Yale and the National University of Singapore

Originally Posted: April 24, 2012.

I thought I would make some comments and reflections about the recent controversy over the Yale-NUS campus. Although this is not strictly about science and technology, some of the events are indicative of wider patterns of thinking about Singapore and US-Asia relationships. In other words, this has the potential to significantly effect the development of science and technology in Singapore down the track.

The basic facts of the case are that in 2009 Yale and the National University of Singapore began negotiations that led to an agreement that the two universities would partner to set up a liberal arts campus (Yale-NUS College) in Singapore. Singapore would put up all of the money and Yale would contribute, most of all, its reputation (it would also play a major role in setting up the curriculum and recruiting faculty).

The plan has moved ahead: buildings have been built, faculty hired, and students are in the process of being recruited. It was quite late in the game, then, when in early April (2012) a number of Yale faculty began to loudly criticize the Yale-NUS venture. This led, on April 5th, to the faculty passing a resolution that expressed concern over Singapore’s “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” and urging the Yale-NUS venture to “protect and further principles of non-discrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers.”

Many pixels were spilled both before and after debating the merits of both Yale-NUS and the resolution itself. In particular, Fareed Zakariya — in a piece reprinted in the Straits Times – staunchly defended the new campus, arguing that the collaboration would lead to mutual exchange and benefit between East and West:

Imagine a curriculum in which students read Aristotle but also Confucius, who was his contemporary, and ask whether culture or politics explains each thinker’s concerns. Imagine studying the rule of Charles V, the Hapsburg monarch, but then comparing him to Akbar, who ruled more people in India contemporaneously. Imagine an introduction to science that focused on solving problems rather than memorizing a body of material. The goal of the project is to create a liberal arts curriculum that spans Western, Asian and other traditions, that trains rigorously in science and social science and that will, as a result, provide inspiration for Asia’s burgeoning universities and societies.

In a long and scathing piece, Michael Montesano asked whether, after all, Yale is a reliable partner for Singapore. Montesano, who graduated from Yale and has lived and worked in Singapore since 1999, argued that Yale-NUS was a based on a commitment that was “poorly informed, reckless, and ‘sultanistic.’”:

What is objectionable is the failure of Yale’s current leadership perhaps to understand and certainly to be frank and honest about what it has got Yale involved in. Yale’s leadership can talk, breezily and foolishly, about bringing a new model of the liberal arts college to “Asia” all that it wants.  But to be credible, it must acknowledge that Yale has sold its services—and, some would emphasize, its name—to a PAP Singapore focused on further developing its economy by becoming an education hub.  The Yale-NUS college is one component of this effort, and to see it in any other light is to betray a sorry failure to understand Singapore.

And then there have been responses by Singaporeans in both NUS’s Kent Ridge Common (by Kho Choon Hwee) and in the Yale Daily News (by E-Ching Ng) arguing that the Yale faculty resolution and opposition to Yale-NUS amounts to crude Asian stereotyping and a general lack of understanding of Singaporean society and politics.

I want to make two small points about this ongoing debate.

First, it seems that a good part of the reason why the Yale faculty were so upset about this issue is because they felt they had not been properly consulted. The decision to go ahead with Yale-NUS had been taken by the Yale administration, and in particular by Yale’s President Richard Levin, without putting it to a faculty vote. This is in part what the faculty resolution of April 5th sought to redress. This is a legitimate grievance and points to substantial concern amongst faculty about their own diminishing power vis-a-vis the administration and the increasing tendencies toward running universities (even Yale) like corporations with the President as CEO. Levin saw an opportunity for growth and took it. So my first point is that all this debate should be understood in that context — a context in which faculty feel increasingly disempowered.

Second, and more importantly, I can’t help but agree with those Singaporeans who see the Yale faculty’s reaction as very shortsighted. Montesano may well be right that Yale has been in general uninformed about what it is getting into in Singapore, but that by no means diminishes the importance of the contribution that Yale-NUS might make. My short experience here suggests that Singapore is in the midst of gradual but ongoing political and cultural change. Yale-NUS represents an opportunity for Yale to participate in, encourage, and shape that change. Rather than standing back and criticizing Singapore from a mostly-ill-informed distance, it opens up the possibility of genuine learning and debate. I am not arguing here for some imperialistic intervention via Yale-NUS, but for using a liberal arts college as a basis for exchanging ideas and opening up debate about topics such as academic freedom, homosexual rights, migrant worker rights, and so on, at a time when Singapore may be receptive to new and different voices.

Of course, the United States has a far from perfect record when it comes to many issues of political freedom or equality and human rights. One hardly needs to go back far in American history to find examples that make the Yale faculty resolution look remarkably parochial and hypocritical. It seems reasonable to say that liberal arts tradition in American education has substantially contributed to improving its political and social institutions, just as it might do in Singapore.

The context in which the faculty resolution emerged make it clear that it was an attempt to de-rail, disrupt, or at least to register protest against Yale-NUS. But, the faculty’s “concern” over Yale-NUS  could and should be reframed a sense of opportunity to learn about and contribute to a society and culture beyond that of New Haven.

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