Lessons from the death of Singapore’s liberal arts experiment

By World Beyond Walls

The closure of Yale-NUS college proves that Singapore’s political and cultural landscape simply doesn’t work for the spirit of openness that a liberal arts education demands.

The mission of Yale-NUS was a lofty one from its inception: “A community of learning, Founded by two great universities, in Asia, for the world.” The promise of a liberal arts education in Asia was unprecedented — the region had been built on technical expertise and learning by rote, with a limited role for free discourse and dissent in a student’s formative years.

Hard sciences like mathematics, law and engineering were prized culturally over ‘soft’ subjects like literature and history, and parents would push their children to achieve grades at the expense of learning from a young age.

Meanwhile, freedom of thought and expression remained heavily censored across Asia — and there was perhaps no better embodiment of this than Singapore, the rich but authoritarian city-state that built its sterling global reputation on hard-nosed development and the suppression of alternative voices.

The notion that an Ivy League university would be willing to partner with a local Singaporean university in delivering a localised, interdisciplinary education founded in the spirit of the liberal arts seemed wildly audacious. The four year, fully residential undergraduate programme was intended to deliver an experiential learning experience. In the classrooms and the hallways, there would be rigorous debate on LGBTQ issues, democratic freedoms, sexual norms and every other dangerous idea that the city-state had so long suppressed. Students at Yale-NUS would be free to think for themselves. They could be the harbingers of a new, enlightened era in Singapore, one marked by rigorous discourse over innovative new ways of progress.

That era ended unceremoniously in August 2021, barely a decade after the Yale-NUS experiment was launched. The National University of Singapore (NUS) announced the evolution of the NUS University Scholars Programme (USP) and Yale-NUS College (Yale-NUS) into a New College, with Yale pulling out of the partnership. The New College promised ‘broader and more specialised offerings through a deeper integration with NUS’.

Students, naturally, have been left bewildered and angry. Alumni of the previously prestigious Yale-NUS college are now left with a diploma from a defunct and failed institution. The Straits Times reported that several Yale-NUS college students feel short changed at being admitted to a soon-obsolete university, while others are actively pursuing transfers to other universities. As environmental researcher Xie Yihao pointed out: ‘for students whose life trajectories could change because of this, they can’t be treated like experiment subjects’. No surprises there — no one wants to be part of a non-existent university.

The collapse of Yale-NUS, however, suggests deeper issues related to the Singaporean education system. Singapore’s education system is famously based on rote memorisation, with a limited role for independent thought or discourse. The system is a stressful one based on the replication of model answers, with little thought to the voice of the individual. Grades, rather than perspectives, are the priority. This has been a pragmatic and hard-nosed approach that has propelled Singapore to regularly top academic excellence rankings such as the PISA international tests.

In return, however, Singaporeans students rarely know how to think for themselves, and how to envision a path beyond the veil of familiarity. It’s thus no surprise that Singapore has slipped to the eighth position globally in the Global Innovation Index 2020, and has struggled to produce global leaders of the likes of Google and Facebook.

Furthermore, freedom of speech and expression remain highly regulated, with laws such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act allowing the government to be the arbiters of truth in society. In such a climate, it is no surprise that Singaporean students would have struggled to accept the progressive and open norms of a liberal arts education — one where the contestation of views matters more than having the ‘right’ view over any given topic.

Singapore’s education landscape has the potential to evolve into a more open and inclusive one, but failed experiments such as Yale-NUS show that a flashy partnership with an Ivy League university is far from the only requirement for a truly enlightened education system. One needs the freedom of expression, the cultural openness to experiment with new ideas, and the prioritisation of debate over results to genuinely open the mind up to the full extent of possibilities that a liberal arts education can offer.

Economics students need to be taught about the contest of ideas between Keynes and Hayek, rather than indoctrinated in the school of neoliberalism, while political scientists must interrogate communism on the same footing as capitalism. The moral weight of the ideas of Kant, Nietszche, Augustine, Lao Tzu, and dare one say, even Trump must be placed on the same pedestal, and interrogated on their own terms, rather than being dismissed out of hand.

The true liberal arts curriculum requires the conscious effort of students, parents, teachers and policymakers to rethink their mental models of what the ideal education looks like. Then, and only then, can liberal arts truly flourish in its mission in Singapore.


About Yale-NUS and demystifying liberal arts

Letter addressed to Yale president in defense of playwright Alfian Sa'at

Why are NTU students so outraged at their university?