Examine East Asian perceptions of elite schools and the word that springs to mind is schizophrenic. The ruling elite in Malaysia denounce the West as decadent imperialists, while shipping their offspring to Western schools. Singapore, smug in its assurance of Asian superiority, continues to send its best minds to Britain and the U.S. Likewise China, another critic of Western imperialism, sends countless scholars to the Ivy League (the liberal bastion of America) and Oxbridge (the old heart of imperialism).
What accounts for this apparent inconsistency? Part of the answer lies in the nature of Asian culture. In a society that de-emphasizes individualism, it is even easier for the university to make the man, instead of the other way round. There is a celebrity-like culture surrounding students or graduates of elite schools: Banquets are thrown in their honor, Chinese Yalies appear in their local news and there was a time when any Malaysian who got into Harvard would have his or her own feature spread in a national paper. In China the book “Harvard Girl,” written by the parents of Liu Yiting, a Harvard student, sold 1.5 million copies and spawned a host of other titles like “Cornell Girl” and “Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge.”
Sometimes elitism is more deeply embedded into the national fabric. In Singapore for example, the top civil service positions are filled almost exclusively with graduates of elite schools, and the power of a brand name can evoke an almost religious awe. Furthermore Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman, the founding fathers of Singapore and Malaysia, spent their formative years at Cambridge. To go to Cambridge therefore, is more than just another achievement; it’s an intellectual pilgrimage — back to the place it all began.
While the recently proposed Yale-National University of Singapore liberal arts college has triggered concerns of brand dilution among Yale alumni, unsurprisingly it’s Singaporean Yalies who are among the most concerned. Yale is the Holy Grail they have fought with tooth and nail to obtain. And after all their efforts, the idea that a person back home might assume they studied at “that place down the road,” is galling. As a Malaysian I sympathize; “that place across the bridge” doesn’t sound much better.
How do graduates from elite schools shape the societies they return to? Do they return bearing the seeds of liberalism? This seems far from the case in China, where government and politics remain dominated by those with connections and from prominent families, and an elite degree is no passport into politics. A glance through the top political positions reveals that China’s leaders hail from Chinese universities, with Tsinghua University among the most prominent. In fact, an elite foreign education can work against those graduates, who are viewed as potentially tainted by Western ideas, and barred from advancing politically. Instead, most returning graduates go into business or academia.
Similarly, elite graduates have done little to upset the status quo in Singapore and Malaysia, which remain authoritarian countries. In “The Clash of Civilizations,” Samuel Huntington illustrates how returning graduates often abandon the sympathies they held at university, “indigenizing” and internalizing the values and culture of their society. Thus did the anglophile Harry Lee “the best bloody Englishman east of Suez” become Lee Kuan Yew, the domineering Asian supremacist.
In Malaysia few elite graduates become prominent in government and politics, and of those few even fewer strive to change the system. Many view doing so as career-suicide; here also, their elite education works against them, for it means they have the most to lose. After all their hard work and all their parents have sacrificed, their entitlement is a job at a white-shoe firm, not a windowless cell in a nameless jail. Although they may win prominence in other fields, when it comes to politics most elite graduates keep their head down, and it takes the person of rare courage to do otherwise.
So, there is no schizophrenia after all, no inconsistency in the simultaneous denouncement of Western ideals and the influx of Asian students into elite Western universities. For Asia’s rulers know that they have little to fear from foreign graduates. These graduates are either co-opted into the political system or they play little part in it, instead turning their exceptional talents to other, safer, areas of society. This, then, is the legacy of elite schools in East Asia. This, for better or for worse, is Yale’s legacy in East Asia.
Shaun Tan is a first-year student in international relations.