Yale-NUS and Liberal Values

By Rocco Hu, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

Liberalism and liberal values have featured very prominently in the recent controversy over the Yale-NUS college. This is not to disregard the significance of internal Yale politics in shaping the issue. However, this piece examines not its causes, but rather seeks to examine the nature of the divergence of liberal viewpoints across both sides of the debate, and more specifically, whether one can reconcile liberal values with supporting Yale-NUS.

As a Yale-NUS hopeful, I also seek to dispel a misconception sceptical readers of Rachel Chang’s Straits Times article “Many keen to join Yale-NUS despite ruckus” might have upon reading that of the “high hundreds” of individuals who applied for the college did not raise concerns or withdraw their applications. Belief in the college in spite of the controversy need not necessarily be grounded in uncritical acquiescence.

To begin, here’s a comment by user “MC09” on the Yale Daily News article titled “Show Singaporeans some respect” by E-Ching Ng.

“The point is this: Singapore’s insistence on modified free speech for 5 million people used as an argument for the banal despotism found in China and other places. A university so devoted to the American tradition as Yale cannot support this.”

I don’t intend the comment to stand for everything critics of the college stand for. I quote it because it raises the idea that the college’s existence in the Singaporean socio-political context is a matter of principle for some liberals.

The Principle and Practice of Liberalism

It is quite apparent that the opponents to the college wholeheartedly support liberal values. Implicit in the arguments of some of those who vehemently oppose Yale-NUS is the idea that the best way to ‘protect’ liberalism, would be to withhold the beacon of the liberal arts from relatively illiberal Singapore, and only allow such endeavours when it has liberalized enough.

But what exactly does one mean by upholding liberalism? According to rights-consequentialist standpoints such as the capability approach developed by Dr Amartya Sen, the very creation of the Yale-NUS college would constitute an increase in the sum-total of freedoms, both in the short run, due to the type of discourse and freedoms it has and will encourage, and in the long run when its alumni bring what they learn into the public sphere.

In fact, one could go even further and argue that offhand dismissals of the college would actually harm the global liberal agenda by creating (or confirming) the perception (or convenient ‘belief’) among Asian governments and peoples that American liberal values are too uncompromising, high-handed, and different to be meaningfully implemented in their societies. See ‘Asian Values’.

However, what withholding the liberal arts and its associated values in the form of YNC from Singapore can harm, evidently, is Yale’s belief in its uncompromising integrity towards liberal values.

So what appears to be a conflict between Liberal and Illiberal, can, on closer examination, instead be construed as a struggle within the liberal domain. Does one value the in toto increase in actual practice of liberal values other areas of the world? Or does one prize the uncompromising purity of one’s liberal values, at the expense of those of others, more? What would a true liberal choose?

Moral tone and value judgments

In his “Essay concerning toleration”, John Locke, one of the founding fathers of Liberalism believed that it is futile to impose religious beliefs on others, largely because such value systems are strongly ingrained via one’s human and institutional environment.

This explains, on one level, the anger felt by Singaporeans of a more conservative bent, who have believed since young, whether validly or not, that limited speech in the public sphere is a worthy trade-off in exchange for social cohesion. They thus view the uncompromising liberal values espoused by some Yale faculty and students as a direct threat to their value system, high-handed tone notwithstanding.

But what about the critical reactions from self-professed Singaporean liberals like Koh Choon Hwee? Does the very act of criticising the Yale faculty resolution make them illiberal? “Limpeh”, a Singapore raised expat, argues in his blog posts for the inconsistency of liberal Singaporeans criticizing illiberal government policy, and the Yale faculty resolution in the same breath.

I would argue however, that there is no inconsistency there. It is the very act of having a perceived outside party moralize to them in what they believe to be a high-handed tone that some liberal Singaporeans find offensive. Many liberals who raised concerns about the Yale faculty resolution in fact agree wholeheartedly with the values set forth in the resolution, but their issue is with the careless concern with which the resolution and faculty comments surrounding it were put forth, a manner some may interpret to be indicative of arrogance.


In sum, I believe most of the debates surrounding around liberal values aren’t really about disagreements with liberal values per se, but rather disputes over what form of them should be worth pursuing, as well as how they are communicated to a different people. So while Singaporeans who may not support the uncompromised liberalism that Yale professes because, to quote the insightful article “Show Singaporeans some respect” by E-Ching Ng, “We prioritize our values differently” and “different doesn’t mean wrong”, there is a case for having in Yale-NUS supporters who do prioritize the same values.

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