The role Yale-NUS will play in understanding and neutralizing the cultural conflicts of today and tomorrow
By Rio Hoe, Yale-NUS ’17
Observing much of the criticism directed towards Singapore and Yale-NUS, as well as the emergence of a gradual but accelerating global power shift from the West to the East, I cannot help but think of Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis The Clash of Civilizations.
In his thesis that was first published in 1993, Huntington espoused his hypothesis that as we approach the post-Cold War era of our history, the primary source of conflict in the world will be the cultural and religious differences among civilizations. He writes that:
“The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”
(see the full article here: http://www.polsci.wvu.edu/faculty/hauser/ps103/readings/huntingtonclashofcivilizationsforaffsummer93.pdf)
Huntington’s thesis has attracted plenty of attention since its publication two decades ago. This is in light of the increasing rate at which cross-cultural conflicts have emerged since the end of the Cold War and the ideological and economic defeat of the Soviet Union. An excellent example would be the Chechen Wars and the Bosnian genocide in which Soviet and Soviet-aligned states descended into a period of ethnic conflict when the glue of communist solidarity disappeared in 1991. Other notable case studies include the fall of Afghanistan into Taliban control in 1996 and the World Trade Centre bombing by Islamic extremists in 1993.
The Clash of Civilizations seems to explain the culturally divisive mindset reflected in the arguments put forth by those who oppose Yale-NUS on the basis that clashes in cultures and values are firstly unavoidable, and secondly undesirable. These arguments seem to be underlined by the following two sentiments. First, that Western (or more accurately in this case, Anglo-American) values and culture are superior to those of other civilizations. Second, that Western culture is increasingly threatened by the global shift of power from West to East.
Two prominent civilizations that have gained the attention of the West, in Huntington’s terms, are the Eastern World (particularly the Sinic Civilization: China and the Chinese diaspora) and the Muslim World. The establishment of an American-inspired liberal arts college deep in the “other world” is simply too close for comfort.*
Bringing the debate back to the present time, I can understand the basis for Huntington’s thesis. The clash of cultures is an inevitable part of our world today. Many Americans believe in strengthening, protecting and enforcing American culture as a response to this phenomenon. To this, I do not agree. Instead, I believe that they should begin to accept that their values are not universal and make an effort to understand other cultures with the objective of peaceful co-existence in mind. While the former only serves to deepen divides and foster conflict, the latter will give rise to a more peaceful world. In the West’s effort to understand Asia, I cannot imagine a more conducive place than Singapore.
The Corridor of Asia
The idea that Singapore is the corridor of Asia has existed, at least in terms of maritime trade, since the 19th century. The British were willing to give up so much to maintain their rule over Singapore* because of its position on the trade route to China and East Asia. For centuries, Western merchants trading with China had to pass their goods through the Strait of Malacca and through the port of Singapore. Here, the exchange of goods, both Eastern and Western, took place extensively.
Today, I see an expansion in Singapore’s role as the corridor of Asia; it is the most comfortable pathway through which the West can understand the East. With the establishment of Yale-NUS College, it is my hope that the exchange of ideas will define Singapore in the 21st century as much as the exchange of goods defined it in the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition, Singapore is a great place to establish a liberal arts college for two reasons: we are the most Westernized country in the East and we bring exceptional access to diverse Asian cultures.
Despite our strong Asian family values, customs, culinary traditions, et cetera, Singapore remains, in relative terms, the most Westernized country in Asia.
Firstly, we are the only Asian country to adopt English (or any other Western language) as our lingua franca. Singapore has a larger percentage of fluent English speakers than any other country in Asia.
Secondly, many elements of Western culture, especially pop culture, feature prominently in our way of life, more so than in any other Asian country. TV series such as “Friends”, “How I Met Your Mother”, “The Big Bang Theory” and “The X-Factor” are extremely popular in Singapore. These programs are rarely broadcast in East Asia. Hollywood makes its presence felt here, too. In 2009, Singapore had the highest movie going rate of any country in Asia. Go to the cinema and you will find that around 85% of the movies are from the United States.
Finally, Singapore has very strong academic connections with the West. In 2012, for every 100,000 people in the Singapore population, 78.57 were students studying in the United States. For China, that number is 9.41, India 8.52, Japan 19.22, Philippines 4.09. Our student flow to the United Kingdom is even more compelling: Singapore 71.41, Malaysia 43.15, India 3.07, Korea 8.73. An intellectual circle with intimate, first-hand knowledge of the West has emerged here. Source: http://www.uis.unesco.org/Education/Pages/international-student-flow-viz.aspx
Hence, it is relatively easy for the West to communicate and engage with Singapore. That these ideas I am now advocating need not be translated before they reach a Western audience demonstrates in itself the immense potential for powerful discourse.
On the other hand, the whole of Asia is at Singapore’s doorstep. As mentioned earlier, in Huntington’s terms, the West will likely conflict with the East Asian Sinic cultures and the Islamic world. Singapore is a great place, and one of the only places, to connect with both cultures first hand.
First, understanding China. A majority of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese and can read, write and speak Mandarin. We have access to academic material and primary sources that those unable to speak the language do not. We have inherited certain Chinese values and an intimate understanding of Chinese culture – two important parts of ourselves worth sharing with the West. Our strong diplomatic ties and strategic partnerships with China open up opportunities for engagement and dialogue.
Singapore is a smart place from which to learn about the Islamic world, too. Most Singaporean Malays, who make up 13% of the population, practice Islam. Just south of our border lies Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, and just north lies Malaysia, an Islamic state. Singapore has co-existed with Malaysia and Indonesia and maintained peace and stability in the region since our independence in 1965.* Consider, too, that the great majority of the world’s Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia, not the Middle East. Singapore’s frequent contact with and proximity to Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh, the countries with the first, third, and fourth largest Muslim populations in the world, makes it a smart place to study Islamic culture.*
An Exciting Place to Be
I was born in November 1992, the first generation born after the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was therefore born into a world of relative peace and spent my 9th birthday leaving behind a century filled with two unimaginably violent wars and a half-century of hostile relations between two ideologically opposed nuclear powers. The peace of the 21st century lasted less than two years before 9/11. With the rise of China and the shift of power to the East, coupled with humanity’s tragic tendency to descend into conflict, I realize that being at the crossroads of civilizations is the only way to understand the world I am going to retire in, and more importantly the world my children and grandchildren will grow up in. This clash will not only take place on political terms, but also in the areas of economics, philosophy, science and technology and even literature and the arts. By standing at the crossroads of this “Clash of Civilizations”, we stand a greater chance of not just adapting to the changes that will only intensify in the coming decades, but of offering solutions to this problematic phenomenon that serves as a threat to global stability.
*Huntington argues as well in his thesis that the cultural tolerance that served as the foundation of many friendships and alliances, once forged out of common interests, has now been abandoned with the disappearance of communism. Perhaps if the Soviet Union still existed, Yale-NUS would not have received so much criticism. After all, what better way to stop the spread of communism and the fall of the South-East Asian “dominoes” than to establish an ideological presence there?
*In the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, the British ceded possession of Bencoolen in the East Indies and promised not to establish any office in the islands south of Singapore in exchange for control over Malacca and Singapore.
*The last formal confrontation with an Islamic state was Konfrontasi which stretched from 1962-1966. Since then, there have been periods of diplomatic tension but no formal conflict.
*The Middle East and the Arab states are not fully representative of the Islamic world. Of the five countries with the largest Muslim populations, only one is Arab: Egypt. The Arab world is in revolution and many Arab states remain strongly traditionalist. On the other hand, Turkey, descendant state of the Ottoman Empire, has modernized far faster than the Arab states. Indonesia is growing more democratic, educated and economically advanced. When it is able to fully exploit its vast natural resources and human potential, it could become a powerful force in Asia and the world.