In Singapore, liberal arts enter uncharted territory

Approximately 18,000 Singaporean students attended the National University of Singapore’s open house program, which included Yale-NUS College, earlier this month.
Approximately 18,000 Singaporean students attended the National University of Singapore’s open house program, which included Yale-NUS College, earlier this month. Photo by Ava Kofman.

Two staff reporters for the News, Ava Kofman and Tapley Stephenson, traveled to Singapore over spring break, interviewing more than 80 sources on the founding of Yale-NUS College — how Singaporeans view the project, how the liberal arts function in Singapore and how the country’s values differ from those on Yale’s campus. This is part two of the three-part series. (Read part 1 and part 3.)

SINGAPORE — On other days, the giant halls in the National University of Singapore’s Sports & Recreation Centre might feel empty. But the 18,000 Singaporean students who passed through campus on March 17 and 18 for the NUS Open House entered rooms packed with booths from all of the NUS’s 16 schools and countless other student programs.

This year, tucked in a corner next to a booth for the NUS Business School, there was a new option on display. Under a sign that read “1 + 1 = 3,” Yale-NUS admissions representatives fielded questions from curious students about how Yale-NUS, the country’s first liberal arts college, will recreate Yale’s academic model in a Singaporean setting.

Although the booth looked similar in appearance to its neighbors at the open house, Yale-NUS will differ drastically in its academic structure from its peer institutions in Singapore.

Yale and NUS administrators have said their first priority is crafting “a unique and powerful education,” but they face the challenge of attracting students to a new school with an unfamiliar educational model.

A NEW MODEL

In a nation where most undergraduate degrees are offered in vocational subjects such as dentistry, engineering, business and law, some still understand the concept of “arts” as exclusively fine arts, rather than broad-based learning.

“Liberal arts is a misnomer; Asians think it means music, dance and drama,” Yale-NUS governing board chair Kay Kuok told the Straits Times in an interview last November.

The Ministry of Education has previously brought elements of foreign educational models back to its own universities through 60 international partnerships with academic institutions and internal programs like the NUS University Scholars Program (USP). The USP allows for more academic breadth than most NUS programs, though students still take 70 percent of their classes within their majors.

The Singaporean government offers bonded scholarships to citizens who attend university abroad and commit to working in the Singaporean civil service after graduation. E-Lynn Yap ’14, who declined a government scholarship in favor of a full financial aid package at Yale, said the strongest high school students in Singapore travel abroad for their college education.

By supporting the creation of Yale-NUS, the Ministry of Education hopes that students seeking a broad course load will not have to leave the country, said Ng Cher Pong, deputy secretary for Singapore’s Ministry of Education and a member of the Yale-NUS Board of Governors. But Yap said she thinks many top applicants will still prefer institutions overseas to Yale-NUS.

“There’s such an ingrained tradition of the best students going overseas,” Yap said.

Ng said liberal arts programs like that at Yale-NUS may carry “upstream benefits” to support broader reforms to the education system in Singapore, but he added that he expects the infrastructure of Singapore’s educational system will take time to change.

BRAIN DRAIN?

Though the Singaporean government will pay for any of Yale’s Yale-NUS related expenses, some critics fear the partnership will have a negative impact on Yale’s campus in New Haven.

History of art professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan questions whether the college is drawing other resources — including administrators’ time and fundraising abilities — away from the University.

Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn ’81 described himself as “on loan” from the Yale astronomy department to Yale-NUS.

“It’s true there is an investment of time and effort — I think that would be hard to deny,” said Bailyn, who is also a professor in the Department of Astronomy. “I’m sitting here, and while the department gets financial compensation, those people won’t do exactly what I would’ve done if I was in New Haven.”

Some professors also worried that the new school may raw distinguished faculty away from Yale. But Yale administrators said they did not think this was a concern, estimating that six or fewer Yale professors would teach at Yale-NUS at any given time.

When regular faculty members from Yale-New Haven teach at Yale-NUS, they will be compensated by Yale as they would if they worked for the Yale-PKU or Yale-in-London programs, Provost Peter Salovey said. In addition, Yale-NUS, not Yale, will compensate the professor’s department, which will be able to spend the money at its discretion.

LOOPING BACK

Since University President Richard Levin and Salovey first announced plans for Yale-NUS in September 2010, Yale officials have pointed to the potential benefits of implementing successful Yale-NUS innovations in New Haven — an exchange that has been witnessed with other collaborations in Singapore.

At Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, which opened in 2007, Dean Ranga Krishnan said the school’s test-taking practice — in which students receive course materials prior to taking a test, then study in pre-assigned teams and retake the same test — was so successful at helping students retain information that it was introduced in chemistry classes on Duke’s home campus in Durham, N.C.

“At Duke, similar to Yale, most of the ways you teach students date back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and that is you basically have somebody who knows a lot about a subject come in front of a class and pontificate,” Krishnan said. “When you have a fresh start and there’s no one to say, ‘You can’t do it, it won’t work,’… it gives you a huge advantage.”

As Yale-NUS develops its required “common curriculum” for all students to include instruction in the Eastern and Western literary traditions as well as integrated, multidisciplinary science, all Yale-NUS administrators interviewed said they are confident Yale will bring some elements of the programs back to New Haven.

Collaboration between the two schools may be accelerated by designs for Yale-NUS classrooms, which will be outfitted with equipment to teleconference with classes at Yale in New Haven, NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan said.

LIFE AFTER YALE-NUS

But before Yale-NUS can experiment with these ideas, administrators will have to generate enthusiasm for a liberal arts model that is novel in Singapore.

After speaking to hundreds of prospective Yale-NUS applicants, Yale-NUS Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan ’03 said he was frequently asked about the marketability of a Yale-NUS degree in the Singaporean workplace.

“Let’s face it: It’s very competitive in Singapore — it’s hard to get a job. People want to have a job when they get out of college, so a big part of looking at college is asking where you will go after,” said Wang Yufei, a prospective Yale-NUS student at Singapore’s elite Raffles Institution.

In January, the college announced that it will team up with the NUS law school to provide a five-year joint-degree program, in which students will earn a liberal arts degree as well as a law degree. Simon Chesterman, dean of the NUS Faculty of Law, said the program would add the chance for students to practice law directly after college, easing concerns about employability.

As Yale-NUS administrators have worked to address these concerns, the school has pledged to provide summer internships for all members of its inaugural class during their first summer at Yale-NUS, Quinlan said. A list of 32 “Founding Internship Partner” organizations — including Coca-Cola, Singapore Airlines and the United Nations — is featured prominently in the Yale-NUS viewbook.

Bailyn called liberal arts the “study of arts and sciences for their own sake, not for purely vocational services,” but added that the “broadly based approach [is] wanted by companies,” even if it might be “oxymoronic.”

Ng said the competitive labor market in Asia increasingly demands employees who can adapt, think critically and learn new skills when changing careers — strengths he said the liberal arts will help to foster.

“With other colleges you might be stuck [in one job],” said Darryo Chen, a prospective Yale-NUS student from Singapore’s Catholic Junior College. “I’m more concerned where you go after.”

QUIET CLASSROOMS

In seeking to encourage strong critical thinking skills and lively debate, Yale-NUS administrators said they will have to overcome many Singaporean students’ hesitancy to speak up in class. Many Yale-NUS administrators, NUS professors and Singaporean students said classrooms in Singapore are generally quiet, lacking the louder debates often found in American seminars.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time during this run-up year trying to figure out how we’re going to address just this kind of a problem, at both the intellectual classroom level and the kind of social residential level as well,” Bailyn said.

Nigel Koh, a sophomore at Harvard and Singaporean citizen, said teachers mostly lecture to students, who listen and take notes, in the “structured system” of Singaporean high schools.

“It’s not uncommon for students to have questions and to be extremely polite, perhaps even diffident about asking them,” said Lily Kong, acting vice president for academic affairs. “But it’s not that they don’t have questions, and it’s the mark of a good teacher to encourage them.”

Many NUS students and administrators explained that students in Singapore often feel dissuaded from speaking out in class at the risk of looking foolish in front of their peers. Instead, students may choose to remain quiet and “save face” — a tendency NUS administrators said is more common in Asian cultures.

To counteract this inclination among students, Bailyn said Yale-NUS administrators have arranged for the first class of students at Yale-NUS to travel to New Haven and take seminars with Yale and Yale-NUS professors during the summer of 2013. Students also will not receive letter grades that fall to encourage them to speak in class without fear of hurting their academic standing, he added. Yale-NUS administrators said they will prioritize hiring faculty who can generate thought-provoking discussion.

For now, prospective Yale-NUS students are being asked to put their faith into an institution whose future is not entirely clear.

“There’s quite different paradigms involved between U.S. education and Singaporean education,” said Rebecca Zhang, another prospective student from Raffles. “Some of us are unsure how they are going to merge, so that would be the greatest hindrance [to attracting students].”

For the third and final installment of this series, a look at how Yale’s values will be tested in Singapore’s political system, see Thursday’s News.

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