Examining Yale-NUS’ Curriculum and the Efficacy of Liberal Arts Education in Singapore: a re-post of Davin Ng’s April 14th, 2012 piece in New Asia Republic

The Yale-NUS College experiment was announced to great fanfare and excitement on September 2010, with the intent of setting up a bastion of liberal arts education in Singapore. The announcement was met with scrutiny over the island nation’s spotty record in human rights and freedom of speech and the recent debate has been all about civil liberties and academic freedom. This commentary is not about the political noise swirling around the college, but the efficacy of having such a liberal arts institution in this fashion.

Liberal Arts in Singapore?

Why does Singapore need a liberal arts school? The country already has the National University of Singapore, the nation’s pride and joy in worldwide rankings. In the conventional Singaporean mind, that is all that is needed since attending a school with high ranking is everything. The same mindset applies to Singaporean employers looking through the resumes of prospective employees. The problem lies in the rising cacophony of complaints that can be heard by many employers in the country that graduates from the home-grown schools may have impressive showings in grades, but less than desirable performance at the workplace. It has not become uncommon to hear that these graduates lack in initiative, the willingness or ability in independent thought or perhaps even the capacity to learn new things.

To address this issue of deficiency in higher education, the government has made a thrust in the right direction in attempting to usher in liberal arts education. It is not as if the Ministry of Education has not attempted to address this before: for the past decade or so it has implemented ways to “teach creativity” and inculcate entrepreneurial skills. But how does one “teach creativity”? Creativity has been found to correspond to a steady rhythm of alpha waves emanating from the brain’s right hemisphere, and it is stimulated by relaxation. Singapore’s educational environment is far from relaxing.

Liberal arts is purported to nurture thinkers. A liberal arts education is meant to prepare students within a broad, humane perspective for an attitude of lifetime learning, which includes but is not limited to inquiry, creativity, critical and analytical thinking. By unleashing Yale-NUS upon Singaporean society it is meant to nurture a new generation of workers who are meant to adapt to the rapid pace of a globalized world. But what can a liberal arts education do for Singapore? It will be jarring at best for the best-qualified pre-university students who have been hothoused in at least 12 years of rote learning and exam skills, to be yanked into a new environment where the students will most likely be left to their own devices.

Liberal Arts in the US

I presently attend Goucher College, a small liberal arts college in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. To have a liberal arts education is a widely-accepted idea in the States, and to have such an education is very much part and parcel of the American experience of higher education. It is not that it is only the liberal arts colleges that provide such an education, but it is these colleges that provide a greater focus on it.

Here in Goucher College the curriculum calls for written communication, proficiency in a foreign language (other than English), the humanities, the natural sciences, mathematics or logic, understanding of the creative process, interpretation of social structures, understanding of the arts and ecological and/or policy dimensions of environmental sustainability. To top it off, this school is the first and only college/university in the United States that requires students to venture overseas for Study Abroad. This is considered a stupendous requirement in the American context, as a relatively low proportion of Americans have actually visited any place outside of their country.

The arts and social sciences are given plenty of attention in this college, and neither are the sciences neglected: after all, Goucher’s pre-med program is known to send a significant number of its graduating students to the nearby Johns Hopkins University medical school. Students at Goucher spend approximately 2 years out of the 4 years they spend here attending classes which satisfy the Liberal Education Requirement, and the rest of the time on courses related to their declared majors of interest. There is no focus on professional development.

The environment is very laid-back, with its workload considered sparse relative to what a Singaporean student is accustomed to, and students are generally encouraged to express themselves in whichever ways they please. One of the more prominent results of this freedom in expression is a game named Humans vs. Zombies, an extended game of tag which involves “humans” shooting “zombies” with guns that launch foam projectiles. This game was the brainchild of two Goucher students in 2005, and has since spread nationwide all over the US, and also became an international phenomenon. A film based on the game was released last year on 2011, and the game’s creators have recently licensed their own line of toy guns marketed for players of this game.

This is what a liberal arts education can achieve and produce. Can Singapore replicate the same results?

Professional Focus

Introducing liberal arts into a Singaporean university curriculum has been tried before. Describing itself as an “interdisciplinary academic programme”, the NUS USP (NUS University Scholars Programme) attempted to latch a semblance of a liberal arts curriculum to the traditional UK-style university courses that focuses on professional preparation. Students in the NUS USP are expected to spend 1 year on the multidisciplinary courses, and 3 years on the typical NUS curriculum.

Singapore Management University (SMU) was another similar experiment. Intended to cater towards creative- and free-minded students with the intent of grooming them into a peculiar brand of business executives, SMU has not seemed very successful at introducing the kind of education that the liberal arts is meant to offer.

Part of the problem lies in the government’s fixation over short-term gain in terms of professional focus. A liberal arts education is meant to train students in the very skill of learning and critical thinking, so that they may adapt to new conditions that no one can predict for the future. To insist on professional preparation is to go against what the liberal arts is meant to be.

This nature of short-sightedness in the Singaporean government can be observed in the operations of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). To see it given such an acronym that stands for the highest academic grade possible can already hint at how A*STAR’s behavior backfires upon itself. A*STAR has been known to favor scientific research projects that are directed at developing commercial applications, and has not produced much in breakthroughs or discoveries relative to the amount of money that has been put into the agency.

To draw parallels with the circumstances of scientific research in Europe, William Waldegrave, Britain’s then-Cabinet Minister for Science and Technology released a white paper in 1993 calling for the restriction of government funding to research with the greatest potential for commercial applications. Following this policy, Britain’s rate of scientific discoveries dipped rapidly. In the meantime, Germany, which funds pure research for the sake of it, produced a slew of technologies that are presently used to combat the spread of malaria from the work of Hannes Laven, a geneticist with a personal fascination with mosquitoes.

Sanford Ungar, president of Goucher College has also weighed in with his opinion on the pitfalls of the fixation of professional preparation with liberal arts: My strong personal feeling is that a traditional liberal arts education, in and of itself, is the very best “career education.”  More than ever, we need people to be steeped in values and principles, to learn critical thinking skills, to understand history, to appreciate the arts, and to know how to work on important goals in a group setting.  To insist on a professional focus in a liberal arts curriculum is to distort its content and compromise its impact.  There is a serious risk that young people will be trained for jobs that will not last or keep their importance and value; without a broad background, the victims of this short-sighted emphasis will risk having nowhere to turn and no broad knowledge to fall back on.

While pragmatism in education has served Singapore well over the past few decades, to cling on to pragmatism for the sake of it will result in anemic economic growth for the future. Focus on what is considered practical was crucial to Singapore’s rapid development, but as an advanced economy its workers require a paradigm shift for the global economy of the 21st century. Only just ten years ago, no one could have anticipated that social media in its current form could become such a mighty platform for marketing, political revolution and social interaction: we just simply do not know what the best jobs of tomorrow can be, and it is impossible to specifically prepare for them. A liberal arts education is meant to help its recipients adapt to rapidly shifting economic conditions.

What Does Yale-NUS Offer?

According to the material Yale-NUS has been releasing over the past few weeks, it appears reassuring. There is no hint that there is any pressure within the proposed curriculum to strive towards a professional focus within the undergraduate syllabus.

In its website, Yale-NUS promises to focus on four main themes: The Great Works, Individual and Society, The Natural Sciences and Interdisciplinary Courses. The college attempts to differentiate itself from its counterparts in the US by offering classes that purport to “include an Asian perspective”, such as injecting Confucius into studies in philosophy. This is not entirely unique, as various US liberal arts colleges have been actively retooling their syllabi to include Eastern/Oriental perspectives in the face of “the rise of the rest”.

In terms of offering professional degrees, it has been rather limited. Yale-NUS offers a double degree program in Law in collaboration with the NUS Faculty of Law, and a separate Master’s degree in environmental studies that will include one semester spent at Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Much of the Yale-NUS curriculum  seems to be an earnest effort in inculcating liberal arts education, but yet it appears that on the part of Yale, much of it is prototypical and experimental, even though Yale seems to have been an old hand at this.

Problems with Liberal Arts and Higher Education in Singapore

The underlying issues that the government has been trying to address via the injection of liberal arts education cannot be solved merely on the level of higher education. Singaporean students typically go through 12 years of intense preparation with a strong emphasis on rote learning and examination skills where examination scores are king and students are treated more like cattle than actual human beings, as their “quality” is assessed and sorted every 2 years.

Critical thinking is strongly discouraged, with essay questions in the secondary and pre-university level that demand template answers for the highest scores. Even subjects such as “Social Studies” will include leading questions such as, “State the reasons why Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) is the best way to manage traffic congestion in Singapore”.

The government has been announcing measures to liberalize the way education is carried out for a long time, but it appears that the pressure cooker approach has been intensified, not relaxed. Students who emerge from such a system and into a liberal arts environment will be out of their element, and two things can happen: the first is that students may struggle consistently throughout their experience, or the purported liberal arts environment may be changed in order to better accommodate the students it is meant to serve.

Another problem lies in the disturbingly curious trend that Singapore has been outsourcing higher education initiatives to foreign brands in order to reinvent the local education landscape almost too liberally. The country has a dizzying number of programs and tie-ups with numerous variations of acronyms, such as Duke-NUS and Imperial-NTU.

It was almost unheard of for such foreign institutions to enter collaboration deals until the 2008 financial crisis that resulted in sharp cuts of endowments for them. It is probable that these institutions, eager to make up for shortfalls in their endowments found a generous and willing patron in the government of Singapore are shortchanging the government.

Even more perplexing is the state of redundancies in NUS. The NUS USP program was created with the consultancy of a professor from Brown University, George Landow. The university has been running a loss with the program, because of its huge investment in facilities such as labs, rooms and residence. It makes one wonder how this corresponds with rising tuition fees with NUS, and the general strategic direction of the university now that it has entered this deal with Yale.


In the politicization of the Yale-NUS College, early grumbling about the lack of social and academic freedoms in Singapore has led to prevailing thought that perhaps it is Yale’s influence that could help prod Singapore into the “right direction” of greater freedoms. It remains to be seen if meaningful influence can be exerted upon the nation’s political environment from a small subdivision of NUS with plans to house and educate only 330 students.

Ultimately, it is the government that holds the purse strings of the entire project, with promised academic freedoms notwithstanding. Based on what the Yale-NUS College has released to the public so far, it appears that it will be offering a brand of liberal arts education similar to what I am experiencing here in Maryland. But given the proclivities of the government to chant the mantra of pragmatism in the face of criticism, it remains to be seen if it may give in to the temptation of insisting on professional preparation in the future.

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