Yale-NUS panel mulls student life

Students and Yale-NUS professors aimed to dispel misconceptions about student life in Singapore at a panel discussion Monday evening.
Students and Yale-NUS professors aimed to dispel misconceptions about student life in Singapore at a panel discussion Monday evening. Photo by Jacob Geiger.

Students and Yale-NUS professors aimed to dispel misconceptions about student life in Singapore at a panel discussion Monday evening.

Yale-NUS faculty and Singaporean students discussed the new school’s goals and curriculum, and addressed questions and concerns about the country’s controversial political climate in an event that took place in Sterling Memorial Library’s International Room. Speaking before an audience of a few students and roughly 25 faculty members — many of whom have been involved in Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore — Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis, Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn and Yale-NUS professors Mira Seo and Bernard Bate discussed the liberal arts college’s curriculum and interdisciplinary vision, while the student panel spoke to cultural and political differences between Singapore and the United States.

“Humanities are dying at so many universities across America,” Seo said. “I wanted to go somewhere they were growing. That place turned out to be Singapore.”

Lewis began the event by discussing the partnership’s role in bringing a new model of both liberal arts education and residential college life to Asia. The professors on the panel said the task of rethinking their own fields in a cross-cultural context was both a challenge and an unprecedented opportunity.

Seo, a classics professor, explained how “great books” courses similar to those offered at Yale through Directed Studies are being adapted at Yale-NUS with a less exclusively Western focus, including Confucius and the Ramayana alongside Plato and the “Odyssey.”

“It’s hard to put this in perspective,” Bate said. “It’s an opportunity to start a brand-new college from the ground up, to see how it works from the inside out.”

The faculty panel took questions from attendees before being replaced by a student panel made up of NUS student Macey Tan, currently an exchange student at Yale, and Singapore natives Derek Ng GRD ’13, Victor Ong GRD ’13 and Rayner Teo ’14.

The students discussed their hopes for the fledgling college and answered questions about the student culture at NUS, speaking about everything from student groups and publications to what Ng described as the country’s “very vibrant online political citizenship.”

Ng said that Singapore differs from some authoritarian regimes in having a legal system that is well codified and out in the open — though the laws it enforces might be very different from those in the United States. He added that he does think some of those laws should be relaxed.

Tan and the other students said they wished to share their perspectives because foreigners often perceive Singaporeans’ political beliefs to be more homogeneous than they are. The students pointed out that some of the difference between Singapore and the United States is cultural rather than political.

Teo said he does not think the Yale administration should shy away from voicing concerns it may have about Singaporean policies.

“Yale has some heft in dealing with the Singaporean government,” he said, explaining that “a liberal arts education cannot be divorced from the context of the life surrounding it.”

Several attendees were Yale professors interested in or planning to join the Yale-NUS faculty next year. Yale-NUS social science professor Keith Darden said he was drawn to Yale-NUS as a chance to continue his research in a more dynamic part of the world.

Leandro Leviste ’15, an international student from the Philippines who attended the talk, said that he is especially excited to see Yale pursuing a more global vision for education. Having a “human face” to speak to how Singapore is characterized in the West was helpful, he said.

“Everyone has their fingers crossed,” Leviste said. “A whole new parallel student body is going to happen next year.”

Psychology professor and Berkeley College Master Marvin Chun, chair of the Yale-NUS Advisory Committee, moderated the panel.

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