Announcement of Yale-NUS College's imminent demise was insensible, distasteful and negligent

By Soh Wee Yang

Confused. Angry. Disappointed. Heartbroken. Betrayed. I felt all of these when news broke that Yale-NUS College will be no more in 2025.

For NUS to unilaterally decide that Yale-NUS College would no longer exist without consulting the hundreds of faculty, staff, alumni, and current students that have put their hearts and souls into its making is such a disrespectful, frustrating travesty.

How the news was suddenly dropped was also so insensible, distasteful and negligent. This is especially since NUS has been planning this since 2018; especially since this is right on the heels of the annual fundraising drive where alumni were invited to donate to the future of the institution; and especially since it is right after the start of the academic year where new students have just committed to its promises and paid tuition, and so transfers out of the college would be difficult.

In the dissolution of Yale-NUS College, NUS finally shows its hands. It’s not interested at all in the intellectual rigor and possibility that Yale-NUS actually brings. The college has, for a long time, simply been envisioned as an experimental institution which liminality is just a part of a larger neoliberal process of “strategic” expansion for the home institution. I think this is why we feel that we were lied to: we were deceived about the transience of our college.

But I worry if this is symptomatic of a larger, more intractable problem with education in Singapore. More than four years ago when I was in my final year at YNC, I was warned by a dear friend who worked in SMU that the future of Yale-NUS College was uncertain. There is a worrying precedent where Singaporean schools would form “partnerships” with reputable foreign institutions in order to reap foreign expertise and knowledges to establish new educational institutions in Singapore, and after a few years, dissolve the partnerships and gain full control of the institution. It happened to SMU, it happened to SUTD, but I thought it couldn’t happen to YNC. We were too sturdy and independent, I had naively thought.

That friend’s foreboding had proved to be painfully prescient. It is hard not to see the dissolution of YNC as a reining in of the institution. After all, YNC stuck out like a sore thumb, and Singapore was never comfortable with its existence. It was seen as just another breeding ground of modern American liberal politics. For a Singapore that has established itself in diametrical opposition to the excesses of United States, YNC is risky because it runs counter to Singapore’s narrative of itself. And thus YNC was placed under close supervision and scrutiny for much of its existence.

I do worry for the future of the social sciences and humanities in a technocratic country that has traditionally prioritized STEM and other technical sciences. It is beyond doubt that I would not have received the kind of education I obtained had I simply gone to NUS. Abrahamic religions, queer theory, anthropology, the problem of evil, among others; I cannot imagine any of them having been taught at NUS, and I can only hope that the New College does not shy away from teaching difficult and potentially controversial subjects.

As much as the college had its issues, I, along with so many others, truly believed in its value. The way the entire YNC community both past and present mobilized to offer help and advice to current students as well as to come together to grieve is testament to the fact that we did create something truly magical and special. Yale-NUS was a success: we built a really loving—albeit at times cynical—community that experimented and challenged norms and ideologies. So proud of the college was I that, just last week, I recommended to some people in Korea that they should consider applying to it. I knew that Yale-NUS had the potential to become a hub of intellectual inquiry, but I’m not so sure that the “New College” holds the same promise.

It would indeed be so strange to know that the place which has been so important and instrumental in my personal and intellectual growth will no longer have a physical location. It won’t be a place I can casually visit again and feel a sense of belonging. It is highly ironic that this is the end result of all our painstaking place-making projects during the college’s fledgling years.

I would like to think that our coming together again and the reliving of shared memories is a kind of loving resistance. It is a kind of defiance against having our culture and memories being dismissed and discarded without ceremony. But more importantly, it is a kind of critical resistance against being defined as nameless pawns in a clearly nationalist and capitalist bureaucracy. The New College will clearly drop more than the “Yale” name: it drops its founding people, it drops the productive tension between Yale and NUS, and it drops the problem-spaces between epistemic modes of being.

However, even as Yale-NUS college will cease to be, I know I will continue to draw inspiration and courage from the community we have forged. The legacy of our short-lived institution continues on in us, and I would not have had it any other way. To quote the favorite catchphrase of Barney Bate, my late advisor who helped built the core curriculum and set the foundations of the anthropology department, our key has always been our “collective effervescence.”

We all tasted the magic of Yale-NUS College, and I think the important thing is not to be selfish but to carry it forward and share it with the world. Whether through the “New College” or in the communities that we are or will be a part of, we should aspire to replicate the kind of palpable, chaotic, yet compassionate energy that I will always remember Yale-NUS College for.

This first appeared as a post on the Facebook wall of Soh Wee Yang on 27 August 2021. Do join in the discussion over there if you have thoughts to share.


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