SINGAPORE — Nearly 10,000 miles from New Haven, a single building embedded within the National University of Singapore is home to Yale-NUS College. Now in its second year, Yale-NUS is the only independent college bearing Yale’s imprint. It was founded with the guiding principle of bringing the liberal arts to Asia.
On the most basic level, the sheer distance between the two campuses could act as a metaphor for how dissimilar Yale-NUS and Yale appear. The former sits within a tiny and relatively young island nation in Southeast Asia — its campus spotted with palm trees and open patios — and is home to only 330 students across two classes. The latter has staked its claim in New Haven since before American independence and currently enrolls nearly 12,000 students across Yale College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and 10 professional schools.
But ever since plans for Yale-NUS were first announced in 2009, concerns about how a country like Singapore could support and uphold the tenets of a liberal arts education have not abated.
Though University administrators have repeatedly assured critics that students at Yale-NUS would have the same academic and social freedoms as students in New Haven, Singapore’s longstanding reputation as an authoritarian democracy provided little comfort: The government bans certain books and films deemed upsetting to the delicate balance of the country’s multi-racial society. Public protests are almost exclusively prohibited, as is any form of hate speech against the government or racial or religious groups, and a 2014 report by Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 150th of 180 countries evaluated for press freedoms.
But Yale-NUS shows no signs of going anywhere. The college’s permanent campus will open in October, and the student body population is slowly growing towards the targeted 1,000 students.
In the academic sense, Yale-NUS is unique both within Singapore and in Southeast Asia. Yale-NUS is the only liberal arts institution in Singapore, and its Common Curriculum — the foundation of every student’s academic experience — is a signature of the college.
“Yale-NUS gives Singaporeans an opportunity to try a new kind of education,” Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said. “We stand very strongly for academic freedom and we practice non-discrimination in our activities.”
Of the 25 Singaporean and international students interviewed, many characterized the traditional Singaporean educational system as one primarily focused on strict academic success. A high school student’s performance on his college entrance exams, for example, almost exclusively determines where that student will attend university. But at Yale-NUS, students said, they are encouraged to dedicate a substantial amount of their time to activities outside the classroom — be it in sports, the arts, student groups or other extracurriculars.
The young college, though, has not been immune to controversies surrounding academic freedom. Though banned books and films are supposed to remain accessible when used for educational purposes, Yale-NUS was barely one year old before controversy arose.
In September, the Singaporean Media Development Authority deemed the film “To Singapore, with Love” a threat to national security and prohibited any screening or distribution of it in Singapore. Even so, Yale-NUS administrators said the college would go forth with plans to show the film in a classroom setting after seeking approval from the MDA.
But when the filmmaker, Tan Pin Pin, learned Yale-NUS was planning on screening her film with special permission, she announced on her Facebook page that she did not authorize the screening. The next day, Yale-NUS spokeswoman Fiona Soh said “To Singapore, with Love” would not be screened out of respect for the filmmaker’s decision.
Months later, however, multiple Yale-NUS administrators insist the bans have had no effect on college curricula.
“Any book can be taught here,” said Dean of Students Kyle Farley. “There’s no book any faculty members has asked for that we weren’t able to get.”
In interviews with Farley, Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn ’81 and Yale-NUS’s Director of Educational Resources and Technology Ken Panko, two banned texts were repeatedly referenced for their use in the classroom: “Shame” and “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie. “Shame” was a required book in the course Literature and Humanities last spring, and both can be accessed through the Yale-NUS library system.
According to Panko, these works are readily available through the Yale-NUS library catalog.
“You won’t find ‘The Satanic Verses’ for sale in bookstores because in Singapore it is illegal to import any book that is considered ‘objectionable or obscene’ for the purposes of sale or distribution,” Panko said. “But it hasn’t been a problem at all to use these things in an educational context.”
Aside from banned books and films, discussions surrounding culturally taboo topics do not appear to make Yale-NUS faculty wary. While homosexuality in Singapore remains criminalized and gay people cannot marry or adopt children, discussions surrounding LGBTQ issues and unconventional families are present in several syllabi.
Yale-NUS professor of anthropology Bernard Bate, for example, gives a regular lecture entitled “What is Family” for his Comparative Social Institutions course. As part of the lesson, Bate examines what he calls “the queer emergent family,” and later course readings include debates over gay marriage in the U.S. and Singapore.
But despite Yale’s promise that academic freedom would not be restricted at Yale-NUS, both Yale-NUS and NUS administrators claim there is ultimately no legal distinction that enables Yale-NUS to operate any differently than its peer institutions in Singapore. For example, any book that can be taught at Yale-NUS can also technically be taught next door at NUS, they said.
According to professor Tan Tai Yong, executive vice president for academic affairs at Yale-NUS and the former vice provost for student life at NUS, the only fundamental difference between the two schools is the structure in which the material is taught — by virtue of the interdisciplinary liberal arts model — and not what can and cannot be taught.
“In terms of whether there are ‘no go’ areas in NUS where Yale-NUS will have the privilege to go, it has never been an issue,” Tan said.
But even if access to academic materials are equal between Yale-NUS and its neighbors, students at Yale-NUS said they feel that controversial decisions had more support at Yale-NUS than NUS students thought they had at NUS.
On March 3, for example, the Yale-NUS Writers’ Center hosted a panel discussing the censorship of children’s books at which the co-author of “The White Swan Express,” a children’s story about the adoption of four Chinese girls, was present. Conversations in Singapore surrounding the banning of children’s books were reignited in July 2014 when “The White Swan Express” and “And Tango Makes Three” were taken out of circulation by the National Library Board. Both books, which feature children adopted by gay and mixed-race families, were eventually moved to the adult section of public libraries.
“This is an important issue, not just here, but worldwide,” Bailyn said of banned books generally. “The issue of under what circumstances do you start to regulate books is an issue of great sensitivity. [The event] epitomized what we are trying to do here.”
But perhaps the most dramatic example has yet to play out. In the fall, Chee Soon Juan — secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party — is scheduled to speak at Yale-NUS at a Rector’s Tea. A former lecturer in psychology at NUS, Chee was dismissed from his position in 1993 after being accused of misappropriating research funds. Chee maintains he was fired for joining the opposition party and was later sued for defamation, convicted and imprisoned when he tried to contest his dismissal.
Even so, political science lecturer Jim Sleeper — among Yale’s most outspoken critics of Yale-NUS — does not buy Chee’s visit as a move towards broader social progress. For Sleeper, Chee’s visit, or exemptions made for Yale-NUS on banned books and films, are simply examples of the government making special accommodations.
“These things like a Rector’s Tea for Chee, that’s just the government bending over backwards, and no one should be fooled,” Sleeper said. “It’s not evidence that things are liberalizing or changing.”
But while Yale-NUS does have a liberal mission, administrators never claimed that they wanted to radically change Singaporean society or clash with its government.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
While students from three other Singaporean universities interviewed said their administrations are largely resistant to student organizing, those at Yale-NUS characterized the school’s leadership as fully supportive of student advocacy and activism.
“We have more space to talk and discuss things in this college, whereas at NUS, it being a fully Singaporean school, it’s a bit harder given the political and religious climate,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.
The student said he thinks Yale-NUS is “pretty open” about free speech issues — provided, however, that people say things that are substantive and constructive.
However, both students and administrators interviewed defined freedom of expression within the bounds of Singaporean laws and customs — none implied that the college aims to, or should aim to, break any rules.
Alongside concerns regarding academic integrity at Yale-NUS came questions about just how socially free any college in Singapore could be. While students at Yale would not hesitate to demonstrate on the New Haven Green, for example, public protests are almost exclusively banned in Singapore. The only designated space for public demonstrations in the country can be found at a corner of Hong Lim Park, known as the Speakers’ Corner, where Singaporean citizens and permanent residents may demonstrate after registering with the park service.
Yale-NUS administrators insist that despite the need for students to adhere to Singaporean laws regarding public protests, such restrictions do not infringe on freedom of speech on campus.
Chris O’Connell, Yale-NUS’s manager of student life, said he sees substantial engagement from the student body on complex political issues. There might be limitations on protests, but according to O’Connell, protesting is “just one piece” of campus dialogue.
Sara Amjad, a Yale-NUS dean’s fellow, said that since Singaporean law has specific guidelines about how public protests are conducted, students may ultimately find others means of getting their points across.
“The truth is that public protests are allowed in Singapore, but they are conducted within certain guidelines and those guidelines are defined by Singapore law, not by the college,” Amjad said. “Our students can stage protests within those guidelines, and if those guidelines don’t work for them, they find other ways of getting their message across.”
For Jordan Bovankovich YNUS ’18, one campus incident from October reassured her that the administration was intent on defending students’ freedom of speech. Bovankovich was not the only one to evoke the episode in which a student witnessed the removal of an elevator poster that read “In solidarity with Hong Kong students.” The poster — which promoted Hong Kong’s pro-democracy rallies — had been taken down by a worker from NUS’s Office of Housing Services, which also manages Yale-NUS housing.
A series of posts on a Yale-NUS student Facebook group followed, eventually catching the attention of multiple professors and Farley. The same day, the Yale-NUS administration approached OHS directly and learned that the removal of the poster was actually the result of a miscommunication between OHS and the specific worker.
Bovankovich and others said they perceived the administration’s quick response as one of solid support for freedom of speech.
“For those of us who had forgotten, the Hong Kong poster incident served as a poignant reminder of the limits on freedom of speech in Singapore,” Bovankovich said. “For those who were concerned about the infringement of their own freedoms, this incident provided reassurance of our own academic freedom in the context of Yale-NUS.”
“WHO ARE WE?”
In August, Singapore will celebrate the 50th anniversary since Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding father, led Singapore to independence. Largely to Lee’s credit, the last 50 years have transformed Singapore from a British colonial outpost with no natural resources to one of the wealthiest countries in Asia.
But with Lee’s death on March 23, questions about whether Singapore has outgrown its paternalistic style of government proliferate. With a younger generation moving away from the country’s religious and conservative roots in pursuit of expanded personal freedoms, the fate of Yale-NUS may largely depend on how Singapore chooses to define itself over the next 50 years.
Moving forward, students at Yale-NUS said the college needs to define its own identity independent from its parent institutions. To what extent this means doing away with the popular college-block letter Yale sweatshirts or orange-and-blue NUS water bottles has few clear answers.
For reasons they struggled to fully define, almost all Yale-NUS students described complicated relationships toward both Yale and NUS. Despite the fact that Yale-NUS is physically planted inside the NUS campus, some students said the liberal arts model makes them feel inextricably linked to Yale. Others said it was impossible not to associate themselves with NUS because of how dependent they are on university facilities such as lab space, library systems and even the campus’s flagship Starbucks. In addition, all funding for Yale-NUS comes from the Singaporean government.
Students, faculty and administrators interviewed repeatedly expressed the idea that Yale-NUS, much like its American counterpart, finds itself in a bubble. This has raised the question of how, exactly, Yale-NUS can make a contribution to Singapore, if it is isolated.
Sleeper said the Yale-NUS bubble serves Yale and Singapore in different ways. For Yale, Sleeper said, the bubble incubates noble reforms of liberal education that the University administration thinks would not come from the New Haven faculty. For Singapore, the college has the potential to reduce the country’s brain drain to the west by tacking Yale’s prestige onto training for effective state and global-market managers.
However, Sleeper said this is not the purpose of a liberal arts education.
“Liberal education can’t flourish in a bubble or serve mainly states and markets,” he said. “It should nourish human dignity and citizenship.”
Students differed on how Yale-NUS could claim its own identity independent from its two parent institutions. For Feroz Khan YNUS ’18, Yale-NUS is also grappling with the question of “how our quintessential Singaporean-ness is woven into our identity.” Yonatan Gazit YNUS ’18 said he feels that Yale-NUS is often viewed as the pampered child of NUS, because Yale-NUS gets to take advantage of NUS resources without much reward going in the opposite direction. Others have suggested Yale-NUS change its name.
“We use all their facilities, and they don’t get much in return from us,” Gazit said.
Gazit added that he feels a degree of pressure to go out and create a name for his alma mater.
Even Bailyn said Yale-NUS is sometimes caught between being autonomous and being autonomous within NUS, using Yale-NUS sports teams as an example.
“Who are we?” Bailyn said. “Do we compete as a piece of the intramural program at NUS or as an independent institution against other institutions? In fact, we’re doing both, and I think that’s the right answer, but some people think it’s as ambiguous as if Calhoun decided it was an independent college and went off to play against Quinnipiac.”