Yale-NUS occupies a very strange place in Singapore. Quite literally, its campus is nestled in the heart of the National University of Singapore, NUS, but its buildings are starkly different from the rest of the university’s imposing, brutalist structures. Walking through the campus when I was a high-schooler, I remember marvelling at the elegant wooden structures cascading throughout the library, the manicured lawns which were as neat as a pin, and the breezy white towers housing the storied suites. I remember thinking to myself, how this place seemed like a fever dream, too good to be true.
Indeed, it was too good to be true. After a brief ten years of existence, NUS announced last week that it had admitted its last class, and that after the class of 2025 graduates, Yale-NUS would cease to exist. The phrase “cease to exist” here is intentionally vague, because it is contentious about what exactly is going to happen to the college. A statement from President Salovey clarifies that the intention is “to merge Yale-NUS College with its existing University Scholars Program in 2025 to form a new and larger liberal arts college that will not bear Yale’s name”. Whether it is really a “merger” or a dissolution is still unclear and the technicalities of what will happen to the campus, its faculty is also up in the air.
In any case, the shock announcement was quickly followed with reactions of shock and outrage from members of the Yale-NUS community, with many condemning how sudden and “top-down” the decision seemed. Many took to petitions and Facebook to air their grievances and share what their college experiences meant to them.
At the moment, what seems very plainly evident is how quickly and swiftly the administration announced the decision, which basically forced students to, overnight, come to terms with the fact that their college was about to be erased from existence. The sheer lack of student involvement and participation in this discussion was also extremely lamentable. Most importantly though, there is a lingering sadness and anger that no amount of graduality or student involvement could ever have resolved, caused by the innately destructive act of erasure, the erasure of an entire community of learners and scholars.
As a Singaporean student studying at Yale, I want to disclaim here that I certainly do not represent the voices of the Yale-NUS students themselves. I cannot even begin to comprehend or represent the feelings of outrage that they must be feeling. But as someone who has been blessed with the privilege of experiencing an excellent liberal arts education here in the U.S., a big part of me clings to a firm conviction that while Yale-NUS might not exist in name anymore, the idea of a liberal arts college in Singapore is not completely extinguished. And this extremely unfortunate development could even give us an opportunity to build back better.
Many commentators online have chimed in to argue why an exclusively Singaporean education, and exclusively Singaporean ownership could be a good thing for the college. Indeed, I personally do not know whether it would have been a good thing, in the long term, for the only liberal arts college in Singapore to bear Yale’s name. I think that while it was beneficial for attracting a large international student body and shoring up the college’s reputation in the early years, the college has evolved beyond needing that extra global stage. Having external influences on the way the college is managed and taught could have adverse long run impacts on its flexibility to tailor to the local context. Shorn of its international obligations and associations, I think it is a good opportunity to start thinking about how the college can stand on its own two feet. It can build an even more solid foundation in the teaching and learning of Singaporean and Southeast Asian issues.
Aside from teaching and learning, I think this offers an important outlet for grooming local academics. While Singapore has long shone as a center for science and mathematical research, there is a dearth of local academics in humanities and languages. Liberal arts colleges are biomes where research in these areas flourish, and so I think the formation of a more “Singaporean” liberal arts college presents a valuable opportunity to groom local academics in those areas.
That Yale-NUS existed and was so suddenly dissolved is nothing short of an unspeakable tragedy, especially for the communities directly impacted. Nothing will ever change that. But I like to think also that there are also some legacies and best practices that will be inherited and co-opted into a future edition of the school. Suites, dining halls, overseas immersion experiences, all of it. That its existence was not in vain, and that its dissolution does not precipitate a collective amnesia of what it meant to have a liberal arts college in Singapore.