Administrative empire-building may have sealed Yale-NUS’ fate

Headlines about whether the liberal arts can work in Asia only probe part of the story, says Scott Anthony

September 10, 2021
Yale-NUS College sign illustrating blog about why Yale-NUS Singapore is closing
Source: Yale-NUS College

The announcement that Yale-NUS College will be closed defies rational explanation.

Over the past decade, millions of dollars have been put into developing a liberal arts college that would stem the brain drain of Singaporeans to international universities. And, by most metrics, Yale-NUS has been a resounding success. As recently as January, there was excited talk about plans for its second decade. Now, without warning, it has been abruptly scrapped.

Or rather it will be merged with an existing NUS programme into a New College but that amounts to the same thing. The official explanation speaks of “a step to further the mission of interdisciplinary liberal arts education”. The fact that this doesn’t make any sense has prompted endless speculation locally about what is really driving the move.

One explanation is that the decision is a response to the activism of Yale-NUS students. There may be some truth to this. Parts of the Singapore state undoubtedly found the self-confident activism of Yale-NUS students annoying, embarrassing and, at times, plain impudent. The petition to have the formidable Kay Kuok Oon Kwong removed from the governing board because of alleged business ties to war criminals in Myanmar is the famous example of Yale-NUS students doing things that just don’t happen in Singapore.

Yet politicians and policymakers were often very happy, actually, to talk off the record to small student gatherings. And plenty of Yale-NUS student activism – such as divestment from fossil fuels – was about as radical as an editorial in The Economist.

In addition to being overstated, recent international headlines that questioned whether the liberal arts can work in Asia also have the unfortunate effect of allowing what could otherwise look like the profligate bonfire of time, money and human capital to be hidden behind comfortable media stereotypes.

So is it about money? From what little we know about the New College, it will accept many fewer international students than Yale-NUS does but will also be much less generous to poor Singaporeans, operating with a much larger student-teaching ratio. Overall, it does not seem to be a recipe for massive cost savings.

We can only speculate but my sense is that this institutional immolation is fuelled by at least two larger and more powerful trends.

First, it’s worth remembering that Yale-NUS owes something to the lingering influence of the American economist Richard Florida and the idea that mature economies can be revitalised through “creativity”. Singapore has spent enormous amounts of money since the turn of the millennium on cultural infrastructure, alongside the expansion of the humanities in universities, to ensure the development of the required human capital.

Many Singaporeans hoped that these changes signified a more profound opening up, and a relaxation of government interventions in their social lives. It didn’t. Rather than a major national reorientation towards “the good life”, the nurturing of creativity turned out to be a short-term business strategy that didn’t quite pan out as hoped. This is why the closure of Yale-NUS, placed alongside the ailing health of local contemporary art institutions such as The Substation and the Centre for Contemporary Art, has struck many like a hammer blow. The sense of a future being foreclosed is a cause of resentment and deep sadness.

Even deeper in the background is the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, in 2015. This has palpably damaged the self-confidence of the ruling People’s Action Party. While the immediate post-colonial governments were agents of revolutionary social changes, their technocratic successors have more usually sought to shore up and pour aspic over the legacies they inherited. The relentless early adoption of new technologies, bolted on to an increasingly dynastic political structure, occupies much of the space where political renewal and social empathy should be. “Creativity” does not easily fit here. This is a problem that is far from unique to Singapore.

But, to me, it seems likely what ultimately sealed the fate of Yale-NUS is the insatiable administrative desire for empire-building.

In its six decades of independence, Singapore has created an enormous state, which provides much of the new middle-class with its income and social capital. Accordingly, while its high politics can be astoundingly prim, administrative politics often resemble gang warfare.

Among a proliferation of parallel initiatives, faculty and students at Yale-NUS were painstakingly developing a thoughtful interdisciplinary curriculum appropriate to the needs of South-east Asia. By contrast, the managers behind the New College initiative probably have little idea what will be taught on the new interdisciplinary courses they are proposing. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before they assimilated a small corner of autonomous experimentation into a bigger bureaucratic portfolio.

For international readers, perhaps this is the reason the closure of Yale-NUS is worth paying attention to. Because this isn’t just a story about Singapore or Asia. The organisational, social and political chaos of the past 18 months might have suggested a general need for more resilient educational institutions that operate with autonomy, responsiveness and sensitivity to their immediate surroundings. Yet Yale-NUS appears to be the victim of a push in the other direction: towards the massive expansion of centralised administrative control.

If it hasn’t already arrived, something similar is likely coming soon to an institution near you.

Scott Anthony is an assistant professor in public history at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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