yale-NUS claims to guarantee ‘the free expression of ideas in all forms—a central tenet of liberal arts education. There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated.’”

Yet his use of the quote is still framed by thinly veiled skepticism: who can ensure that the lofty values espoused in its mission are actually genuine? Further, as his use of the term “liberal” shifts over the course of the article, it becomes clear that his actual concern is with determining the “true” and “authentic” from the “false” or “inauthentic,” as he waxes poetic about what “a true liberal arts education” or “authentic liberal arts education” enables one to do.

In a similar way, it seems clear that for Mr. Sleeper, there is at least one question that cannot be asked, and one answer that cannot be discussed and debated: the value of his much-cherished “liberalism.” His article, then, winds up being less about defending some “liberal” position against legitimate disagreement and more about deciding, in advance, who is and is not worth listening to.

Had Mr. Sleeper chosen to delve into literature in the “liberal” tradition (the various strands of philosophy and social theory that take a concern with “liberty”—often individual and property-owning—as its orienting frame), we may have been in a better position to debate the merits of the “liberalism” he advocates.

Had that been the case, we may have found ourselves arguing that, in fact, a concern with “liberty” often presumes an individual who bears that “liberty,” unencumbered by history, politics, culture, and life experience. This is the kind of “individuality” and “individual liberty” to which only some, both in the U.S. and Singapore, can lay claim, a fact that is evident both historically and in the contemporary world. It is nevertheless a form of “individuality” that has been advocated, often violently, in the Great Men renditions of American history.

The point here is not to say that Mr. Sleeper has somehow failed to live up to his own “liberal” ideal, or that, as an American, he is in no position to speak for the “liberal” perspective. Such points would amount only to ideology-critique: the insistence on someone else’s position being “mere” ideology, a move that attempts to expose lies, falsehoods, or bias from a vantage point that often takes itself to be “outside” ideology and hence putatively neutral or objective. The problem here is that this move is little more than a Scooby Doo Mystery Gang-style litany of an endless unmasking of villains—virtually any position can be “unmasked” as mere ideology from the position of virtually any other position.

No, the point is something a bit more complex. First, Mr. Sleeper’s “liberal” utopia requires that one has already accepted the value of “liberalism”: “the ability to ask any question and debate any answer.” Further, it requires that one has accepted that a rugged American-style individual is the necessary frame of reference—or even a good frame of reference—for asking any question and discussing or debating any answer. Mr. Sleeper’s own hedges notwithstanding—as when he “concedes” that “American society and jurisprudence are too ‘free’”—the fact remains that the “liberal” perspective that Mr. Sleeper advocates is one that is exclusionary from the start, and inseparable from an American imaginary of political, cultural, and pedagogical subjecthood.

Let us again be clear: the alternative is not to assert an essential Asian collectivity against an essential Western individuality, which Mr. Sleeper’s much-vaunted “liberalism” is often concerned with celebrating as both equal (if separate) and equally good, at least in theory. Instead, we want to point out how this “liberal”/“illiberal” binary serves from the outset as a politics of exclusion, one that has decided in advance who can and cannot participate.

Inseminating the Asian Body with “Liberal”-ness

There is immense irony involved in Mr. Sleeper’s preaching of “authoritative coercion” when he asks whether Yale-NUS’ claim to free expression of ideas would guarantee the publication and “protection” of his essay in The Octant.

We believe that it was such a coercive arm-twisting move that regimented the very act of publishing his article in a student-led publication as an ideological one: if the students don’t publish his article, “online as [he] wrote it,” then Singapore must be “illiberal,” because what else could explain it? It definitely could not be that Singaporeans have grown tired of Mr. Jim Sleeper’s dogged attempts to paint Singapore as thoroughly “illiberal,” because that would imply Singaporeans can think for themselves as “liberal” subjects of some sort. No, the Internet trolls lampooning Mr. Sleeper’s published opinions in the past must be “illiberal,” government-bankrolled thugs trying to censor free, righteous speech!

This was an ingenuous sleight of hand. Mr. Sleeper anticipated and emphasized the “illiberal”-ness of local objections to his umpteenth banal piece on Singapore by invoking Singapore’s low press-freedom rankings. How Singaporeans’ online objections to his opinions are equivalent to the government’s “meticulously legal maneuvers to cripple dissent,” we are not entirely sure. But in trying to prefigure the negative responses to his argument, Mr. Sleeper is certainly a master baiter who gets off by luring Singaporeans into performing the very “illiberalism” he wants to see in the first place.

In Sleeper’s American “liberal” gaze, it seems that Asian bodies are prefigured as always-already “illiberal.” According to what Mr. Sleeper implies in his title, going through a “liberal” (arts) education doesn’t seem to be sufficient in making one “liberal.” In what ways does this “liberalism” manifest itself then?

Apparently, not in Asian bodies of which the Singaporean is just a token, since, as Mr. Sleeper seems to insinuate, the “Asian pride” of “newly vigorous Asian societies” seems to blind Asians to their “illiberalism.” It is because of this ideology of Asian bodies that we have to endure the oft-repeated and unquestioned presupposition that Singapore lacks a rational-critical public sphere in which government policies can be debated.

When Yale-NUS undergraduates Daryl Yang ’18 and Paul Jerusalem ’19 wrote in The Octant last year, the main point of their article was not to accuse the Yale faculty of “neoliberal moral imperialism” as Mr. Sleeper charges, but to show that there are Singaporeans who are already critical thinking subjects that have been driving socio-political movements in Singapore.

If Mr. Sleeper would deign to check Singaporean online forums and converse with actual Singaporeans on their views, he might realize that Singaporeans are very engaged and perceptive regarding their country’s socio-political affairs indeed. This form of categorical thinking about “liberalism” and “illiberalism” not only racializes entire groups of people, but also on that racial basis precludes those people’s participation in debates that affect their own lives.

In this sense, the American “liberal” gaze needs an “illiberal” Other to demonstrate its own “liberal”-ness. American “liberalness” here is apparently less about thinking subjects and freedom of speech, but rather about performing “liberalness” by identifying and denouncing the “illiberalism” which is already embodied in certain racial or geographical Others.

Imperialism as Cultural Hegemony

In his essay, Mr. Sleeper attempts to explain why Singaporeans have charged him and his colleagues with cultural imperialism. He attributes it partly to Singapore’s insecurities about its “dependency” on the United States given China’s political-economic and geopolitical ascendancy, and partly to Yale’s missionary history.

We are particularly concerned that he found “irony” in Singaporeans accusing Yale of cultural imperialism in light of Singapore’s having “acquired” Yale, effectively comparing Singapore’s “acquisition” of Yale to the East India Company’s “acquisition” of Singapore for the British Empire. This is analogous to accusing professional Singaporeans of cultural appropriation for donning Western business attire when going to work—as if this garb hadn’t been conventionalized as the appropriate corporate attire worldwide!

Singapore courted Yale because, as Mr. Sleeper himself acknowledges, the American Ivy League occupies the premier position in tertiary education in today’s world. But the very fact that there was such an aspiration in the first place rests on the historical and continued dominance of these elite institutions. This dominance puts them in the privileged position of making demands, critiquing, and being downright condescending to potential suitors, which is exactly what has happened, and continues to happen, in the recurrent voicings of intellectual concern over Singaporean “illiberalism.”

Mr. Sleeper argues his perspective is not an imperial one. Maybe getting hung up on labels is a fruitless exercise here, but what is defensible about the kind of ambiguous and racializing metric of American-centered “liberalism” that Mr. Sleeper and his Yale colleagues are attempting to hold Singapore and Singaporeans to? By refusing to acknowledge the diversity and critical faculties performed continually by Singaporeans, Mr. Sleeper and his colleagues continually reinvent the category of an Other as incapable of existing except negatively, as everything that the American “liberal” is not.

In this regard, Singaporeans highlight the ways in which the Asian body is ambiguous for “liberal” Americans. Singaporeans are always just Asians to these Americans, and therefore the range of what it means to be Singaporean, or even to be Asian, is overlooked. The American “liberal” gaze de-legitimates the stances that people take as Singaporeans, assuming as it does that these Asians are only ever acting as dictated by their collective identity as Asians.

The way Yale faculty members have talked about the Yale-NUS collaboration is in this sense essentially a missionary project. It may not involve the kind of overt Christian evangelical missionizing of Yale’s past, but its interpellation of Singaporeans as tokenized, unindividuated parahumans needing salvation from their cultural and racial unenlightenment precisely fits the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak’s definition of imperialism.

The cultural imperialism that Mr. Sleeper and his colleagues have been charged of, therefore, is not about Yale’s Christian missionary roots nor Singapore’s postcolonial trappings, but rather is about cultural hegemony. If anything, Mr. Sleeper’s own article is exemplary of the problems with the “liberal” gaze itself, which repeatedly refuses to acknowledge its own ideological positionality vis-à-vis the oriental Other in Asia and even the other Others back home.

So, how can Singaporeans take part in Mr. Sleeper’s “Great Conversation” when they have been summarily excluded from the participant framework right from the start? And is the “Great Conversation” of “liberal” humanism even one worth taking part in, when its gatekeepers are obviously more invested in maintaining its boundaries than with inviting a range of voices to take part?

Yale-NUS College students, like many Singaporeans, have long been ready to be participants rather than objects of a conversation. This long-awaited conversation should neither be “liberal” nor “Great,” but a necessary one for collectively imagining and aspiring toward a better social world not just within but beyond Singapore.

We are well aware that this response to Jim Sleeper can easily be received as yet another sign of Singapore’s “illiberalism” or of yet another American who “welcome[s] Singapore’s fearsome fingerprints.” All we can do to hold off that interpretation from the start is to state with maximal explicitness: as long as you think this is a heroic, soteriological narrative of “liberalism versus illiberalism,” “democracy versus authoritarianism,” “America versus Singapore,” “enlightened versus Asian,” and as long as you think you are dealing only with collectives who can be reduced to a known quantity in advance, then it is you, Mr. Sleeper, who is refusing to participate.

Once you and your “concerned” Yale colleagues can engage Singaporeans as Singaporeans and not tokens of generic categories like “Asians,” “illiberals,” “Internet Trolls,” pawns of an “authoritarian” government, “constrained” inhabitants of a “carefully manicured” country, “threat[s] to the Great Conversation,” and other fantastic qualities predictable of a distant, oriental Other, perhaps you will see that some Singaporeans have already beaten you to the conversation table.

Will Mr. Jim Sleeper and his colleagues finally get the message? “We’ll see how far it gets.”

 

Wee Yang Soh will be graduating next month with a Master of Arts in Social Sciences concentrating in Linguistic Anthropology from The University of Chicago. He graduated as part of Yale-NUS College’s inaugural Class of 2017.

Joshua Babcock is a PhD student in Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology at The University of Chicago. His dissertation research is on image-production in Singapore’s nation branding and language campaigns.

 

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