UP CLOSE: An island on an island

UP CLOSE:
Yale-NUS | An island on an island

Published on April 12, 2016

SINGAPORE — On Oct. 12, 2015, in Yale-NUS’s well-lit, brand-new auditorium, Yale President Peter Salovey inserted an orange block — a miniature figurine of Yale-NUS’s buildings — into the lodge podium, signaling the inauguration of the young college’s very own campus. Salovey was joined by Singapore’s prime minister, as well as other government officials and leaders in higher education. The ceremony marked a major milestone in cementing Yale-NUS’s reputation as the country’s first liberal arts institution.

But despite the momentousness of the occasion for those tied to Yale-NUS, broader Singaporean society had, and continues to have, little knowledge of the college’s existence at all. Though Singapore’s Ministry of Education and other prominent figures in higher education often refer to Yale-NUS as Singapore’s educational experiment, many members of the public cannot locate the campus on a map, let alone describe Yale-NUS’s unique culture.

Considering the small number of colleges in Singapore, it may seem strange that taxi drivers — living maps of the city-state — have never heard of Yale-NUS. Singaporeans with an inkling of the school know it as a liberal arts college — end of story, raising questions of both the college’s isolation and ultimate viability.

How has Yale-NUS fared in its integration? Interviews with over 30 Singaporeans indicate that opinions towards Yale-NUS ranged from ignorance to indifference, from mixed hopes to hostility. Although three years might be a short time for Yale-NUS to establish its name, and the world of elite higher education remains out of reach for many everyday Singaporeans, these responses do raise questions about how well the college engages with the National University of Singapore — its neighbor — and Singapore, its host country.

But the fact that Yale-NUS is largely unknown in Singapore is ironic given its controversial reputation elsewhere. Since its inception in 2010, Yale-NUS has stumbled through criticism and controversy. Right from when former-University President Richard Levin announced his partnership in Singapore and the Yale Corporation approved the project without a faculty vote, concerned Yale faculty and higher education scholars opposed the idea, citing the seeming infeasibility of a liberal arts education offered under the auspices of authoritarian government. They also worried about Singapore’s discrimination against LGBTQ groups, as well as the lack of transparency in the Yale–Singapore deal. Charles Ellis ’59, a former member of the Yale Corporation and husband of Linda Lorimer — former University vice president for global and strategic initiatives and a main architect of Yale’s Singapore venture — had ties to the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, leading the wider community to mistrust the University’s motivation for its collaboration with Singapore.

Most importantly, critics feared that Singapore’s restriction on free speech would seep its way into Yale-NUS’s classrooms, hindering academic freedom and tarnishing the Yale brand.

While voices against Yale’s Singapore project gradually toned down as Yale-NUS went from an abstract concept to daily reality, a series of controversial episodes served to cement some critics’ doubts toward the young college even further. In 2014, Yale-NUS retracted its decision to screen Tan Pin Pin’s “To Singapore, With Love” — a film about political exiles that was banned in Singapore for undermining national security — after Tan declined to give the school permission for its screening. Later that year, NUS’s Office of Housing Services removed Yale-NUS student posters in elevators showing support for the Umbrella Revolution, a series of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In January of this year, a speech made by Singapore’s ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee, who also serves on Yale-NUS’s governing board, sparked debate on campus after Chan defended Singapore’s sodomy law.

Still, some educators watched the experiment with excitement as it grew in size. The school is now home to over 500 students from every continent except Antarctica, and 14 majors ranging from life sciences to urban studies. It has been successful in recruiting star faculty from top universities and securing funding with gifts from prominent Singaporean firms, including Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Singapore Exchange Ltd. The college’s Common Curriculum — a set of courses compulsory for all students — has been celebrated as an embodiment of Yale-NUS’s mission, one which combines eastern and western education.

Yet, equally, if not more, important than how Yale-NUS’s watchers in New Haven view the partnership is what insiders — Singaporean politicians, peers at other local universities or patrons at Singapore’s signature food markets — think of the school.

“Asia is different from America,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an address during the October inauguration. “Yale-NUS therefore needs a curriculum and a college ethos that respond to [its] regional context.” Lee added that the experiment will fail if Yale-NUS is “just a carbon copy” of Yale in New Haven.

In other words, the question surrounding Yale-NUS is no longer one about possibility, but sustainability.

AN ALOOF NEIGHBOR?

Yale-NUS’s $240 million campus, fully funded by the Singapore government, sets itself apart from the NUS buildings next door with its polished dorms and state-of-art facilities. Those at NUS felt physically separated from the new campus due to its steel gates, which although open most of the time, are perceived by some as a sign of “aloofness.” Before moving into its own campus, Yale-NUS had occupied a single building within the expansive NUS domain for the first two years of its existence, sharing classrooms and dining space with its much larger, research-intensive parent institution.

Tension over shared versus separate campus space grew last fall regarding NUS’s usage of distinct Yale-NUS buildings. Not long after Yale-NUS opened its campus, its students voiced concerns about their NUS peers taking over the Yale-NUS library space and leaving many Yale-NUS students unable to find seats. In response, Yale-NUS changed its library opening hours to be open to the public during the day but only accessible to Yale-NUS in the evening, a move Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said is justified by the higher tuition fees the school charges, but that NUS students called unfair.

(Ellie Pritchett, Production & Design Staff)

Currently, every Yale-NUS student has two student IDs: one NUS ID that permits him or her to use NUS facilities and one Yale-NUS ID that allows access to Yale-NUS buildings during certain times.

“Yale-NUS seems like a very closed-off place, one isolated from the rest of NUS. People there seem to be in their own world and are very different from us,” said Samara Gang, a freshman at NUS. She added that the appearance of Yale-NUS buildings, its physical boundaries as manifest in the gates and the library trespassing issues only emphasized these differences.

Despite living right across from Yale-NUS, Gang has never been to its campus. Gang said Yale-NUS boasts a sense of elitism and gives her the impression that it only wishes to associate itself with Yale, but not its other parent, NUS.

Valerie Ng, a second-year student at NUS, said the limited interaction between the two schools probably makes people regard Yale-NUS students as “snobbish.”

An anonymous NUS student echoed similar sentiment toward the Yale-NUS “stepsibling syndrome,” and questioned why Yale-NUS included “NUS” in its name in the first place if it identifies only with its New Haven parent.

An NUS student who asked not to be identified said that rumors about Yale-NUS circulate around the NUS campus. For example, the student said, NUS students speculated that NUS cut its funding for its University Scholars Program — often regarded as NUS’s first experiment in liberal arts — due to its growing support for Yale-NUS. But, Lewis said, although the majority of Yale-NUS’s early funding came from NUS, it is the Singapore government rather than NUS that pays the money.

Still, the anonymous student noted Yale-NUS’s inclusiveness in some respects: talks held by the college are often open to NUS as well. While NUS invites locally prominent speakers, Yale-NUS features more guests with international fame and background, the student added.

Other NUS students interviewed also called Yale-NUS “insular,” but said the same situation occurs within every residential system, even NUS’s own residential colleges.

“All small liberal arts schools are self-contained to some degree, and I think that to some degree we should be,” Yale-NUS Dean of Students Christopher Bridges said, “Part of what we are doing here is living in community. By its very nature, we are partly self-contained — in the same way that I would argue Yale, or the School of Engineering at NUS, is self-contained.”

Still, Bridges said Yale-NUS student organizations often partner with those at NUS, and students compete with their NUS peers at inter-college sports games. For example, the G Spot — Yale-NUS’s primary student club tackling issues on sexuality, gender and feminism — opened its membership to NUS students and hosted an orientation for queer-identifying students at both schools.

Lewis said the impression of Yale-NUS being self-contained also stems from the fact that NUS has 37,000 students. Many do not have the chance to meet their peers from Yale-NUS, whose student-body size is only a little over 500. Last fall, several Yale-NUS freshmen set up a club called Hyphen to bridge Yale-NUS with its neighbor and parent institution. The Dean of Students Office at Yale-NUS oversees a “Building Bridges” fund, which supports activities aimed at fostering bonds with NUS, Bridges said.

Academically, Yale-NUS students may take language classes taught at NUS, and a sizable group are pursuing a dual degree at NUS’s Faculty of Law.

Lewis said criticism from the NUS side is an inevitable process of adjustment. When NUS first opened its University Town, a residential complex with modern housing and a plethora of restaurants, its students living in old dorms outside UTown voiced similar unhappiness, he said, adding that the same issue can play out in New Haven.

Yale-NUS’s seeming aloofness is related to a perceived identity crisis as well. Those in New Haven often confuse Yale-NUS with NUS, lumping the duo together; whereas local residents in Singapore simply refer to Yale-NUS as Yale. Overshadowed by its two established parents, Yale-NUS has to assert its independence, and difference, from both Yale and NUS.

Karen Ho YNUS ’17 said Yale-NUS students have spent much time talking about how they wished to define a distinct Yale-NUS campus space to help clarify the college’s relationship with NUS and establish its unique culture. While the school has been successful in cultivating its own identity, Yale-NUS might have appeared to be more self-contained along the way, Ho added.

Isabel Perucho YNUS ’18 agreed that Yale-NUS’s relationship with NUS has been a point of contention on campus and was never “clear-cut from the start.” However, Perucho said fostering Yale-NUS’s own culture needs not come at the expense of interaction with the outside world, as no successful liberal arts college is self-contained.

A POLITICAL OUTLIER?

The question of whether Yale-NUS is self-contained goes beyond its ties with NUS to its engagement with Singaporean society more broadly. Nicknamed the “little red dot,” the small island was home to four major universities before Yale-NUS set its footprint there. One can literally travel across the country in less than two hours, and imports make up a large portion of daily essentials. Singapore’s smallness is not the only aspect that makes it stand out, as its political scene has attracted much attention as well. Although Singapore upholds voting rights, a single political party has ruled the country for the 51 years since its founding. Moreover, any mention of the country in the west invokes memory of its chewing gum ban and caning as a form of punishment.

Therefore, many are paying attention to how Yale-NUS, the country’s first and only liberal arts college, engages with its host country politically.

Yale-NUS administrators and students insist that the school does engage with Singapore’s political scene without great constraint, though members of Singapore’s opposition parties say otherwise. The most cited example of Yale-NUS’s involvement with local politics was a talk given by Chee Soon Juan last fall. Chee is the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, the country’s second-largest opposition party. In 2012, he travelled to New Haven to discuss the possible pitfalls of Yale’s Singapore project, likening it to a business venture.

Chee told the News that even though he was hosted by Yale-NUS, he had to approach the school first to ask for the opportunity. Moreover, Chee, while grateful for the chance to speak, said the event was limited its openness, as he recalled it being a closed-door event with no photography allowed.

In some ways, Chee’s talk seemed representative of a common tension at Yale-NUS: While the college tries to engage with its home country politically, there are inevitable restrictions to how much it can do so.

“I keep asking myself why. Why?” Chee said. “Have an open discussion; organize a debate for goodness’ sake.”

Kenneth Jeyaretnam, leader of Singapore’s Reform Party, another opposition party, said he was never invited to speak at Yale-NUS and has been denied a platform to speak at other Singaporean universities. Jeyaretnam joined Chee in the 2012 panel at Yale, where he condemned Yale as lending its name to an authoritarian government and “making a pact with a devil.”

According to a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch, Singapore requires local newspapers to renew their registration each year. The government restricts freedom of assembly except for in one park on the entire island, and government officials have used defamation as a way to silence critics. Political activities at Yale-NUS, with the school’s American association and commitment to freedom of speech, thus form an important lens to examine how the school engages with Singaporean society.

Chee said the litmus test for Yale-NUS’s political freedom is whether the school will make it possible for the opposition to visit not only during elections, but also to convey its ideologies at other times and recruit interested students to set up youth branches of political parties. He noted that groups similar to the Yale College Democrats and Yale College Republicans are absent at Yale-NUS. In October 2012, Yale-NUS announced such organizations would be prohibited on campus, in accordance with the nation’s laws.

“If Yale, why not Yale-NUS? The only reason I can think of is that Yale-NUS is in Singapore and has to abide by its rules and regulations,” Chee said. “Where do we get the idea that politics is wrong for university students?”

Chee added that he hasn’t heard any conversation coming from Yale-NUS students asking the “why” question. For Chee and Yale-NUS’s critics in New Haven, the fact that no Yale-NUS student challenged the restriction is troubling. Accepting the government’s rules is a dominant attitude in Singapore’s political culture, and some worried that this culture has begun to find its way into Yale’s Singapore project.

(Ellie Pritchett, Production & Design Staff)

Ai Huy Luu YNUS ’19, who is from Singapore, said though Yale-NUS students cannot set up branches of political parties nor campaign for them on campus, hosting forums is still a good way to engage broader society in political issues. Before Singapore’s parliamentary election last September, Yale-NUS’s International Relations and Political Association hosted a debate among various political parties. Also before the election, a group of juniors at Yale-NUS developed Electionaire, a web survey that allows users to see which Singaporean party best aligns with their political stances. Luu added that because protests are generally banned in Singapore, much dissent has gone online and many of her peers have used online platforms to voice their opinions.

Lewis agreed, noting that some Yale-NUS students contribute to online outlets with more critical stands toward the government.

And, beyond straight politics, Yale-NUS students have also found ways to engage with cultural and social issues relevant to Singaporean society.

The G Spot, for example, has worked with local NGOs on gender equality and the empowerment of the transgender community. It was the first student organization to receive a Student Initiative Award from AWARE, Singapore’s leading gender-equality advocacy group.

Despite students’ effort to branch out, Luu said she understands why so many Singaporeans are unfamiliar with Yale-NUS. The college is still a niche institution and liberal arts remains largely a foreign concept on the island, Luu added.

But Bridges, who moved to Singapore in January, said he has the opposite impression and felt as if “the entire nation is watching Yale-NUS.” He cited the fact that many local newspapers closely follow happenings at Yale-NUS. For example, The Straits Times, Singapore’s most widely circulated newspaper, has an entire webpage titled “Latest: Yale-NUS.”

AN INCONSISTENT ROLE?

Even in the face of Singapore’s relative political restrictions, academic institutions like Yale-NUS are afforded a degree of leeway. A widely held view is that Singapore’s government does not actively enforce its strict and conceivably discriminatory laws on paper. As a result, there is room for Yale-NUS students to freely express themselves within the physical boundaries of the school. In fact, Yale-NUS includes free expression as the school’s “cornerstone” in its Policies and Procedures.

(Ellie Pritchett, Production & Design Staff)

But despite the school’s desire to be as integrated into Singaporean society as possible, some suggest that a degree of isolation is necessary to uphold a commitment to freedom of speech. Whether Yale-NUS needs to be self-contained to carry out its mission is a point of disagreement on campus among students.

“Students feel as free on our campus as they do in New Haven,” Lewis told the News. “It’s true that one segment of political freedom is somewhat more restricted here, but people interact in the same ways, debate same issues and express their views freely.”

For many outside Yale-NUS, however, such political freedom is not guaranteed, and there arises the question of whether Yale-NUS needs to be self-contained, at least politically, to live up to its promise of free expression.

Yale-NUS’s commitment to freedom of speech makes it a “safe haven” for people with dissenting political views, Thu Truong YNUS ’18 said.

Truong added that students defend same-sex marriage and freedom of speech on campus but do not aggressively take these views to the streets. The school needs to be somewhat self-contained in order to guard its values, Truong said.

Only two of 15 Yale-NUS interviewed said the discrepancy between a campus culture and a societal environment made them modify their behaviors when stepping outside campus.

“There are things I would say here and be less strong about when I’m outside,” another anonymous Yale-NUS student said. “It’s not self-censorship but an unconscious response to the environment I’m in.”

Still, Chee challenged the statement, arguing that it ultimately boils down to self-censorship, a huge part of Singaporean culture.

In a 2014 interview with the News, Salovey said when Yale set out its plan in Singapore, the administration was aware of Singapore’s more restrictive laws about political speech as compared to those in U.S. He added that the University ultimately decided that the risks “were worth it,” when balanced against the chance to create a new liberal arts experience in Asia. Salovey told The Indian Express in 2015 that a vigorous liberal arts training, with its inherent discussion and dissent, is the best preparation for Singapore’s not-too-distant future of fuller democracy.

An anonymous Yale-NUS student said the campus environment is indeed more tolerant compared to elsewhere in Singaporean society, making people less afraid of speaking their minds. The student added that it is necessary that such open exercises of freedom of speech stay within the walls of the school if Yale-NUS is to preserve and live up to its values.

“It’s simply not practical to remove the bubble,” the student said. “For example, according to the terms in their Student’s Pass, international students cannot engage in political activities in the country, but they happen to be ones most vocal about political issues.”

For international students, who make up around 40 percent of the Yale-NUS student body, student visas may pose more restrictions.

“You shall not take part in any political or other related activities during your stay in Singapore,” the Terms & Conditions of Singapore’s Student’s Pass states. Generally, every international student pursuing full-time studies in Singapore require a Student’s Pass to legally stay in the country.

Though the document does not specify what “political or other related activities” entail, Lewis said its primary meaning includes joining a political party or attending protests.

In the same way that the U.S. puts limits on foreigners’ contribution to election campaigns, Singapore has its restrictions on internationals’ political involvement, Lewis said, adding that Singaporeans make up the majority of Yale-NUS’s student body and are free to join political parties or participate in campaigns. International students tend to engage more with social matters that intersect with politics, Lewis said.

All eight Yale-NUS international students interviewed said they do not feel restricted by the term on their Student’s Pass.

Carmen Denia YNUS ’17, a student from the Philippines who has spent eight years in Singapore, said that while the term of the Student’s Pass restricts protests, such activities are now allowed in Singapore anyway, and therefore the term does not present international students with additional barriers. She added that the law does not bar her from attending talks or speaking to ministers, for example.

Peter Lewis YNUS ’18, who hails from Arizona, said he felt comfortable speaking his mind and had been allowed to attend political rallies, suggesting a Yale-NUS bubble is not necessary.

“We are guests in this country and the Singapore government provides us with this fantastic education,” he said. “I appreciate it without any feeling that I have to change anything. At the end of the day, I am an American living in this country. I don’t feel the restriction is unjust.”

Julianne Thomson YNUS ’18, who is also American, said she thought about the term before attending Yale-NUS and did not consider it an issue. Thomson said it would have been a problem if some particular issues compelled her to cross the boundary. If that happens, the Student’s Pass will not be a factor holding her back, she added, though she said she could not envision what issues would prompt her to break the rule in the first place.

“I will only know a boundary if I cross over it, and I will keep going if I don’t. Now I feel free to do whatever,” Thomson said.

Moreover, roughly 15 students interviewed, including those from western countries such as the U.S., said the western conception of an authoritarian Singapore is outdated.

Many Americans’ negative perception of Singapore still dwell in the 1990s, when then-U.S. President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 intervened in the case of Michael Fay, a 18-year-old American who was subjected to caning for theft and vandalism, Patrick Wu YNUS ’19, a student from Georgia, said. Wu added that the news coverage of the episode led to the problematic view of Singapore that still exists today.

Paul Jerusalem YNUS ’19 said the rules are strict in Singapore and those who think of the country as “draconian” and a “police state” may have derived their opinion from existing codes of laws. However, the idiosyncrasy of Singapore is that many laws are there simply to reflect the historically traditional fabric of the society, and as long as one’s actions do not hurt someone else, the government does not “police every single thing,” he added.

Luu, a Singaporean student, agreed, saying that Singapore may seem authoritarian on the surface, but there is a lot of leeway as long as one does not openly dispute the status quo nor undermine the state. She added that Singapore gives freedom to academic space. For example, there are university courses taught about queer issues, as well as courses that argue against some of the tenets of government ministries.

Still, Chee said fear and self-censorship are a big part of the Singapore culture, and the problem is not so much about the government saying “no,” but rather about individuals submitting to fear. He warned that if Yale-NUS were not careful enough, it will be swallowed up in the culture without realizing it.

DEBUNKING THE “LIBERAL” MYTH

Although the term “liberal” in “liberal arts” is derived from the Latin word “liberalis,” meaning freedom, many today mistake it to mean the opposite of conservative, especially in the political sense. Because of its American brand and its selling point as a liberal-arts experiment, Yale-NUS is often subjected to this misconception from many outsiders.

Declan Low, a fourth-year student at NUS who studied at Yale for one year, said Yale-NUS engages with more controversial topics that Singaporeans usually abstain from, such as LGBTQ advocacy. This difference is responsible for impressions of Yale-NUS as more liberal leaning, he said.

And due to Yale-NUS’s small student body, people unfamiliar with the college often associate a few vocal, liberal student voices with the entire school. A post on NUS Confessions, a popular Facebook page where members of the public can submit anonymous posts, angrily accused several Yale-NUS students of complaining about how illiberal Singapore was while riding public transit.

And most recently, after a few Yale-NUS students called for Ambassador Chan’s removal from the school’s governing board because she defended the country’s sodomy law, Bilahari Kausikan, another Singaporean ambassador-at-large, lamented the “hopefully noisy minority” liberals of Yale-NUS on Facebook.

While Kausikan made sure not to label the entire Yale-NUS community as liberal, he thought establishing the school was the wrong move.

“I think it was a mistake to have let Yale establish a campus in Singapore. Some sections of the American academy have been behaving in insane ways and their particular band of insanity should not be allowed to be imported into Singapore,” Kausikan wrote in the post.

However defensive or xenophobic these comments seem to many at Yale-NUS, they ultimately speak to a larger issue — how easily Yale-NUS can be wrongly labeled as a habitat for liberals within a conservative social fabric. The fact is, Yale-NUS is home to a significant percentage of Singaporean Christian students who tend to identify with more conservative political and social views. For this particular group, misconceptions surrounding their school can be problematic.

An anonymous student said the student body consists of a few liberal advocates but also a considerable conservative, but silent, population.

According to the student, the liberal voice at Yale-NUS is very powerful but not wholly representative of the student body.

Denia, a Christian herself, said the misconception about Yale-NUS can be hard for her sometimes, especially when outsiders treat Yale-NUS as a “hotbed for atheists and political revolts.”

Whether cautioning Yale-NUS against a liberal frenzy, calling for more interaction with its neighbor or expressing hopes for its greater political freedom, various parts of Singaporean society harbor different expectations for this young college. Ignorance of Yale-NUS’s existence or skewed impressions of its culture persist despite the college’s efforts to engage with its host country. And even among Yale-NUS’s 500 students, opinions remain divided on whether a degree of self-containedness is necessary to cultivating Yale-NUS’s unique culture and uphold its commitment to free expression.

As the college’s polished campus stands tall, tucked in a corner of Singapore, Yale-NUS continues to figure out in which direction to head, how to assert its presence and how to make an impact on this Southeast Asian island.

 

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