LEWIS: Why I am going to Singapore

Two years ago, when plans were first outlined for a college to be jointly founded by Yale and the National University of Singapore, I volunteered to be involved in planning the humanities curriculum and hiring the initial faculty. What could be more exciting than building an entirely new residential undergraduate program in liberal arts from the ground up? A friend of mine joked that I must feel like Walter de Merton, who founded one of the oldest colleges at Oxford in the 13th century.

Back in the late 20th century, I was very fortunate, upon completing my PhD in comparative literature, to get the best job I could hope for, as an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Yale. Like the Egyptians who experienced seven years of feast and seven years of famine (but in reverse order), I spent seven years on the tenure track and seven more years as a tenured professor.

In those 14 years, I learned a great deal from my colleagues and students. The spirit of inquiry and sense of community at Yale set it apart from any educational institution I have ever been associated with. Yale undergraduates care intensely about the life of the mind, and they also care about the world around them. Nowhere else have I seen what Hannah Arendt describes as the “vita contemplativa” and the “vita activa” so harmoniously blended.

But now, as president of Yale-NUS College, I have been granted the opportunity to take what I have learned at Yale and use it to build a new institution. My wife Sheila and I visited Singapore in 1994 and admired the multicultural variety of Little India, Chinatown and Arab Street.

One afternoon, I communed with the spirit of Joseph Conrad at the bar of the Raffles Hotel, where he first conceived the idea for “Lord Jim,” his brilliant critique of the imperialist spirit. Even 18 years ago, we recognized Singapore as a society in rapid transition.

I did not visit Singapore again until last year, but I was hooked. Friends who have taught in Singapore have emphasized both the rapid growth of the university system and some of the challenges it faces. NUS has evolved over the last half-century into one of the top universities in Asia, in large part because of the strong financial support of the government of Singapore and Singapore’s decision to make the university formally autonomous about a decade ago. Over the years, NUS has expanded its breadth, flexibility and global education opportunities. Yet the university is seeking to do even more.

I have spent two invigorating years working with colleagues at both NUS and Yale to hire the initial faculty and prepare the outlines of a broad-ranging curriculum for Yale-NUS. I appreciate the concerns of those on the faculty who worry about how Yale’s values will be upheld in a culture with very different laws and norms. My interaction with colleagues who already teach at NUS has confirmed for me, however, that this is a great opportunity to develop a new model of liberal arts education, true to the traditions of Yale but adapted to the needs of the 21st century and incorporating study of a variety of Asian cultures.

Singapore continues to evolve. Conversations are deepening on issues concerning homosexuality, journalistic practices and multi-party elections. Yale’s agreement with NUS and the evolving norms within Singapore create the basis for making liberal education a reality. It will be my job to make sure the culture of liberal education flourishes in the new college, and I invite my colleagues at Yale to participate in developing that culture. After spending a third of my life in New Haven, it is hard to leave behind friends and colleagues, but I hope I will be taking a little bit of New Haven with me to Singapore — and I expect visitors!

In his “Principles of Political Economy” of 1848, John Stuart Mill wrote, “It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”

These words are equally true in our age. When value systems do come into conflict, the best hope for the future leadership of a rapidly changing world lies not in isolation or withdrawal from that conflict but in the continued exchange of ideas and knowledge, which is the essence of a liberal education. And it is to further the goals of liberal education that I am going to Singapore.

Pericles Lewis is president of Yale-NUS College.


  • The Anti-Yale

    “not in isolation or withdrawal from that conflict but in the continued exchange of ideas and knowledge”

    “Continued exchange” UNTIL, you are TOLD to stop speaking, stop writing, stop thinking in public ——-then the CONFLICT is the solution.

    I anticipate this conflict to be better than a bullfight, if the Yale Daily News has guts enough ( and this is not self-evident) to smuggle a reporter on campus who submits honest posts regularly, even if under a cowardly pen-name.

  • gradstudent16

    Well this might be the most narcissistic and disingenuous thing I’ve ever read. Particular highlights:

    – Lewis compares himself to the *founder of the oldest college at Oxford,* as a “joke”
    – He describes his seven years as an assistant professor at an Ivy League institution — a position which virtually no graduate student from his department will ever have a shot at — as “seven years of famine.”
    – Apparently un-self-consciously, he “communes” with the anti-imperialist spirit of Conrad, *while setting up a branch of an Ivy League institution to train the elite of east Asia.* This is approximately like saying, “I communed with the spirit of vegetarianism today at McDonald’s.”

  • The Anti-Yale

    A Challenge to President Lewis:

    Agree publicly, within the next ten school days, to provide a Bureau of the Yale Daily News with space on your campus to file regular UNCENSORED reports back to the New Haven mother-journal.

    Paul D. Keane

    M.Div. ’80

    M.A, M.Ed.

  • The Anti-Yale

    A Challenge to President Lewis:

    Agree publicly, within the next ten school days, to provide a Bureau of the Yale Daily News with space on your campus to file regular UNCENSORED reports back to the New Haven mother-journal.
    Paul D. Keane

    M.Div. ’80

    M.A, M.Ed.

  • Michael_Montesano

    This sorry piece exemplifies the crisis of arrogance that has overcome those who would lead Yale.

    President Lewis has the nerve to refer to “Yale’s agreement with NUS” (really an agreement with the government of Singapore, but why let the truth get in one’s way?), even as he and Yale will not make the text of that agreement public. What is Yale hiding? Why no shame at having to hide it?

    My own humble guess? This is what Bill Fulbright called “the arrogance of power”, ironically on display right back in Southeast Asia.

    Further, can President Lewis *still* be so ignorant of Singapore as not to realize that the Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street that he visited in 1994 were zones spared from levelling by the Urban Redevelopment Authority expressly to appeal to tourists like him and his wife? The first two of these areas remain, to be sure, interesting, but in trotting them out as his best examples, President Lewis demonstrates that he is no less prepared to shoulder responsibility on this island than is his prickly, arrogant patron in Woodbridge Hall, of whom Yale will soon, thank heavens, be free.

    Yale needs a new president as soon as possible, one who can pull the plug on the so called “Yale-NUS college” during her or his first week in office . . . if, that is, the plutocrats on the Yale Corporation don’t fire her or him the moment she or he mentions the possibility (and if pledging to support this rash adventure is not a condition for being named president). Not least, Yale needs to disassociate itself from a train wreck under the leadership of the author of a column like this one.

    Michael Montesano ’83

    • ldffly

      Thank you.

  • imnewtoo

    Is it possible to visit Singapore once in 1994 and once last year and be “hooked” ?

    What would Joseph Conrad think of all this? The Europeans were surely “hooked” on Ivory in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

    By all means, go to Singapore. But stop telling us why the Yale-NUS is our gift to the advancement of human civilization. If you experienced, “like the Egyptians” (the Imperial, oppressive culture) seven years of feast and seven years of famine, will history repeat itself in the East?

    The Horror, The Horror!

  • The Anti-Yale

    And here’s a further suggestion to my challenge to Mr. Lewis (above).

    Once Mr. Lewis agrees to providing space on the NUS campus for a Daily News bureau and guarantees it uncensored freedom of the press, YDN itself can solicit funds for the bureau from philanthropists or even alumni dedicated to freedom of speech—even from the ACLU.

    Internships for YDN reporters could also be created, although continuity and an “institutional memory” will be crucial to effective reporting. One can’t reinvent the wheel every semester.

    My prediction: Both Mr. Lewis and YDN will ignore my ten-day challenge.

    “Benign neglect and intrsansigent equivocation” are in the DNA of all administrators and YDN itself may be a bit timid.

    It’s been several decades since the student press actually affected national events: Berkeley riots, Cornell crisis, Kent State shootings.

    And this NUS project could actually catapult YDN into such an influential position as they had with the Black Panther problems in New Haven in the 1970’s again, only on an international footing.

    I’m not seeing it. Twitter maybe, YDN no.

    Sorry, I admire you guys, but Wall Street is calling pretty loudly these days. I’m afraid that that plush YDN Board Room and all the leather chairs are a bit intoxicating.

    • eli2015

      >My prediction: Both Mr. Lewis and YDN will ignore my ten-day challenge.

      Is there any “suggestion” theantiyale would make that the YDN wouldn’t ignore?

      • Michael_Montesano

        In the messages from “theantiyale”, we find no more understanding of on-the-ground realities in Singapore than in “President” Lewis’s silly column. The YDN has enough to keep it busy reporting the New Haven end of this story. It might start by tirelessly demanding to know why will Yale not make public the text of its agreement with the governmenent of Singapore and at the same time looking for leaks in Woodbridge Hall and on the Corporation that might give the press access to that text. The YDN might also begin interviewing participants in the search for a new Yale president to find out how much of the selection process is being devoted to discussion of candidates’ willingness to continue Yale support for the current Yale president’s ill-conceived vanity project on this island at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.

        Michael Montesano
        Yale ’83

        • ldffly

          Mr. Montesano, I have been wondering why this story hasn’t been picked up by the NY Times. In years gone by, because of the quantity of Yale graduates on staff, Time magazine and the NY Times probably would already have started to work on this story. (Heck, even CBS news used to have some Yale grads as behind the scenes staff-I knew some. They might have looked into it.) In fact, decades ago I used to hear YDN referred to as the ‘ubiquitous Yale Daily News’ due to the fact that so many law offices, newspaper offices, and investment houses in NYC had paper copies in offices, waiting rooms, etc. Seeing the NUS story on the print page probably would have motivated more alumni and news organization interest.

          I know times are different now for all newspapers, but one would think this offers the possibility of revealing a minor scandal in the US education establishment and that that alone would be sufficient motive to take up the story. Doesn’t somebody outside the Yale campus have the resources to cover this?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Even I laughed at this !

  • The Anti-Yale


    Touché !

  • jamesdakrn

    First time I agree with PK.
    Yale already is on the list of colleges with the least free speech. Let’s not make it worse in freakin Singapore.

    It’s a shame that we collaborate (directly or indirectly) with dictatorships that censor speech.

  • The Anti-Yale

    No offense YDN, but if this were the 1960’s, (which it decidedly ISN’T) you wouldn’t have needed an old wrinkle-bag like me to challenge Mr. Lewis.

    Some group on campus would have done it —–and YDN would have reported it.

    You’re probably quivering in your boots that you might give the silly old antiyale in Vermont more attention than he already manages to squeeze out of your arid posting board to recognize that there is s story here: ALUM CHALLENGES LEWIS TO GIVE YDN PROTECTION ON NUS CAMPUS.

    (Is there EVEN a group at Yale dedicated to free speech? YPU seems dedicated to POLITE free speech)

    Sorry, but your generation is a bit of a limp rag.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Day ONE.


  • The Anti-Yale

    Day TWO


    PS—“Where have all the activists gone? Long time passing. Where have all the activists gone? Long time ago”