Do We Need Yale? A re-post of Koh Choon Hwee’s March 26th piece in The Kent Ridge Common

Recent articles by the student Walker Vincoli (who had spent 2 semesters in NUS) and even by Yale faculty members argue against the Yale-NUS venture using simplistic, stock authoritarian-Asian regime stereotypes.

For Vincoli, “Singapore is not a free country and NUS is not a free university” and for these Yale faculty members, “They [architects of the Yale-NUS College] have thrust us into the politics of an authoritarian regime, in partnership with a university with seriously, dangerously compromised standards of academic freedom, including surveillance of faculty.”

The debate on this Yale-NUS venture certainly runs deeper and wider than this – and there are many more concerns at an institutional level that I, as a mere student, would not be able to appreciate as keenly as employees of both institutions. The only problem that bewilders me is the kind of careless, generalized stereotypes being traded not only by students, but also by Yale faculty members – which seems to betray the very ethos of good scholarship.

If Yale is asking herself if she should partner NUS/Singapore in this YNC venture, should we (NUS/Singapore) not be asking the same about Yale too, considering the quality of arguments proffered by some of her tenured best?

Because for these people, America is the land of the “free”. Every other country is shackled or fettered, unfree and forlorn, beyond comparison.

Because “freedom” in America is understood mainly as “freedom” from state intervention, so it is completely fine and dandy if oil tycoons fund philosophy departments in their universities because for them, only governments can interfere with freedom or with academic freedom, only governments have ill intentions. Corporations are persons in America, and can never interfere with “freedom” of persons hence. In America, “freedom” is “freedom” from the state, even if you’re still held in thrall by private corporations.

Vincoli’s experience in NUS where “[s]tudents change arguments, button their lips and absorb opinions from on high” jars so incongruously with the scene on the ground that one wonders what crowd he was hanging out with exactly.

Youth wing leaders of opposition parties – who are also NUS students – go about their activities on campus, and some are regular Dean’s Listers. Their names are well-known, and they have their supporters. Online student newspapers, like the Campus Observer and our own Kent Ridge Common are brimming with critiques of the university administration (here, and here too) and of the country’s political system and politicians (and this KRC article also features then-NUS undergraduate Seah Yin Hwa who directly challenged, in person, the Prime Minister at a ministerial forum – the Yahoo! news article here. Repression, much?) All these articles are written by NUS students who have published their full names online, proudly and openly. Just search the archives.

Yale faculty members critiquing the venture also default upon essentialized representations of Singapore and tend to obsess about the legality of homosexuality in this country. Shall we obsess too about Guantanamo Bay and other dubious “anti-terrorism” laws in the US, remnants of the disaster of George W. Bush’s (a Yale alumnus, no less) presidency?

Don’t get me wrong – the Yale-NUS joint venture can be critiqued in so many other ways (Potential elitism? Accessibility to those who cannot afford the fees? Institutional incoherence vis a vis YNC’s relationship with the mothership of NUS? Indeed, KRC has critiqued this venture before.), but I would have expected more sophisticated arguments from these Yale professors, not arguments that sound so typically Orientalist and which have already been used by so many (MOYDN) before them.

These scholars and students, whether or not they have been to Singapore, appear to see the world only through the blinkers of their prejudices. Just like the Portugese explorer, Vasco da Gama, who landed in Calicut, India in 1498. Where there were Hindus, da Gama saw only Christians of a “tawny complexion”.

This point may resonate especially with Walker Vincoli, who spent two full semesters here without sensing any form of “everyday resistance” à la James Scott (who, incidentally, is at Yale, so he should be able to educate his colleagues about the multiple manifestations of resistances existing in other cultures), or even overt subversion or opposition at all (contrary to popular belief, the Illegal Assembly Laws are rarely enforced.) It is hard to believe that tenured Yale professors would accept such superficial analyses of a whole political system, nation.

Articles like theirs do nothing to promote intercultural communication and mutual understanding. How ironic then that they should so doggedly lambast the Yale-NUS College, which, as a collaborative educational venture between establishments from two vastly different cultures, aims to do precisely just that.

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