TAN: Truth is arrogant

The most worrisome thing about Yale-NUS College is the effect it has had on our administrators. In their desire to bolster support for the project and please their Singaporean counterparts, they’ve subordinated the truth to an eerie political correctness.

Lately, very smart people have said very ridiculous things. Last week, President Richard Levin opposed a clause in a faculty resolution expressing concern about Singapore’s “lack of respect for civil and political rights” because he claimed it “carried a sense of moral superiority.”

His sentiments were echoed by some other faculty members, who, according to Economics Department Chair Benjamin Polak, worried that such language would be “offensive” or “arrogant.” The administration has grown reluctant to make any kind of value judgment on Singapore.

This stifling political correctness has produced absurdity. Last week, Fareed Zakaria, a trustee of the Yale Corporation, quoted Singapore’s former Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (“A global education for a global age,” April 3). “We both have meritocracies,” Shanmugaratnam said, comparing the U.S. and Singapore. “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. We know how to train people to take exams.”

Zakaria seemed to endorse fusing the two traditions. Never mind that the purpose of an exam is to gauge talent, making a system that trains people to do well in exams for the sake of doing well in exams completely pointless. The exam meritocracy trains students to memorize large amounts of information, regurgitate it onto an exam script and then forget most of it within a week.

The American system has a degree of this, too, except that here, rote learning is rightly viewed as a low-grade form of education to be minimized. In fact, even many Singaporeans recognize this — which is why NUS proposed a new liberal arts college in the first place. Zakaria, however, makes no judgment about it — things are not better or worse; they’re just different.

Worse still was Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn’s comment on Singapore’s restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. “What we think of as freedom, they think of as an affront to public order, and I think the two societies differ in that respect,” he told the News.

Again, things in Singapore are not better or worse; they’re just different.

I don’t know what inspired such moral relativism. Perhaps it was the idea often spouted by proponents of Yale-NUS that repression is necessary to protect ethnic sensitivities and religious beliefs. They advocate viewing repression in context.

Well, here’s its context. I’m from Malaysia, Singapore’s closest neighbor and the country it split from in 1965, and I have strong ties to the island-city. The sorts of arguments we’ve heard in the last few weeks sound familiar; I’ve heard them before, usually from local politicians seeking to defend despotic policies.

Repression is necessary, they claim, because allowing free expression threatens to upset the delicate balance of their multiracial society, which operates on Asian values.

The use of “Asian values” in this way is an insult to both Asians and the concept of values. Policies that limit speech in the name of harmony have stifled important debates and infantilized the people of Singapore and Malaysia, while also increasing intolerance by pandering to unreasonable sensibilities. By forever shielding their people from supposedly dangerous ideas, the governments of both countries keep their citizens politically immature, making them easier to rule.

This is the kind of atmosphere Yale-NUS will have to overcome if it wants to help its students think creatively and independently. To succeed, Yale will have to build on Singapore’s strengths instead of lending undeserved legitimacy to the country’s dubious censorship policies.

I want Yale-NUS to succeed because its failure will have dire consequences not just for Yale but also for Singaporeans. What will young Singaporeans think if they see the leaders of the great Yale University reduced to feeble relativism or recitation of PAP propaganda? Would they not grow disillusioned, concluding that the sanctity of the academy is a lie, that the West is every bit as hypocritical as they’ve been told?

To succeed in Singapore, Yale must reaffirm its core value — the truth and the freedom to pursue the truth — no matter whom it might upset. Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas, and it’s time our administrators remembered it. They owe nothing less to our University and to the people of Singapore.

Yale’s leaders must recognize that truth, in a sense, is intensely arrogant. It cares not for political correctness and does not respect authority. Affirming the truth means daring to take a stand and risking being called arrogant or insulting.

Shaun Tan is a second-year student in International Relations. Contact him at shaunzhiming.tan@yale.edu.

Correction: May 10

A previous version of this column said Economics Department Chair Benjamin Polak was concerned that the faculty resolution’s language would be considered arrogant or offensive. In fact, Polak was describing the opinions of other faculty members.


  • ldffly

    Well done.

    I know I’m likely to get skewered for this, but I’ll say it anyway. This debate, these rationalizations put forward by the administration, reeks of the rot of deconstruction and post modern theory of morals. Please read the texts. Study what has passed for cutting edge philosophical work over the last 30 years. It is mediocrity piled on mediocrity. The post modern critique of objectivity now has its day in the political and moral debates over Yale-NUS. Pres. Levin’s upsetting remark about a “sense of moral superiority” has roots in ideas that moral critique is nothing more than an expression of oppression. One can say this as though it were self evidently true and worthy of assent without debate because these ideas have taken hold at Yale, other universities and the wider American culture as the fundament of thinking about morals and politics. It is now, heaven help us, common sense–especially for the Yale administration. You don’t like Yale-NUS for objective reasons? How dare you bring critique to bear on a mere difference of culture!

    Folks, Mr. Tan has done a good job here and so have others who’ve criticized the administration’s efforts. Please take him and others seriously.

  • The Anti-Yale

    This is a wonderful article.

    Yet it implies that Yale and America had absolutely nothing to do with stiffling the truth and deviating from the truth. They were born pure, fully engaged in the pursuit of the truth: And what was Yale’s vision of the truth? Quotas for Jews; invisibility and oppression for homosexuals; institutional racism for those of color; subordination and derogation of women.

    I think the author wants for Singapore NOW what it took Yale and the U.S. 200 years to acvhieve: the pursuit of truth, instead of the stiffling of truth.


    Noble, but unrealistic.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80, etc.

    • JE14

      I’m sorry PK, but Yale doesn’t have to associate with Singapore. If they do, we do hold Yale accountable though.

      It’s like recruiting a c*appy athlete to a competitive team or a c*appy museum to an orchestra. Of course you can’t expect them to become superstars overnight, but if they don’t look like they have what it takes to make the cut, you don’t associate with them.

  • lakia

    Scary when the student sounds more rational and reasonable than do the members of his institution of higher learning.

  • KJD

    “What will young Singaporeans think if they see the leaders of the great Yale University reduced to feeble relativism or recitation of PAP propaganda? Would they not grow disillusioned, concluding that the sanctity of the academy is a lie, that the West is every bit as hypocritical as they’ve been told?”

    Singaporeans don’t think the West is hypocritical from being told so by the PAP. They know that the US government is so, from news reports about Abu Ghraib and Guatanamo Bay. There is two huge differences between those two statements. Think about it.

    I am also more inclined to think that if Yale sells out, then disgusted students would simply return to study in FASS, where thankfully, this feeble relativism and recitation of propoganda is the exception rather than the norm as it seems in Yale.

  • KJD

    By characterizing the Singaporean population as “infantilized” with nothing to support this insult, and cherrypicking arguments proposed by Mahathir in the 1970s to pass off as current, you are doing a disservice to both Singaporeans and yourself. Truth may be necessarily arrogant, but what you are doing, Mr Tan, is disrespect to how things actually are. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan: you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.

  • jerrysmith

    Great article! One question: What is **PAP** propaganda?

  • Athanasius

    No. Do not confuse having objective standards, which is laudable, with arrogance, which is the opposite. Cultural relativism, which is an abdication of rational judgment in the face of cultural difference, is fundamentally different from respect, which can and should occur even in the face of disagreement.

    I do not object to the substance of objections to Yale-NUS, I recoil at the moralizing tone and stance of the objectors. The West must not continue to project such arrogance regardless of concerns for truth or correctness, for arrogance has nothing to do with objectivity. Ldffly, you critique the idea that “moral critique is nothing more than an expression of oppression.” This is a misunderstanding. *Arrogance itself* is the luxury of being able to assume a superior position, which goes hand in hand with unequal power relations and oppression. Moral critique does **not**.

    Truth is not arrogant; the two concepts are unrelated and should be separate. Be respectful for others and other countries and cultures even as you are critical.

    • the_chef

      Be offended. Be very offended. Cherish your precious right to be morally outraged by the arrogance of the west.
      Groan with silent anguish over your grave loss of face, the affront to your Confucian values and your non-confrontational virtues. Scream poor at the bamboo ceilings that check your progress at every white-collar posting with an western company because some white jerk-off with poorer grades but bigger testicles gets paid more than you.
      Recoil as much as you like but being offended is NOT a critical response to the claims being made about Singapore’s poor form when it comes to political and academic freedoms. Truth should never be a prisoner to one community’s sense of social order…sad to say, in Singapore, it is.

  • lenoil

    Ultimately, isn’t what you call the “truth” relative?

    The nature of collaboration necessitates an understanding of another perspective, not pure insistence that what one believes in is the truth and that nothing else can be that truth.

    Isn’t that tragically ironic to the idea of being liberal, if one is unable / unwilling to see another perspective as being just as “truth”ful?