Yale-NUS discussed at student panel

Seven Singaporean students and alumni from Yale and Columbia offered their perspectives on the liberal arts college Yale is planning with the National University of Singapore at a panel discussion Thursday.

Speakers on the panel touched upon many issues typically raised with Yale-NUS — academic freedom, the liberal arts model in Asia and the Yale “brand” — and fielded questions from the roughly 60-person audience of students and professors in Luce Hall related to those topics. But the panelists also established at the start of the afternoon’s event that, as students, they did not feel comfortable questioning the University’s decision-making for the project. They asked that the conversation, which was open to the public, not be recorded because their comments were exclusively meant for the Yale community.

Panelist E-Ching Ng ’01 GRD ’13 said she and the other student speakers wanted “to bring some nuance to the debate” on Yale-NUS. Though the project has been discussed heavily at both Yale and in the Singaporean media over the past few months, the panelists said they feel the current discourse has misunderstood the Singaporean government, people and culture.

“The real goal was for us as people who, not to presume too much, but as people who have some understanding of both sides, to try to make sure students understand each other,” Tse Yang Lim ’11 FES ’13 said. “In a sense, [it was] a translation.”

While critics of Yale-NUS have cited Singapore as having an authoritarian government, panelist Rayner Teo ’14 emphasized that the nation is not “monolithic,” and that in recent years the ruling party has become more responsive to public opinion.

In discussing Yale-NUS, panelist Dana Miller ’12 said those who have not visited Singapore tend to underestimate how politically sensitive citizens of the country are about foreign presence. Though administrators at Yale-NUS have said they wish to make the college an internationally diverse institution, Miller said Singaporeans are also pushing for their universities to give more slots to Singaporeans.

Panelists did not offer an opinion on how important they feel a diverse student body will be at Yale-NUS.

Asked what they think Yale stands to gain from the joint project — and whether it would help the University’s brand — Ng said Yale-NUS would raise Yale’s visibility in Asia. Many people in Asia have heard the Yale name, she said, but are not aware of its reputation as a top university. She added that Yale-NUS can also serve as a “giant pedagogical laboratory” for Yale “to try lots of experiments.”

The panelists also spoke about how the liberal arts are perceived in Singapore and how Yale-NUS might contribute to the spread of the liberal arts educational model. Miller said the creation of a liberal arts college has been a “strategic goal” of the Singaporean government for over 10 years, and noted that New York University has already established a performing arts school there.

The heightened level of faculty concern over Yale-NUS in recent months and the resolution passed at the April Yale College faculty meeting were absent from the discussion.

Four students interviewed after the panel commended the discussion for offering a unique perspective on the Yale-NUS debate.

Deborah Ong ’15, a native of Singapore who attended the discussion, said she thought the event was important for clearing up misconceptions about Singapore. She said it “hurts” to hear people criticize the country when they are unfamiliar with it.

“It was great to get the Singaporean perspective because that was lacking throughout the entire debate,” said Jahmat Mahbubani ’14, a Singaporean who did not appear on the panel. “Considering most of the criticism came from people who had never been to Singapore, and only saw it through a Western paradigm, it helped show the reality of the situation.”

Plans for Yale-NUS were officially announced in September 2010.


  • Boogs

    This tells you all you need to know:

    “…as students, they did not feel comfortable questioning the University’s decision for the project”

    Levin likes people who know their place and are unquestioning. Now, faculty, please learn from these students’ example.

    Yale-NUS will be a radically different liberal arts institution, one where the students instruct the faculty.

    • schnickelfritz

      I attended the event—but was not on the panel—and this quote is taken very much out of context. The panelists established that they would not offer opinions on -how- the University makes its decisions on Yale-NUS: perfectly understandable given that they are not in any way involved in the planning process or administrative matters and couldn’t possibly provide detailed insight into the logistical means by which Yale has arrived at its decision.

      With that said, it is true that they also publicized the event as a discussion, not a debate, and weren’t offering a strong for or against stance in the issue. But it’s unfair to call this ‘unquestioning.’ There was no parroting of policy or press-release-like statements, just insights into the country that ranged from the encouraging to the worrisome. They said that they were there to provide context and experiences, and to just try to raise the level of nuance with which people normally approach the issue—are opinions like that worthless because they don’t strike you as controversial enough?

  • tree

    I was there too – they actually said there were a number of (non-YDN) reporters listening in on the conference call, so it wasn’t a question of restricting information as much as that they were concerned about quotes being taken out of context.

    As for ‘unquestioning’ , I think the students established at the start that they preferred to talk about the realities of life in Singapore rather than how Yale made this decision because as students they were not well placed to speak to the internal politics of the former.

    • yalengineer

      Awesome name.

  • Odysseus

    One of the most striking things about the panel was how thoughtful, intelligent and respectful the students on the panel were. Whatever Singapore may be doing wrong, it is doing a much better job of cultivating its youth than we are in the US. Would that all of our Yale students were so.

    • ldffly

      One of the attitudes I took away from Yale is that no one deserves respect simply because of position. Debate–argument–counts. What counts in debate is marshalling of argument and evidence. Everybody stands before that bar. Most faculty didn’t expect students to swallow their statements whole. In fact, if one said ‘right is left, left is right’ and no one disputed it, there would typically be trouble in class. That was the expectation.

      I believe strongly in personal courtesy. I’m too southern not to. However, in the classroom, in the university setting, ideas and policy must be challenged. Please distinguish between challenge by means of invective, screaming, name calling and challenge by means of argument. The latter is essential for everybody, students included.

      Now my question. Has that culture changed?

  • Milton

    I was at the “Singapore Uncensored” event as well yesterday–but I seem somehow to have attended a different event from the one the YDN reporters describe. Why do the reporters not mention the consensus among panelists that “academic freedom” in Singapore does not extend at all beyond the classroom or strictly “scholarly” publications? One speaker said that academic freedom and freedom of speech are two entirely different matters. Some speakers seemed approving of this, others resigned, others critical, but it was clearly a well-known fact, which should trouble those who plan to teach or study there.
    And why does the article not mention any of the views or stories offered by the panelist who told of the necessity for gay faculty to remain “discreet” about their personal identities; and who laid out in detail the consequences of displeasing the government or speaking freely outside the classroom for (1) “permanent residents” (quickly becoming non-permanent residents–having the next Visa request denied); and (2) for citizens (termination of employment, and the inability to obtain employment at any institution of higher education in the country)? Didn’t the content of these remarks–as well as the palpable atmosphere throughout the session of concern about how to navigate “free” expression alongside an internalized fear of displeasing higher powers–make any impression on the reporters–nor, perhaps, on the enthusiastic leaders of this initiative who sat in the audience? I don’t want to endanger any individual’s job security or future prospects by describing these parts of the session, but if the session is to be taken as a demonstration that censorship and fear of reprisal for “defamation” are not significant factors in Singapore, then these aspects need to be noted.

  • dso23

    ‘session is to be taken as a demonstration that censorship and fear of reprisal for “defamation” are not significant factors in Singapore’

    The panel discussion certainly did not have this purpose.

  • Tan

    Yes, I was there too, and I certainly got the impression that the talk confirmed many of the worries about operating in Singapore rather than the other way around.

  • NgYiSheng

    Thanks, @Milton.: I was the speaker you’re referring too, and I’m also disappointed that the YDN didn’t bring up my points.

    One point of clarification: I don’t know of any citizens who were actually summarily fired from their academic jobs due to activism. The case I mentioned in detail did not have to do with activism, and his contract had not yet been confirmed.

  • HalimaGose

    @NgYiSheng, really? What about Dr Chee Soon Juan? What do you have to say about him?

  • NgYiSheng

    @HalimaGose: Good point. (I’ve known Dr Chee as an activist for so long I’d forgotten his academic past: very dumb of me.)

    However, one of the themes that arose during the talk was that the political atmosphere of Singapore has changed markedly in the last few years; what happened more than 15 years ago is unlikely to be the standard for now. More recently, the opposition politicians who teach in tertiary institutions have not encountered that kind of persecution.

  • The Anti-Yale

    If Google caved in to China, why wouldn’t Yale ultimately cave in to Singapore?

    Answer: The Bulldog has become the Watchdog.

    The Pursuit of Truth is the aorta of the University. If Singaporean faculty and students are muzzled, New Haven faculty and students will bark—-and maybe bite.

    Nobody’s shutting Yale’s heart down.


    • BlindlyAgreesWithAboveComment

      Paul Keane, your wisdom is beyond comprehension. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment; you took the words right out of my mouth.

  • DrCriticofCritics

    From all that is said Yale has a serious problem with infighting and the lack of modern information. Yes, the Singapore government can improve and surely will in this technological era as modern leaders replace the founding fathers of modern Singapore has Yale moved forward and modernized? Mind boggling is for Yale critics to embarrass the president of Yale publicly….this is not what liberal arts and free speech is all about. Lets get focused! The Yale badge is far from perfect with many faculty critics blowing their horns without wanting to look into their backyard. Many of the Yale critics seem to base their opinion on hear say or simply their years of anger against the senior management at Yale. Yale faculty members dont seem to know enough of how much Singapore has progressed. There is so much that can be writen for and against….however when an educator has lost humility one can only feel sorry! Sometime ago I wrote to CNN asking why is it that so many reputable companies led by Ivy League universities folded up in the last 4 YEARS. CNBC had a brilliant programme exactly about this point. So Yale faculty members like the new members of the Singapore government you too need to modernize and reeducate. The Singapore government through engagement with many US companies, citizens and government have opened up…so you at Yale do so too without fear.

  • DrCriticofCritics

    An add on : Some Yale members have questioned the project as being wrong for the reason that the death penalty continue to exist in Singapore. How many Yale staff and students come from countries with the death penalty and what are they doing about it? But have we all forgotten that Connecticut also has it. Its only now that the death penalty will be no more in Connecticut. Educating is not about imposing!

    • Milton

      Where did you get your information that Yale faculty have questioned the Yale-NUS venture because of the existence of the death penalty in Singapore? That is not accurate.

      • playerkiller

        “Singapore’s penal code sets out more than 20 drug-related offenses for which capital punishment is mandatory.”


        Albeit its not the sole reason…

  • yossarian_lives

    So, is there going to be an unrecorded student-led panel on this at NUS? Does the environment exist for these panelists’ NUS peers to speak out on their campus?

  • DrCriticofCritics

    Milton, you seem to be a faculty member, tell us all the reasons as to what the problem is? Is it about censorship, an authoritarian government, freedom of speech, the only governing party since independence, etc……what exactly is the issue against the Singapore government? Are you suggesting in the US or other parts of the developed world all is perfect? A tiny island with 3.2 million citizens vs the mighty Yale faculty of liberal arts” backed up” by the United States of America. How different is the US to Singapore considering both were part of the British Empire and most are children of immigrants. There have been so many comments made since Yale announced this project its time for the faculty members to come clean and sign their names for or against for all to see. Regardless of what Yale faculty members say, its good to see the US working very closely with Singapore at all levels including the FTA and Military ties. As stated earlier if Yale faculty members are using this opportunity to turn up the heat on Yale’s president for the years that you feel he has neglected faculty members than there are other means to do so. So again please do list all the issues faculty members have with this project from your point of view.

    • ernie

      I’m mainly on the other side of this issue from Milton–I don’t think the problems with Singapore’s government should necessarily rule out a project like NUS–but anyone who’s followed the debate knows that the main issues NUS critics have raised have been Singapore’s laws against homosexuality and the lack of true freedom of expression. Many faculty have gone public with their opposition, in these pages.

  • DrCriticofCritics

    PLAYERKILLER, one or twenty….the death penalty for one offence or 20 is still death. Whats your point?

    • playerkiller

      That wasn’t my quote…do you read? I was actually replying Milton with an example…

  • reminisce

    With all due respect to E-Ching and her friends – I do not want you representing my country. I’ll concede that I wasn’t at the “discussion” and I don’t have the benefit of a video recording to make an informed decision. But from what I’m reading here, the group of Singaporean students from Yale and Columbia were a pretty homogenous lot – so much so that Odysseus wrote “One of the most striking things about the panel was how thoughtful, intelligent and respectful the students on the panel were. Whatever Singapore may be doing wrong, it is doing a much better job of cultivating its youth than we are in the US.”
    You see, we’re not – a “thoughtful, intelligent and respectful” group. We are as diverse and opinionated as the rest of you — we’re normal human beings, living under a different set of constraints. Cultural differences do not translate into differences in personality types – but rather into different ways of expressing ourselves.
    Some of us are extroverts, some introverts, many are immature (which is understandable given the infancy of the country) and a few are rational. I do not want E-Ching et al to represent my country because they form only a tiny sliver of the whole, and they appear to have an agenda.

    • eching

      reminisce, I think you would have felt a lot more comfortable with the panel if you had been there. The press have made us sound RIDICULOUSLY tame. Maybe I’m a housecat (though you may be surprised if we get longer to talk – I didn’t like Chan Heng Chee’s speech either), but the other panelists haven’t published in the YDN yet, so you don’t know what their views are.

      One of the panelists gave a long opening statement that was nothing but fundamental criticisms of the Yale-NUS agreement. Two other opening statements brought up our touchiness about the strong foreign presence in Singapore. During Q&A, two panelists told disturbing stories about foreign academics being denied work permits for unknown reasons. Another described how Catherine Lim got told off. We wanted Yale-NUS critics to back up their arguments with **accurate** facts that matter to Singaporeans.

      And incidentally, we are all amused that we came across as respectful. From our point of view, it was all about staying calm. **And** opinionated.

  • reminisce
  • DrCriticofCritics

    Milton, in your contribution you state that a permanent-resident is denied further visa for making comments that displease the Singapore government, are there things you say or wear which can see a non-US citizen get thrown out of the US too? Or a t-shirt which pokes fun at certain painful moments in American history not allowed into the country. Or places where the American flag cant be displayed? I for one dont want anyone to poke fun on painful moments on the other hand the individual is only expressing the way one feels. Come on Milton, you make every attempt to justify your view with examples without comparing to what can also happen in many developed nations including the US. And censorship, wikileaks….how did the government in many developed countries react….? What is all the censorship talk about?

    A certain Mark Oppenheimer a lecturer at Yale wrote about Singapore. Mark, how did you come to those conclusions? Mark, get your facts right! The most basic importance in any discussion must require facts to be updated. What was in Singapore is not always is! Its shocking to see his comments represent what was but what about what is? The US government must be given credit for working closely with the Singapore government, his posting tends to also question the two countries very close ties. My links to global education, Singapore and the US has drawn me into wanting to correct “run away” lecturers who carry one-sided views. Again to Mark, what is your take on wikileaks and censorship?

    Another by the name of Michael Montesano wrote , Is Yale a reliable partner for the National University of Singapore. Please read this article…another specialist who fails to balance the past and the present in Singapore and also without comparing the realities of life in the US. Much wad also writen about the Yale president. Why? Just because he didnt agree to your views?

    The greatest gift technology has given us is to take on the likes of those who present themselves as experts and present their imposing views for us to question fiction from non. Universities no more hold the monopoly over knowledge….thanks to technology.

  • reminisce

    eching – perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, for which I apologize. One of the biggest lessons I drew from countless guard duty shifts shared with “hokkien pengs” in the army was that we — by which I mean we, the “educated elite” english-educated “scholar-class” (here I use the term “scholar” loosely, as opposed our rigid stereotype of near-eternal bondage to the… funding agency) do not represent the country in entirety. Sure, we come in different flavors, from wallflower-bland to sambal-spicy — but the bulk of our country is actually made up of a class of people who think very differently from you and I. I’m not referring to “heartlanders” who we can either relate easily enough with, or are examples of ourselves — but specifically to the non-english-speaking working class guys who just don’t make it into uni – much less to Yale or Columbia. They have a very different value-system to you and I, and a whole different take on ethics, morality and even pragmatism. If we want to clear up misconceptions about Singapore and Singaporeans, about how we exercise our rights to speak – or self-censor, about how we live our lives in fear – or not — well it seems only sensible that these guys should have their say too, no? I keep reading about Yale pursuing light and truth — well there’s more light to Singapore than a panel of seven fireflies. :)

    • dso23

      While some of what you said makes sense, having views represented is better than having none represented. The panel was definitely a step in the right direction. It was beautifully appropriate, considering the resource constraints and concerns of the Yale community. In any case, those on the panel never suggested that they represented the opinions of the typical “non-scholar” Singaporean, and the audience was acutely aware of their status as Singaporean Yalies.

  • reminisce

    I’ll concede that some views are better than none. May I respectfully suggest that you collectively brainstorm with the Singaporean Yalies how to glean more feedback from, or better understand the rest of our society as a whole? DrCriticofCritics point about technology is well taken – the internet can be used as a valuable tool to bring a large number of minds together for a real-time discourse. Alternatively, a host of websites exist where “ordinary citizens” post their thoughts with fairly wild abandon.

    Here are but a few:

    the quality of their content is variable, and some harbour rather extreme individuals. Your panel of Singaporean Yalies might be able to offer you constructive feedback about these sites.

    • playerkiller

      I’d take what’s written on tremeritus with a grain of salt. Maybe just the other websites…

  • DrCriticofCritics

    Where are all those who are against the project, the president of Yale and the Singapore government? Much was said without justification and understanding. Its interesting to note how Yale has exposed the “”quality”” of its faculty members and some of those who are linked to Yale in one way or the other. Reading what they have writen in various forums is a confirmation to the fact that ivy league universities and institutions in general have no monopoly over knowledge. None have replied to the many questions asked to those who are against the project. Especially on censorship, wikileaks and the reaction of many 1st world countries over wikileaks. The whole list of you, you know who you are please use this forum to answer the many questions awaiting your answers. For Yale to be great in substance….faculty members must have substance first.

  • reminisce
  • sskb

    One of the student organizers of the conference, Rayner Teo, recently wrote an open letter responding to Prof. Jill Campbell and Prof. Jim Sleeper, who respectively wrote a letter posted on the Yale and Singapore classesv2 mailing list and an article in the Huffington Post. Here is the link:


  • reminisce