Singapore Ends its Experiment in Liberal Education

No reason given for end of Yale collaboration with NUS

Photo courtesy of Yale

The 10-year experiment in liberal education between Singapore and the US’s Yale University, which has never been comfortable, is about to end, according to a statement by Tan Eng Chye, the president of National University of Singapore.

Instead, Yale-NUS will be combined with the University Scholars Program into a single New College. The New College, which will also be an interdisciplinary college, will admit its first intake of students in Academic Year 2022/2023. This New College is separate from the College of Humanities and Sciences, which was launched in December 2020. The extensive campus (pictured) planned will no longer bear Yale’s name.

The experiment will end in four years’ time, according to the university, allowing the currently enrolled students to complete their undergraduate education under the prestigious Yale name. While Yale will continue to advise in the development of the provisionally named New College, according to the NUS president’s statement, it will relinquish its governance role. No new classes of students will be admitted.

The collaboration was first announced in 2011. It wasn’t long after Yale-NUS admitted its first students that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at the inauguration of the new campus, told the audience that collaboration between the two “cannot be a carbon copy of Yale in the United States if it is to succeed. Instead, it has to experiment and adapt the Yale model to Asia.”

That raised widespread concerns that political activism and debate would be circumscribed strictly, as it is in the wider island nation itself, where independent journalists are routinely sued and harassed and where the political opposition historically has been hounded, bankrupted, and vilified. The Yale-NUS collaboration came under withering criticism by Yale faculty in the United States, who in a resolution raised concern “regarding the recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore” and urged Yale-NUS to protect ideals that lie “at the heart of liberal arts education as well as of our civic sense as citizens [and] ought not to be compromised in any dealings or negotiations with the Singaporean authorities.”

In 2019, those concerns appeared to be justified when the Yale-NUS College of Liberal Arts canceled a class on dissent that would have brought students into contact with the handful of activists, independent journalists, and artists who make up the tiny and closely monitored opposition community in the tightly-laced nation.

The class, titled “Dialogue And Dissent,” was to be led by a faculty member and playwright, Alfian Sa'at, as part of what was termed the Learning Across Boundaries program. But shortly after it was announced, the college announced the class had been scrapped.

Tan Tai Yong, then the head of the school, said the class “does not critically engage with the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent. The fundamental reason why we took the decision we did was risk mitigation, particularly for international students, who could lose their student pass for engaging in political activity.”

The decision to cancel the class made it into parliament, with the Speaker, Chuan-Jin Tan, questioning its rationale and saying “Given what is happening in Hong Kong and elsewhere, do we believe that this is the way to go? Is this the liberal education that we need to get us into the future?”

Apparently not. Nonetheless, the reasons for shutting down the collaboration between the two universities remain unclear.

“I guess the government is letting NUS do the talking,” said Jim Sleeper, a retired political science lecturer at the Yale campus in New Haven who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the partnership since it was announced.  “Obviously this has been carefully orchestrated. I’m pretty convinced that Yale didn’t want to see this breakup happen, even after it was becoming clear that Singapore, as the host country and funder, was basically hiring Yale as a consultant. Singapore ‘used’ Yale in this way from the start, and Yale walked right into it, thinking it was playing a ‘missionary’ role, as it had done more religiously, a century earlier.” 

Sleeper’s problem is not so much Singapore, acknowledged as an authoritarian and often humorless government, as with Yale and other universities willing to water down their pretensions to intellectual freedom and rigor in return for lucrative arrangements with many such governments, not only in Asia but in totalitarian countries across the world. There are nearly 90 such cooperative education campuses run by American universities in China, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates along a host of lucrative lesser connections, Sleeper wrote in a 2015 article for Ethics & International Affairs, a quarterly publication of the Carnegie Council.

Pericles Lewis, Yale’s vice president for global strategy and Yale-NUS’s inaugural president, said in a statement that a review in 2025 of the partnership had been built into the initial agreement, signed in 2011. It was NUS’s decision to end the joint liberal-arts college in Singapore, he said, and to absorb it into an honors college, a step Lewis called “bittersweet.”