Construction of Singapore’s first liberal arts college — and the first college to bear Yale’s name in 300 years — formally commenced at a groundbreaking ceremony Friday.

Roughly 200 guests attended the event at the National University of Singapore, including University President Richard Levin, NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan, Yale-NUS College President Pericles Lewis and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In his opening remarks, Lee emphasized that education is a national priority in a city-state with no natural resources.

“There will be learning approaches [at Yale-NUS] which will spread, and many more students will benefit,” Lee said. “And even if other parts of the system are slow to pick up, the students will pass the word; there will be competitive pressure.”

Administrators in New Haven and Singapore alike have heralded the new college as an opportunity to test new teaching methods and expand the presence of the liberal arts model in Asia, where education is traditionally vocational. But critics have questioned whether a liberal arts education can exist in a country that restricts freedom of speech and other civil rights.

The ceremony marked the beginning of three years of construction on the Yale-NUS campus, which will open to students in fall 2013. The college will be housed at NUS’s University Town campus until construction is completed in 2015.

Designed in part by the firm of former School of Architecture Dean César Pelli, the campus will incorporate architectural styles from both Yale and Singapore. Yale-NUS will have three residential colleges, along with classroom facilities and a campus green. Each college will have an individual dining hall and student gym, but the 24- to 26-story buildings will resemble Singapore’s numerous high-rises.

The college’s 500,000-square-foot campus will be located to the north of NUS’s existing facilities.