Faculty vote draws attention in Singapore

Last Thursday’s Yale College faculty resolution expressing concern for Singapore’s “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” has garnered mixed reactions in the East Asian city state.

Though several Singaporean residents, National University of Singapore professors and NUS administrators interviewed said they do not expect the resolution to lead to major changes at Yale-NUS, the jointly run liberal arts college set to open in 2013, they said the resolution lacked a nuanced understanding of Singapore’s political situation. Four NUS administrators expressed disappointment to see the resolution passed, and several added that they agreed with the viewpoint of University President Richard Levin, who said he did not support the resolution because it had a “sense of moral superiority.”

“Both the tone of the resolution and some contributions to the debate have definitely struck a note of moral superiority,” John Richardson, director of NUS’s multi-disciplinary University Scholars Programme, said in a Sunday email. “More generally, both the resolution and certain comments assume that Yale, and the U.S. behind it, should and will enlighten the less fortunate parts of the world.”

Many faculty members at NUS have been discussing the resolution, Richardson said, though like Yale, opinions have differed within the faculty.

Shawn Tan ’01, vice president of the Yale Club of Singapore, said while he respected the Yale faculty’s right to voice its opinion, he found the resolution unbecoming of the University.

“I am more afraid of Yale faculty tarnishing the Yale name than of the Yale-NUS collaboration,” Tan said. “I believe it is time to snap out of the “I’m holier than thou” attitude that might have worked in the post-Soviet era, but which actually makes one look like a country bumpkin in today’s day and age.”

Tan added that few of the Yale faculty have actually been to Asia, so they may not be in a position to judge the country.

But Alex Au — whose political blog, Yawning Bread, is widely read in Singapore — said the resolution was fair in its critiques of Singapore, and he added that concerns about “moral superiority” are not a valid reason to avoid discussing a lack of civil liberties in the nation.

“I would say this strikes me as being similar to one of the Singapore government’s favorite defences whenever their human rights record is called into question,” Au said. “As a Singaporean, I reject such a facile attempt at Singapore- or Asian-particularism. If anything, I think it is demeaning to think that we are incapable of aspiration [for more liberties].”

Despite the ongoing debate over moral superiority, eight Singaporeans interviewed said they did not think the resolution would have a serious effect on the new school.

George Bishop, an openly gay NUS professor involved with the planning of Yale-NUS, said he didn’t think the resolution would have a major influence on the program because it concerned a subject that Yale-NUS administrators and potential hires have been discussing for months.

“From what I’ve seen of postings on Facebook from friends as well as discussion on Signel, Singapore’s gay news list, I don’t see any sense of offense,” Bishop said. “All of the arguments raised at the Yale faculty meeting have been heard before, often in far stronger terms.”

Doris Sohmen-Pao, Yale-NUS executive vice president for administration, said any partnership will have moments where differences of opinion emerge, and so as long as they were resolved “through discussion and understanding,” the new college would not be adversely affected by the Yale faculty’s criticisms.

NUS was founded in 1905, 60 years before Singapore became independent from Malaysia.


  • mingsphinx

    You see, we are all learning already. And all we had to do was talk about it. In my opinion, the tone of the resolution did carry with it a sense of being morally superior, but that sort of attitude is actually very much in keeping with how Americans generally conduct themselves abroad. This explains why most of America’s efforts at saving the world usually end up as unmitigated disasters. What it would take to get Americans to understand that the world was not made in their image, I do not know. But do not let these “sensitivities” get in the way of the dialogue.

    It is good for both sides to get a glimpse of their own reflection through other people’s eyes. How Singapore is perceived, and in particular the lasting damage that those petty defamation law suits have caused, should be expressed so that everyone will know and understand that it is not acceptable to bankrupt political opponents in order to shut them up.

    If you do come, then understand that you should not just take the money being offered, you also have an obligation to participate fully as a member of Singapore’s community. Have the courage to speak your mind. But would it do to speak vacuously?

  • Bobbylin

    The idea that the West and the East should match together is wrong. It will lead to dualistic thinking.

    The dualistic thinking will never be cured unless humans can drop the idea of the West and East.

    YNC can lead such changes. But the professors must not bring their cultures and their traditional influences to the college.

    • Bobbylin

      It must be neither West nor East.

  • Boogs

    When I first heard about this initiative, I wondered, “Wow, I didn’t realize that NUS didn’t already have strong traditions in the humanities and social sciences.” But then I learned that, in fact, NUS does have strong traditions in those disciplines. So, I began asking questions to some of the people I knew involved in the project: What’s this project all about? Isn’t it healthy for young Singaporeans to travel outside their own country to get an education and expand their horizons? After all, they’ve spent their entire young lives on a small, oppressive island nation. Oh, said the Yale-NUS supporters, the problem is that the young people don’t return after they leave. So, I continued, isn’t the problem the oppressive nature of the regime and not the lack of a liberal arts tradition? The “vision” here is horribly unrefined on the Yale side.

    What’s really going on here is that Singapore is going to use the Yale brand to make itself into an education hub for Southeast Asia. It’s about enriching the regime, not transforming Singapore culture.

  • mingsphinx

    “Singapore is using the Yale brand…”

    Yale is a very big deal in the United States and held in high esteem in Europe, but in Asia it is about as well known as Vassar or Dartmouth. Believe it or not, many Asians have not heard of Yale. Factor that in before you decide that the Yale-NUS project is all about leveraging Yale’s brand value.

    Nor is there a need to piggy back on Yale’s prestige. Turning Singapore into an education hub is about acquiring another engine of economic growth. In other words, it is about making money. If you know anything at all about education as a business, you would know that institutions which cultivate prestige end up invariably in the red. This is why Yale’s endowment is so important. Without the investment returns from the endowment, Yale would not be able to do what it needed to do to rank amongst the top universities in the world.

    It is instead the institutions that eschew prestige and focus exclusively on delivering services on a profitable basis that will generate the returns Singapore seeks from fee paying students. Of these sorts of institutions, Singapore already has many that are healthy, growing franchises. The education hub that people speak of is already there. So why does Singapore want Yale?

  • KJD

    Boogie: there are a number of statements you’d made that I find problematic

    1) Have you considered that not many people can afford the 500 000 SGD it takes for a foreign student to study in an expensive private college like Yale? For myself and many Singaporeans, Yale-NUS is the closest we’re ever going to come to Yale, and it’s a good deal for us. NUS’ Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences may be ranked extremely highly worldwide, but Yale does have a brand name that it simply cannot compete with.

    2) Is it so wrong for government to try to attract its best and brightest minds back to the country after having subsidized their education for the most part of their lives? Consider that the Singapore government doesn’t actually send secret police to physically drag you back to the country. If you contend that trying to attract good people to stay in your country is wrong, then the entire US system of immigration, which strives to attract skilled and talented workers to your country, is suspect as well.

    3) Does the economic growth and investment arising from Singapore transforming into an education hub not benefit its own citizens as well?