A College To Change It All

By Jared Yeo, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

Everyone has an opinion on Yale-NUS College.

From the Yale faculty resolution in April to the fliers papered around Yale’s campus just recently (see picture); from the Human Rights Watch condemnation to the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) Chee Soon Juan’s letter to Yale President Rick Levin, many have lambasted Yale’s involvement in this project and have focused their criticism on the lack of civil rights in Singapore. And indeed, they do have legitimate grievances.

As a Singaporean, I do agree with the critics. The Singaporean government imposes many restrictions on the rights of its citizens. As pointed out in the Human Rights Watch World Report 2012, “Singapore’s constitution guarantees rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. However, it also permits broadly interpreted restrictions not only for security, public order, and morality, but also for parliamentary privilege and racial and religious harmony.”

In addition, the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act allows authorities to arrest and detain suspects without charge or judicial review. For a first world country, it is shameful that the government restricts such basic rights for its citizens and that such authoritarian measures still exist. There are many things that Singaporeans are proud of, but our politics is not one of those things.

During the faculty workshop in Singapore, I got the opportunity to speak to the inaugural Dean of Faculty, Professor Charles Bailyn, and he shared with me something interesting. He pointed out that in many ways, Singapore is just like what America was some two hundred years ago, right after its independence. Just like America, Singapore is racially diverse. Just like America, Singapore was under colonial rule before its independence. Just like America, Singapore gained its independence in a time of great uncertainty.

But Singapore and America gained independence in fundamentally different historical and cultural contexts – Singapore’s path towards nation building reflects that difference. To ensure economic growth and development, the Singapore government enforced strict measures to bring about stability. It succeeded in creating a prosperous nation, at the expense of the rights of its citizens.

Today, the United States and Singapore are two very different countries with very different political outlooks. Americans hold their freedoms sacrosanct, while Singaporeans tend to prefer stability. America is a country that achieved its independence on the foundations of freedom and liberty, while Singapore is the only country in the world that gained independence against its will. America has had more than two hundred years of democratic experience and tradition, while Singapore is not even half a century old.

I’m not here to make excuses for the Singapore government. I’m here to say that whereas Singapore’s “velvet authoritarian” development model won us prosperity, Singaporeans today demand a more open democracy. And I’m here to say that things are changing – and more importantly, how Yale-NUS can contribute to that change.

During the last General Elections in 2011, the opposition won six seats in Parliament and the ruling party won their lowest electoral margin since independence – 60.1%. It would be a landslide by Western standards, but to Singaporeans, it was a watershed election; it was a change. Singapore is a very young country with much to learn. Many young Singaporeans are now more politically aware than they were five years ago. The Internet – which is not censored here, by the way – has been a powerful agent of self-expression and activism. Many young Singaporeans are not happy with the status quo and actively want to be part of that change.

So where does Yale-NUS come in? By providing a liberal arts education, Yale-NUS will challenge its students to think critically; encourage its students to find new and innovative solutions for old problems; create an environment that will stimulate thought from different perspectives; and, most importantly, empower students to speak up for issues that we care about.  These are all important qualities that we need in young Singaporeans to help build a truly democratic society. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.” Yale-NUS College will be a catalyst for change, but it is impractical to expect Singapore’s political and societal norms to change immediately with the founding of the College. These changes take time and work.

Singapore’s political milieu is worthy of criticism, but it does not reflect the College itself nor its aspirations, the uniqueness of its intercultural curriculum, nor the talent of its inaugural faculty, dedication of its staff, or the enthusiasm and drive of its prospective students. Knowledge begets knowledge and Yale-NUS will serve as a platform for an amazing exchange of ideas. America and Singapore are miles apart, both literally and figuratively, but I believe that Singapore and NUS have a lot to learn from Yale and the US, and vice versa, and that this exchange will bring mutual benefits. As a huge supporter of the United States (my friends can vouch for that!), I am thrilled to be part of this project and I believe that this unique college will serve not just as an institute of higher education, but also as an institute that will impact Singaporean and Asian academic and political societies.

Ideological purity and moral righteousness from these critics will not make Singapore a free society, but education and the spread of ideas will. Advocating for the failure of the College will serve no purpose to the cause of freedom and democracy. As the saying goes, one can be part of the problem or part of the solution.

As far as I’m concerned, Yale-NUS College is part of the solution. It is a college to change it all.

Photo credit: http://www.yaledailynews.com/photos/2012/sep/03/30980/


  1. Mira

    Jared, this is a phenomenal post. Well done– I really see your deep knowledge of US and Singaporean politics in this thoughtful analysis.

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