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.