Preserving Yale’s Exclusive, Elite Identity and Community: a re-post of Koh Choon Hwee’s April 16th, 2012 piece in the Kent Ridge Common

Although I feel at best ambivalent about the Yale-NUS College venture — because as with so many aspects of Singapore today, the government still feels that ‘grafting’ foreign expertise onto local soil is the fastest way to achieve policy aims, bartering long-term home-grown sustainability for short-term measurable returns – the burgeoning debate about the YNC makes for a fascinating case study of cultural encounters and provides a real-life arena where all we have learned in the classroom may be applied.

Indeed, all the main actors involved appear to be motivated by the same Orientalist impulse (I use this term to refer to a condescension that judges sociocultural differences not simply ‘difference’, but in hierarchical terms of superior-or-inferior), but the actions that result from this same attitude of condescension are very different.

There is the “Civilising Mission”, as represented by Yale President Richard Levin – or at least, as represented by Montesano’s description of Levin, see Part II of his article. This may be understood as a condescension afflicted with the saviour complex, as missionaries during the colonial and pre-colonial eras also possessed.

There is also the “Taint-Me-Not” faction, as represented by some of the Yale faculty I was responding to in my previous article, and by those behind the resolution that was recently passed. This may be understood as a condescension afflicted with the purity-of-my-superiority complex.

In this article, I wish to focus on a more elaborate and sophisticated version of this “Taint-Me-Not” attitude, as represented by Montesano’s article, Is Yale a Reliable Partner for the National University of Singapore? 

Montesano has served as a faculty member in NUS, and is a long-time resident of Singapore (see Editor’s Note). Although the choice of title for his article appears to suggest that he is adopting NUS’ perspective, and although he attempts, at times, to present his point of view as even-handed and balanced, it is misleading, and the sleight of hand here is so very nuanced that it deserves some deconstruction.

What Montesano Got Right

Montesano has a valuable vantage point, familiar as he is with both NUS and Yale. He displays this in the first part of his article, citing the history of Yale in engaging Southeast Asia, and of Yale’s early academic links with NUS via Professor Harry J. Benda’s directorship at ISEAS. He is also familiar with Singaporean politics and history, and eloquently relates the events of the Marxist conspiracy of 1987.

Montesano’s point about self-censorship at many levels is also relevant, and as a student writing for this independent publication, I myself often feel frustrated at the conservative actions of some professors who are only “classroom radicals”. Indeed, if I could brush up this point of his, it would be that the “classroom” in NUS now witnesses much more critique of institutions and of the government – rather, it is in translating all that theoretical talk into real action (and not even on politically sensitive issues, but on simple things like endorsing a film screening on campus or in expressing their personal views on issues) that still comes up short.

Where Montesano Got Misleading

Despite his apparent insider’s knowledge of how Singapore ‘works’, Montesano still remains a Yale elitist and an American ethnocentrist at heart. For him, “PAP Singapore’s national university was not to be a university in the way that the term has ever been understood at Yale.” Hence, although “Yale and NUS are both ‘universities’”, “they are not institutions of a ‘counterpart’ nature” since “the term “university” has two fundamentally different meanings as applied to the two institutions.” (from Part IV of his article)

Indeed, the histories and the functions of both universities are radically different, but is this ‘radical difference’ the reason why a joint-venture cannot work? This begs the question of why an institution would seek a joint-venture only with an absolutely identical ‘counterpart’. What is an ‘eligible counterpart’ – an institution so similar in its history and philosophy that both ‘counterparts’ can narcissistically applaud each other at meetings? Is not the very point of a joint-venture to leverage upon the differences that each partner can bring to the table?

Montesano thinks that the Yale leadership has failed to understand this crucial difference and that they have failed to be “frank and honest about what it has got Yale involved in” —- and that is, “Yale has sold its services – and, some would emphasize, its name – to a PAP Singapore focused on further developing its economy by becoming an education hub. The Yale-NUS college is one component of this effort, and to see it in any other light is to betray a sorry failure to understand Singapore.”

It is All About Keeping It Exclusive

For readers unfamiliar with the context that one truly needs to appreciate the profundity of what Montesano is saying here, you need to understand that Yale’s “services” and especially its “name” are very precious commodities. This is because Yale, Harvard and Princeton (and other Ivies too but especially in these 3 institutions), are obsessed about maintaining their prestige and exclusivity.

The Harvard Crimson article, “Yale Tops Harvard in First-Year Selectivity“, reveals the informal competition between Yale and Harvard on being the more “selective” university, with this staff writer noting that despite Harvard’s admitting of fewer applicants in 2004, “Yale accepted a record-low 9.9 percent of its largest-ever applicant pool, edging out Harvard’s acceptance rate of 10.3 percent.”

It is the “ first time in recent memory that the Bulldogs have been top-dog in the Harvard-Yale admissions rivalry” and the staff writer seems to have been so shocked at this that he rephrases this shortly after with the rather redundant reformulation, “The Bulldogs’ admissions coup is virtually unprecedented.” 9.9 percent of admitted applicants translates to 1,950 students.  In 2011, this figure dropped to 7.35 percent of admitted applicants, or 2006  accepted applicants out of 27, 282 applications received.

Perhaps this quote from a Yale student would better illuminate readers about the Ivy League mindset:

[a student from the class of 2013] said Yale needs to keeps its selectivity high to maintain its prestige.

“If you don’t tell people that you’re not admitting 90 percent of your applicants, how can you remain an elite school?” she said. “These numbers make Yale seem more exclusive and more attractive.”

More damningly, Seyla Benhabib, author of the resolution on the YNC venture, highlights another concern in her guest Yale Daily News (YDN) article in addition to the fact that “Yale’s name is to be attached to the college in Singapore” — “While the new college will not technically grant Yale degrees, its graduates will be fully integrated into the Yale Alumni Association Network.” (bold emphases added)

It should be plain to see by now that Yale does not only offer a “liberal arts education” – no, Yale offers an exclusive and elite “liberal arts education”, and further, Yale offers membership into an exclusive and elite alumni network.

Exclusive” and ”elite” are two adjectives that the word Yale used to encapsulate all by itself, but this may change in the near future because of this joint-venture – or so they fear. It is not just that Yale faculty or alumni like Montesano are afraid of academic freedom being threatened, their veritable Yale identity is being threatened – and this is an identity predicated upon exclusion of a very severe degree (as the 7.35% admission rate — 2006 accepted out of  27, 282 applications — would exemplify).

Gross Misrepresentation

And this brings me to further question how Montesano has presented this whole venture – so much to gain for the Singaporean side, but none at all for the Yale side, which in fact actually ‘loses’ in this deal, having to tolerate the humiliation of the loss of prestige and exclusivity, having sold “its name”.

I can’t decide if that is a bigger insult to the intelligence of readers of his article, or to the Yale leadership as represented by Yale President Richard Levin, whom Montesano vehemently criticizes in his own article for being ignorant about Singapore and Southeast Asia. Are we to believe that there is nothing in it for Yale? That a man foolish enough to enter into big scam deals managed to become President of Yale?

Perhaps it ought to be reminded that the recession of 2008 had a big impact on the endowments of Ivy League universities and Yale was not spared. This Harvard Magazine article, “Citing Recession, Yale Makes Deeper Cuts“, reported that Levin had to slash capital spending plans and cut Yale’s operating budget in 2009. Levin also estimated that “Yale’s endowment would decline 25 percent in value during the current year”. Curiously, the author of this article also noted that “ Levin’s highest-profile, flagship project: the construction of two new residential colleges, and expansion of the Yale undergraduate body, for which site work was scheduled to begin imminently” had been put on hold.

This 2012 YDN article, “Yale Model Back On Track“, gives a more updated account of Yale’s finances and suggests that it is “back on track”, but it also notes that  “Yale’s endowment … remains below pre-recession levels”.

Obviously, there is also something in this deal for Yale. It was misleading and irresponsible of Montesano, as an academic, to ‘mispresent’ this whole venture in terms of an “incompetent” university leadership being swayed by an “illiberal, authoritarian Southeast Asian nation” without even naming the elephant in the room – the words “endowment” and “recession” appear a grand total of zero times in his article.

Indeed, the main reason why Levin is regarded as incompetent by Montesano is because, probably, Levin has prioritized Yale’s financial well-being and his own vision of Yale’s place in a changing global context, over the parochial interests of safeguarding the elite brand name of Yale and the exclusivity of membership to its hallowed alumni network. Thus, every time Montesano questions “Yale’s ability to be a reliable partner for Singapore over the long run”, he is not really concerned about the interests of Singapore, as some readers of his article in Today and on Inside Higher Ed may have thought. He is right about the crisis of governance, but it is at least as much about the concern of the elite status of the Yale community as it is about the lack of consultation and all that jazz.

The Perfunctory Arguments Need the Perfunctory Responses

Montesano also, predictably, emphasizes the “illiberal institutional context” of Singapore, throwing out the perfunctory, oft- used academic freedom and illegality of homosexuality arguments against the city-state. I have criticized such moves in my previous article.

I will add one more counter-argument here. Many like Montesano subconsciously understand “written law” and legal traditions in the West (the US or Western Europe) as the only and the correct standard. When the British/European colonialists replicated their legal framework in Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia, they did not do so in a legal vacuum. There had been in fact a diversity of legal traditions in this part of the world, which, for the most part, are not written traditions. Adat law is one such example of an unwritten legal tradition which features only guiding principles that are then left to the discretion of an adjudicator, normally a local chief.

With this hybrid mixture of legal traditions, there arose a gap between the “written word of the law” and the “lived reality” – and choosing to emphasize the former over the latter, despite having worked and lived here for a long-time, is again, an instance of the kind of blinkered worldview I had critiqued in my earlier article. Hypocritically, much of “written law” in the US also hardly captures the “lived reality” in their society, thanks to the bewildering variety of interpretations one can draw from “written law” – what justification is there then to emphasize one over the other?

This implies, however, a kind of moral relativism and also destabilizes comfortable, inherited social constructs (like ‘law’ and ‘human rights’) that most are just not ready to intellectually engage, as they would rather feel secure with a solid standard (which happens to be a ‘Western’ one) to condemn and canonize others by. To those interested to take the leap, I refer you to Tiantai Buddhism à la Brook Ziporyn.


At the end of the day, much of the heated debate surrounding the YNC is really an internal Yale struggle between those who want to preserve its exclusive, elite identity and community, and a leadership that, faced with harsh economic realities, now threatens the interests of this class of people. It is, indeed, not really about Singapore at all, as Yale lecturer James Sleeper tried to convince me in the comments thread of my previous post (“the Yale-NUS controversy has never been primarily about the sins of Singapore, real or imagined.”).

No, in this country we are more preoccupied with transitioning our economy, in engaging the economies of China, India and other emerging ones, in developing our educational institutions and in fostering social cohesion. Very different concerns from those of the privileged East Coast.

This article was motivated in large part by Professor Richard M. Eaton, friend and mentor, whose intellectual magnanimity and empathy in engaging other cultures have long impressed me. I myself am a bit sick of this whole YNC debate, and there are many more other important issues in Singapore to write about (as well as final exams to study for).

Nevertheless, Professor Eaton’s and others’ seeming endorsement/acceptance of Montesano’s article (just because he served in NUS, lives in Singapore, is American and in contrast to most of the other literature on the YNC, adopts a seemingly reasonable and balanced tone in his article in Inside Higher Ed) worried me as it seemed to me equally problematic. Inter-cultural dialogue is hard work, and hopefully, this article may prove helpful for those few foreigners who sincerely want to understand Singapore and/or this YNC venture.

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