Story | Ryan Kueh (he/him), Guest Writer Photo | Darren Ang (he/him)
Last Friday, National University of Singapore’s (NUS) President Tan Eng Chye announced the “merger,” or rather, dissolution, of the 1,000-strong Yale-NUS College and the 860-strong University Scholars Programme (USP) to make way for a 2,000-strong interdisciplinary college. This raises the question: Why would NUS dissolve two perfectly functioning programs to form a marginally larger college that cannot guarantee the quality of education of the previous two?
If the true intent was to expand a liberal arts education, the expansion of Yale-NUS would’ve been the rational next step given its successes and pedagogical support from the public and private sectors. Here, I seek to explore an alternative rationalization to the conclusion of Yale-NUS, one that was not driven by political motivations or civil liberty clashes, but one that involved a long-term strategy to establish a liberal arts tradition in Singapore.
Phase 1: The purpose of liberal arts in Singapore
In an online statement, Yale University President Peter Salovey mentioned that NUS President Tan Eng Chye has been planning for this “larger strategic realignment” since 2018. The timing indicated is an intriguing one, as only the second batch of Yale-NUS students would have graduated by then. This means that either a premature decision for such a realignment was made, or that a long-term strategic realignment plan had been in place since the conception of Yale-NUS. To better understand this, one has to go back to the incentives each university had in this joint venture.
For Yale, establishing a college with NUS seemed to be an opportunity to spread its legacy into Asia, hoping that the premier Asian institution would support the ever-difficult expansion of the liberal arts into the region. Previous analogs of American institutions in Asia have all been fraught with academic freedom pressures and resistance against a “liberal education” (e.g New York University Abu Dhabi and Duke Kunshan University). Singapore was a promising candidate for such an expansion, boasting two premier institutions (NUS and Nanyang Technological University) and a large pool of local academic talent. Academic freedom was one of the salient “what-ifs,” but one that was worth the gamble given Singapore’s Western-educated elites and “openness” to suggestions on remodeling education.
For NUS, the Yale co-branding would have allowed the university to piggyback on Yale’s long-standing academic legacy and excellence, lending NUS the international prestige it lacks despite topping formal higher-education rankings. Yale-NUS would have boosted its international reputation and additionally serve as a test bed for a fully liberal arts education in Singapore, where its success could set the ground for a larger institution. The joint venture was planned to be a bastion of intellectual rigor and academic freedom, a project that attracted the best minds around the world—students, faculty, and administration—culminating in a cocktail of diverse talent to lead Singapore’s push for global academic excellence.
This innovative win-win solution prompted Yale and NUS to sign the original memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2011, with a clause that gave either party the opportunity to withdraw in 2025. During the signing of the MOU, then Minister for Education Ng Eng Hen commented that although a liberal arts education was a new concept, it was one that would eventually be valued in social and professional spheres. If such a system worked, the ideal (and rational) choice would have been to expand Yale-NUS to benefit the larger community.
Phase 2: Scaling up the liberal model
It is unclear if NUS’s plan for scaling up was arranged to coincide with the review of the Yale-NUS partnership. The expansion could have manifested in one of two ways: 1) subsuming USP under Yale-NUS, or 2) subsuming Yale-NUS under USP. Given the amount of resources invested into the Yale-NUS experiment, option 1 would have been ideal. Yale-NUS would have expanded to a 2,000-strong college whilst retaining all of the abovementioned benefits the Yale name brought to the partnership. Option 2 would have been the backup option. Given the amount of investment funneled into Yale-NUS, subsuming the college under USP would have been financially irrational. So why did NUS opt for the latter, financially irrational option? Why would NUS go through all the effort for a “test bed”—one that succeeded—just to eventually subsume it under another program? Why would it commit to an expensive, two-decade joint venture, only to merge it with USP when it could have used the resources to develop other faculties instead?
Such a merger would produce more ambiguity than certainty, as clashes in the priorities and pedagogies of the two programs—teaching styles, student interests, conflicting focuses, admission criteria—raise more questions than answers. NUS would not have been able to guarantee that such a merger would work as well as the smaller, 1,000-strong student model. The hope of continuing the affiliation was perhaps a miscalculation on both sides—Yale and its valuation of its brand’s prestige, NUS and its confidence in its own strategic excellence—leading to the conclusion of two successful liberal arts programs to make way for the “New College.” The divergent agendas of Yale and NUS were thus conflicting motivations that led to the eventual split.
With that being said, NUS didn’t need Yale’s approval for its liberal education goals. The liberal education machine had already been constructed with resources and systems in place to expand the success of its testbed. Long-term faculty would have had personal path dependencies to deter them from leaving, whilst transient students would prove all but a temporary problem. Caught in the middle, Yale-NUS and USP were just means to an end. Commenting on the dissolution, Yale mentioned that “we would have liked nothing better than to continue its development,” supporting the notion that the realignment was always an NUS-led decision—a decision that was made without the consultation of or concern for its partner and any impacted stakeholders.
Additionally, one also has to consider that finances played an integral part in this separation. Ever since its inception, Yale-NUS has stayed afloat with the backing of NUS, the Ministry of Education (MOE), and its donors, with Yale failing to pull their weight in capital-to-equity ratio. Despite being a name partner supposedly on equal footing with Yale, NUS has always had the operational and fiscal control over this joint venture, control that perhaps rendered Yale a mere onlooker.
End of Yale-NUS, but not the end for liberal arts education
Tracing the decision trajectory of YNC’s merger, one thing is clear: NUS acted in bad faith. From the inception of the Yale-NUS testbed to the conclusion of the Yale-NUS program, our stakeholders never had the agency to decide the college’s path, and we were always a means to an end.
For those who doubt liberal arts as an educational model, make no mistake that this “strategic realignment” is, without doubt, a product of the success of liberal arts. The dropping of “Yale” in its program description does not make it any more conservative, nor does the inclusion of “Yale” make it any more liberal. Yale-NUS is a culture and ecosystem of its own, one that will persist within all of its members. With this closure, all eyes are on us. Skeptics are circling and jumping at any opportunity to prove that we are a “cesspool of the American far-left.” But the jury is still out on our success, and it may not be decided for years whether or not Yale-NUS was a successful institution. Let us take what we have as an opportunity to demonstrate how the unique culture we’ve created will serve us as leaders into the future. Let us demonstrate maturity in thought and action, and prove that Yale-NUS is a fabled institution, not a defunct one.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article stated that USP has 960 students. A student from USP has since reached out to inform us that there are, in fact, 860 students in USP. We apologize for the error.
Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor Photo | Martin Choo (he/him)
Deferred matriculants to Yale-NUS College will be offered automatic admission to the New College and the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS), Laura Severin, Yale-NUS Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, said in an email to deferred matriculants last Friday.
The email follows last week’s announcement that Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme will no longer be admitting new students, precipitating the closure of both colleges to form a New College. The decision has already received significant backlash from Yale-NUS students and faculty.
In another email to deferred matriculants and their families, the Admissions and Financial Aid team also invited them to a town hall to address their concerns. According to the email, speakers at the town hall will include “senior leadership from NUS, Yale-NUS College, and the University Scholars Programme.” It did not specify who exactly will be attending.
The Octant gained access to the emails via a deferred matriculant, who preferred to remain anonymous. He is currently holding on to an offer from Yale-NUS as he is a full-time National Serviceman.
“I think that the guaranteed offer to the New College and CHS was meant to be reassuring to deferred matriculants, but I felt quite saddened,” the deferred matriculant remarked. “Personally, I accepted the offer based on my impression of the Yale-NUS community when I visited the school and heard from seniors.”
“To know that NUS is so willing to move deferred students to the New College as soon as possible indicates a lack of care for the community that a decade of Yale-NUS students have painstakingly built up. That, to me, is most regrettable.”
Kai Chen, another deferred matriculant originally slated to matriculate in 2022 due to National Service obligations, also expressed dissatisfaction at the automatic admission offer. He said: “There are many benefits of being a Yale-NUS student, such as the extensive Common Curriculum, the four-year guaranteed residential experience, and the need-blind financial aid [for Singaporeans].”
“There is insufficient justification as to how the offers from the New College or CHS would be of similar value to Yale-NUS.”
UPDATE: Since the article was published, new information has been released to deferred matriculants. Deferred matriculants have since been offered automatic admission to the New College as well as all other courses of their choice at NUS except Medicine, Dentistry, Law, and Music. Read our update here.
Story | Daniel Ng (he/him), Daryl Yang (he/him), Guest Writers Photo | Tan Shan Min (she/her), Managing Design Editor
When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong inaugurated the Yale-NUS College campus in 2015, he noted that the college “cannot be a carbon copy of Yale in the United States” and instead has to “experiment and adapt the Yale model to Asia.”
Since news of the merger between Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme (USP) broke, a litany of opinions on the purported failure of this liberal arts experiment in Singapore has appeared across the Internet across the political spectrum.
According to Mitchell Palmer ‘24, “the experience of this great experiment is likely to teach the lesson that true liberal arts education cannot survive in Asia.” To Brandon Cai, the merger marks the “death of Singapore’s liberal arts experiment.” Calvin Cheng celebrated the news because “American liberal values are incompatible with Singapore” while Li Shengwu observed that “Yale-NUS has collapsed under its contradictions.”
As members of the Yale-NUS and USP community search for answers as to the reasons behind this sudden merger of the two institutions, some may have made up their minds that it points to the failure and impossibility for a liberal arts college to exist or thrive in a non-liberal society like Singapore. We argue that these views are misled and that there is little to suggest that the Yale-NUS experiment has failed or that a liberal arts education is unworkable in the Singapore context. In this article, we address the first point on the success of the Yale-NUS experiment. We will address the second point on the liberal arts in Singapore in a subsequent piece.
Reviewing the results of the Yale-NUS experiment
It is largely unclear what some pundits mean when they claim that the Yale-NUS experiment has “failed.” If anything, the announcement of the merger suggests plans to expand rather than eliminate liberal arts in Singapore. The termination of the partnership with Yale is also not unexpected, since it was contemplated in the original agreement between Yale and NUS that either party can do so in 2025. Many members of the Yale-NUS community are understandably upset and frustrated about the impending merger. However, it would be a mistake to fall for this mischaracterization that this 10-year-old pedagogical experiment has failed.
In 2008, the Ministry of Education’s Committee on the Expansion of the University Sector released its report titled “Greater Choice, More Room to Excel.” Among other recommendations, the report called for the establishment of a liberal arts college which would offer a “broad-based, multidisciplinary undergraduate programme… [that] seeks to develop a passion for inquiry and knowledge, and to develop well-rounded individuals.” Notably, the report acknowledges that a liberal arts college is not merely an interdisciplinary education which at that time had already been offered by USP for about 8 years. Instead, what distinguishes the liberal arts pedagogy from other modes of education is the requirement for students to undergo a common curriculum that spans the arts, humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences before they go on to develop expertise in their chosen major in their third and fourth years of study. Hence, unlike traditional degree programs offered by NUS that train students in particular disciplines, the focus of a liberal arts education is not merely what is studied but also the ability to “think critically and independently and to write, reason, and communicate clearly.”
According to the MOE report, offering a liberal arts education would allow Singapore to “develop well-rounded leaders who are versatile enough to be successful at the highest levels across many different domains in a rapidly changing world.” This is because of the “ability of [liberal arts colleges] to inculcate a love of learning in their students, spurring them on to pursue their areas of interest after graduation,” which leads graduates to “make their mark in society across diverse fields” and pursue postgraduate studies.
In the arts, Abdul Hamid’s ‘17 parsetreeforestfire was nominated for the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize while Roshan Singh’s ‘18 final-year capstone project, Temujin, an audio drama about the early life of Genghis Khan has won multiple awards at the Asian Podcast Awards and Audio Verse Awards. Like Roshan’s work, Chelsea Cheo’s ‘17 capstone play, Wedding Pig, was staged at the Asian Youth Theatre Festival and recently commissioned and adapted into a digital series for Viddsee. The numerous and varied successes of Yale-NUS graduates are testaments to the impact that their Yale-NUS education had on them.
Guided by a sense of service, Yale-NUS students have also applied their education to create a positive impact in society. For example, many students and graduates have been at the forefront of the local climate movement, founding such initiatives as the Singapore Climate Rally, the Sustainable Solutions Network and GreenCheck. Supported by a Yale-NUS grant, several Yale-NUS students founded I’mpart to help at-risk and underserved youths reintegrate into society. Last year, David Chia ‘17 was part of a team which developed Call Home, an award-winning tech solution to help migrant workers stay connected with their loved ones during the lockdown.
Lest the foregoing paragraphs be misunderstood as self-aggrandizement or hubristic exceptionalism, the point is not to say that Yale-NUS is so special or unique that its closure spells the end of academic excellence and freedom in Singapore. It is unfortunate that in articulating their grief over the loss of Yale-NUS, some alumni and students were misunderstood to have expressed such views. Instead, it is to counter the inaccurate conclusions that have been drawn that the Yale-NUS project has failed. If anything, it was precisely the success that Yale-NUS has achieved that appears to have motivated the merger to offer liberal arts to more students in Singapore.
This desire to expand liberal arts education to more students is clearly a laudable goal. However, it would be unfortunate if the NUS administration believes that it will be able to replicate Yale-NUS’s success with the heavy-handed approach it has taken in making the decision to merge Yale-NUS and USP. If there is one central ingredient to Yale-NUS’s success, it was the college’s emphasis on its existence as a “community of learning.” This meant that students, staff, faculty and administration recognized that we were all equal partners in the Yale-NUS project. College administrators and staff regarded students not as consumers or clients, but as colleagues and collaborators who actively engaged each other.
What now for the New College?
The inception of New College has already been marked by controversy with the NUS administration’s troubling failure to engage with or consult anyone from Yale-NUS or USP until the merger decision had already been finalized; at the time of writing, a petition campaign #NoMoreTopDown calling for the reversal of the mergers has attracted over 10,000 signatories. This careless top-down approach towards the establishment of the New College has been most unfortunate and has raised difficult questions about higher education, bureaucracy, and academic freedom in Singapore.
Given the short runway that the New College has to welcome its first batch of students in August 2022, it is all the more critical that Yale-NUS and USP play a central role in setting up its curriculum, policies, and culture. There are many differences between Yale-NUS and USP, and distilling our experiences to identify the key features to be transplanted to the New College is going to involve much deliberation and debate.
If the New College is to succeed, this spirit of community and partnership must persist as we work towards planning and establishing Yale-NUS and USP’s successor. NUS administrators must recognize the Yale-NUS and USP administration, faculty, students, and alumni as equal partners in the New College experiment. We must be involved at every stage and in every decision to ensure that the New College is the amalgamation of the best of both Yale-NUS and USP. Anything less and we worry that the New College will not only fail to replicate the successes that our respective colleges have achieved, but also mark the real death of liberal arts in Singapore.
This is a crucial process, one which has also been central to the ethos of our respective institutions. NUS administrators must not think themselves capable of replacing this egalitarian process with the technocratic methods that they may find more comfortable or convenient; to do so would be a hubristic recipe for failure.
In making sense of the merger, it may be easy to simply dismiss the Yale-NUS project as a failure. Make no mistake: the liberal arts experiment has not failed. We are now at the next stage of this experiment, which began almost three decades ago with the 1999 NUS Talent Development Programme (TDP) and the 1999 Core Curriculum Programme. These programs led to the establishment of USP, which furthered Singapore’s interest in the liberal arts, and culminated in the partnership with Yale to set up Yale-NUS. The merger may sting for many who struggle with a sense of betrayal and loss. However, not all is lost—yet. Neither Yale-NUS nor USP failed, but the New College very well might. Now is our chance to ensure that it won’t.
Daniel Ng graduated in 2019 from the Double Degree Programme in Law and Liberal Arts jointly offered by Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law. He furthered his studies at Tsinghua University as a Schwarzman Scholar, and is now a practicing lawyer.
Daryl Yang graduated in 2019 from the Double Degree Programme in Law and Liberal Arts jointly offered by Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law. He is currently pursuing a Master of Laws at Berkeley Law School as a Fulbright scholar.
Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor Photo | Martin Choo (he/him)
At around 1:30 pm today, students from Yale-NUS College, the University Scholars Programme, and members of the wider NUS community released a petition to reject the recent merger decisions of several NUS colleges, with the slogan “#NoMoreTopDown.”
In the petition, the students declared: “We reject the National University of Singapore’s recent merger decisions. Inexcusably, the affected parties were only informed after the decisions were made.”
The petition is hosted on Change.org, and contains a link to a longer document detailing the students’ full demands.
The petition called for the rejection of the mergers on three main grounds: first, that the mergers “lack transparency and fail to meaningfully involve the affected stakeholders in the decision-making process”; second, that the merger is “ineffective” in achieving the goal of interdisciplinary education; and third, that the mergers were indicative of a failure to “ensure the welfare of both students and staff.”
The petition then listed four main demands towards NUS.
It first called on NUS to “reverse the New College and CDE mergers and reconsider the CHS merger in line with comprehensive student and staff input.”
Second, the petition demanded that NUS “ensure that all relevant bodies are centered in NUS policy discussions.”
Third, the petition called for “greater agency over their academic programmes” for students and staff.
Finally, the petition demanded a “review [of] gaps in NUS’s current framework for student and staff welfare.”
Upon the petition’s release, messages were circulated internally within the NUS community’s Telegram and Facebook groups. The hashtag #NoMoreTopDown also began to surface in these groups, referring to the petition’s slogan.
“The petition is jointly written by, and therefore reflects, the concerns of students across NUS,” wrote one student. The student then encouraged the community to share and sign the petition against the “unaccountable, impractical and harmful” mergers.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of the article stated that the petition described the merger’s goal of interdisciplinary education as “ineffective.” In fact, the petition described the merger as “ineffective” in achieving the goal of interdisciplinary education.
Story | Shaharaj Ahmed (he/they), Guest Writer Photo | Darren Ang (he/him)
The idea of the New College is one many of us can get behind. For me, the underlying motivation seems to be to expand on the Yale-NUS College education model for a larger population of 2,000.
While the announcement on August 27 showed signs of other motivations, I do not seek to discuss those here. I seek instead to say that the NUS Administration (NUS) has come up with an infeasible plan for a college—that its decision is misguided and disconnected from material constraints such as Yale-NUS classroom sizes, a lack of residential spaces, and an awaiting administrative hullabaloo. I am sure NUS is aware of these issues, yet it has seemed to adopt a “kick the can down the road” approach by asking us to direct questions toward the yet-to-be-formed New College committees.
NUS has signaled that the New College will be built on Yale-NUS’s Common Curriculum (CC). I welcome this approach. Ask any Yale-NUS student and, while they may complain about Scientific Inquiry, they will agree that it nurtures academic rigor and intellectual growth.
However, NUS misses the point of the CC in two ways. First, its plans to expand our 18-person maximum class size to 25 people for New College’s CC classes is misguided because Yale-NUS’s classrooms were designed for 18 people. Out of our 23 classrooms, there are only three that can accommodate that many people, besides the three lecture theaters which are not ideal for CC classes. Let us also not forget COVID-19, which has forced our College to shift classes to these select locations at odd hours and during the weekend. If NUS plans to demolish other facilities in our College to make way for safe distancing-compliant 25-person classrooms just as it did to Yale-NUS College for the New College, so be it.
Second, speaking in front of 18 people is one thing, but public speaking in front of 25 people is another matter. I remember vividly from my first CC classes the anxiety and performance issues that come with such large audiences. Our education model is already a compromise between intellectual debate that comes when people are not afraid to speak and packing in as many people as possible. Through expanding it, the New College’s CC will lose the intellectual rigor that emerges due to the intimacy of our relatively smaller class sizes. To me, it doesn’t seem that NUS understands the trade-offs in collective anxiety and intellectual rigor that come with larger groups.
Yale-NUS has spent many years training its professors to recognize these fears and balance such trade-offs via the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL). I fear that we will lose Yale-NUS’s discoveries in finding the optimal balance between intellectual pursuit, mental well-being, and economizing students per class. If the New College’s CC is its biggest selling point, NUS has stunted its success from Year 0 by ignoring what we’ve done so far.
Another aspect of Yale-NUS that NUS doesn’t seem to understand is our residential life. Living together is the complement to our liberal arts education as it allows for the praxis of knowledge. Yale-NUS students are not Yale-NUS students because of what is taught to us, but because we argue about it, apply it, and embody it, wherever and whenever.
The most obvious flaw in the plan is that USP and Yale-NUS College combined have 1,600 beds for a planned 2,000 undergraduates at any one time. Thus, residential life will be designed such that a significant proportion will be unable to get the four-year on-campus experience. This discussion is not about the construction of a residential community and spirit, but about the furthering of academic immersion.
The second, more subtle, point is that as NUS plans to merge Yale-NUS College and USP together, it is obvious that the undergraduate community will need to be split across each college’s residence. This spatial disjunction will mean that students will not live, play, and study under the same roof by design. They will find it difficult to establish a common culture and shared language. Similarly, they will find it hard to continue the intellectual immersion of the CC when students need to traverse the physical distance back and forth between Yale-NUS and USP. Just as it is difficult for firms to build a working culture through Zoom and not in the physical workplace, it will be challenging for New College people to build a shared rigorous intellectual mindset because NUS has ignored the physical distance and barriers between Yale-NUS and USP.
Lastly, there will be administrative turmoil. Our College’s administration has manifested in many forms, each finely tuned to student and faculty needs. Think the Centre for International & Professional Experience (CIPE) being aware of the difficulties of marketing a liberal arts degree and meeting with employers day in and day out to advocate for our potential, the CTL initiating focus groups and research projects to understand inclusivity and diversity needs, or Wellness or the Dining Experience Team or Residential Housing or any other Yale-NUS admin department. Each one has evolved to understand us.
I am not making the argument that because our departments are unique, they shouldn’t be closed. I am making the argument that the ideological differences between departments in Yale-NUS and USP about how best to serve students, as well as the many hardships that come in coordinating due to Yale-NUS and USP’s physical segregation, will make it hard for New College’s admin to provide an optimal experience for the New College students. I agree, these will be smoothed over with time. But fundamental ideological differences will continue to present a logistical challenge to New College’s support systems as USP and Yale-NUS operations supposedly “merge.” I foresee that one may have to give way to the other, and I do not like the thought of the Yale-NUS admin losing the results of hard won experience.
Yale-NUS College has been a dream ten years in the making. It began in 2011, with two years of planning by some of the most daring and brightest academic entrepreneurs for 250 students. NUS is now planning to do the same in four months with twice the student intake of Yale-NUS. If you ask me, NUS’s plan reeks of intellectual hubris, bureaucratic misunderstanding of what makes us us, and absolutely reeks of the impulsive decision of a spoiled child. It is for all these reasons that I am against the closure of Yale-NUS College and the formation of New College. If NUS were to solve these issues first, I would support the plan to expand Yale-NUS.
Lastly, regardless of whether the New College succeeds or not, what is certain is that if it is implemented, Yale-NUS will cease to exist. What must not be lost is all that we have built, be it in our academic life, our residential component, or our administration, our efforts must be preserved into our new, and (supposedly shared) normal.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: email@example.com
Story | Suman Padhi (she/her), Contributing Writer Photo | Darren Ang (he/him)
My entire summer has been spent in constant excitement for college—this new, unknown phase of my life that will be an important milestone in my future professional and personal life. Like many other freshmen and the eight other batches before me, I came in with lots of hopes, dreams, and ideas to join this vibrant community and go through new experiences.
Though I’m still unable to make it to campus, the idea that I’d be able to join my classmates on campus soon and avail myself of the numerous opportunities afforded to me as a Yale-NUS College student kept me going. It’s only the third week of school, and we were bombarded with the fact that we are the last group of Kingfishers ever. I don’t know what this means for any of us.
When I talk to my classmates, they echo my feelings of uncertainty, fear, and despondency. I feel betrayed, hurt, and left out by a school administration that told me I was going to get a liberal arts education worthy of any top-tier liberal arts school in the U.S., whilst experiencing the melting pot and pan-Asian culture of Singapore. Now, I don’t know if I will get this. The promises made seem false to me now. My future as a Yale-NUS student is uncertain. Upon my graduation, my alma mater will essentially be defunct. Gone. I’ll never have the privilege of being able to return to these walls, these gardens, these facilities where I will have lived and learned for some of the most important years of my life.
It’s saddening to know that the freedom and opportunities that were provided by this safe space of liberal thought will no longer exist in the future. I am not only disheartened for myself and the batches that came before me, but also for the future classes who will never get to experience Yale-NUS and its unique culture. They’ll never know the wonders and struggles of our Common Curriculum that bond us together as a batch and as a school, nor will they know the wonders of Halcyon or Gohan or the kitties that live by Elm. Forevermore from 2022, we will be fragmented—never to be fully whole again. Yale-NUS is the corner of Singapore where students are free to be themselves; to flaunt their personality, their sexuality, and themselves without fear, and now I fear that this will no longer be the case.
I am upset. I am angry. I am grieving the loss of a school that I never got to fully experience. Being away from campus as an online student presents its own set of struggles, as I grapple with my own disbelief and hurt whilst desperately wanting to be on campus. My screams were not heard. My tears were not seen. My anger and grief were not felt.
But, as I write this, I remain intently grasping that thin string of hope that promises that maybe things will be alright. Yale-NUS students have always been resilient no matter what. We have bounced back before and I am fully sure that we will again. As I “Take Root” in YNC culture for the last time, I will remember to cherish every single memory that I will make in these four years, and keep it close to my heart.
Story | Xie Yihui (she/her), Editor-in-Chief and Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor Photo | Darren Ang (he/him)
Many senior figures at Yale University, NUS, and Yale-NUS College did not have a say in the decision to merge Yale-NUS with the University Scholars Programme, including the Yale-NUS Governing Board.
In an email exchange with The Octant today, President of Yale-NUS College Tan Tai Yong explained that the merger decision was only shared with Governing Board for information, and it was under “procedural obligations” to endorse Yale-NUS’s management and transition plans in the next few years.
Prof. Tan did not comment when asked about the breakdown of votes from the Yale-NUS Governing Board.
The partnership agreement between Yale and NUS states that either party is allowed to withdraw unilaterally in 2025 with at least one year’s notice. Tan confirmed that Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, would have preferred to continue the development of Yale-NUS, but respected NUS’s direction as the decision had been finalized by the time NUS approached him.
Meanwhile, the decision-making at the NUS side remained opaque. The Octant reached out to Bernard Tan, Senior Vice Provost (Undergraduate Education) and Erle Lim, Vice Provost (Teaching Innovation & Quality). The former stated that he was not yet involved in the New College after the decision was announced and the latter said he was the wrong person to ask for this information.
Tan Tai Yong could not comment on the Ministry of Education’s involvement in the decision, because he was “not privy to it.”
When asked about possible actions of recourse regarding the unpopular decision, Tan was not optimistic: “I don’t think there is a realistic possibility of reversing the decision. That ship has sailed.”
“The two main stakeholders who would have to change their minds for a revision to happen are NUS and Yale.”
At press time, The Octant is awaiting responses from other key NUS administrators.
CORRECTION: The earlier version of the article mistakenly stated that Yale-NUS Governing Board was under procedural obligations to endorse the merger of Yale-NUS and USP and that Prof. Tan Tai Yong believed that the lack of possibility of recourse is due to little participation of key stakeholders in the merger decision. We have also updated the article to reflect the comments from two senior NUS administrators more accurately. We apologize for the mistakes and the lack of clarity.
Story | Shawn Hoo (he/him), Guest Writer Photo | Martin Choo (he/him)
Under the guise of “educational innovations,” the top leadership of the National University of Singapore (NUS) has unilaterally decommissioned Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme (USP) without so much as a warning to alumni, students, staff, or faculty.
The NUS President’s Office has a slick marketing campaign to sell this new beast to the media and his prospective students. Assembled from the dissolved limbs of two teenage institutions: it will be fresh and “interdisciplinary,” to help undergraduates navigate this “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world”—all this at a “greater scale” since bigger is, invariably, better.
In reality, the ingredients that make up this beast—the New College—are much more sinister: the liberal arts and neoliberalism. Although it is instinctive to think of the free thinker as opposed to the logic of profit, universities worldwide have discovered that the two can be rather compatible bedfellows as employers begin to value critical thinking, cross-disciplinary training, creativity, managed debate and disagreement, and the whole gamut of liberal arts-speak.
After controlled experiments at a miniature scale—two decades for USP and just a single decade for Yale-NUS—the two institutions have grown old enough for slaughter. They have fattened us sufficiently, and we graduates have proved ourselves exceptionally marketable as employees; NUS too can proudly boast of its liberal credentials and academic freedom (the latter part is, of course, only a veneer). Time then for an upgrade to the neoliberal arts: where an entire philosophy of education is scalable and sellable; where community-making and identity-building can be quickly cut and pasted with a slick new name.
Unfortunately, an intellectual and social community of learners cannot be scaled. This is not an “educational innovation”, it is an age-old way of running and expanding a business. Has this always been the top university administrators’ endgame for these liberal arts ventures? To be slaughtered and then replicated en masse?
For all of us who were, unbeknownst to us, experimental subjects—alumni, students, faculty, staff—Yale-NUS was a place where, we were led to believe, we could truly build a community of learners who studied a curriculum we actively wanted to shape; for all of the well-considered criticism of our cloistered elitism, a real place where we wanted to find out how academic inquiry could meet social engagement; a physical home where residential living can be innovated on with policies such as gender-neutral living (a first on Singapore campuses); a true opportunity to find our place in the higher education landscape in Singapore, in Asia, for the World—or so our vision used to go.
We took every opportunity not just to theorize but to enact what we thought the liberal arts could look like in Singapore. It takes time to build a community, and that’s what this unilateral power move announced by NUS President Tan Eng Chye fails to account for. My heart shatters to even think that this nascent community we were still in the process of building will now be merged, dissolved, evolved, expanded, incarnated—pick your euphemism—and ultimately converted into a business and sold as a catchy innovation.
It would have been laudable to open up more liberal arts initiatives—ones that truly fostered community, academic freedom, intellectual curiosity, social engagement—but this is not one of them. (And this is not even about Yale—who cares about Yale?) What this “strategic realignment” achieves is to dismantle existing communities. Are the values of community making, central to the liberal arts, slowly but surely being transformed into the pursuit of individual competencies and skills? Can we now buy mass-produced free thinking on the market?
And so the university led us to believe that we were subjects with agency to shape our own education; instead, we became the test subjects of this grand neoliberal experiment. Only a results-centered, quantity-driven logic stands behind the thinking that building a new university in order to kill it is considered a kind of innovation.
On July 7, 1980, Nanyang University—the people’s university, the first Chinese-language university outside of China—was closed and merged into the new NUS. Is it appropriate to think of us, those affected by the closure of Yale-NUS and USP, as inheritors of a now well-established tradition of shutting down troublesome institutions and programs, as universities time and again prove that their only loyalty is to profitability, employability, and homogenizing the higher education landscape for easier management and an optimized workforce?
Welcome to the Neoliberal Arts then, which is—I surmise—the only thing that the “New” in New College will ever stand for.
Shawn Hoo is an alumnus from Yale-NUS Class of 2020.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Story | Xie Yihui (she/her), Editor-in-Chief; Ryan Yeo (he/him), and Michael Sagna (he/him), Managing Editors Photo | Tan Shan Min (she/her), Managing Design Editor
It was announced on Friday morning that Yale-NUS College will be merging with the University Scholars Programme offered by the National University of Singapore, precipitating the closure of Yale-NUS by 2025. Yale-NUS will cease accepting new students in the next academic year to pave the way for the merging of both faculties’ multidisciplinary curricula.
The final cohort from Yale-NUS will be the newly matriculated Class of 2025. The existing contracts of Yale-NUS faculty and staff will be honored as they undergo the transition into the larger NUS academic environment. Meanwhile, beginning Academic Year 2022/23, the New College (a placeholder name) will share residential and academic spaces with existing Yale-NUS students as part of a plan for the New College to be accommodated in both campuses.
The decision was announced in an online town hall meeting hosted by Tan Eng Chye, President of the National University of Singapore; Tan Tai Yong, President of Yale-NUS; Pericles Lewis, Founding President of Yale-NUS; Dave Stanfield, Yale-NUS Dean of Students; Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice-President of Academic Affairs; and Kay Kuok Oon Kwong, Chair of Yale-NUS Governing Board.
The dissolution of Yale-NUS was initiated by Prof. Tan Eng Chye, who also happens to be a Yale alumnus. He raised the idea to the Ministry of Education in June. In July, he then approached Peter Salovey, the current President of Yale University, with the merger decision already made. Although Yale would have preferred to continue the development of Yale-NUS, Salovey respected NUS’s direction and approved the merger.
Tan said this was part of a larger strategic realignment that NUS has been pursuing since 2018. The original affiliation agreement on Yale-NUS College had allowed for a review in 2025 when either partner could decide to withdraw from the partnership with one year’s notice.
The merger institution is committed to offering the same degree of excellence as Yale-NUS with the full scope of academic, residential, and co-curricular programs.
The mood was downcast when The Octant met with the school administration yesterday. During the meeting, Prof. Tan Tai Yong said the decision was made by NUS, and the news came to him as a fait accompli. The Yale-NUS Governing Board was then asked to endorse the management and transition plan on Monday.
To alleviate concerns about cornerstones of the Yale-NUS education, Prof. Salovey affirmed in a statement: “The Governing Board [which he is part of] is committed to providing current students with the full Yale-NUS experience and the financial assistance they were promised and to ensuring a smooth and successful transition for the faculty and staff. Also, the College’s policy on academic freedom will remain in place through 2025.”
Salovey said that following the establishment of the New College, Yale-NUS graduates will continue to be alumni of Yale-NUS College, NUS, and the New College, as well as “International Affiliates” of the Yale Alumni Association.
Other more specific plans for the New College are still unclear. A planning committee will be set up to oversee the logistics and structure of the New College, including how students will be arranged in residential colleges and whether or not the New College will have a President.
There will also be a subcommittee to develop a new curriculum for the New College, consisting of faculty members from both Yale-NUS and USP.
Roberts expects that these planning committees will be open to student input, and suggested that interested students share their thoughts once the planning process starts.
Reactions from Administrators and the Faculty
Yale-NUS students and faculty members were shocked and distressed by the information. Shouting was even heard in the minutes immediately after the town hall, as students screamed to mourn the loss of the college. In the afternoon, the college and many student organizations offered a variety of initiatives to provide emotional support to students to help them process the information.
The community felt blindsided by the sudden announcement and lamented the lack of transparency from the administration. An email from President Tan, sent the previous evening, announced a town hall for the next day without information regarding its agenda. All Yale-NUS classes were also canceled, fueling speculations about the gravity of the situation.
Assistant Professor Robin Zheng, whose birthday was on the very same day, was heartbroken on account of all her colleagues and students, present and former: “[Yale-NUS College is] a project into which I and many others have poured blood, tears, heart, and soul for many years—since 2016 for me, since 2013 for students, and longer than that for my inaugural faculty, staff, and colleagues who have been there since the beginning.”
Speaking of the lack of consultation in the decision-making process, she said: “I feel sickened when I think of this: that we live in a world in which a small group of people in a small amount of time can make decisions that will affect so many people and cost so much of their time, energy, labor, mental health, and more.”
“Make no mistake, Yale-NUS is dead. Still, to paraphrase a colleague—just one of many —from whom I’ve learned so much, the people of YNC may not be.”
Associate Professor Andrew Bailey, a member of Yale-NUS’s inaugural faculty who built the college from the ground up, shared the sense of loss. In an email exchange with The Octant, he said: “Today, I mourn. Tomorrow, I get angry.”
The news also came as a shock to the Yale-NUS administration. “We were all surprised at different times,” President Tan Tai Yong reflected. “I was gobsmacked and flabbergasted.”
“But with the passage of time, you feel a bit different. You rationalize, and say: ‘Okay, you know, the decision has been taken—that ship has sailed.’ We understand NUS’s ambitions; they are trying to achieve a greater good to expand this model of education for a bigger group of students.”
Roberts echoed these sentiments. “I think about what’s been built and accomplished in such a short period of time, and how special it is. It’s difficult to think about letting some of that go, but I am honored to have been given the role to steward some of the vision of this place.”
“I think part of that vision and an important core value of this community is to take care of each other. That’s what the next four years will be about: to care for our students and ensure they have the best and fullest experience here, and also to care for our faculty and staff during this transition.”
“The College is going to leave our mark on Singapore, that this was a transformative institution with inspiring change-making students and alumni. They will have a legacy that long outlives the name chipped in granite by the side of the road.”
Dr. Stanfield’s perspective on Yale-NUS was also bittersweet. He shared: “Yale-NUS is amazing. I feel that students are constantly inspiring me and pushing me to be better. I’m learning so much from them all the time. I feel a real attachment to this place, and I’m sad that it can’t continue.”
Despite this, the Dean of Students went on to reaffirm: “I am committed to ensuring that Yale-NUS students have an amazing educational experience for these last four years.”
Reactions from Students
Suman Padhi ‘25 was angry at the decision. “I’m absolutely outraged. Whilst both NUS and Yale have a right to come to this agreement, it’s truly wrecking that they didn’t inform us about this decision earlier.”
GZ ‘23 shared this sentiment. “I’m so angry and confused. I don’t think that they’re telling us the full story. I don’t believe it’s all about paving the way for future graduates in the global economy, the four pillars, and all that rubbish. If they can’t even be honest with us, who are they to spout these high ideals?”
“I’m also angry that they didn’t even give us a chance to prove what our students and our graduates can do,” she continued. “I’m left feeling like it’s our fault as a student body, even though I know it’s not. I feel like a failure; a failed experiment.”
Concerns were also raised among students about the connection they will feel to the college after graduating. Oshea Reddy ‘24 explained: “Going to college is one thing, but also being able to come back to the place and be like, ‘Hey, I went here!’ is another part of it. I feel like they’re robbing us of that experience.”
Other students also raised concerns about how Yale-NUS as a safe space for discourse would change, particularly for marginalized communities. Odette Yiu ‘24 remarked: “I’m concerned that whatever already-limited democracy, free speech, and political possibilities Yale-NUS currently offers may fall under greater state purview. We cannot ignore that Yale-NUS, as a space, has contributed to civil society.”
“I’m also worried about what this means for marginalized communities in Yale-NUS, such as queer folks, who at least have some level of support with the Diversity and Inclusion policies here,” they continued. “Whatever little sense of progressiveness we have is being materially put at risk.”
“Correspondingly, this subsumption into NUS will have an impact that goes beyond our campus that spills over into Singapore at large.”
Many delayed matriculants who are holding offers from Yale-NUS are also disappointed and outraged by this news. Philippe Myanus, an offer holder who is currently serving his National Service, said: “I don’t know what to do moving forward. I feel like I lost the perfect opportunity to be part of a global school, in terms of the student body, faculty, curricula, experiences, and so on. Thankfully, I have the resources to apply elsewhere; I’m going to apply to the U.S. and the U.K. now.”
J, who is also currently a full-time National Serviceman, remarked, “It’s absurd for a university to renege on offers given. This is NUS, an ostensibly world-class institution. Reneging on admission offers like this is anything but the hallmark of a world-class institution. At very least, they should honor offers that were made.”
“Many of us accepted Yale-NUS’s offer and rejected other selective programs in Singapore and overseas. There’s no guarantee that we can reapply for these and be admitted again. We took a chance to be part of a young, exciting community and now it feels we’re being screwed over for taking that chance.”
Among the sense of betrayal and disillusionment, the college’s administration shared some optimism as Yale-NUS enters its final years. “I also think we should go out on a high note,” said Roberts. “Let’s celebrate; let’s have this be the best four years of Yale-NUS College.”
This was as much an emotional moment for Yale-NUS’s President Tan. Joining as the College’s Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) in 2014, he later became the President in 2017. “I have invested almost 10 years of my career in Yale-NUS. You don’t spend that time and effort in building such an important enterprise without building an attachment to it.”
“The feeling is one of immense pride and satisfaction that we have achieved what we set out to achieve: a college that is really world-class. There were many naysayers in the beginning … but we proved them all wrong.”
“Nothing stays still forever. You need to change and they need to grow. Rather than get in the way, I want to see what we’ve achieved grow into something else.”
“I wish the New College every success, and if the New College can take 50% or 60% of Yale-NUS, then its chances of success are very high.”
UPDATE: An earlier version of the article reported that both Yale University and the Yale-NUS Governing Board supported the decision to merge with NUS. Prof. Tan Tai Yong has since reached out with new information that the decision was not supported by Yale, and had already been made by NUS by the time it reached both parties. For more information, read our update here.
Story | Daryl Yang (he/him), Guest Writer Photo | Kimberly Wee (she/her)
In my first year at Yale-NUS College, I had the privilege to take Philosophy & Political Thought (PPT) 1 with Professor Jay Garfield. One of the readings we read was the Milinda Pañha, which records the dialogue between Nāgasena and King Milinda on profound topics in Buddhist thought.
As I reflected on the shocking news that Yale-NUS would soon be no more, I was reminded of part of the dialogue (slightly edited for readability). King Milinda had asked Nāgasena, “He who is born, Nāgasena, does he remain the same or become another?”
In response, Nāgasena asked the king, “Suppose a man were to light a lamp, would it burn the night through?” To this, the king agreed that it would.
“Is it the same flame that burns in the first watch of the night, and in the second? Or the same that burns in the second watch and in the third?” To this, the king responded: “No.”
“Is there one lamp in the first watch, and another in the second, and another in the third?” Again, the king responded: “No.”
“Just so is the continuity of a person or thing maintained. One comes into being, another passes away; and the rebirth is, as it were, simultaneous. Thus neither as the same nor as another does a man go on to the last phase of his self-consciousness.”
The king asked for another example, to which Nāgasena responded: “It is like milk, which when once taken from the cow, turns, after a lapse of time, first to curds, and then from curds to butter, and then from butter to ghee.”
Perhaps, like how milk turns from curd to butter and from butter to ghee, so did the University Scholars Programme (USP) inspire the Singapore government and NUS administration to take a gamble on the liberal arts experiment that is Yale-NUS. Now, the experiment has come full circle as USP and Yale-NUS amalgamate to form the New College.
That there would – could? – be some continuity from Yale-NUS and USP to the New College comforted me. While this is the end of Yale-NUS as we know it, it is not really the end. After all, this is technically supposed to be a merger and if anyone knows how to bring together the best of two disparate, even conflicting, entities, it is us. That’s what we have been working on at Yale-NUS since our inception: the project of transplanting liberal education from the “liberal” West to the Singapore context.
I think it is neither helpful nor accurate to view this merger as the death knell of Yale-NUS, or, for that matter, USP. Rather, it is an opportunity for both of our colleges to come together and demonstrate our ingenuity, innovation, and idealism in co-creating the New College in our collective image. While the merger decision was entirely out of our hands, the establishment of the New College might not be. This would of course not come freely; students, staff, faculty, and alumni will have to exercise our civic muscles to demand that the NUS administration recognize that our involvement is necessary, even essential, if the New College is to succeed.
At this time, we must work together. It is not about whether the New College will be remade in either USP’s or Yale-NUS’s image. We are in fact not as different as some among us might like to think. I say this as a former Yale-NUS student who spent much of his time at USP during my years in college because of my deep personal and professional connections to USP. Both Yale-NUS and USP students—past and present—dream of and work towards a better world. This is not the time for petty rivalries or tribalistic exceptionalism. It is the time for collective action. We are not each other’s enemies; we are respectively the stone and sling of David. The merger was Goliath’s first move, what will ours be?
I don’t think it is productive to fantasize about returning to the world before August 27, 2021. The deed is done: the institutions have morphed from milk to curd to ghee. These changes were inevitable and I believe everyone knew that this merger would happen someday. We simply didn’t expect it to occur so soon. What we can do now is decide how the ghee will turn out. We can put our hands up in defeat and let the powers that be decide, or we can demand our rightful seats at the table.
Minimally, I believe there are three essential features of Yale-NUS and USP that the New College must retain. Otherwise, it would not be an evolution of milk to curd to ghee; it would just be milk and something entirely different, perhaps vinegar. The continuity across our institutions must be the central guiding principle in the conceptualization and establishment of the New College.
Firstly, the success of Yale-NUS as a community of learning and USP as a transformative learning environment rests on the academic freedom we currently enjoy. The success of the community rested on the freedom to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations, experiment with new and unorthodox solutions, and immerse ourselves in the world beyond the classroom. The New College must guarantee that its students and faculty will continue to enjoy this freedom to inquire, investigate and innovate. Without this freedom, any promise of critical thinking or engaged learning at the New College would ring hollow.
Second, one of the key contributions of Yale-NUS and USP to both NUS and larger Singapore is the revitalization of active student engagement with the social problems confronting our college communities and beyond. USP was the first university program in Singapore to publish a set of guidelines on sexual respect in the college in consultation with its gender equality student interest group, Gender Collective.
A few years later, Yale-NUS introduced gender-neutral housing on the NUS campus for the first time after the inaugural batch of students, led by the College’s gender and sexuality alliance, The G Spot, campaigned to ensure that their trans and non-binary classmates could feel at home in our community. Together, The G Spot and Gender Collective were two of the five founding member groups of the Inter-University LGBT Network, which has since supported students in other institutions of higher learning to set up their own support networks.
The New College must ensure that existing student groups at both Yale-NUS and USP will be able to continue to operate, particularly those that the NUS administration and the Singapore state might find troublesome or thorny. These student groups are an essential feature of our colleges and their absence will severely limit the nature and quality of education that students in the New College will receive.
Finally, the New College must enshrine our colleges’ policies on diversity and anti-discrimination, mental health, sexual misconduct, and survivor support. These policies are an outcome of the years of advocacy, engagement, consultation, and experimentation by students, staff, and faculty at both Yale-NUS and USP. Students of all identities, backgrounds, and beliefs must be able to feel safe and supported at the New College to pursue their interests and achieve their potential. In addition, the New College must commit to working closely with its students, just as students at Yale-NUS and USP did with their respective administrations, in improving these policies and implementing new policies. Students and faculty must be viewed as partners in the college-building process, not passive consumers or employees.
If these three essential features are guaranteed, I believe that the New College will have the chance to be our institutions’ joint reincarnation. Holding on to this hope, I feel excited by the opportunity for our college communities to be a part of the next chapter of Singapore’s story of higher education. All is not lost; it all depends on what we do next in the coming weeks, months, and years. The New College can still be our ghee, both Yale-NUS and USP’s.
Daryl Yang ’19 graduated in 2019 from the Double Degree Program in Law jointly offered by Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law. He is currently a Fulbright scholar pursuing his LLM at Berkeley Law School. While at Yale-NUS, Daryl served as President of The G Spot and co-founded the Inter-University LGBT Network and the Community for Advocacy & Political Education (CAPE).
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: email@example.com
Story | Soroush Saleh, she/her, Contributing Writer
Photo | Alex McCarthy from Unsplash
Given the level of diversity in our community, we’ve probably all encountered friendly debate or the occasional awkward question from someone attempting to understand something they don’t know about. Sometimes, though, people cross the line with strangely personal questions, or even a few ill-placed insults if their speech is garbled with drink or if they harbor a bias against you. I doubt that’s new for any of us. It gets worse when people ask you to defend your own beliefs in order to convince themselves that you’re wrong.
Before I tell you a story, I wish to mention this caveat. Yes, I am Muslim. Yes, I have studied my own religion and come to my own understanding, partially guided by authority figures in my life. If your beliefs conflict with mine, I promise I’m not assuming my interpretation is correct. I am simply giving the specifics of my belief system for illustrative purposes.
A few weeks after I’d graduated from high school, I got a call from an old friend. He went to a different school and still had classes to attend to fulfil graduation requirements. After some small talk, he asked me an odd question: “How many pillars of Islam are there?”
His school, a Christian school, requires students to take a World Religions course. I knew this, but hadn’t yet associated it with this strange query.
Most Muslims know the answer immediately, and I’m no exception. “Five, why do you ask?” I expected him to mention a Model United Nations related argument, but his answer took me by surprise. “My teacher says there are six. Are you sure?” I was shocked. “Positive. Your teacher says that? What’s his source?” He chuckled. “My teacher’s reading from the Pocketbook of Religions, which says that the sixth pillar is jihad.”
‘Jihad’ is an Arabic word that refers to a struggle for a good or praiseworthy cause. However, most people assume it directly refers to religious war. I guess the Pocketbook assumed it meant the latter.
I still tried to assume the best. “Perhaps he meant Jihad al-Akbar, the struggle against yourself to stop or limit sinful inclinations. It’s not a pillar, but it’s important,” I said. My friend sighed. “I’ll ask. Hold on.” He promptly dashed my hopes. “He doesn’t think so. He got mad at me for using class time to do my own research.”
Anger was rising in me, but I couldn’t ask any more questions because he had to return to class. He left me with the promise of a call to explain everything.
He called again after half an hour and invited some of his classmates. Together, they regaled me with stories of the other religions they’d studied. They told me tales of incorrect information about Judaism and Hinduism as well, but mostly about Islam. As many of them were Christian or atheist, their information came from Google. Their efforts to clarify the information in the class were mostly ignored or punished.
They all asked me to speak to their teacher, but I refused. Who was I to start questioning a teacher, especially one I didn’t know? I told them to call me again if there was any more trouble. I thought that was the end of it. Oh, how wrong I was. The next day, I got an email from my friend, containing only an attached presentation and a subject line that read “enjoy this travesty.”
Unsure of what to expect, I opened the attachment. The title of the presentation was “Violence in Islam.” Below it were two photos, one of hadith books and one of an extremist group. Incredulous, I scrolled down and read every slide of the presentation. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that for every sentence containing correct information, there were three incorrect or incomplete ones.
I saw red. I couldn’t let this continue. I decided to call my friend and listen in on his class. If his teacher really taught that rubbish to them, I would try to step in.
The teacher began the class by sharing two articles, one about a Christian who decided to convert to Islam and become an extremist, and another about a Muslim who had decided to become a Christian. Both articles sang praises of Christianity and did not hold back with their criticism of Islam. While they were perfectly entitled to do so, the cherry-picking of stories showed a distorted picture of what Islam is. There is a reason why almost 2 billion people worldwide are Muslims.
Throughout the teacher’s presentation, I was telling my friend everything I could think of as evidence against what was being taught: historical accounts, the biases of certain translators, and interpretations of the quotes, to name a few.
I was caught up in the moment, enjoying the teacher’s momentary sputtering whenever I spoke through my friend. Right before his class ended, I had an epiphany. I could end this straight at the source by simply confronting his teacher. I asked my friend for the Zoom link and waited.
When he let me in, the teacher treated me courteously. Even after I mentioned I was Muslim and that I’d heard every word of his presentation, he did not seem alarmed nor guilty. He asked me if he’d done a good job, apparently in complete earnest.
I cannot tell you how angry I got. I was hanging on to my calm demeanor by a thread. I had to take several seconds to calm down by reminding myself that I had to stay composed in order to explain clearly. With all the patience I could muster, I informed him that his presentation contained false and incomplete information. Knitting his eyebrows together, he asked me which part. For the next twenty minutes, I explained all the lacking areas and provided him with places he could look for verification and more information. Surprisingly, he absorbed it and, when I had finished, he apologized.
Then, he asked why I wanted to correct something that wouldn’t affect me. My response was simple. It had affected me. Not his teaching, per se, but the principle behind it. By teaching that Muslims are inherently violent, he was propagating the idea that we are lesser humans or even savages. That creates fear, creates hatred—you can’t ignore the product of that. Discrimination. Hate crimes. Someone’s teaching had ended up hurting and killing students at my old school and people in my religious community back home. What good reason is there for furthering that?
He interrupted me then, saying that he was teaching in a Christian school and that the school had regulations. I almost scoffed. I’m no expert in Christianity, but I’m fairly sure that they preach that everyone is equal in the eyes of the Lord. Before I left the meeting, I told him that my intention was not to confront or undermine him as a teacher, although if I’m being honest, a little part of me wanted that. Instead, I simply wanted him to exercise caution in teaching religions that are not his own.
That was the end, or so I thought. Yet, a day later, my friend forwarded me an aggressive email he’d received from that teacher. Here’s what he said: “Your friend mentioned [something] in our conversation yesterday. I did some research and just wanted to let you know that her statement was incorrect.” He went on to defend the information in his presentation and asked what I thought. He even implied that my beliefs were misguided.
I wrote a response, providing evidence of my own and questioning the validity of the websites he’d attached. I even translated part of the Quran to defend what I’d said. After it was sent, we let it go.
Many students in the class reached out to me and thanked me for being brave. Honestly, I don’t think I was. I can’t tell you how much crippling self-doubt and anxiety I experienced throughout this ordeal. I only did what I did because I was angry and because he was no real threat to me—after all, he didn’t control my grades. However, not every situation is like that.
We’ve arrived at the end of my story. I’m not telling you this because I expect praise for what I did. In fact, I don’t think I handled it very well: I put my friend at risk by making him the go-between. The curriculum hasn’t changed, although I hear from younger students that the teacher is now a lot more careful about what he says. There was only one real advantage to what I did: Nobody in my friend’s class believes the misinformation they had to learn.
Word spreads fast, so many subsequent students in that school also know not to believe everything they hear in that class without sufficient evidence. If this incident hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be telling you this story.
We should all try to correct as much misinformation as possible. The problem lies in when you’re asked to speak for others or when your beliefs aren’t respected. We’ve all definitely had experiences like that. Some of us (including me) have had too many to count. Here are a few pointers for the next time you correct someone.
(Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting you take these tips and go out into the world looking for people to fight. Use these when you need to, at your own risk.)
Stay calm. Nothing good comes from raised voices. It could create more problems. If you need to take a few deep breaths or step away for a while, do it.
Try not to make claims that you’re not 100% sure about. We often get carried away and say things that we’re not sure about. However, there’s a chance that the person you’re conversing with will research whatever you say. If you make such a claim, make sure the person knows that it’s your opinion or belief.
There’s strength in numbers. If you must confront someone, it’s always better if there’s someone with you to help guide the discussion. They don’t have to be involved, but just having another person there will probably make the conversation more civil and easier to follow.
Know when to walk away. I cannot stress this enough. Some people will say anything to get a rise out of you. Don’t give them that satisfaction. If the other person is not making any effort to understand you, it’s a lost cause. Let it go.
You can make the world better by spreading knowledge and lessening ignorance. Good luck, and, dare I say, Godspeed.
Traveling during a worldwide pandemic is stressful enough. What happens when you add a deadline, a typhoon, and a race across the country?
Story | Kriti Andhare, she/her, Contributing Writer
Photos | Eric Hu, he/him
Illustration | Luca Lim, they/them
Sitting in a fragrant tea cafe in Shanghai, engaged in a spirited conversation with a friend, it was the picture of calm normalcy. Little did I know that these would be my last moments of peace before the most arduous and stressful 24 hours of my life.
From the Vikings battling the bone-chilling temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean to the sweat-inducing hassle of long queues and unnecessarily rude questions at immigration, traveling has never been an easy feat. Eric Hu ‘25’s experience of flying to Singapore rivals even the trials of Odysseus.
Eric, poised to depart from Wuxi, China to Singapore on an 8 am flight on July 26, is enjoying a tea and thought-provoking conversation with MQ, a dear friend and veteran traveler. It is the afternoon before his flight. Earlier in the day, a typhoon had hit the eastern coast of China. Not wanting to risk being caught by the typhoon, Eric and his family decided to drive from Shanghai to Wuxi in the evening and stay there overnight.
Walking through the streets of Shanghai towards the cafe, my phone buzzes in my pocket: a call from a family friend. Unexpected but not unwelcome, I pick up the phone. My walk slows to a standstill. The typhoon has cut their electricity and Wi-Fi. Okay, I need to take this in my stride and assess my options. Should I leave earlier for Wuxi? Are the flights affected? Bubbles of anxiety form in my stomach, finding their way to the surface. I quickly open the Air Traffic Control (ATC) app, my heart dropping a little when I read that only 27% of flights are on schedule. Nevertheless, delays are human and routine; nothing out of the ordinary. Everything is under control.
Specks of worry begin to settle at the back of Eric’s mind, unsatisfied by his own rationalization, as he continues towards his tea appointment. Stepping through the threshold of the cafe, the calm atmosphere assuages his mind. As the tea and conversation begin to flow, the stress melts away.
Ping! The harsh sound of a notification from the ATC app rudely interrupts our conversation. As I pull my phone out to check what it says, the typhoon doesn’t seem so distant anymore. “Your flight has been canceled,” the dreaded message greets me. My eyes scan the message again; surely I have read this wrong. I blink in frustration, hoping the milliseconds of nothingness will somehow change the message, but it stares ominously back at me. I shake my head, clearing my scattered thoughts. I need to take this step by step. I need to find another flight. My fingers fly over my keyboard, making silly spelling errors. No matter how hard I press the search button or how many times I refresh my screen, all flights to Singapore have either been canceled or sold out.
If Eric doesn’t fly out on the 26th, he will not be able to enter Singapore until the first or second week of August. The urgency and gravity of the situation rapidly unfolds in his mind. He won’t be able to get to Singapore in time for Orientation. Or will he?
“Have you tried for flights from Chongqing?” MQ asks. “I believe there is a direct flight from Chongqing to Singapore.”
Eric keys in the information frantically, and yes! One ticket is still available for July 26. He instantly books it and realizes that he just snagged the last ticket in all of China to Singapore. As he places his phone down on the table, another thought hits him like a ton of bricks. Chongqing is 1,700 km west of Shanghai. High risk, high reward, he thinks to himself. At that very moment, his phone buzzes again. It is an announcement from the Shanghai government: due to the impact of the typhoon, all flights to and from Shanghai have been canceled and both airports in Shanghai have been shut down.
The typhoon continues to brew menacingly, threatening all other forms of transportation.
“There is a high-speed rail between Shanghai and Chongqing; check to see if tickets are still available?” MQ offers. Thank God MQ is here, I wouldn’t know what to do without him.
It turns out that tickets are available for the rail! Perfect. I type in my details and as my finger hovers over the payment button, the app refreshes itself. The typhoon is spreading fast, rendering the train inoperative. I clench my fists in frustration. This typhoon seems hell-bent on denying me entry to Singapore.
“Is there another train I can take?” I ask MQ. “I have until tomorrow noon to get to the airport in Chongqing, so a small detour won’t matter.”
“There is a way. You could take a train to Hefei and then fly from Hefei to Chongqing. I doubt the typhoon will affect Hefei anytime soon.”
Okay, lovely! I have a plan of action. I quickly book the tickets, hoping Hefei is the only detour on my path…
Thanking MQ profusely, Eric rushes out of the cafe, grabs his bags and jumps on the Metro to the Shanghai train station. As his feet touch the Shanghai central station platform, a disembodied voice announces over the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, due to the typhoon, this Metro line has been closed.” Maybe this is his lucky break, the sign that everything is going to go smoothly from now on. Alas, this is simply the first of lasts in this tale.
Counting his blessings, he hurries to the platform for the Hefei train, scheduled to leave at 6:22 pm. A cursory glance at the train schedule at his boarding platform reveals a column of red text reading “canceled.” Eric’s eyes wade through the sea of red. No, this cannot be happening to me. His eyes frantically search the board, landing on an island of yellow: his 6:22 pm train!
The train slowly pulls into the station and all Eric hopes for is a smooth ride. As Eric settles into his seat, the train lurches into motion, scattering his thoughts. He finally begins to relax as China speeds by in a blur of blues and greys through his window. The train makes its scheduled stops, and everything is on time… until Nanjing.
Eric begins to get restless, tapping his fingers on his knee. They have been at the Nanjing station for 20 minutes. As the minutes pass, Eric’s restlessness grows. How long will this delay last? Compulsively checking his watch every five minutes, he shares nervous glances with fellow passengers. After an endless amount of waiting, the train finally lurches back into motion.
However, the typhoon is yet to reveal all of its cards. As a sense of calm begins to resettle over Eric, the hypnotic colors of China’s countryside lulling his stress-addled brain to sleep, the train slows to a stop at an abandoned station.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please remain calm and do not exit the cabin. This is an unscheduled stop to avoid getting in contact with the typhoon.”
Not again! I am not going to reach Hefei in time to get to the airport. I need at least an hour to get there. Eric’s mind continues to spiral as the train refuses to move. Seconds turn into minutes, which turn into hours. A sense of desolation creeps up his spine.
I am not going to be able to reach it in time. I won’t be able to go to Singapore. All these detours, tickets from here and there, all to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no news.
After an eternity and a half, the train finally starts moving again. Checking his watch, Eric realizes he now has exactly one hour to drive to the airport, notwithstanding any further complications.
Finally at Hefei, he disembarks hurriedly, panic setting into his bones as he contacts his cab driver. With one hour on the clock, he leaves Hefei train station in a cab, the driver being emphatically informed of the gravity of Eric’s situation. Driving with speed that would shame Dom Toretto (within the limits of the law of course), he delivers Eric to the airport in the nick of time. Thanking the driver, Eric launches himself out of the cab, grabbing his suitcases and sprinting into the airport, clearing check-in and security in record time.
Plonking into the plane seat, Eric lets out a huge sigh of relief.
I am safely on the plane, everything is finally in order, there can’t possibly be any more complications. Chongqing is too far from the coast of China to be touched by the vicious grip of this typhoon.
Eric’s flight to Chongqing is the last to leave the Hefei airport on that day.
Bleary eyed, Eric disembarks from his flight and reaches his hotel at 3 am on July 26 at Chongqing. Falling into his bed to get some much-needed respite and sleep. High risk, high reward indeed. I deserve this after that ordeal.
Settling into the plush interiors of his room, Eric enjoys his precious moments of peace and a Chongqing chow mein. After catching up on some work, Eric shuts his laptop and begins to reflect on the last few hours. It feels like he has been on the road, buffeted around by the winds of that treacherous typhoon for more than a week.
At 2:45 pm, the much-awaited clarion call of “All passengers on the Singaporean Airline flight bound to Singapore are now called for boarding” plays at the gate.
With a smile that holds the stress, pain, anxiety of the last 24 hours and the joy of finally reaching his destination, Eric boards the flight. At last, with Eric comfortably seated, the flight takes off at 3 pm and Eric reaches Singapore in one piece.
Story | Michael Sagna, he/him, Managing Editor and Billy Tran, he/him, Editor
Photo | Michael Sagna, National University of Singapore
Food is something that can make or break your day. For UTown residents without kitchens, the importance of food is amplified simply because our options are so limited.
So what does UTown have to offer? Which restaurants or stalls are affordable, and which should I avoid? Can I fulfill my dietary requirements in UTown, or am I doomed to ordering Haakon on GrabFood every day?
As a junior, it took me two years to be acquainted with the food options at UTown. Continue reading for a comprehensive review of the restaurants, diners, and stalls of our campus.
Disclaimer: Please note that the Indian stall in Fine Foods and the Nasi Padang restaurant in Foodclique were omitted, as they weren’t open during the testing period.
*NEW* Chop Chop by Putien
The new kid on the block, Chop Chop, is a brand founded by Fujianese Michelin-Star-winning restaurant Putien. Located at the Create Tower in UTown, the restaurant has a well-lit and classy interior, packing a lot of seating into a relatively small space.
Contrary to its glitzy appearance, the range of meals offered is quite limited, serving only 6 main course meals, but understandably so — Chop Chop is not meant to be a Putien imitation. Rather, it offers the more affordable version of a few of the restaurant’s highlights. A main course alone will set you back between $7 and $8, whereas a meal option adds the starter of the day and a drink for just $1 extra.
Though the seaweed starter and Chinese Mustard Porridge are pretty standard, Fried Heng Hwa Bee Hoon is what really stands out. The noodles are aromatic and flavorful, but Putien’s chilli sauce makes the dish dance. Similarly, on its own, the cabbage rice can start tasting boring very quickly, but with chilli it really comes to life. If you’re extra hungry, I would definitely recommend adding the pork bun ($2.90) which is surprisingly well-made for its price point.
No doubt, by next week Chop Chop will already be one of UTown’s favorite foods. Though the price point is higher than other UTown food, so is the quality one can expect from it. Putien knew what it was doing by opening this restaurant in UTown.
Hwang’s, a Korean diner located opposite fine foods on the South side of UTown Green, has grown to become very popular, not just among Koreaboos…
After going to the counter, you are greeted by an endearing Korean uncle or auntie who takes your order, which will be prepared fresh by chefs working in the back. Meals in the eatery are also affordable for most students, with most dishes in the $5 to $8 range including rice, kimchi, and soup. Furthermore, many of the dishes feel healthy.
Highlights include the dolsot bibimbap, tofu soup, spicy beef bowl, and tteokbokki, though you should only buy the tteokbokki earlier in the day otherwise the sauce gets thick and clumpy.
Sapore, pronounced “Sa-poor-ay” rather than “Sa-poor,” is an Italian restaurant also on the south side of the green. Unlike Hwang’s, it is not a lunch-break type of restaurant, and for that reason it is often busier at night.
The restaurant is also unlike Hwang’s in that its main customer base is not NUS students, but rather the (white) Western professors who work here. Every evening, around 7pm, one can observe a huddle of professors dining there, drinking beers and eating pizza. And it’s not difficult to see why: Anyone who has been to the restaurant knows that the scene offers a departure from the over-greasy and over-cheesed Singaporean style of pizza or the weirdly tasteless spaghetti bolognese which is popular in hawker centers’ Western stalls. The flavor of the dishes is well-balanced, even though some of them may not be what is found in Italy.
The price of a meal is somewhat similar to what you would expect in Saizeriya. Whenever I go, I always budget $10-ish for the carbonara, which is decent, or a Quattro Formaggi pizza, and another $5 for the tiramisu which is definitely worth trying if you’re into it. Oh, and be sure to order from the student menu, or things get expensive quite quickly.
Udon Don Bar
Udon Don Bar is a Japanese restaurant on the corner next to the bus stop, specializing in udon and donburi. Its interior is nice and bright with a string of lights which try to encapsulate the vibrance of a place like Shibuya.
Unfortunately, that’s probably the only good thing about it. The food is decidedly mediocre, with the pork donburi being especially flavorless and dry. Couple this with the higher-than-average prices (roughly $10 to $12 for a donburi or udon bowl), and it becomes less and less apparent why the ‘bar’ is often crowded. I would have assumed it’s because the place serves beer, but because its prices are astronomical, at $10 per bottle, it’s rare to actually see anyone drinking in the restaurant.
The whole experience of that restaurant left me scratching my head, but it’s still in business so I guess it’s working for someone.
The Royal’s Bistro
Owned by the cake company Royal’s Cakes, The Royal’s Bistro is a peculiar one just because it is not immediately apparent exactly who its target demographic is.
It’s essentially an expensive Western food place. While you can buy a shepherd’s pie for $8 to $9, other mains like sandwiches, pasta, and lamb are more expensive at $12.90 and $18.90 respectively. At such a price point, you would expect the offerings to be more interesting, but, quite frankly, the menu is rather uninspired. After a few minutes looking at the menu, it becomes obvious that it is just meant to frame the cakes which the place offers, and that they, rather than the food, are the star of the show.
The signature ‘Royal’s Beef Burger’ is essentially a Big Mac without the taste of Mac sauce. Instead, the flavor is meant to be provided by the relish, but I found it to be bland. Conversely, the patty was overpowered by the taste of onions in the mince, which were cut too coarsely to have been well cooked when the patty was on the grill. In this Covid economy, it isn’t clear who is going to spend $12.90 on a burger set that doesn’t even come with a drink. Essentially, Royal’s is to Western food what Udon Don Bar is to Japanese food—a more expensive and mediocre version of it.
However, Royal’s does have some redeeming qualities. The food is freshly prepared, and a lot of the sets come with a side salad which really is dressed well. Though not salty enough for my liking, the fries have a nice crunch to them and are fluffy on the inside. The garlic bread is also known to be good.
Feeling bougie and don’t want to travel out of UTown? Then WaaCow is the way to go. Their rice bowls are carefully crafted. Each bite can sometimes actually melt in your mouth.
But another thing that’ll be melting is a hole in your wallet as each meal averages at least $15 to $20. That being said, they do post weekly deals on their Telegram channel, offering salmon poke or beef bowls from $9.90.
Some notable specials include mentaiko butadon, truffle sukiyaki, and braised butadon—all receiving rave reviews from the general UTown population. In short, WaaCow is a delectable treat every now and then, but let’s be real: We’re college students; we can’t afford this every day.
Located opposite FairPrice Xpress on the lower level of the Stephen Riady Centre, 2359 is a Hong Kongese cafe which sells a variety of dishes from the city. (The name of the restaurant is misleading, however, as they stop serving quite a while before midnight.)
The majority of the menu is based on fried noodles or fried rice. They even have a prep station in the front which allows you to see them making the food. The portion sizes are quite big for the price, which is between $5 to $8 for most dishes.
Everyone I have spoken to about this restaurant seemed quite indifferent to its flavor. The food served is average. It’s the type of place that you yourself wouldn’t recommend going to, but if someone insisted, you would just go. For this reason, the food is uncontroversial but also forgettable.
I would recommend visiting the restaurant if there’s something specific you want to try that is not served elsewhere in UTown, like the truffle fries with grated cheese. These were a favorite of mine in my first year and while the portion size is too large to properly enjoy, they were quite good. Overall, the restaurant makes Hong Kong’s food look mediocre. When borders open again, it’s nowhere near the top of my list to visit.
SuperSnacks, located underneath Foodclique, is NUS’s favorite problematic fast food diner. The diner is infamous for only paying its student workers a measly $8 per hour and it also has a relatively fast staff turnover rate.
Nevertheless, SuperSnacks is popular for its long opening hours. In theory they only close at 2, but in practice they accept final orders around 12:45 am. SuperSnacks is a run-of-the-mill fast food place specializing in chicken burgers and quesadillas (embarrassingly spelt casadias) to fulfil those late-night post-training cravings.
The most popular dishes are probably the soy ice cream and the waffles. (I would recommend staying away from waffles at peak times because, with only two waffle machines, there have been times that I have waited for over 40 minutes for a single waffle.)
For something light, try the chicken and cheese quesadillas. Or if you’re looking for something a bit heavier, the spicy Korean fried chicken burger is a good option.
Located under the ERC, UTown Starbucks is pretty unremarkable. The interior design is clean and bright. It is air conditioned rather strongly. This makes it one of the university’s favorite study spots. Fun fact: The seating area of Starbucks is actually owned by NUS, so there’s no obligation to buy anything to go and sit there.
Regarding food and drinks, Starbucks is the same everywhere, so there’s nothing much to say, except that turning up to seminars with a Starbucks cup feels like class violence, considering that the $6 you pay for a cup of mediocre coffee will buy you a whole meal elsewhere in UTown.
Fine Food, which, rather fittingly, is the bougier of the two food courts, is located up the stairs on the South side of UTown green. The food court boasts a modern and clean white interior, a varied range of seating options, and, most importantly, full air conditioning.
Like all Japanese/Korean places in hawker centers and coffee shops, this restaurant was always going to be cursed. The food is very forgettable, with the chicken which comes on a hot plate lacking any flavor, but overcompensating in oil. On the positive side, the bibimbap is decent, though nowhere near as good as that of Hwang’s.
Though this stall is not bad, it’s certainly not good.
Inhabiting UTown with the more famous TianTian Hainanese chicken rice as a competitor, it was always going to be an uphill battle for this stall. Nevertheless, I reckon that the duck/chicken rice managed to hold its own, not for its chicken rice, which is quite average, but for its duck rice.
The duck, which is quite affordable at about $4, is roasted to perfection, and served with a bowl of rice. It really hits the spot and satisfies cravings whenever they arise, though it may not be something that you eat on a daily basis.
Mixed Greens, a SaladStop! rip-off which recently replaced the Thai food stall, is surprisingly good. Though I initially had trouble finding a coherent mix of bases, greens (known as regular toppings), and proteins (premium toppings), once I perfected it I was able to enjoy a tasty and nutritious bowl of salad.
The secret is not to get a rice base, as the texture goes weird when you add a dressing. The Japanese sesame is a highlight, while the balsamic and olive oil are of lower quality than I would have expected. I would recommend a lettuce and fusilli base, any 3-4 vegetable toppings, and either the duck or the teriyaki chicken.
The only downside is the price. Because a salad is essentially grass, I always find myself having to get a couple of proteins and four to five greens, or I find myself hungry a couple of hours later. All this considered, the salad bowl is slightly on the expensive side, typically ranging between $7 to $8.50 for a bowl. For context, each regular topping is 60 cents and each premium topping is $1.20, on top of a base price.
Otherwise, the stall is a great, healthy addition to the UTown food offering.
Happy Noodle Bar
Happy Noodle Bar offers a range of Singaporean noodles like Laksa, Bak Chor Mee, and Banmian, as well as its own ‘Signature Happy Noodle’ which contains a fried egg, beancurd skin, and a crab stick. I tried the latter and I was pleasantly surprised.
The soup was nice and homely, whereas the noodles were cooked slightly al dente (as they should be). The choice of a fried egg was questionable as it was slightly oily and did not go completely with the dish’s flavors. A soft-boiled egg might have been better suited to the dish, but it certainly wasn’t the end of the world. The rest of the toppings which went into the dish comprised a broad range of intense savor. The meatball and the crabstick, for example, contrasted, though I wouldn’t go as far as saying that they clashed.
Overall, the stall is a good representation of Singapore’s noodles. I would definitely go again, though it’s not anything to write home about.
Five Grains Bee Hoon
Five Grains Bee Hoon sells noodle-based soup dishes with a particular focus on those which are fish-based.
The food is quite straightforward, and the portion sizes are enormous, easily the biggest in UTown. Though I found the spicy noodle soup to be on the oilier side, they hit the spot. Also worth mentioning is the Signature Fish Bee Hoon, which surprisingly doesn’t taste fishy in the slightest, combining homely flavors with well-cooked noodles.
This is probably the most underrated stall in UTown. It’s safe to say that I’ll definitely be returning.
Mixed Vegetable Rice
If Fine Food’s mixed vegetable rice was the only one in UTown, it would probably be just as popular as the Foodclique one is. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
A prisoner of Fine Food’s smaller stall sizes, the stall’s options are nowhere near as expansive as the Foodclique stall’s. Everyone I seemed to speak to about it concluded that the food was unnecessarily greasy. Nevertheless, the customer service is amazing, and the staff are always friendly.
Comparison truly is the thief of joy. This stall’s offerings are nowhere near bad, but they’re not particularly good, either, especially when compared with the other CaiFan stall in UTown. If you end up in FineFoods, however, and have a strong craving for mixed vegetable rice, you may as well try this place. You probably won’t be disappointed.
Replacing Gong Cha which opened in 2018, Nano Partea has big shoes to fill. Though the famous boba brand opened to much fanfare, it shut down before summer.
Within such a context, it is difficult to understand what motivated the owner of Nano Partea to open. If Gong Cha couldn’t be successful, what makes them think that they would be? Is their tea that good?
This is the question I sought to answer when trying Nano for the first time. After discussing the confusing menu with the cashier, I ordered some variation of pearl milk tea, which really wasn’t cheap at about $4. “In a world where LIHO exists and has a $2 student deal, what business does this random boba shop have charging students $4 for milk tea?” I asked myself.
When I tried the tea, however, I understood the appeal. The tea is strong without being overpowering, and the boba is noticeably fresher than that of other boba stores. Another time I went, Nano had run out of boba, and I naively chose the sakura pearls. Safe to say, I’ll never be doing that again.
We’ll have to see if this is enough to keep the stall open and profitable.
Xiao Long Bao
Specializing in Xiao Long Bao, this stall’s dishes are commonly compared to those offered by Din Tai Fung. The XLB stall makes noodles (and dumplings I assume) from scratch in the back, meaning that it’s not uncommon to see them tossing around dough.
This freshness is reflected in the dishes, which are noticeably tastier than those of other stalls. The XLB are served piping hot and filled with soup, perfect for sharing with friends. The chilli oil dumpling noodles are also a popular option, though the freshly made dough the noodles are made with sometimes clumps together, which can be very frustrating. Despite this minor inconvenience, the noodles really do hit the spot, and, rather surprisingly, aren’t too oily. Pair this with great prices ($5 for XLB or $5.50 for noodles), and it’s easy to see why XLB is as popular as it is.
As much as I would love for it to be good, the mala stall at Fine Food can only be described as lackluster. Though the range of options for ingredients is expansive, encompassing a broad variety of vegetables, meats, and tofu. The mala base, on the other hand, is at best mediocre, and at worst, tasteless. I have, countless times, ordered mala from there and been left scratching my head. “Maybe it’s because I ordered Xiaola [less spicy],” I would ask myself. But why should I have to question my mala order? Isn’t it the stall’s job to make whatever I order good?
Wok Fried is one of the simple pleasures in life. The stall serves a variety of dishes, almost all of which are based on the concept of plain rice served and a bowl of soup, served with a fried chicken or pork dish.
The dishes don’t reinvent the wheel—they’re all loosely based on Chinese stir-fried dishes, with dishes like plum fried chicken, and sweet chilli pork. However, what they all have in common is that they’re on the sweeter side, and very satisfying. The soup isn’t anything special, tasting like water, salt, and MSG, though it’s certainly a nice addition to counterbalance the sweetness of the sauces used in the cooking. The stall is also affordable, with most dishes around the $5 mark for NUS students.
Wok Fried encapsulates the idea of simple food done well.
Just walking by the stall, a whiff of the aromatic fried chicken is enough to tempt you into buying it. Taiwan Cuisine lives up to its name, reminding you of the crispy, juicy roadside stalls that you just can’t resist.
They serve fried chicken, mala fried chicken, battered mushrooms, and more. Their standard crispy chicken meal is filling, with a lot more chicken than you would expect, and served with some rice and half a boiled egg. It’ll only cost you $6 too, which is plenty affordable and definitely cheaper than ordering McDonald’s.
This Western stall is unlike the typical ones you see in food courts and hawker centers. Instead of the typical chicken chops, you get to pick and choose the items you want in your meal, similar to Yong Tau Foo.
You can choose from bases such as tomato or carbonara pasta, and then select toppings such as spinach, eggs, or a fish patty. While it may seem simple, their pastas do have a nice and rich taste. Regardless of what you pick, it all comes together in a wonderful medley anyhow.
Plus, the stall owner is lovely, and that’s always an extra reason to visit.
Hong Kong Gourmet
Hong Kong delights is a stall that is easy to miss. Tucked away behind the Kopitiam, the stall serves a variety of Cantonese snacks, including carrot cake, spring rolls, and egg tarts.
The latter were rather disappointing, with the filling tasting more like an omelette than egg tart filling. What’s more, these tarts were made with shortcrust, rather than puff pastry. This meant that the crust was unsatisfying in both texture and sweetness.
The spring rolls, on the other hand, were genuinely delightful, with a thin pastry which delivered a solid crunch yielding to a nice vegetable filling. The stall is also affordable, even for what it is, with spring rolls coming in at roughly a dollar and a half for a roll which is about 13cm long, and egg tarts at $1.20.
Flavours @ UTown (Foodclique)
Flavours @ Utown, known colloquially by the name of its Kopitiam, Foodclique, is located on the western perimeter of UTown green. It has both air-conditioned and open-air sections, with the latter allowing for small birds to fly happily around the stalls.
The Japanese stall here has the typical menu items you’d expect—katsu chicken, katsu fish, and curry rice. The portions are big and hearty, the curry has a nice flavor to it, like your standard Japanese stall. Sometimes, the curry can be a bit on the sweeter side, but then again, it does the job.
There’s nothing too special about the stall, but if you’re suddenly craving some katsu chicken with curry rice, then this is the place to go.
Yong Tau Foo
The Yong Tau Foo place in Foodclique is surprisingly good. The first time I went for Laksa… I was really amazed by how creamy and spicy the dish was, and how I had never tried the stall, which is seemingly a favorite among students.
Since then, I have been there multiple times, and have been disappointed almost every time to find that they had run out of laksa soup base. It’s very awkward to learn this at a Yong Tau Foo place, especially during a pandemic, because I couldn’t turn around and put the pieces I had picked back. Every time, I would stutter and take some other soup option which, in all honesty, just ended up being mediocre.
Despite this, the Yong Tau Foo items were actually quite good. I don’t know exactly what it is about them, but they tasted fresh (yes, I know they’re heavily processed), and were much more flavorful than the ingredients of other stalls I have attended outside NUS.
$$(and a half)
The Western stall, like so many other Western stalls around in Singapore, belongs to Astons. That being said, what you get is a reliable place for a solid chicken chop. With a wide menu selection ranging from seven different flavors of chicken chop, steaks, pork chops, and pasta, there’s plenty to choose from.
Each meal comes with two side dishes that you can choose, with the choices including mashed potatoes, fries, coleslaw, garden salads, and more. Although it is slightly more expensive than other meals in UTown, you do get a slightly bigger portion and more protein for that bulking up.
A student favourite, the Taiwanese stall offers a range of dishes which center around Taiwanese style noodles and rice.
The stall, like Fine Food’s Xiaolongbao stall, has big Din Tai Fung energy, cooking a few dishes which can be found on the famous restaurant’s menu. Whether you want shrimp rice, pork rice, dumplings, vinegar noodles, or spicy food, the stall has something for you, all cooked well and with love. The beef noodle soup is perfect for a rainy day, whereas I’d always find myself running to Foodclique between classes to grab some of the chilli oil dumplings.
Everything in the Taiwanese stall hits just right, and it has certainly become a staple of NUS cuisine.
Offering a range of Sichuan dishes, the mala stall at Foodclique is undoubtedly much better than that of Fine Food.
The spice levels are appropriate, with the mala base balancing nicely between spice and saltiness. For mala, the price is pretty standard — for context, I pay roughly $12 for a bowl of mala with two ramen bricks, an assortment of greens, and some meat. The range of options is also decent, though not as expansive as that of the other mala stall. I also think there could be more peanuts sprinkled on top of the mala, but at this point I’m nitpicking.
When asked to describe the noodle shop at Foodclique, nothing much comes to mind.
The mincemeat noodles were cooked well, though they were slightly less flavorful than I would have liked. Unfortunately, the star of the dish, the mincemeat, was hardly present — I counted only 3 pieces of mincemeat in the whole bowl. I know the dish was cheap at just $3.80, but the economy isn’t that bad… Luckily, the mushrooms stepped in and carried the whole dish, providing flavor and texture where the mincemeat could not.
The chili noodles, on the other hand, were slightly better. Again, the noodles were cooked well and the chilli sauce was a lot more flavorful. What’s more, the egg that came with the dish was runny (unlike that which came with the mincemeat noodles), meaning that the dish was a much better experience.
Overall, the stall is very hit or miss. I would advise customers to stick to the more flavorful dishes or risk being disappointed, and, more importantly, dissatisfied.
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice is just another outlet of the popular local brand. The stall, which attracts a queue at peak times, offers a few variations of the staple Singaporean dish. The chicken is good, as is the rice, and it’s an affordable meal option. There’s not much else to say, other than that it is a solid example of chicken rice.
Mixed Veg Rice
Every lunch hour there can be up to dozens of people queuing up for the Caifan stall, and I don’t blame them! There’s a wide selection of good dishes to choose from, a reliable quality, and an affordable price tag. The availability of greens, which are quite scarce in UTown, also makes the stall stand out as a somewhat healthy option.
I had a lot of fun writing these reviews. Consciously going to each and every stall in UTown showed me that UTown is a dynamic and social space filled with good food options. The views in the article were my own, and as the old adage goes, opinions are like armpits—everybody has one, and half the time they stink. For this reason, I encourage everyone to go and try for themselves. If you have any strong opinions about the contents of this article, feel free to drop a comment below to let everyone know!
I’m back. We are off to a hectic start of the year, and dilemmas have already poured in. As I am only one student, I will only be answering two dilemmas this week, but for the rest of you, you will have your day.
“Dear Aunt Agony, I really adore YNC, but I am really worried about Singapore. I live in a Global South country where, in the nearby capital, a lot of eco-radical left and decolonizing perspectives have flourished lately (at least in my spaces). My views have changed immensely since I deferred my matriculation last year, and now I don’t even want a job in an industry but to start a commune.
Now my worry is that, as beautiful as it is, Singapore’s wealth comes from very extractivist and wasteful practices. I can’t deal with the fact that we’ll be living mindlessly in our bougie ass school at the cost of other people and the planet, playing to be very liberal while the Tuition Grant Scheme might become a pipeline to an exploitative capitalist job. Mind you, this does not extend to the people, but rather to how, from what I’ve seen of it, opulence and excess seem to play very big roles in the culture.
I fear that ecological initiatives at YNC might be greenwashed, neoliberal, or performative, that I can’t protest even though Singapore’s climate policies are lacking heavily, and that I won’t find a radical community that I can turn my anger into systemic action with. (Also, not going to lie, I’m afraid that my gender nonconformity might make the city uncomfortable or unsafe for me). Am I despairing senselessly? What can I do?”
Dear eco depressed kingfisher,
This is an archetypal example of being too woke. You care too much so you can’t enjoy anything. But in all seriousness: Yes, you are despairing senselessly.
It might not be obvious to you as a freshie, or pre-frosh when you wrote this, but there are a ton of people who share your views in Yale-NUS. What I have learnt in my time at YNC is that there is always someone who shares your views, whether they’re about Jimmy Nugget or SATS vs Sodexo. Trust me, you’re not the only person to have thought that some ecological initiatives are greenwashing or neoliberal. There are several organizations and individuals within the college focusing on climate activism, such as iDECO, Fossil Free Yale-NUS, and the Farming Collective, not to mention the many environmental studies majors who will readily give you a crash course on anthropocentrism or environmental ethics.
You’re not a hypocrite for living within a system which is harmful because the fact of the matter is that you can’t detach yourself from it. Are you meant to just… die? Okay, you can run off to the woods and live there, but let’s face it: Capitalism has become an unavoidable evil (not in envisioning the future, but certainly in our current lives).
Now, does this mean that you have to give up your ecocentric values and go work for Shell? No, it doesn’t, but what you can do is prioritise your values in your professional life and live in a way which is consistent with them even if your employment is not necessarily related. Finding a way to negotiate between your values and how you make a living is a big part of growing up, and one which a lot of people struggle with. Otherwise the main employment of Yale-NUS graduates would be full-time internet communists.
Thirdly, I’m glad you bring out the point about Singapore being a neoliberal hellhole, but I think that you need to be more optimistic in the way you see things. Rather than seeing Singapore as a place which will drain you of all drive to make the world a better place, why not see it as a place that needs your perspectives? Think about it this way: Your impact here, where your insights are valuable and your perspectives rare, will be much greater than if you had gone to study in an echo chamber like California, where everyone has already agreed that sustainability should be at the forefront of governmental policy. Instead of avoiding Singapore because you don’t think you’d fit in, think about it more from the angle that Singapore needs you.
Lastly, about your gender nonconformity. I’m not going to deny that Singapore isn’t the most open-minded place when it comes to gender nonconformity. However, you can certainly find community everywhere, and especially so in Yale-NUS, where people are generally respectful of gender, pronouns, and identity.
“I had a long distance relationship with my ex school fellow. She went to the U.S. for college and we had a relationship for around two years. Recently out of nowhere she decided to end things between us because she realized that whatever we were doing was against her religious values. She asks me to wait for her till we can marry (at least five to seven years). I love her and want to wait for her but it’s getting harder every day. Is waiting the right thing to do? If yes, how do I handle the situation?”
Dear (Too Much) Commitment Issues,
Thank God we’re back onto relationships and dating, my area of expertise. Writing that motivational drivel for the person above really took it out of me.
Now on to your dilemma: let it go. When I started reading your question, I thought it was going to be about whether to continue doing long distance or not, to which I was going to reply that you shouldn’t. I’m not a proponent of long distance relationships which don’t have a fixed start and end date, but this dilemma? This takes the cake…
By not allowing you to live your life, your ex is showing that she doesn’t have respect for you. In love, you cannot treat people as tables in restaurants, expecting them to put their lives on hold by ‘reserving’ them for later. Moreover, even a table is only reserved for a window of 15 minutes before it is released for use by another customer, not five to seven years.
It was actually very wrong of her to ask you to wait for her. She is, of course, allowed to have her religious epiphany and to end things with you, but she should cut things off entirely between you two. This should be a case of loving someone and letting them go for their own good. Instead, she is exhibiting a selfish love, stringing you along just in case she decides to be with you down the line.
What happens when she decides she likes the U.S. more than wherever you’re from and wants to settle? What happens when she falls in love with someone over there who, unlike you, has an American passport?
The answer is that you would have put your romantic life on hold for X years for no reason. There are too many variables which cannot be accounted for, and so many things could change from now until then that contribute to the fact that this relationship is probably already over, and for good, too.
I understand that right now, she seems like the love of your life and you can’t imagine yourself being without her. But are you meant to endure the pain you’re currently feeling for the next decade? Go out and live your life, and if the stars align, you could end up with her if she returns.
Disclaimer: The advice provided in this column is no substitute for professional advice, and should not be treated as such. The Octant understands the sensitivity of such issues. If anyone has any complaints, concerns, or comments please feel free to contact The Octant at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instead of trying to “decolonize” the university, Faris argues that we can and should take it as a conduit for decolonial possibilities
story | Faris Joraimi, he/him, Guest Writer
illustration | Kimberly Wee, she/her
I am from the Class of 2021, and was fortunate to have spent the last four years at Yale-NUS learning a little bit more about the world and myself. Everyone comes to university for different reasons. To me, a university is a precious place precisely because it cultivates the right conditions for people to devote themselves to inquiry for its own sake, for the sheer delight that it brings, and perhaps even what Aristotle called “human flourishing.”
But even as the work of scholarship is inherently enjoyable, we must also ask ourselves what processes shaped the things we study. Especially so in Yale-NUS, where much of its identity is tied to the Common Curriculum, which informs its self-image—and indeed that of Singapore—as a site of mediation between multiple cultural and intellectual traditions.
In my sophomore year, I participated in debates about the Common Curriculum as part of wider conversations about “decolonizing” Yale-NUS. I wrote a piece for The Octant entitled “Yale-NUS in a Malay World: Decolonising our Common Curriculum,” highlighting the need for Yale-NUS to consider its place in Singapore and our immediate region, starting first with the Common Curriculum as an ideological manifesto that conveys what Yale-NUS deems a good and worldly education.
My position remains that there should be a Malay text included, as long as it complements the other readings in the course, makes sense to the Curriculum’s broader objectives, and there is someone to teach it. I still believe that a facet of Singapore’s indigenous intellectual tradition should be taught in the Common Curriculum, as failing to do so potentially implicates Yale-NUS in the coloniality of present-day Singapore’s continued alienation from the Malay World.
It’s a Small World After All
Looking back on that piece now, I want to revisit the topic of ‘decolonizing’ Yale-NUS, and how centering decolonial ethics and politics offers a basis for such reformative work in the context of our college. Beyond the historical phenomenon of European and American colonialism understood in the conventional sense, coloniality—as advanced by thinkers like Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo—denotes sets of unequal relationships that continue to shape interactions between groups of people, cultures, and countries patterned by the legacies of colonialism. In that 2018 article, I briefly touched on two main features of Yale-NUS that risk perpetuating these dynamics.
The first concerns the ideological project of Yale-NUS, as an international space where a United Nations of peoples gathers to ponder the great questions of their time, and through shared experiences supposedly partake in the making of global citizenship.
It’s incumbent upon us, students of Yale-NUS past, present, and future, to continuously question this project in which we willingly participate. A utopic “international” has featured in multiple historical imagined communities, from the global ummah of modernist Islam to the proletarian internationalism of socialist revolutions. Some spaces associated with global cosmopolitanism, like the Tangier International Zone or the concessions of old Shanghai, were built and sustained by colonial racism and militarized violence.
The triumph of the American-led global liberal order at the end of the Cold War further materialized the post-war ideal of nation-states coming together in a spirit of cooperation, and it is arguably after this vision of liberal internationalism that Yale-NUS models itself. But a pageant of nationalities does not spell a more equal world. It does not take long to notice how “diversity” on our campus looks a certain way: We have a diversity of passports, perhaps, but little variety in our elite high-school certificates.
We are, in many ways, a microcosm of independent Singapore’s historical transition to a ‘global city’ that participates in that liberal order. Singapore the global city is a site of multicultural diversity not much less stratified than the colonial emporium it was before, and certainly a far cry from the polyglot port-city societies in Southeast Asia from which Singapore derives its pedigree.
Not only are all of today’s global cities sustained by the exploitation of underpaid migrant labor often indistinct from indentured servitude; this elite globalism is typically oblivious to earlier, vernacular modes of cosmopolitan interaction that had existed in places like the Malay World for centuries. We must consider the historical precedent of the “international” make-up of our community and realize that it is not as exceptional as we think, especially given this region’s historical legacy of multicultural coexistence.
The second feature of Yale-NUS that raises questions is the Common Curriculum’s vision to foster dialogue between the intellectual traditions of the East and the West. One position holds that works are “great” because they transcend cultures and eras, and collectively speak to a common humanity. The very practice of the liberal arts itself is believed to liberate the mind from context.
But can we really decontextualize knowledge from cultural specificity? All canons, as we know, are political, and insisting that they represent some transcultural human ideal obscures the fact that they are the product of unequal discourses and apparatuses of evaluation. Successive classes of Yale-NUS students have grappled time and again with these questions. In my 2018 article, I raised that the Common Curriculum seems to reflect what is diverse and radical from a mainly American perspective.
Modeled after small liberal arts colleges in the United States, Yale-NUS does draw upon the traditions and historical experience of higher education there. The outsize global influence of the U.S.—and its universities, such as Yale—isa key factor behind the viability and success of the Yale-NUS experiment.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Yale-NUS is still a product of, and remains shaped by, a coloniality of power enacted on a global scale. But what can decoloniality look like at all for a university in Singapore today, let alone Yale-NUS?
Towards a Decolonial Politics
There was once a time in Singapore when attending university also implied commitment to the struggle for merdeka [Malay: liberty; independence from colonial rule]. Nanyang University, established in 1956, actively positioned itself against Singapore’s British colonizers. Widely regarded as a true “people’s university,” its founders and students believed in the creation of an independent and socialist Malaya, participating in mass demonstrations against the colonial government and learning Malay, the national language.
The English-educated students of the University of Singapore also formed an important force in the anti-colonial movement, especially members of the University Socialist Club, who expressed solidarity with anti-colonial struggles around the world through their mouthpiece, Fajar(“Dawn”). Many of its members became the leaders of Barisan Sosialis Singapura (Singapore Socialist Front), once the main rival to the People’s Action Party (PAP).
Because the independent nation-state reproduces some, if not many of those systems of control bequeathed by the colonial state, the struggle to build a better democracy also constitutes decolonial praxis. Trained to recognize fascism and imperialism wherever it appeared, the students of Nanyang University and the University of Singapore continued to protest the draconian policies of the PAP until the late 1970s.
While that ecosystem of dissent has been largely dismantled, the recently increasing involvement of university students in civil society offers hope. Student organizations like the Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE) do invaluable work promoting civic participation and political literacy.
But Yale-NUS’s ostensible image as an “American” college with a large international student body and identity makes it hard for it to take a leading role in shaping Singapore’s political debates and cultural politics. This makes it all the more imperative for Singaporean Yale-NUS students to participate in civil society beyond our campus walls. Our international student body provides opportunities to connect with, and potentially contribute to, global struggles against right-wing ultra-nationalism, racism, and neo-liberalism.
As for faculty, an orientation to Singapore and the fraught historical and political context it inhabits may equip them to better understand local students’ frames of thinking, and inform decisions related to academic policy and syllabus design.
Our College has also seen petitions to decolonize curricula through demands that certain racist or misogynistic texts be removed and faculty called to account.
As much as classrooms should be safe spaces for everyone, confronting historical evils and structural injustices sometimes necessitates the courage to encounter terrible words and read hurtful passages in the spirit of critical understanding and attentiveness to their peculiar time and place. Because the study of the humanities is about humanity in its messy and complicated legacies, it often leads us down dark and disturbing roads.
A university must be a place where these difficult conversations can take place. If there are texts in the curriculum we find objectionable, this is exactly the place to learn to articulate our discomfort, to tease out what it is exactly we disagree with and why, to have those long discussions continue even outside the classroom after the seminar ends. One of my teachers at Yale-NUS once said that the university should strive to be the very opposite of social media: a place of careful reasoning that makes room for doubt and shades of grey, in contrast to a discursive economy of clap-backs and hot-takes.
The call to “decolonize the university” is a fraught one. Decolonization presupposes a finite goal since the rubrics of its success are hard to determine. Instead of centering outcomes, we should think about decoloniality as an ongoing process. Allowing a decolonial politics to inform our work as students and scholars gives more room to acknowledge the fractious power relations that define spaces like the university while also enabling us to develop the language and capacity to subvert them in generative and useful ways.
Just as how we can read colonial texts in decolonial ways, we can reclaim the university as a space to reimagine more just futures. Rather than thinking of it as an object to be decolonized, we can and should take the university as a vehicle for decolonial possibilities.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: email@example.com
Kyle Foo ‘22 holds up a tiny, painted figurine between his fingers. “That’s my thumb for scale,” he says. He sticks out his thumb, which suddenly seems very large in comparison.
“His name is Kabuki,” Kyle tells me about the character he is holding. “He is a playwright and performer. He is adventuring with a group of adventurers in order to find stories to tell. To live out some of the heroic moments that he writes about.” This character concept was crafted by Kyle himself for a role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).
But Kabuki is no ordinary action figurine. He is also one of several miniature figurines that Kyle has painted himself.
As a miniature painter since 2018, Kyle’s love for miniature painting actually began from his other hobby of playing tabletop games. “I started off playing D&D at a bunch of local hobby stores and board game stores,” he recounts. “At these places, you’ll see people painting their miniatures. I just asked someone at the store to help me out and show me the ropes.”
The board game stores that Kyle regularly visits include Sunny Pair’O’Dice at Queenstown, Games@PI at Somerset, and Gamersaurus Rex at Bishan. These stores sell board games, miniatures, and painting equipment. They even have dedicated areas within them for miniature painting.
Kyle explains that many tabletop game players like to showcase their painted miniatures while playing games. Kyle’s miniatures get their chances in the spotlight through role-playing games, where he plays as a different character. “It’s like how you would have an avatar in a video game,” he explains. “These little painted miniatures are what I use in D&D.”
Curious and a little in awe, I ask Kyle to take me through the painting process, which he happily agrees to.
“First, you start off with a pure, white plastic figurine,” Kyle begins. These figurines are obtained from board game stores and washed down with dishwashing liquid.
“Then you prime them. That’s painting over the entire miniature with a special sort of paint, which helps other paint adhere to it,” he explains, showing me a tiny figurine coated in black. “This one is primed black, but there are other colours of primer too.”
Kyle then demonstrates a technique called “dry brushing”. “It’s tough to see the details on a black miniature,” he explains. “It helps me to plan out where to put light and shadow.”
“What I’m doing is putting [white] paint on the brush, running it along a paper towel until it feels dry, and then swiping it along the miniature repeatedly,” he continues. “This is so the paint gets on all of the raised edges, sort of like how light would hit it.” The result is what looks like a layer of bright light shining on the miniature.
Next, Kyle adds a base coat of paint, which comprises the main colours of the miniature. He first paints on the brown colours, followed by red, and finally the metallic colours like gold and silver. For this miniature, the process of painting on all the base coats took almost three hours.
As Kyle paints, he rests his elbows on the table and presses his palms together. This position gives him the most stability while he paints the miniature, while also enabling him to hold it at eye level.
“When I was starting out, that was brand new to me too!” Kyle remarks. “It’s not the most intuitive way to paint, but once you get used to it, it becomes quite useful.”
He continues: “Another little tip that I’ve learned is that if the miniature’s base is very small and it’s hard to get a grip on it, you can paste it on an empty bottle, and hold the bottle while you paint. Now you have a big surface, and you can turn it or hold it upside down if you want to!”
“And then it’s the fun part,” Kyle grins. It is time to add the finishing touches and bring the miniature to life. For instance, Kyle explains that dry brushing, as described earlier, is one way to add the appearance of light shining on the miniature.
Aside from dry brushing, Kyle describes another method to add little details. “You also have things like washes, which are these sorts of paint that are very liquid,” Kyle says, holding up a bottle of watery fluid and shaking it to demonstrate. “When you put it on a miniature, it will drip down into the little recesses and pockets to make those parts look darker, giving it a shadowy effect.”
“I’m using different colours [of washes] for different parts,” he describes. The silver parts of the miniature will be washed with black; the skin, wooden, and golden parts will be washed with brown; and the red cape will be washed with “a liberal amount of violet.”
“Parts in shadow, like the bottom of her knuckles, get more wash,” Kyle continues, tilting the miniature to demonstrate.
After the washing is done, the final finishing touches to the miniature involve making parts of the hair lighter, putting fresh gold paint on the raised edges, and dotting the eyes, which Kyle describes as the “hardest part.”
At last, after three afternoons of work, the miniature is complete. It is now time for the photoshoot!
Kyle tells me that the whole process of painting a miniature can take anywhere from an afternoon of work to several weeks. “I guess a big part of this is that there’s always more you can work on,” he says. “The more time you spend on it, the more detailed and fine-tuned it will look.”
For now, Kyle can put his equipment away—but not before carefully and thoroughly washing his brushes. “These things get gunked up real easy!” he remarks. “There’s special brush soap that you should be using,” he says, taking great care to emphasise the word “should.”
“But I’ve made do with using hair conditioner, and it’s surprisingly effective!”
Learning these steps and clever tricks have come from years of practice for Kyle, as well as from listening to the advice of others in the miniature painting community. “It was very tricky, in the beginning, to paint fine details,” Kyle recalls. “Even now, I still have trouble with things like faces. You need to get a lot of practice and dexterity to do the very fine details.”
“If you ever want to learn how to paint,” Kyle smiles, “get miniatures you find interesting, and just go at it! If you make a mistake, you can paint over it with the base coat and try again.”
As I marvel at the wealth of experience and mastery on display, Kyle reminds me that he is “still an amateur.” That only makes me feel more amazed.
He continues, telling me about the dizzying heights of the miniature painting community. “A place where I’ve painted is called Kolectiv. They’re not a board game store, but they have a studio in Hillview,” he says. “Their owner is a professional miniature painter who organizes masterclasses, enters international tournaments, and makes display pieces on commission. These guys are the proper pros!”
The next step of Kyle’s miniature painting journey, he tells me, involves experimenting with more techniques. “I’ve been playing around with gradients. I think it’s a lot of fun, and I’d like to learn more about the technique that goes into it,” he says. “Other than that, a next step could be learning how to base my miniatures: cutting the miniature off of its plastic base, and rebasing it on to things like slate or stone chips, to give it a different effect.”
“And, I suppose, to just practise again,” he says wisely. “That’s the next step.”
As for me, my next step is to sit back and admire, once again, an unpainted miniature figurine gradually coming to life.
To see more pictures of Kabuki as well as Kyle’s other painted miniatures, you can follow @fookyle on Instagram.
When walking around Yale-NUS College, you will observe that some Residential Colleges (RCs) have courtyards that bustle throughout the day. People hold spontaneous conversations in the corridors; students discuss group projects; a few individuals sit on a picnic mat in the courtyard. Other courtyards remain silent throughout the day. What makes a courtyard active or silent, and how can we improve on the quieter ones?
Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, can help us with this. In her influential work, she identifies that the amount of activity on the streets makes or breaks a city. Busy streets filled with activity attract residents to live, visitors to engage in recreational activities, and businesses to operate and work in an area. Lively streets enable vibrant communities, economies, and cities; streets devoid of activity lead to dying cities.
We can draw on ideas from the book and other academics on public spaces to observe how activity on the corridors surrounding each RC’s courtyard makes the RC. The activity on the edges of a courtyard, not the center, determines whether an RC feels lively or dead. Edges that have diverse uses, regular users to attract other people, and porous borders ensure that a courtyard remains active throughout the day, while courtyards lacking such edges remain dead.
Diverse Uses on the Edges
As Jacobs observes, diverse uses of the edges of a space ensure that activity occurs throughout the day. A park surrounded solely by office blocks only receives footfall during the morning commute to work, lunch hours, and the evening commute home. Such a park will remain dead for the rest of the day. To promote pedestrian footfall throughout the day, the same park must be surrounded by varied facilities and amenities to generate activity, like residences, retail, schools, and workplaces.
A Yale-NUS courtyard operates in the same way. Diverse uses on the edges contribute to Elm having the most active courtyard. The laundry room, the buttery, and the patio have regular users and visitors nearly 24/7. The Elm College Office, CIPE office, and faculty offices generate foot traffic from 9 am to 6 pm. Classrooms hold classes in the day and student organisation meetings at night. In addition, Brewhouse, a student coffee project, brings in customers from 9:30 to 11 am on weekdays.
We can partially attribute the Cendana courtyard’s lower foot traffic to a lower diversity of uses. Like Elm, classrooms hold lessons in the day and student meetings at night. Unlike Elm, though, the buttery and laundry room lie on the third floor, pulling traffic away from the courtyard. Nonetheless, the table tennis setup and vending machine located near Cendana Tower B attract occasional visitors from Tower A who walk via the front of the college office.
People Attract People
The key to making a place vibrant is understanding that people attract people. Jan Gehl, the author of Cities for People, comments that the most common social activity in public spaces is “passive contact in the form of just watching and listening to other people.” Even someone who loves quiet places to study sometimes desires a spot that allows them to passively observe others from time to time.
This means that to generate constant activity in urban spaces, it helps to have regular activity that others can watch. Diverse uses around spaces do help—but we can do more. Gehl recommends observing where people stay for prolonged durations. Those observations can inform how we design public spaces. Do people hang out at the edges or the center, or do they evenly distribute themselves across the space? What sort of furniture do people congregate around? Important to our discussion of Yale-NUS courtyards is William H. Whyte’s definition of triangulation: “the scenario where two people who don’t know each other start talking due to an external event.” The Yale-NUS experience includes the spontaneous conversations that happen outside of classrooms, and we should consider which courtyards encourage triangulation.
The Elm patio, the college’s most attractive outdoor study location, demonstrates this. It seems to consistently attract a critical mass of students that draws more people to it. Throughout the day, people congregate there to engage in casual chats, discuss group projects, or study alone. Even when one walks by at night, whether on a Wednesday or a Sunday, they will still find people gathering and interacting. Good ventilation, lighting, suitable furniture, and the occasional passerby for patio users to passively observe are likely what make the patio so successful. We might want to consider replicating its success elsewhere.
The Cendana courtyard is unique in that the college office is arguably where the magic happens. The college office is located quite centrally relative to the courtyard as opposed to Elm, which has its counterpart shielded by a row of ferns and palms. Most traffic between Towers A and B passes the office, and triangulation often occurs within and outside of the office when people meet while running errands at the office. The college office frequently runs regular activities right outside at tables on the edge of the courtyard that generate more traffic and opportunities for triangulation.
Spaces need porosity with their edges and other spaces to remain active and interesting. Jacobs observed that long streets lacking access to other streets do not receive as much activity as long streets punctuated by intersections to other streets. People turning corners from adjacent streets in a grid increase pedestrian traffic on each street.
Porosity between interiors and streets, or streets and parks, helps keep streets exciting. Gehl’s research shows that the most exciting pedestrian streets have doors every 4 to 5 meters. Jacobs finds that parks that remain accessible at their edges bordering streets are more active and pleasant.
I think the same applies to the college’s corridors and courtyards. Corridors decorated with doors that might open and facilitate meetings with others are more exciting to walk along than long blank corridors. If a courtyard has bustling corridors bordering it but no permeability between those corridors, then the courtyards will still feel dead.
Cendana does have the smallest courtyard, but that may be an upside as its size enables it to have the highest ratio of permeable edges to unit area amongst the three courtyards. Evenly spaced outdoor tables without physical obstruction to the courtyard, which allow users to observe and/or walk into all the happenings in and around the courtyard, flank nearly a third of the perimeter and regularly attract students. It only takes a few users at these tables to make the whole courtyard feel alive.
Elm has a porous main corridor with lots of doors. As short ferns surround the courtyard, the activity on the edges brings life into the courtyard as people using the courtyard can watch activities in the corridors and vice versa. I believe that improving the porosity of Elm by adding a few more pathways that cut across the fern beds between the surrounding corridors and the courtyard will increase activity in the courtyard.
When we put the three factors we have mentioned so far together with other things Jacobs observed in active spaces, we get what she calls the “street ballet.” Jacobs finds that the metaphor of ballet best describes the movement on the streets generated by diverse activity, conversations, and exchanges found in the best city streets. In the same way, Yale-NUS has its own corridor ballet that peaks every 90 minutes when people move between classes and residences, leading to movement, exchanges of greetings, and spontaneous conversations. I would recommend looking up from your phone and fully appreciating it the next time you travel around campus.
I have excluded the Saga courtyard from the discussion so far. One can argue that the Saga Courtyard has the best landscaping and feels very exciting when students organize events there. However, this courtyard remains quietest day-to-day. For dramatic purposes, let us declare it dead. This presents the perfect opportunity to apply what we have learnt to try and enliven a space.
My diagnosis: A lack of porous edges is the main reason for Saga’s silence. The Saga courtyard’s longest edges are dead. On one side, faculty offices sit between the corridor and the courtyard. Any life that happens in that corridor stays in that corridor. It does not spill into the courtyard. On the opposite side, the corridor is elevated above the courtyard and does not provide easy access to the courtyard for most of its length.
The college office, which generates activity for other courtyards, cannot do the same for the Saga courtyard. Being positioned about one story higher, without nearby access to the courtyard below, means it contributes less to courtyard life and does not encourage triangulation. The long corridor flanking the office lacks doors and does not excite passersby. This reduces the probability of triangulation and interactions around the college office.
Saga has the largest of the three courtyards, and the remaining two shorter edges allow limited access to the courtyard through short flights of stairs that do not invite people to sit. This means the courtyard has the lowest permeable perimeter-to-area ratio of all three courtyards. When people use the courtyard, they tend to stick to the edges. They use the two study tables at the corner closest to the busiest corridor, and people sitting on picnic mats congregate under the tree at that same corner. The other attractive study space lies at the active lift lobby, but shrubbery and railings obstruct that space from the courtyard. The lack of attractive spaces for gathering along the remaining edges of the large space means most of the courtyard often remains and appears both empty and dead.
The courtyard slopes and the alternative flat route for foot traffic between Towers A and B via the second story discourage people from walking along or through the courtyard, despite the diversity of uses around the space. The path consisting of stepping-stones cutting through the south side of the courtyard hinders people wanting to bring their laundry to the laundry room and has limited lighting at night. This encourages further use of the second floor as the main thoroughfare and discourages triangulation around the courtyard.
While there is no doubt that the Saga courtyard comes alive when people set up the outdoor movie screen and hold an event, we need to look at ways to increase regular day-to-day activities to enliven the Saga courtyard.
Some might object to thinking about changing the Saga courtyard as they see value in having one RC courtyard that feels more like a quiet garden. Maybe the community does not need all courtyards to be active and may value having courtyards with different levels of activity. Although I understand this perspective, this article seeks to expound upon possible ways to increase activity for the sake of exploring how we can reshape courtyards.
Let us think about possible modifications we can make to the Saga courtyard to make it livelier. The key factors to modify include the porosity of the existing edges and the addition of outdoor furniture or features that invite people to stay in the courtyard.
We could start by removing some of the bushes from the edge along the busiest corridor and add a wide staircase, with stairs of an optimal height and depth and made of comfortable materials, that encourage people to sit and linger on the staircase. Retaining the trees to shade the stairs would ensure they do not absorb too much heat during the day which would discourage sitting. We can apply the same principles to the existing stairs at the center of the courtyard. Perhaps such staircases, a few picnic mats scattered around and better lighting would create the perfect location for performing arts groups in Yale-NUS to stage something similar to “Shakespeare in the Park,” like improvisational comedy in the courtyard.
To increase porosity between the college office and the courtyard, we could consider adding a long ramp or staircase. The difference in elevation might mean these solutions take up a lot of space though, so I propose installing a slide and a playground climbing frame that entices people to sit and stay in front of the office. This might seem unrealistic, but the whole point of this reimagination exercise is to explore different possibilities.
We could add some picnic benches along the dead edges so that we utilize the attractiveness of edges. The benches should have tabletops without gaps or holes in the surface so students can work on them. We could add a patio, maybe with a roof and ceiling fans over it, right beside the reflecting pool so that that edge of the courtyard has more activity. Students could come out and eat there on the nights the Saga buttery opens. Maybe we could add two large chess boards with large movable pieces on another edge. The possibilities are endless, but the idea is to utilize existing edges and increase the amount of activity occurring on them.
We can also reimagine corridors and courtyards in other RCs. Currently, most courtyards remain too dark for most activities at night. Making it possible for students to increase the availability of lighting at the flick of a switch in the courtyards might encourage new activities to occur in the college.
We cannot add new rooms or change the location of facilities, like the laundry rooms and butteries in other RCs, so we must get creative. Adding artwork to pillars and walls can make corridors less boring. Perhaps painting false doors and adding paintings of windows which show people inside carrying out activities could initiate interest in the corridors. Painting art on the white pillars so that pedestrians have something visually stimulating to look at every two meters would make walks more exciting. The painting of these blank surfaces could be community activities which would allow students to bond and make the school feel more vibrant.
I like the idea of painting the courtyard-facing façade of the block housing the Elm buttery so that it looks like a row of shophouses. The corridors do draw inspiration from five-foot ways of shophouses, after all. Imagine if Shiner’s Diner decorated the walls and pillars outside like a restaurant in a shophouse decorates its exterior.
Apart from art, movable furniture—like foldable chairs and tables which allow us to turn corridors into pop-up dining or study areas—offer interesting possibilities. We have already discussed how Brewhouse encourages triangulation and makes Elm courtyard a great space to watch. Now imagine people bringing out additional foldable chairs and tables and putting them on the courtyard.
To stretch the possibilities of how we can use movable furniture further, imagine closing the Oculus on one morning when a Common Curriculum lecture occurs in the performance hall. Then, Brewhouse can set up there and students can pull out the foldable furniture to turn the entire Oculus into an outdoor café for the morning.
In line with Yale-NUS’s goal to grow vegetables to meet 10% of its demand, we could also turn some of the plant beds that surround courtyards into community gardens growing edible crops. This would lead to people watering and tending to crops occasionally, and passive observations of the fruits and flowers, increasing opportunities for triangulation. We should arrange the plots so as to increase the porosity of courtyard edges.
The physical structures of our RCs influence the amount of activity that happens in their courtyards and corridors. The amount of activity makes or breaks an RC and determines if it lives or dies. While organizing more events in our courtyards can bring about more activity, and we should definitely make it as easy as possible for students to hold events in the courtyards, I think this article shows that one cannot overemphasize the importance of regular activities and visitors’ contributions to courtyard life.
As pandemic restrictions begin to loosen, I hope this article can inspire more conversations about the shared spaces in our college, their functions and the possibilities that can allow us to unlock the full potential of the courtyards. We should be imaginative and willing to entertain any and all ideas.
I wish to end with a speculative thought. Perhaps the perception that each RC seems to have its own culture stems not from the students living in them (because they should not statistically differ between colleges save for some secret procedure) but from the physical structure of the RCs, which determine the amount of activity that happens in and around their courtyards.
Wall (Represented by bold line)
Door (Represented by quadrant)
Gehl, Jan. 2010. Cities for People. Island Press
Gehl, Jan and Svarre, Birgitte. 2013. How to Study Public Life?. Washington: Island Press
Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House
I am grateful to The Octant’s Editors, Xie Yihui, Michael Sagna, and Ryan Yeo for insights and suggestions which greatly contributed to the quality of this paper.
I am grateful to Pandora Tan for translating my untidy sketches into tidier digital drawings.
I am also grateful to numerous others, including but not limited to Joshua Vargas, Shaharaj Ahmed, Michelle Tan, Vanessa Thian, Kyle Foo, and Prof. Justin Stern. I discussed the ideas of this article with them before I wrote it and I thank them for their suggestions and observations, many of which I included in this article. I have borrowed the idea of using the Oculus as a shared space from Prof. Stern who noted that many buildings have grand but underused driveways and drop-off points. I note that most of these discussions arose from triangulation.
Picture credit | Yale-NUS Centre for International and Professional Experience
All study abroad programs next semester will be suspended, Lindsay Allen, Senior Associate Director for International Programmes at the Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE), wrote in an email to affected students on May 21.
The email follows an announcement by NUS Global Relations Office (GRO) on May 18 that all Student Exchange Programmes will be suspended for Semester 1 of Academic Year 2021/2022. The decision was made “out of an abundance of caution” amidst a fluid COVID-19 situation, according to the NUS GRO website.
Bryan Timothy ‘23 was originally supposed to study abroad at Yale University next semester. He laments: “I am truly disappointed that the semester abroad was cancelled considering how close it was to happening. I already had my Yale account set up and almost started the Visa application.”
He adds: “I was looking forward to seeing snow for the first time, but alas. I feel like crying in a puddle of tears right now.”
CIPE supports semester study abroad programmes at 35 universities and colleges around the world. Amidst a seemingly endless global pandemic, however, it remains to be seen when the programme can be launched safely again.
Maurice: Sure. I mean, it is liquid with some stuff in it.
Carissa: Is that the scientific answer, Maurice?
Maurice: I mean I’m trying to think about what [is classified as] soup. That’s what scientists do.
Carissa: I think you drink it with a bowl and you use the spoon, so yes.
Should you bite or lick your ice cream?
Maurice: Why not both? It depends on how you feel that day. Sometimes I feel like biting, sometimes licking.
Carissa: I think if it’s smooth ice cream, you can lick, but if it’s an ice cream that’s got bits in it, then you can bite into it. Like Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough.
What kind of secret society would you like to start?
Carissa: Can I join a secret society? I would like to join those 90s Hong Kong gangs as they are portrayed on the film, not the real ones. They go to the street and wreak havoc.
Maurice: I know too much about Hong Kong gangsters, so no.
Is peeling chicken nuggets justifiable?
Maurice: I know people peel chicken skin so I see that for chicken nuggets as well.
Carissa: I don’t know. I am vegan.
Maurice: I am pretty sure there are vegan chicken nuggets, right?
Carissa: Then no. The skin is the best part.
If you could replace all of the grass in the world with something else, what would it be and why?
Carissa: I like it. I wouldn’t.
Maurice: I would say fake grass. As a plant biologist, I know the importance of its ecological function but I like the look as well. Well, of course [it] won’t have the ecological functions so it probably won’t work.
Is Pad Thai a Thai version of Char Kway Teow?
Carissa: No. In my head, Char Kway Teow has cockles in it, but Pad Thai cannot have cockles.
Maurice: It is just seafood, right? Pad Thai can have seafood. I don’t care, all that fried stuff for me is the same.
Carissa: I think, also, the width of the rice noodles for Pad Thai is way thinner than Char Kway Teow.
Maurice: Fairs. I mean they are just variations of the same thing, like Hong Kong has its version of Beef Hor Fun.
Carissa: No… I am protective of Char Kway Teow.
If animals could talk, which species would be the rudest of them all?
Carissa: Tapirs. I just went to the zoo and I could not find it so I feel that it was hiding from me. It has very sneaky eyes so it looks like it’s trying to side-eye you all the time. [It might be the rudest] if it speaks with you… It might not even speak with you.
What is the worst thing that a person can put on their bio on a dating app?
Carissa: Inappropriate emojis like 🖕. Or a pretentious quotation from someone—you are hiding behind a persona.
Maurice: I don’t know because different people like different things. And I lack experience.
Carissa: You can use imagination to make up for the lack of experience, Maurice.
Maurice: That’s the thing, I lack imagination AND experience. Maybe a weird hair color? But I also have a weird hair color XD.