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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.