Yale’s opening a campus in Singapore, and the move has generated an important discussion among faculty, students, and administration about the viability of liberal arts colleges in semi-democratic regimes.

One irony in the Yale-at-Singapore endeavor is the excitement its founders express about bringing back the imperiled liberal arts —

At a time when many American universities seem to be turning away from the liberal arts, Yale is reasserting their value and enduring importance.

— even though their bastion of the resurgent liberal arts will be located in a state no one would mistake for a liberal democracy.

As a commenter on one of the many articles in the Yale Daily News on the subject writes:

Our values include free speech and the open exchange of ideas – most Yalies would probably agree that much of the value of a university comes from allowing people to pursue and publish their ideas regardless of whether those ideas violate some sort of political orthodoxy. If Singapore will not let us put those values into practice, we have no business being there.

Other opponents of the idea (which is no longer merely an idea – it’s been approved and will happen in a couple of years) point out that Yale going there lends respectability to the regime; that, given the repressive laws on Singapore’s books, faculty members might under certain circumstances be arrested; and that in any case Yale’s prior strong commitment to human rights as well as academic and other forms of freedom makes it look, in this case, like a rank hypocrite. As the YDN asks in an editorial today:

What values are essential to what Yale stands for, and how will those values have to be compromised in Singapore?


No university is an island; yet what Yale proposes does sound rather like an island… Or maybe the right image – in line with the history of universities – is that of a monastery, walled from the compromised culture around it. UD will admit she can’t quite see how the thing will actually function day to day… She envisions a kind of West Berlin surrounded by East Germany (she knows that Singapore isn’t repressive in the East Germany way). But, I mean, for instance, all universities generate adjacent streets of bars, etc. What will the rules of discourse and behavior be there? Isn’t government surveillance likely to be especially intense around the free-thinking Yale campus?

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4 Responses to “Gaming Singapore”

  1. David Says:

    Having taught at Singapore Management University, I have a first-hand account of what it’s like being an academic there. Surprisingly, the whole academic freedom and free speech issue is not as big of a deal as one would think — on campus. The Singapore politicos draw a very distinct line between what one says in the campus classroom and what one says, for example, to the press. The latter is just asking for trouble because after all Singapore is indeed different. As for bars, there was one on the ground level of the business building and a whole bunch right across the street. Not an issue; however, you are MORE likely to encourage trouble with the government off campus than on as you allude. Which is one reason I am presently at an Australian uni. But the last thing Singgapore Inc. would want to do image-wise would be to go after a bunch of “Yalies” engaging in open discourse at a local pub, especially if they were non-Singaporeans.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    David: Many thanks for those details of academic life in Singapore. It’s interesting that you eventually left for an Australian university.

    I also wonder: Will Yale’s peculiar status – an American school IN Singapore – make a difference?

  3. DM Says:

    In Doha, Qatar, there is a whole campus called “Education City”, with colleges established by major US universities (e.g. Carnegie Mellon does computer science).

    What do you think about it, Margaret?

  4. David Says:

    Margaret —

    First, Singapore is status obsessed esp in education. Most “local” academics include where they received their PhD on their business card (esp if from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Penn). Yale is a huge coup for the gov’t and will be treated something like royalty in country.

    Second, SMU was started in response to the perception that their traditional unis (NUS, NTU) were not developing creative, critical thinkers (seriously). Say what you want about the politics and human rights issues in Singapore (and there certainly are serious issues) they really get it in terms of what it will take to keep the country competitive internationally going forward. So Yale in Singapore will have much latitutde to educate their students as they see fit, so I don’t think there will be much difference in curricula than what goes on in the US.

    Cheers, David

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