Yale Draws Flak for Its Singapore Adventure

Is the Ivy League university's satellite campus in the Southeast Asian city-state a diminution of Yale's democratic underpinnings, or is the opposition to it an example of western moral superiority?

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

To find the origins of Yale University, don’t go to New Haven, Conn., the New England city where this hallowed American institution sits. Instead, spin your globe and head to the old British redoubt of Fort St. George in Chennai (formerly Madras), India. This was where, in the late 17th century, a certain Elihu Yale made his fortune as a top official of the East India Company — riches that enabled him to eventually donate a carton of 32 books in 1718 to an obscure college he would never see across the oceans in colonial Connecticut. Those books, summarily sold in Boston for the kingly sum of £562, helped shore up the fledgling school that would take his name: Yale. What later became the training ground for five U.S. Presidents, myriad world leaders and generations of American cognoscenti (and, indeed, it was also this reporter’s alma mater) would not be what it is today, were it not for its ties with Asia.

Fast-forward almost three centuries and Yale’s connections to the East are once again dominating events on campus. A much discussed venture into Singapore proceeds apace: the Yale–National University of Singapore (NUS) College is set to open its doors to students in August 2013. Yale’s administrators have touted it as one of Asia’s first liberal-arts colleges, an institution that emphasizes “critical thinking and classroom interaction.” University President Richard Levin trumpeted last year: “Just as Yale shaped liberal-arts education in the U.S. in the 19th century, we believe the new Yale-NUS College can play a pivotal role in shaping the many liberal-arts colleges likely to be built in Asia in the coming decades.”

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But there are some pronounced wrinkles in this happy narrative. A Wall Street Journal article from earlier this week quoted Pericles Lewis, the splendidly named Yale professor of English who will be Yale-NUS’s first president, admitting that students on the Singapore campus would not be able to stage political protests or form political parties. That acquiescence to Singapore’s laws regarding political assembly compelled New York–based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) to issue a statement on July 19 criticizing Yale for kowtowing to the city-state, which is bankrolling the venture. “Yale is betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Myriad American universities have set up their own satellite campuses and schools — often cash cows to rake in full tuition from well-heeled local elites — in countries with less-than-democratic political systems (New York University’s lavish campus in Abu Dhabi immediately comes to mind). But Yale’s stature and its own stated mission as a liberal-arts institution makes its compromise with Singapore awkwardly conspicuous. The HRW statement quotes Yale’s own policy on freedom of expression, which declares that the “primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge” and that to “fulfill this function, a free exchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well.”

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No matter how Yale’s administrators and the boosters for the Singapore project spin it, Yale-NUS will not be able to allow a fully free exchange of ideas within its walls, nor does it seem likely that the enterprise will challenge the city-state’s decades-old authoritarianism. The Singaporean government wields its power with a velvet glove, ever eager to burnish its credentials as a stable, hospitable entrepôt for global finance and trade. It has in recent years aggressively tried to promote the city as a cultural hub of Asia, with ambitious (and rather excellent) new museums and plans to support the creation of a pan-Asian university on the site of Nalanda, India, where the ruins of a 1,500-year-old university still exists. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a political system where speech is censored, people are monitored, and dissent is discouraged.

The presence of Yale, argues critics of the project, essentially endorses the status quo. A Yale faculty resolution in April defined that status quo as one with a “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights.” Despite the objections of many of the professors, Levin has been undeterred; he shrugged his shoulders at the April resolution, arguing that it smacked of “moral superiority.” Other supporters of the project have adopted a similar line, insisting that they have no qualms settling for a liberal-arts education with Singaporean characteristics.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale and an outspoken critic of Yale-NUS, sees in the project a far greater, more worrisome shift, where the U.S.’s greatest academic institutions no longer produce students loyal to the values of a liberal-arts education as it once did, but instead a global technocratic elite “that no longer answers to any republican polity or moral code.” As legions of Yale seniors join the worldwide ranks of high finance every year, that’s a transformation that needs no Singapore satellite to come into fruition.

PHOTOS: Supertrees of Singapore

18 comments
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BobbyWong
BobbyWong

Were there similar objections when major US universities opened campuses in dictatorship and chiefdom in the Middle East that sells oil to us on the cheap?

BraySusan
BraySusan

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Pandoralover
Pandoralover

This whole thing just comes down to money. NUS's been trying to latch to a prestigious Western university for ages, only Yale is low enough to scoop down for the buck. Admission to this place will probably be half as tough as the actual Yale, and another crop of egotistical Singaporeans will try to use it to study abroad at Yale. It really cheapens the value of an actual Yale degree. Anyone familiar with both the Singapore and the US education systems can tell you that. Levin can only see the money for now, not the damages it's going to do to Yale's reputation in the long run.

mrathore
mrathore

Is that what we want in this world though - a degree with a high value? what about the amazing educational opportunities it'll give to students who can't afford to come study in the US or to the students with strict, paranoid parents who prevent them from coming here? In the end all we should hope for is better educated students aware of current global affairs so that they can actually go out into the world and make a difference.

matt kleinmann
matt kleinmann

 Having spent some brief time as an American student studying at NUS, I would support Yale's efforts. The college students of tomorrow will grow up in a global economy, one that will require them to make trips around the world in order to be effective. While Singapore's democratic freedoms may be poor, it is not a place devoid of free thought. Like with any autocratic regime, peaceful change takes time.

The National Party in Singapore has held near-total control for over 60 years, and, despite what most American's would like to believe, a democracy is not essential to a nation' success. It's being immersed in these kind of experiences, recognizing the world for what it is and learning to work from within to affect change, that will be valuable to the leader's of tomorrow.

Imagine our sixth Yale POTUS being Singapore-educated. Our foreign policy would be less xenophobic, and hopefully that experience we would prevent our country from invading other foreign countries and wasting billions of dollars and thousands of American soldiers' lives.

At the end of the day though, isn't it somewhat ironic that Yale is being called out for being anti-open? I thought the point of democracy was free choice, not staying within party/national lines? If students feel so betrayed, they too have a choice to simply not go to Yale. I'm sure their student loans will appreciate it.

Chhajuram Induscharwak
Chhajuram Induscharwak

True democratic values can not survive till then

globalization completes and globalization con not be completed till then states

remain powerful and further states can be checked only in multiparty democracy

but in USA type

system of polity and economy.

 

Chhajuram Induscharwak
Chhajuram Induscharwak

True democratic values can not survive till then

globalization completes and globalization con not be completed till then states

remain powerful and further states can be checked only in multiparty democracy

but in USA type

system of polity and economy.

 

Grandice Sze
Grandice Sze

Actually contrary to popular sentiment over here in Singapore, I am of favor of a one-party system.

To me everyone operates out of greed, politicians especially. However, when you need to lead anything - a country, a company, a school, you cannot have people who view themselves as of separate groups , where they try as hard to undermine one another as opposed to expending their efforts where they should go.

There can be a diversity of opinions, however what makes it so wrong for the diversity of opinions to come from a single, unified party? In my opinion, the current opposition parties trying to undermine the ruling party in Singapore are not doing so out of any noble ideals but rather as a shortcut to political fame or riches (as they are obviously well compensated careers). They pander to populist desires neglecting aspects such as social tension between citizens, long-term benefits etc.

People may find the lack of freedom of expression in Singapore Orwellian. However, in my humble opinion, it may well be the reason why Singapore had been able progress so far as the ruling party is able to swiftly implement policies that otherwise would be protested against. Many come to mind, the reason why I am able to type this in English, the reason why the myriad races in Singapore do not all live together and remain divided, why the Chinese in Singapore do not speak a variety of dialects.

For sure there must be checks in place but this can be of other forms such as Singapore's Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

Tey
Tey

If every nation's ministers are like Singapore's, then democracy would not be needed.

ghormax
ghormax

The problem is that this one party than has absolute power and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There cannot be diversity of opinion as the ruling party has often shown to undermine it. This does not mean an American system would be a good idea but a number of European multi-party systems would be much better to avoid the inevitable decline due to Singapore's lack of effective checks and balances.

Grandice Sze
Grandice Sze

So the organisations protesting this venture are advocating restrictions to a country unless said country becomes relatively "free-ier".

Did I get that irony right?

And tcchen your anecdotal evidences are superb reasons as to why Yale should go to Taiwan.

AlterYourEgo
AlterYourEgo

Yale chose Singapore for three reasons: money, a stable environment and a decent partner institution.  IF they really cherished liberal arts (free and open discourse and research) in an East/SE Asian environment, they'd go to S. Korea or Taiwan.  In reality, it is hard to believe that any environment in East Asia will live up to even middle-of-the-road American liberal education.  Good luck, Yale.

tcchen1935
tcchen1935

I would suggest Yale University moves its venture to Taiwan, as what you will be restricted to do in Singapore, you can do it without hinder in Taiwan.  Furthermore, Taiwan would never mercilessly lash a Yale student’ s buck for infringement of what not.

I was in Singapore earlier this year.  I was surprised that subway passengers, who occupied the seats - reserved for seniors, disabled, pregnant - would not move and give the seats back to the needed.  I was also surprised a lousy talk show were allowed to waste visitors’ time in a recreation center.

To respect and to be respected; and to approve and to be approved.

tcchen1935
tcchen1935

I would suggest Yale University moves its venture to Taiwan, as what you will be restricted to do in Singapore, you can do it without hinder in Taiwan.  Furthermore, Taiwan would never mercilessly lash a Yale student’ s buck for infringement of what not.

I was in Singapore earlier this year.  I was surprised that subway passengers, who occupied the seats - reserved for seniors, disabled, pregnant - would not move and give the seats back to the needed.  I was also surprised a lousy talk show were allowed to waste visitors’ time in a recreation center.

To respect and to be respected; and to approve and to be approved.

Thomas Lamoureux
Thomas Lamoureux

"Beneath the gloss, though, lies a political system where speech is censored, people are monitored and dissent is discouraged."

Is this really different to the American experience? (Patriot Act)

Although because of gerrymandering the same political party in Singapore has always been in power, it has also always won a majority of votes.

rar113
rar113

I'm not sure what will happen in the next 4 years in the US, but we're still a whole lot more free than Singapore.  My lady's brother works there; whenever I've sent him an article like this he's confirmed that in fact Singapore is more or less a police state, gilded if you will, but by no means free.

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