Our press has consistently been perceived as state-centric, and hence not fully independent – a bane to free speech for most. We are among a minority group of countries that uphold capital punishment. Homosexuality is constitutionally a criminal act.
But there are shades of grey to this little red dot – gradations of which are lost to hyperboles if we consider the reactions from both camps on the Yale-NUS venture. Simply put, the debate has been simplistically reduced to an East-West clash of civilization.
Indeed, the manner in which the resolution was worded seems to lend credence to this view. It urges those in charge of Yale-NUS to “respect, protect and further principles of non-discrimination for all" as well as "uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society".
Little wonder that defenders of the college are quick to dismiss the resolution as a distasteful case of Western arrogance.
Celebrity journalist Fareed Zakaria, for instance, wrote that the protest registered by Yale academics through last week’s resolution represents “a form of parochialism bordering on chauvinism…not to see that we too, in America and at Yale, can learn something from Singapore".
Judging from reactions that have appeared publicly since the ‘Yale Spring’, the consensus in Singapore from students, academics and officials suggest that the charge of what Edward Said would term ‘Orientalism’ – or the ideology that non-Western civilisations are inferior – has become the mantra of choice for preserving the sanctity of Yale-NUS.
But if we turn that critical gaze inwards, we might concede that subscribing to the idea that Yale as a symbol for the ‘West’ has a better record of free speech and academic freedom than the NUS, a synecdoche for the ‘East’, is just as problematic for us.
For it reeks also of Occidentalism – or the counter-ideology that the ‘West’ is decadent. To this end, this view justifies the idea that the ‘East’ is different, and hence lends credence to the ‘Asian values’ discourse championed by autocratic Southeast Asian leaders to justify their iron-fisted rule.
This East-West clash of civilization rhetoric obscures us from the real issue that complicates the establishment of this college: the very idea that Yale-NUS is a 'business' venture, and not a moral initiative for Yale to do good in the world.
Seyla Benhabib, the political scientist who filed the resolution to protest Yale-NUS, believed that the resolution, while important, did not address the corporatisation of education.
Indeed, the decision to establish Yale-NUS was made “partly by some members of the Yale Corporation who have also served on the Government of Singapore’s investment corporation”, wrote Benhabib in the independent student newspaper Yale Daily News.
Fellow Yale academician Jim Sleeper, who happens to be Benhabib’s spouse, pointedly criticised the college for relegating “the company of scholars to a roster of corporate employees”.
If there is any lesson at all for Singapore in this polemical yet misconstrued debate, it is that Yale-NUS provides us an opportunity to re-think our long-held model of Education Inc., where the university’s primary purpose is to enrich the economy more than human life.
To this end, tertiary institutions are akin to factories that produce workers to plug gaps in the labour force. The trend has been to offer industry-centric courses that conform to the government’s economic blueprint of the day.
Recall the 1990s when the rage was information technology as multinational corporations – which have made Singapore their base for Asia – began to automate their operations. Then the dot-com bubble burst, and India fast became the world’s supplier of IT experts. Today, it is not as much sought after among Singapore youths.
As we enter the millennium, biotechnology replaced IT as the next big thing. This was bolstered by Singapore’s ambition to become Asia’s leading biomedical hub. Its appeal too has somewhat slowed down as the market for bioengineers got saturated.
The peril of corporatising education is the creation of a world littered with technocrats swaying to the whims of market forces – a life dictated by dollars and cents. Seen in this light, the ‘Yale Spring’ on Singapore must be seen as a proxy attempt at reclaiming the human soul.
If anything, a liberal arts college should help us move beyond Singapore’s national philosophy of economic pragmatism. The university in a post-pragmatic Singapore is one that should make us better human beings, not better workers – even if those workers are more ‘cultured’.
Will this essence of the Yale Spring have any impact on the future of Yale-NUS?
While it is the nature of liberal arts to be interdisciplinary, the college’s current degree offerings – law and environmental studies – suggests that it is still industry-centric. The litmus test as to whether Yale-NUS will avoid the commodification of education depends on whether future courses place greater weightage on industrial knowledge, or the arts and humanities.
Nazry Bahrawi is a cultural critic pursuing his doctoral degree at the University of Warwick.