Singapore’s Yale Conquest

Yale University is heading to Singapore in 2013. But will partnerships with US institutions benefit the Asia-Pacific?

Mong Palatino

Last week, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale announced their plan to establish Singapore's first liberal arts college, which will be known as the Yale-NUS College. The new college will initially accept 150 students whose education will be supervised by Yale faculty members.

But students shouldn’t expect to receive a Yale diploma because they won’t receive one. It should be clarified early that Yale-NUS won’t be giving the same kind of Yale education available in the United States. It’s like going to a school that looks like Yale and is named after Yale, but isn’t exactly Yale.

When the Yale-NUS undertaking was first disclosed last year, it wasn’t received enthusiastically by some teachers and students of both schools. Yale scholars, for instance, pointed out that Yale’s liberal tradition isn’t compatible with what they described as Singapore’s ‘authoritarian regime’. The school student paper, Yale Daily News, also raised the perceived lack of academic freedom in Singapore schools to argue against Yale’s expansion in the prosperous city state.

In an editorial published last February, the paper warned that ‘Even if local laws do not explicitly limit campus scholarship, self-censorship by students and faculty certainly will. Who would publish a fiery doctoral thesis in a country that metes out caning for minor offenses? A country that slanders and jails academics and authors for running foul of its government?’

Yale president Richard Levin may have recognized the validity of some of these objections when he mentioned the ‘limitations that Yale has to accept given Singaporean tradition and law.’ But in the end, he still defended the long-term opportunities in establishing a Yale presence in Asia.

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The issue of freedom of expression, or lack of it in the case of Singapore, isn’t a trivial matter considering that it was the reason cited by Britain’s University of Warwick when it decided not to set up a branch in Singapore in 2005. Even Johns Hopkins University closed a research facility there when it came into conflict with the local government.

But Singaporean students writing for the popular online site The Kent Ridge Common, reminded the skeptics from Yale that contrary to media reports, politics is freely and openly discussed in Singapore schools. They added that students ‘have the liberty to speak, and professors have the liberty to teach’ in NUS.

Meanwhile, Singapore students who aren’t fully supportive of the Yale-NUS College questioned why NUS has reportedly agreed to shoulder the financing of the project without demanding any corresponding funds from Yale. The agreement even seems to require NUS to reimburse Yale for the salaries of Yale professors who will teach in Singapore.

Some students also reminded the NUS leadership that the school already offers a liberal arts education through its University Scholars Programme, which recently celebrated its 10th  anniversary. They’d prefer that NUS was more aggressive in developing its own brand of education rather than trying to gain instant prestige through a partnership with Yale.

The last point is important because it’s the Yale name that NUS actually bought to improve its reputation as a leading regional education centre. It seems to be the easier and faster (but expensive) route to achieving the status of a global university offering superior ‘Western-style’ quality education. But is it worth it? And will it work?

One more thing – it’s expected that the Yale-NUS venture would inspire other big Asian universities to secure similar partnerships with other cash-hungry Ivy League institutions. Is this really a positive development for higher education in the Asia-Pacific region?