Benhabib: Why I oppose Yale in Singapore

Even if a train has left the station, it’s important to be clear about what may go wrong on the journey – especially if one is already on the train! Since Yale’s decision to forge ahead with its college in Singapore is full of peril as well as promise, those of us who’ve been critical of the venture should reiterate our normative and pedagogical concerns.

Yale and its graduates aren’t strangers to the blessings of international education and cosmopolitan visions. I myself might not have earned my PhD in philosophy at Yale had I not first graduated the American College for Girls in Istanbul, Turkey, founded and funded by New England Presbyterians, including citizens of New Haven such as the Washburn family.

Singapore, however, seems a poor choice of a venue in which to expand the model of Yale College in Asia. Some call it a police state, citing ample evidence, and there’s little question that it is authoritarian and continues to commit significant violations of basic human rights. Recent tremors in the country’s politics may even accelerate, not diminish, these violations.

If our purpose is to set a model for a liberal arts education, why not engage India, the country with a free and contentious public sphere and an extra-ordinary intellectual life both in India and in the Indian diaspora? Experiments in democratic education are best performed with in genuinely open, multicultural and multi-faith democracies, such as India, rather than in the artificial, boutique-like security of places like Singapore or Abu Dhabi.

Proponents of Yale’s venture marshal long-discredited “cultural relativist” arguments to suggest that “we” have no business judging other countries’ human rights records and that we should learn the rules and mores of other cultures.

This line of reasoning – a long, convoluted one in law, philosophy, and political science — rides the tired notion that sound “Asian” values must be respected even if they are irreconcilable with “Western” understandings of human rights and democracy. But no one professing the liberal arts, especially in Yale’s name, can fail to insist that “human rights have no walls” and that all values are subject to critical scrutiny, whether some call them “Asian” or western. If we don’t live up to these principles, then the whole project is compromised from the start.

I predict that some event in Singapore’s political life or in the interaction of Yale College in Singapore with the larger society will involve some deep clash of principles for the university and that it will tarnish Yale’s own standing for human rights and democratic values.

Finally, why should those who want the Singapore project to serve as an experiment in reforming the core liberal-arts curriculum try to make that tail wag this dog? Let us experiment and reform liberal education as liberal democracies actually do best — through vigorous debate and reforms of old curricular assumptions right here at Yale.

Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy


  • BR2013

    Great piece! If only the rest of the faculty was as vocal on this issue.

  • guest12

    I do agree that India would have been a much better option!

  • theAvenger

    So, this person is supposed to be a philosopher, but her argument against cultural relativism is based on an absolute view of universality of human rights at liberal arts colleges?

    “No one professing the liberal arts, especially in Yale’s name, can fail to insist that ‘human rights have no walls’ and that all values are subject to critical scrutiny, whether some call them ‘Asian’ or western. If we don’t live up to these principles, then the whole project is compromised from the start.”

    Wow, that’s dumb.

  • CX

    Let’s not forget that the Singapore venture is in great part an attempt to establish Yale’s brand in Asia. It’s no different at all from a business moving into a new market. If Yale doesn’t move in, some other college (maybe the one up the street we don’t talk about) will, and they’ll win the name-recognition game in Asia. The first bite stirs up the sharks, and the earlier we move the better it is for us.

    On that same practical note, I suspect very few other countries in Asia could afford to fully finance this sort of college–with (I hope) the same commitment to financial aid, great facilities, and great professors. Definitely not India, with its 41.6% poverty rate. Their government probably should focus on feeding the citizens before ensuring their civil rights.

    More philosophically, “boycotting” Singapore doesn’t do much for our reputation either. A liberal-arts curriculum would have the greatest impact in a country lacking in liberties, even if there would be restrictions on what the professors can teach or what the students can do.

    Arguing that we shouldn’t go ahead with this project because Singaporean values are different from our own is like saying we shouldn’t fund education for girls in Afghanistan because girls are discouraged from going to school there. The whole point is to incite clash by introducing new ideas in places not accustomed to them in hopes that both parties can gain. Singaporeans can learn much from a liberal-arts education, and the Yale community has much to learn from Singapore. If we wanted to only play with people like us, why not set up shop in San Francisco instead?

  • rr22

    I think we have the right to be judgmental about certain aspects of Singapore’s political system that we find egregious. The lack of various political freedoms, including the (pretty much totally unenforced) illegality of homosexuality are definitely causes for concern. But that does not mean that we should not engage with them whatsoever and we certainly should not boycott them. They are an increasingly-successful economic and social force in the world and turning a cold shoulder to them would not be in anyone’s best interest. Hopefully through engagement we can introduce more liberal, western political ideas into their culture and support political change that is already gradually happening (as seen in the mild steps forward they took in the election a few weeks ago). Yale just has to be careful to not be submissive and not just blindly support their regime.

  • sarron

    Yes please continue to choose a policy of isolation rather than engagement, I’m sure Yale’s precious reputation can thus be maintained at the expense of an opportunity to actually contribute to the growing pluralism of Singapore’s civic society and public sphere. What is the point of brandishing an institution’s liberal ideology as a source of immense pride when that institution refrains from contributing to real world developments.

    Change in Singapore is happening, slowly but surely. The recent elections have demonstrated that there is a growing section of the population that is vocal and is not afraid to demand more governmental accountability and institutional reform to separate party from government. One of the key election issues this year was the creation of a genuine multi-party system and creating consensus towards building a first-world parliament. When the author simply dismisses Singapore as ‘artificial’, I think she should know that in one broad stroke she denigrates the efforts of sizeable section of Singaporean society and she comes across as being very arrogant and dismissive. ( I find that the expression ‘experiments in democratic education’ almost carries with it the connotations of a civilising mission). Sections in the article repeat tired truisms like the entire asian values debate which frankly has very little currency in Singapore despite being repeated by a few leaders and drummed up by the international press.

    I also don’t understand why Singapore isn’t considered by the author to be genuinely ” multi-cultural” and “multi-faith.” Perhaps it is the absence of communal violence and exclusionary nationalism which the author attributes to the invisible hand of the police state, rather than genuine civic-mindedness, inclusiveness and the syncretic nature of Singaporean society?

    I feel that Yale’s presence in Singapore would be greatly beneficial to the opening up of Singaporean society. But if we are not worthy then it’s quite alright. We’ll do it ourselves.

  • JimSleeper

    I”d shudder if I thought that more than one or two people in the Yale administration and faculty have nodded in agreement while reading CX’s comment a few posts above this one — especially the opening paragraph:

    “Let’s not forget that the Singapore venture is in great part an attempt to establish Yale’s brand in Asia. It’s no different at all from a business moving into a new market. If Yale doesn’t move in, some other college (maybe the one up the street we don’t talk about) will, and they’ll win the name-recognition game in Asia. The first bite stirs up the sharks, and the earlier we move the better it is for us.”

    Brand recognition? New market? Market share? Sharks? Whether you’re an intellectually serious conservative or a big-government liberal, or a civic-republican centrist, you should cherish Institutions like Yale precisely because they stand for a different way than CX’s of trying balancing humanist truth-seeking, republican power-wielding, and capitalist wealth-making.

    The purpose of liberal arts colleges is not to walk and talk like for-profit corporations and certainly not to become career-networking centers and cultural galleria for a global elite unaccountable to any polity or moral code. Yale should be far-ranging and cosmopolitan in its interests, as Benhabib is and urges — but not because it’s trying to ride the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-marketing juggernaut that seems to inspire CX and to set his or her frames of reference.

    Whatever its graduates do with their liberal-arts educations, Yale as an institution can’t and shouldn’t devote a lot of its own energies to enhancing a particular society or regime or to save the world. It does owe a lot to, and has a very deep stake in, the civil strengths of the society that has nurtured and sustained it.

    Yale can and should try to make sure that the graduates of its college, whatever careers they pursue, are grounded first in a few years spent studying the best of what’s been thought and said about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit. CX seems not to realize that if we’re not grounded that way, we’ll lose a lot more than market share.

  • CX

    Yes, what you say is all very nice, but it doesn’t invalidate any of those above reasons. Whether you like it or not, as an institution, Yale is constantly in competition with other colleges to attract talent–and the boom in Asia means there’s lots of talent to be attracted there. Yale NEEDS a foothold in Asia, and it needs to be somewhere rich, centrally located, and stable. This rules out most Asian countries.

    The Singapore venture is a move into Asia. Whether you’d like to think of it as a way to spread our lofty ideals or as a purely calculated business move doesn’t matter. The intent behind the move is irrelevant to what it accomplishes, but the latter intent is much more powerful, and that’s the beauty of the “casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-marketing juggernaut” frame of reference. Yale does not (and cannot) “stand against” it’s own self-interest and survival, which is dependent on competition for and attendance of the best students and highest donors.

    Think about what WOULD happen if Yale fell behind on the race in recruiting Asian talent. As the continent increases in importance in the future, our influence over them (in grounding them in those wonderful things you talk about) would be less than if we got there first. If you happened to read past the first paragraph, you would notice that there are philosophical reasons for endorsing this move, which do concern what you think the institution stands for. My point was that no matter which way you looked at the situation, moving into Singapore is a good idea. Whether President Levin was more motivated by “market shares” or spreading lofty ideals doesn’t matter–the venture accomplishes both of these things.

    About the purpose of liberal arts colleges, and colleges in general: One of the most important reasons I’m here at Yale is because I know it offers me better career-networking and job opportunities than other colleges–is this a bad thing? Would you rather we all lived in a commune and studied art history? Why don’t we demolish the career center while we’re at it and prohibit students from doing internships?

    You say you believe in “studying the best of what’s been thought and said about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit”, but it seems you define “the best” very narrowly. Does Singapore’s government (which provides for its citizens much better than most of the democracies next door) not live up to that standard? The challenge of politics is not “how do we undermine totalitarianism today and replace with democracy at any cost?” nor should that be Yale’s goal. The question of what kind of government is best is timeless, and the clash of different opinions on how to deal with the challenge of politics is exactly why we should move into Singapore.

  • Skeptic

    Just for full disclosure: isn’t Jim Sleeper = Mr. Benhabib?

  • JimSleeper

    CX, You write, “One of the most important reasons I’m here at Yale is because I know it offers me better career-networking and job opportunities than other colleges–is this a bad thing? Would you rather we all lived in a commune and studied art history? Why don’t we demolish the career center while we’re at it and prohibit students from doing internships?”

    I’ll bet that your education at Yale has enabled you to conceive of alternatives better than those you present here. If it hasn’t, Yale’s engagement with Singapore’s government isn’t going to clarify your thinking.

    Asia is a big continent. Given the success of so many corporate ventures in India, I’m surprised that you’re not more open to suggestions such as Prof. Benhabib’s. Incidentally, Elihu Yale was the British colonial governor in India, and it was from there that some of his books and funds were shipped to Connecticut establish this university. A new relationship between Yale and India might combine redress and reciprocity while charting a new course for both the university and emerging new societies.

    But I am not really trying to promote India. I am trying to broaden our horizons, and I am concerned about the quality of your thinking about what liberal-arts colleges are and how they might best be sustained.

    Allan Bloom, who is far more conservative than I, argued in his The Closing of the American Mind that the purpose of a university is to be somewhat adversarial to the currents of markets and state power around it:

    In his view, people who come to a university to pursue better career-networking and job opportunities should also, while they’re there, be taught to think hard about what has made colleges like Yale so effective. Partly it’s been the determination of alumni who’ve done well in the commercial world to donate resources with no strings attached so that the university could remain somewhat free of the constraints you seem to celebrate and to want to weave more tightly into its life.

    Yale been fortunate enough to have many alumni willing to donate to it on less restrictive terms because it taught them not only how to network but also how to recognize that the university will serve the larger society and economy much better if it isn’t forced to think and march in lockstep with them. Yale has been great because its graduates have understood and respected this need for a somewhat detached, even adversarial stance. Without that, a society has no rudder, no tiller.

  • CX

    The point I was trying to make more broadly was that students who come here because of purely business or career motivations MUST also take in the liberal arts educations and be influenced by it. In other words, if liberal arts is the game to be played, as it is at Yale, then good students will win the game and acquire said liberal arts education, even if they don’t consider it valuable. They’ll learn how to debate ethics and analyze literature, all the while motivated only by the prospect of getting good grades or good professor recommendations, to go onto good jobs and good law schools. Business (more generally, economic) interests drive other interests. This is the nature of the world. I doubt that there ever has been a student in Yale’s 300 year history who ONLY came here to seek the truth and become a better person without ever thinking about how he might use prestigious degree for (selfish) personal gain. In this way, Professor Bloom is right. While lusting after a choice career, driven students will have no choice but to let themselves be taught liberal arts curriculum (and many of them, myself included, have enjoyed that curriculum greatly.)

    Why should this be different at the institutional level? Yale is selling its liberal arts education, which has been deemed very valuable precisely because for centuries we’ve churned out successful people in the commercial sense–this is why we flout how many Presidents and Supreme Court justices and CEOs graduated here, and this is why newspapers publish absurd) lists of colleges with the best “return” on investment. If the purpose of a liberal arts education, and the purpose of Yale University, is your idealized “pursuit of the truth”, those lists and statistics wouldn’t be compiled or released. I think some colleges do refuse to publish those statistics, and Yale isn’t among them because it has evolved from a liberal arts college to a results-oriented global research university. The liberal arts education part of the Yale experience is now mostly a selling point to lure high school seniors into coming to see cozy dorm rooms, luxurious facilities, and famous professors in seminars. Of course you would argue that this is not a good thing, but then why are you teaching here instead of the much more liberal-arts oriented Middlebury or Williams or even Dartmouth? I suspect it has to do with the prestige of a Yale faculty position, higher salary, and interaction with students who (maybe for the wrong reasons) want to do well.

  • CX

    (Continued from the above comment)

    On that note I do think we’re talking about a very small phenomenon in our debate–most college students (at lesser institutions) don’t care about either their career prospects OR the pursuit of truth. The kind of university you idealize doesn’t exist, because elite universities have long recognized what their students are after (not Saturday afternoons spent reading Marx but perhaps future Saturday afternoons shopping at Barneys), and lower-tier universities find that their students aren’t after anything, and this is why we see the proliferation of online degrees and the many many people who no long think college is “worth it”.

    More specifically about Singapore, I reiterate that if we wish to practically pursue this venture in Asia (where you seem agree is the next “happening place”) it must be in a country that is rich (able to finance the college) and stable (if we build Yale-Kabul it may be attacked and seized by a warlord or terrorist). These two requirements alone disqualify most countries in Asia. Of the remaining ones, only a handful are democracies, and while Japan or South Korea may look like viable candidates, there are other reasons for looking to authoritarian states.

    Let us forget the “business-oriented” reasons for a while. Philosophically, Yale wants to spread learning of the liberal arts, and the best places to do this are in countries that do not already have a tradition of liberalism (this is why Catholic missionaries don’t waste time proselytizing in Vatican City). For purely pursuit-of-truth reasons, we should engage with a system unlike our own, both to reaffirm or to find flaws in our own system, and to influence the opposite system and expose them to our way of doing things. This is what globalization of the university is about. For this, there is no more perfect candidate than Singapore, probably the most benign and competent state that successfully uses a political system other than our own.

    I feel that your (and your wife’s) indignation comes from the dearly-held view that the liberal-democratic system of government is the only “correct” system of government, and it is only in this form of government that a liberal arts curriculum can thrive. You seem to offer no other reason as to why India is a better candidate than Singapore (who also has many successful corporate ventures) I challenge both of those points. True, the Singapore venture may end up a failure, with students trying to engage in free speech or protest the government being shot by the police, and that would be very sad. But I suspect that the Singaporean government would at least begrudgingly allow more freedoms in Yale-NUS than elsewhere in the country–this is in itself progress, and if we can achieve this, the venture will already have been a success.

  • JimSleeper

    The answer to Skeptic’s question is yes, but last October I expressed here my own worries, although only in passing, about what the Singapore venture represents. This column was solicited by YDN editors on the occasion of Yale’s 309th birthday, and in it I tried (but, I think, didn’t succeed) in making part of the argument I’ve been making here.

    (For anyone wanting to follow up on Yale’s stake in the Luce -Hadden rivalry that’s mentioned in the column, here’s a review from the Yale Alumni Magazine: You’ll have to scroll down a few reviews to get to it:

  • rr22

    If Yale starts a liberal arts college in Singapore, what is it anyway? It’s not YALE in the sense that we know it. There is no Old Campus, no gothic, no secret societies, no naked parties, no fraternities, no SML, no Bass library, no Harvard-Yale tailgates, no Mory’s, no Spring Fling, no Toad’s, no Hillhouse Ave, etc etc etc. So what is it that we are left with? I don’t think that that administration of Yale has the capability to successfully reproduce the Yale experience anywhere else. Whatever it is that we are building in Singapore may be interesting, worthwhile, and a great school. But it will not be Yale.

  • attila

    Benhabib is correct in saying that sometime soon after this all gets going, the Singapore government is going to do something that makes Yale look really bad. And Yale will not have any power to push back — it is simply inconceivable that our admin will have the courage to say “stick to the agreement or we leave.” So Yale is pretty much signing on to tolerate anything the Singapore government hands out. They may arrest gay visiting faculty or students. They may ban certain people for having said things the government does not like. My guess is that Benhabib and Sleeper are already on a list of people not welcome to teach there. Etc etc. So “Yale in Singapore” will require Yale’s toleration of things it would never, ever tolerate in New Haven. There is no doubt this will seriously damage our reputation, and also make it harder to uphold our values in New Haven. I take little comfort in the fact that our peer institutions have no more spine than we do.

  • graduate_student

    I commend Professor Benhabib for taking this public position.

    The fact that some here make arguments in terms of brand recognition and market expansion only underlines the worrying possibility that Yale has already failed to instill the value of the liberal arts education here in the United States. Why should we suspect that it would have any more success in Singapore?

  • roganjosh

    On one hand the liberal arts could make Singapore more liberal. On the other, Singapore could make the liberal arts completely illiberal, in which case there would be no liberal arts college in anything but name. Let’s not forget that the central point of the liberal arts curriculum is freedom.

  • Tralfamadore

    A Sardonic Response:

    I take issue with Yale existing in New Haven, CT in the United States of America. It’s very close to Bridgeport, a crime ridden city and Hartford an insurance town and the fact of its existence within the United States of America, a former slave-holding state, that must make appeals to its citizens not to be prejudiced and is rife with lawsuits over prejudice in some of its biggest companies. Also, the military gives its patents to technology companies that then ID and track Americans with much more competence and in much more detail than any communist government ever managed. Also, the surplus wages of its citizens are sucked up by casinos (whose influence in government is great) if they’re not spent on drugs, a perennial issue in this runaway capitalist country that puts its people into jail for long sentences in response to law enforcement and jail union demands for higher wages and more jobs!

  • Tralfamadore

    India’s a better choice for Yale:

  • vitalism

    ^ Of course, look at how it organized the Commonwealth Games.

  • Fawn

    I think at some point I would have a hard time saying no to a piece of gum.

    Singapore seems counterintuitive to the grayscale glasses that a liberal arts education encourages its students to wear. India needs to pull itself together, but a liberal arts school makes far more sense there than it does in Singapore where grayscale glasses are perhaps the one style of glasses that have yet to be imported at least not until now. Call it freedom or chaos but when people are fighting to stay alive, to provide food for their families, a general disregard for cultural norms and the legal system seems to be a natural development and is far from unexpected. A liberal arts school would thrive in such an environment.

    The issue, however, is that Yale would not thrive in India. Someone above is obviously wearing see-through glasses, saying that if Yale has to offer its services in Asia, it’s got to be somewhere rich. Singapore is the perfect place, not for the liberal arts, but for Yale. I predict an eminent identity crisis.

  • Grandejose3798

    Singapore is also multi-cultural, though Chinese is the dominant population. I don’t think Professor Benhabib’s argument makes sense to me. Just because Singapore is not a democratic country, then it is bad for Yale to set up a liberal arts education there? If Singapore is not democratic, why not use this liberal-arts education to change it?

  • Grandejose3798

    Also Yale doesn’t say that it will not set up a new school in India in the future. If you want to buy a brand, you’ll definitely want to buy one with the highest quality and then choose other brands in the future if you are satisfied. Singapore, compared to India, has much better infrastructure as well as living condition. The government there also has better connections with Yale than those of India. So why not we first try an easy one, if it succeeds, we could open more schools in Asia, Europe, in Latin America and even in Africa. If it fails, find the reason! I don’t think it’s because Singapore is not democratic. Even if Singapore is not democratic, at least the people there receive high education and liberal-arts education is not about overthrowing a government. It’s liberal but it doesn’t neccessarily mean directly overthrowing a system, so I don’t think the Singaporeans would oppose it and kick it out. Also if you make a school like this in India, people there are generally poor, only the rich kids could enjoy an education like this, and those not very good ones because the good ones are already here in US. Furthermore, the poor kids would not choose to go to a liberal-arts school even if the tuition is cheap. Why? Because they want to have some technique! This is typical for developing country students EVEN AT YALE! Look at what the Chinese study here, 60% are economics/ economics&mathematics majors and all go to Investment Banking or Consulting companies.

  • Grandejose3798

    All is hyperbole here~ I’m kidding. Though I am not doing economics or Investment banking, I still have family pressure on me. My parents want me to study mathematics and physics, which I fiercely oppose. I later choose history and will use marine biology to fulfill my science credits. I really love fish, though I also like maths and science but I definitely LOVE marine biology and HISTORY! Then they said okay, “now you are studying history, you have to promise me that you don’t do a history Phd!” I couldn’t exclude the possibility but I’m telling you that I may pursue fields related to history in the future. You see, I have a liberal-arts ideal, but my parents don’t. They are still using their third-world ideology to manipulate me, which was studying in a top first-world college. I have that struggle, not to mention other kids in 3rd world countries

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