A Singapore Ramayana: academic freedom and the liberal arts curriculum

RamaRavanBy Rebecca Gould, Yale-NUS Professor of Humanities
16 December 2012

From openDemocracy: http://www.opendemocracy.net/rebecca-gould/singapore-ramayana-academic-freedom-and-liberal-arts-curriculum

Could Singaporeans of the future do a better job at making democracy a reality than America’s elected leaders have done for the past half-century? Maybe, if one of the most important literary works of premodern India is taught again at the recently created Yale-NUS in Singapore.

In August of this year, I was seated in a reception hall in the National University of Singapore (NUS), listening to Pratap Mehta, an influential voice in Indian higher education, reflect on the successes and failures of the recent endeavors in the subcontinent to promote the liberal arts at the undergraduate level. At dinner the evening before I had mentioned to the speaker that the humanities faculty at Yale-NUS had decided to teach the Indian epic known as the Rāmāyaṇa as the inaugural text in our Literature Humanities core curriculum.

Yale-NUS is a new liberal arts college in Singapore, created by the two institutions that bear its name. It is scheduled to convene its first class of students in August 2013. In August of 2012, the humanities faculty had just embarked on the work of planning the college’s core curriculum. During his presentation to the college community, Mehta noted that the Rāmāyaṇa, one of the most important texts of premodern India, is missing from general education curriculums in Indian institutions of higher education. Even when the text is taught, it is largely as an expression of Hindu values rather than as a contribution to world literature.

Instead of being taught as a literary text, the epic is made to serve agendas promoting violence. The pattern began in 1992 with the destruction of Babri Masjid, a mosque constructed in 1527 by the first Mughal emperor (Babur), and currently regarded by Hindu fundamentalists as the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, the epic’s protagonist. The initial violence leading to the destruction of the mosque was followed by riots in Gujarat and Mumbai that resulted in the deaths of many thousands of Muslims. Less violently if no less ideologically, the national discomfort with the Rāmāyaṇa as a literary text erupted in 2011, when Delhi University’s academic council voted to remove A. K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas” (1991), from its undergraduate history curriculum.

While Ramanujan’s poetic reflection on the epic’s diverse legacies received the bulk of the negative attention, those who advocated for its removal were really objecting to what Vinay Dharwadker has called “the actual history of the story of Rama in the world.” The academic council’s vote exposed a nationalist discomfort with the many retellings of the Rāmāyaṇa story in Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, and Tibetan, each of which represents Ram differently, and less reverently, than in the modern Hindu imagination. The Rāmāyaṇa’s tumultuous life in contemporary India is a case study in how an epic that has inspired more retellings in more languages than any other work in world literature can be domesticated for narrowly nationalist and sectarian ends, and how institutions of higher education can be complicit in that process.

Mehta’s vision of institutions of undergraduate education as places where foundational texts that are underappreciated and misapprehended by their own cultures can be taught as works that speak to a global humanity crystalized for me the importance of the Yale-NUS initiative. His remark helped me to see how, in creating something very old, those of us involved in the creation of this college are also creating something new. Even though many of the works in the year-long Literature Humanities course we are currently designing have originated in forgotten times and places, these texts will teach students about ethics, love, passion, freedom, and the basic liberal arts imperative to follow one’s dreams.

While right-wing Indian politicians seek to purge the Rāmāyaṇa of its non-Hindu content, the Yale-NUS curriculum aims to highlight the text’s literary heterodoxy. More broadly, our curriculum suggests that most powerful literary texts call on readers to question normative distributions of power, including those governing the world today. Alongside the Rāmāyaṇa’s exposé of the paradoxes of kingship in an inconstant world, our literature curriculum examines Odysseus’ wanderings, Don Quixote’s quest to resurrect a dying civilization, Medea’s attack on women’s oppression, the inversions of gender and sexuality that drive a Persian retelling of the Biblical narrative of Joseph, the descent to madness in Lu Xun’s modernist short stories, and the double-edged critique of colonialism in Tayeb Salih’s A Season of Migration to the North.

Notwithstanding their diversity, these works from India, Africa, China, Afghanistan, and ancient Greece resonate across the boundaries of culture, language, nation, and religion that all too commonly divide literatures from each other.

The goal of the curriculum planning that the Literature Humanities committee has been engaged in since July of this year is not simply to revise the literary canon. At least as importantly, we want to revise the meaning of literature in students’ everyday lives. Beyond simply reading texts closely and passionately, we want students to live them, to read works originating in distant and unfamiliar places and which speak of value systems they have not yet encountered in the belief – shared by many of my colleagues – that such texts can transform some portion, if not the entirety, of our lives.

Are these goals too lofty to be realized? Will students be left in limbo, lacking marketable skills and direct paths to lucrative salaries after graduation? A recent correspondent helped me to answer these questions for myself. A student at a Singaporean junior college (the term assigned to pre-college institutions comparable to high schools in the United States) wrote me to ask what she had to do in order to read Dostoevsky in the original. She was worried that such a feat would not be possible, given the limited exposure to Russian available to her in Singapore’s institutions of higher education.

Notwithstanding its importance for literary history, Russian is not currently offered at Singapore’s most prestigious university, the National University of Singapore. Nor are copies of his novels available in the university’s library in their original language. The language of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is not regarded as a strategic language on the order of English, Japanese, and Chinese, in all of which the state has invested its resources. But this student was not going to allow her reading options to be constrained by the state’s political priorities. Dostoevsky spoke to her of the meaning of existence, as he did to me when I first entered college and decided to major in Russian literature, without having the slightest idea of how this choice might translate into a career. For this young Singaporean student, Dostoevsky’s poetic power trumped the more pragmatic attractions of strategic languages.

Thankfully, Russian is no longer a language of empire. But even while its strategic value has plummeted, Dostoevsky still changes lives. This courage to think beyond the present and to work towards richer and more aesthetically diverse habits of mind are the values that a liberal arts education seeks to cultivate. For my young correspondent, Yale-NUS symbolized the kind of education she had dreamed of having, but which had remained out of reach to her in Singapore. Our core curriculum aims to make this kind of education – which places human values above cost-benefit analysis – available to students who otherwise may never have encountered it.

Given the potential long term impact of our mandate to reinvent the liberal arts in Asia on the way the humanities are taught at the undergraduate level throughout the world, it is surprising that the curricular planning work Yale-NUS faculty have been intensively engaged in for the past few months has received so little attention from media outlets eager to speculate on restrictions to academic freedom in Singapore. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Time, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Association of American University Professors  have all raised questions about the state of political life in Singapore. What none of these venues or organizations have paid attention to are the cultural norms that determine the shape of politics in more profound and lasting ways than programmatic statements. Education is the most important aspect of this cultural training, and this is why the bulk of my energies have been focused on creating a core curriculum that will advance academic freedom, in the broadest and richest possible sense of that term.

Far from wishing to sidestep the question of academic freedom in Singapore, I want to draw attention to complex conditions through which – if it is to make an historical difference – this ideal must be realized in the context of actual human lives. A public’s reading practices are an excellent measurement of the extent of that society’s democracy. An educated and informed populace, capable of patient reflection, courageous enough to think outside the status quo, and stimulated by critical empathy for people who do not resemble themselves, is the sine qua non of a robust civil society. By this standard, the much-vaunted North American public sphere appears sorely lacking.

I want Singaporeans of the future to do a better job at making democracy a reality than America’s elected leaders have done for the past half-century. I want a Singaporean public sphere that does not labour under the curious divide that marks American political life between an occasionally activist and otherwise inconsequential leftist academia and a conservative and largely apathetic and unreflective majority. This is the task this Yale-NUS faculty member has set herself: to enrich and inspire Singaporean ways of thinking, in the hopes that some of this energy will radiate back to the United States. I personally believe that the most effective way of advancing academic freedom over the longue durée is through texts, ideas, and education rather than by monopolizing the national media’s five-minute attention span.

The compartmentalization of ethical values and practical politics has proven to be a major failing of American higher education, as well as a simulacrum of all that ails the American public sphere. In the United States, high-caliber research is abundant, but has little impact on society at large, which is frequently skeptical of the ultimate value of intellectual inquiry. As I noted when I argued last year against  the enrollment craze that is currently impoverishing US public education, the liberal arts are all too often regarded as the most expendable element in public university curriculums. A liberal arts curriculum recalibrated for the twenty-first century and compelled by its geographic location to engage a global world is well-positioned to move beyond this impasse.

Good readers make better human beings. They also make better thinkers, listeners, and leaders. Pace Dostoevsky, beauty will not save the world. But students who have learned to engage with humanistic knowledge will be well-prepared to craft a world less susceptible to the warmongering politics that has historically shaped public discourse in the world’s oldest democracies. If it fulfils its mission, the Yale-NUS initiative will advance the cause of academic freedom by delinking a global ideal from one particular geography. It may also help us realize a world where the Rāmāyaṇa can be taught in any language, anywhere.


  1. I worry about Yale’s arrogance. The idea that the University is bestowing the Liberal Arts upon benighted Singapore reminds me of the “White Man’s Burden” trope of the Victorian British Empire. I taught in Singapore for nine years between 1987 and 1996. I was hired by the MOE to establish the first Theatre program in the Singapore educational system. I collaborated in writing, and pioneered teaching the Cambridge ‘A’ Level Theatre Studies and Drama (TSD) syllabus — still taught in Junior Colleges.

    I was hired into the “Humanities Programme” — instituted by Goh Keng Swee, the real Father of Modern Singapore, to cull many of the brightest students in the Singapore Junior Colleges and change their horizons from Math and Science to literature, history, economics, and the arts. Even back in the 1980’s there was a recognition that the Republic could not survive if the best and the brightest only could manipulate calculators. To that end, the Ministry of Education set up elite “colleges within colleges” at the top five JC’s. Students were admitted on the basis of their results and a lecturers were recruited mostly from British public schools. I and three other Americans were brought in to widen the scope of the teaching and facilitate applications to top US universities.

    Like you, I had the preconception that I was a kind of Prometheus, bringing the fire of the Humanities to Singaporeans shivering in the darkness. Imagine my surprise when I found that there were many teachers at the secondary, pre-U, and tertiary levels who were, with imagination, courage, and delight, doing the same thing. Yes, pragmatic values prevailed in the educational system, but those values were challenged by hundreds of teachers in hundreds of classrooms. I quickly shed my air of superiority and enjoyed excellent rapport with colleagues, both local and expatriate, who shared my values.

    My own teaching reflected the values I had derived from my own education in the Columbia Core and from my experience as an artist. I was fortunate to teach extraordinary students many of whom went on to do extraordinary things in Singapore and beyond. They got injected with the Liberal Arts — both the “Liberal” and the “Arts” and it transformed them. The performance work that they did for their Cambridge examination was remarkable for its originality, its engagement with Singaporean political and social issues, and, often, the risks taken. Like Yale, I was constrained to only show the work within the confines of Victoria Junior College. The more controversial plays could not be shown outside — but that meant that it could exist without censorship.

    And here is where I must disagree with you about the division you set up between the Human Rights Watch idea of freedom and your idea of “cultural training”. The two cannot be separated. The Yale “Humanities Programme” will exist within the confines and restraints of politics and power. Students will, as you say, “engage with humanistic knowledge” — but when they begin to “craft a world” — they will run into serious barriers.

    I know this from experience. In 1994, I wrote an article criticizing the architecture of the proposed “Theatres by the Bay (now the Esplanade). The subtext of the article was the rigidity of the PAP government and the oppression of local artists. This was enough to result in the non-renewal of my contract. When I found employment with Singapore Repertory Theatre, I was not permitted an employment pass.

    Later, I found out that my phone was tapped, I was followed by police, and the Ministry had in its files detailed information about what went on in my classroom.

    I am not the only lecturer to have this happen. I can name two of my contemporaries (and there are many more) — Christopher Lingle and William Ray Langenbach — both of whom I was close to; both of whom were expelled for political reasons.

    So I really don’t understand how you can separate the “longue duree” from the here and now. Surely, students ‘courageous enough to think outside the status quo, and stimulated by critical empathy” – and that means engaging power in the here and now, not just on campus, but in the context of their lives.

    What will happen when they do this? Will they be able to avoid the serious consequences accorded to open dissent and political action? If they put their ideas on blogs, will they be served with papers by Drew and Napier, as has just happened to Alex Au?

    And will your faculty have to sign contracts with clauses prohibiting ”interfering in Singapore’s domestic affairs” like I had to?


    I find it a bit sad that, like Aeneas carrying the Anchises from burning Troy, you seek to replant the dying flame of American Liberal Arts on the slopes of Kent Ridge. Indeed, you hope the glow will radiate all the way back to its source. But the disengagement you cite between the life of the mind and the life of society that exists in the US is precisely the premise that Yale-NUS is establishing. Academia is permitted to flourish, but not in the public sphere.

    A Humanities programme that inspires a life of the mind but prohibits a life of action may result in the type of debilitating cynicism I have so often seen in Singapore – or, worse, inculcate habits of self-censorship.
    As you can tell, I remain passionate about the humanities and, despite everything, passionate about Singapore. I invite your response.

  2. Sorry —

    My name didn’t register when I submitted my comment.

    Rey Buono

  3. Be very careful where your intellectual inquiry leads you. This is still Singapore.


  4. A Singapore Ramayana: academic freedom and the liberal arts curriculum by Rebecca Gould, Yale-NUS Professor of Humanities, and its publication at the Open Democracy site will certainly bring a satisfied smile to the faces of officials in the Singapore government who are hoping for consummation of the NUS-Yale marriage. But like others who have shared history with Singapore’s PAP government, I have to fault many of her conclusions. In the end I wonder if she will take up the challenge to honestly explore the undergrowth of Singapore political culture. It means staying up at night while others sleep, like Lu Xun’s exemplary humanist “madman”, to read between the lines of the dominant discourse. And it could impact her own economic and professional standing in Singapore.

    At a recent conference, “History as Controversy: Writing and Teaching Contentious Topics in Asian Histories” (14-15 Dec 2011, Singapore), I –in one paper session–and the Necessary Stage Artistic Director Alvin Tan, and Playwright Haresh Sharma, independently –in their keynote presentation– presented instances of the Singapore government’s current policy of behind-the scenes censorship of critical voices in the arts, humanities and academia.

    I would be happy to spell out some of these at another time, but for now I am interested in a more recent controversy, which has been revealed by an article by Jeffrey Ong (http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/218455) and re-printed in FreeMalaysiakini @ http://www.freemalaysiakini2.com/?p=62232. Ong’s book review links the recent press scandal of NUS law Professor Tey Tsun Hang’s alleged sex offenses with students at NUS to the publication of his book Legal Consensus – Supreme Executive, Supine Jurisprudence, Suppliant Profession of Singapore by Hong Kong University Press. If the article is correct, the government’s strategy is straight out of 1950s film noir: who would think of looking beneath an obviously embarrassing scandal, implicating one of the National University’s own elite academics, for a deeper hidden truth: that this man had the temerity to publish criticism of the Singapore government and the judiciary, and the “sex scandal” and trial is his punishment by the government, so he stands before the very judiciary he has critiqued.

    I have yet to read the book but will soon. And I would hope that Professor Gould, like all of us who are committed to academic and intellectual integrity, will read it carefully, and follow the rhizomes where they lead, as any good researcher is trained to do. And if she finds that her colleague, Professor Tey, is being unjustly persecuted, that she then uses her important position at NUS-Yale to publicise that fact and does what she can to assist a fellow researcher under attack, irrespective of her economic or professional interests. Then she will discover that she is in good company, and part of a community she formerly could not recognise.

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