The Yale-NUS debate rages on in Singapore
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The Yale-NUS debate rages on in Singapore

When the idea of a Yale-NUS liberal arts college was first mooted in around 2009, it generated an uproar that has more or less continued until today. Support and opposition came from both the United States and Singapore, especially from students and staff of both Yale and the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Opinions came from both ends of the spectrum. Depending on the author, Singapore was portrayed as either a place of severe oppression or space where academic freedom is flourishing. Yale students wondered how the collaboration would affect Yale’s reputation, and NUS students wondered whether Singapore even needed Yale in the first place.

On 6 April, the Yale College Faculty passed a resolution 100 to 69 – despite objections from president Richard Levin – expressing their “concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore”.

In her article ‘Show Singaporeans some respect’, Ng E-Ching outlined how the resolution would not endear Yale to Singaporeans:

I see some attempt at tact, but it didn’t translate culturally. To a Singaporean, the resolution looks like a request to be kicked out of the country. Criticizing a partner publicly during this crucial trust-building phase is a last-resort negotiating tactic used just prior to walking away from the deal.

The resolution also annoys the Singaporean in the street, who already thought Yale was getting a sweetheart deal — free campus, free staff, free rein to run pedagogical experiments on free subjects, not even the risk of putting the Yale name on the diploma.

In the blog post ‘More than bricks and mortar‘, WK looks beyond the political and ideological arguments for and against Yale-NUS:

Nonetheless, I do have a question, which relates to Yale-NUS as well: surely it’s more than just bricks and mortar?

The university administration aims to encourage open exchanges and discussion, but fundamentally, the ability of students to do that is not so much the creation of a space (though it does have a role), but the creation of an atmosphere. By atmosphere, I’m not referring to the ambiance created by new buildings and facilities, I’m referring to a culture and mentality among students that promotes it.
Perhaps this entire Yale-NUS scheme should be re-assessed in this light. It’s more than just new buildings, or the prestige and privilege of a partnership with an Ivy League University. It’s even more than the mutual critique of cultures.
It’s a call for an entire rethinking of attitudes towards the means and ends of education.

At this point, it’s clear that the Yale-NUS liberal arts college is definitely happening. It’s already accepting applications, so there’s really no going back now. Which makes it a little pointless for either side to be throwing tantrums or saying that there should be no collaboration.

Instead of accusations, allegations and assumptions perhaps it would be more useful for both sides to accept the flaws and problems of our respective countries – for if Yale faculty and students would like to point out Singapore’s human rights problems, Singapore could also point out a few of the USA’s less-than-optimal human rights records – and to start to figure out how an education in liberal arts could help to make things better in both places.

After all, there is much to be learned from each other, and at the end of the day we’re not as different as we think.