(To) Be Critical: An Insider View – by Yvonne Arivalagan, third year undergraduate at NUS

I will have graduated by the time the Yale-NUS partnership kicks off in 2013, so I regret having to miss out on impassioned class discussions attacking Singapore’s illiberal laws and political system—until I realise I have been there, done that. I think what has been absent, if not at least marginal, in the Yale-NUS debates is, ironically, the perspective of the NUS student. As an undergraduate of the Political Science department, I believe I have had classroom experiences quite on the contrary to what has been said about our repressed, passive and uncritical political culture.

Clare Malone, in a recent Bloomberg article entitled “Yale can protect freedom on its Singapore campus”, had this to say: “The opening of minds and the entertainment of ‘subversive’ ideas are essential to the DNA of the American university.” I want to assure her here, that nothing in my past 3 years at NUS has been short of freeing my mind and providing me with a critical platform upon which to question and challenge not just the actions of my government, but of governments the world over. It was in university, in NUS, that a lot of my assumptions about things as varied as nationhood, ethnicity, religion, tourism, travel, globalization, Americanization, wars, and indeed, democracy began to change.

Like Malone’s, much of the criticism against the Yale-NUS partnership ends up conflating Singapore’s broader government ideologies with our university culture. I have taken classes over the past 3 years in NUS in which lecturers, tutors and students alike discussed openly and critically about capital punishment, homosexuality, the questionable electoral tactics of the PAP[1], their discriminatory housing and citizenship policies and the irrelevance of compulsory military conscription among a host of others. I have local friends who have written essays about how Singapore is not a democracy. A professor once even told us that a paper disapproving the PAP’s style of governance could just earn a higher grade than one simply nodding along to it. So much so that to many of us, it is no longer a matter of whether or not Singapore is democratic, but to what extent, according to whom and to which models of “democracy?”

This proves that NUS cannot be expected to be representative of Singapore as a whole and vice versa, something I believe applies to universities in many countries. It has, over the years, been for me a healthy alcove in which a diversity of indeed “subversive” ideas has been both criticized and embraced, for the love of academic inquiry rather than for subversiveness alone.

That said, what I have also just done was draw from a list of criticisms we university folk have against our government and much that we find unsatisfactory about it. Would future Yale partners prefer us to be more impassioned, gutsier? Yet, would that agree with the goals of a truly critical, liberal arts education? To posture values and condescension against those with whom we disagree instead of engaging in the matter with an open mind?  To be critical after all, doesn’t always mean to criticize. In any case, isn’t the point of the Yale-NUS partnership to add to the zero-sum pie of knowledge through mutual learning, because of rather than despite difference?

I am by no means defending Singapore’s discriminatory policies, in fact I remain critical of them, and have NUS to thank for that.


[1] The People’s Action Party, Singapore’s ruling party.

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