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Preserving Yale’s Exclusive, Elite Identity and Community

Comments (28)
  1. Ng E-Ching says:

    I think it’s necessary to say that in my experience as a Singaporean at Yale, Yalies bend over backwards in personal interactions to understand and accommodate cultural differences, once they are aware of them. Yale students are some of the nicest and most idealistic people I have ever met, and are horrified at the thought of appearing elitist and exclusive.

    Also, I would like to point out that the many faculty (>100) and administrators planning Yale-NUS are keenly looking forward to learning and building ties with Singapore and the rest of our region. You can see their enthusiasm from the amount of homework that shows even in the initial prospectus, http://opa.yale.edu/media/pdf/YNC-Prospectus-2010-09.pdf.

    I would also submit that the spectacle at Yale was NOT motivated chiefly by alumni fears of threatened exclusivity, but was instead a power struggle between the faculty and the administration. Many faculty have told me this and it shows clearly in the Yale news coverage, including one of the articles quoted above, http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/apr/04/benhabib-whats-stake-yale-nus/. It’s true that Singapore’s politics were mostly a pretext, but so is the “selling your brand” issue. The real motivation came from elsewhere.

  2. Koh Choon Hwee says:

    Hi E-Ching!!! From my limited online interactions with you, as well as other chance encounters with Yale alumni, I think it’s fair to say that such elite attitudes certainly are not shared across the board.

    And this article is not saying that it is. That was never the raison d’être for this article.

    All this article really does is respond to Montesano’s article, for reasons I have mentioned in italics at the end. All it says is that a section of those vocally opposing the venture do have such elite concerns, and I think it’s pretty obvious from their writings. I of course recognize that there are a cluster of other concerns, but this elite mentality informs and forms the background of all their condescending attitudes towards Singapore and NUS too.

    There’s a lot of hypocrisy and euphemistic language going on, and to be fair, I cannot judge them for being concerned about guarding the exclusivity of who gets to enter the Yale alumni network and who gets to use Yale’s name. I actually think that’s a very natural reaction, all I wish is that they would be more honest to themselves and to their readers.

    A title like ‘Is Yale a reliable partner for Singapore?’ sits so incongruously with the arguments that follow it, because his main concerns are really not about that! At the end of the day his loyalties lie with a certain vision of Yale — which is fine, but his rather duplicitous use of language irks me, and foreigners who don’t know better may be seduced by his seeming even-handedness and SG affiliation into reading the article a certain way.

    I imagine you’re in a peculiar and unenviable situation, seeing both your country and your alma mater being battered on both ends. I hope this clarifies my motivations for you somewhat. Perhaps if you feel that a certain section of the article could be better phrased to avoid giving off the impression that it gave you, you could let me know.

    1. Michael Montesano says:

      I enjoyed reading Ms Koh Choon Hwee’s article very much, and I would like to discuss some of her points with her directly. I hope that she will contact me at michael.montesano@gmail.com . Mike Montesano

    2. Koh Choon Hwee says:

      I have replied your email sir.

    3. Michael Montesano says:

      Three further points.

      1. Even a quick examination of the scale of Yale’s finances will make clear that the sums involved in the Yale-NUS venture cannot have an appreciable impact on Yale’s financial situation. This is a question of billions of dollars versus less than 200 million dollars. It is, then, very hard to see any financial gain for Yale in this venture. Rather, as my article said clearly, President Levin wanted to undertake a flashy overseas project, but he could not find the money–in, yes, the context of falling endowment levels–to do it. Enter Singapore, at that point.

      2. The piece is not about any “taint” to Yale. Rather, it is about President Levin’s failure either to understand or to explain Singapore to the Yale community. Quite honestly, I fear that this failure will make it difficult for Yale to fulfill its obligations to the the government of Singapore. As for the charge of Yale “elitism”, what looks like a determination to maintain exclusivity to outsiders may in fact be a commitment to values among members of a community. Let me offer a concrete example. In 1978, a Yale undergraduate reporter for The Yale Daily News uncovered spending by the provost to re-decorate his university-owned home at a time of serious budget deficits. The provost was forced to resign. This was an episode of the free press in action. Thirty-three years later, President Levin stood before a group at Brewerkz and expressed open contempt for the free, critical press. This is not a question of elitism. Rather, it is a question of turning one’s back on values long held dear without explaining clearly to stake-holders why those values are now obsolete.

      3. Can a man rise to the Yale presidency and still do some very stupid things in a context of which he knows nothing? Sure, he can. Note my piece’s opening allusion to Robert S. McNamara. A brilliant Harvard Business School professor, RSM rose to the presidency of Ford Motor Company and, later, of the World Bank. But look at his boo-boos in this part of the world.

      Ms Koh’s piece is very thoughtful. We all owe her our thanks for it. And I am most eager to discuss it with her in person. So I do hope that she will contact me.

  3. While the author is quite right to note my contention that the controversy at Yale over Yale-NUS is not mainly about the sins of Singapore, neither is it about how to preserve Yale’s “taint me not” exclusivity. It is about a dimension of freedom that has no borders. Let me try to show what I mean briefly right now by posing a simple question, and, when I have posed it, perhaps the author and other readers will help me make my point:

    Since Yale faculty and students, like many at other American universities, have never hesitated to criticize and challenge the United States Government by holding forums and writing articles and organizing demonstrations and movements that denounced the Iraq War (even when it was being planned and fought), Guantanamo, and economic and social policies of the Bush and Obama administrations, rulings of the Supreme Court, and laws passed or defeated in Congress, would the author of this article and please indicate simply and directly what they consider to be the three most objectionable policies and practices of Singapore’s ruling party and government?

    Might they object to the Singaporean’s government’s policies and practices toward migrant workers? Might they object to practices of surveillance and occasional, exemplary punishment that induce self-censorship? In a free society, citizens can document such abuses and who can examine inevitable “gray areas” of self-restraint that are sometimes necessary and sometimes unfairly imposed. We have these problems in the United States and even at Yale, and we are constantly addressing them. Many at Yale would like to know what the main problems are in Singapore and how you are addressing them.

    1. octopi says:

      It is way too easy for such a resolution to be interpreted the wrong way. When US academics write papers about the restriction of freedom in Singapore we can see it as being “business as usual”. But when you formalise this as a resolution, it sounds like you want to sign a prenuptial before getting married. When you write a paper it’s just a paper. But when you write a resolution it’s advocacy for an issue. So what is the issue?

      When you interpret this as a call to arms for academics on the Singapore side to fight for an environment that has academic freedom and the best conditions for good work to flourish, I don’t think that people have a lot of arguments with that – at least people who are not in the government. But when it sounds like you are registering your reservations about such a project, then people will ask, “what is this REALLY all about?” People including yourself have painted Singapore as a fascist corporatocracy, even though there are many who would also argue that this label fits the US of A to some extent (cf Douglas Rushkoff). That begs the question: if Singapore being fascist corporatocracy would preclude a NUS-Yale project being set up in Singapore, why would’t it also preclude Yale continuing its operations in the US?

      Recently Dr Lim Chong Yah from Nanyang Technological University has come up with a proposal for wage reform in Singapore, which flies in the face of much of the government policy today. Battles are fought, lines are drawn and redrawn as we speak.

      Self-censorship does take place to some extent here. But even self-censorship is an expression of freedom is it not? If people in Singapore vote for the PAP (elections may not be 100% fair but they are free) might it not be out of respect that the government is a functioning, competent unit, rather than because of the fear factor? Why is it never interpreted as a circling of wagons?

      Many new developments are taking shape. The environment is changing. The Singapore government has its moments of infamy, suing people to bankruptcy and what not, but the people are getting restless. Heavy-handed exemplary punishments are increasingly a thing of the past.

      Singapore is a city state. It is very hard for dictatorships to flourish in a city state. You can’t arrest somebody in the middle of the night without the whole world knowing about it. You can’t call the army to rise up against the people because the people are the army in Singapore. Everybody has the internet in Singapore. Even though democracy has never changed the government in Singapore, it is still a democracy.

      So if you want to know about the main problems in Singapore, get yourself posted here and see for yourself!

    2. Melissa says:

      I concur with Octopi. James, you’re arguing that Yale is not the USA government, that it is not culpable for the Iraq war because Yale has had all sorts of forums and discussions and protests against actions taken by the government. And yet, even though NUS students regularly write news editorials, and theses against the government, you don’t seem to think that NUS is independent from the government nor excusable for the government’s sins. That’s a double standard.

      That being said, my argument is weakened by my inability to find an outspoken critic of the government amongst the NUS faculty. If someone can help me out, please do.

    3. oreomonster says:

      Chua Beng Huat and Gwee Li Sui are two I can think of. Huang Jianli and Hong Lysa co-wrote “The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Past”, which is a very critical and insightful book.

      And all NUS law professors who teach about the events of 1987 and the constitutional maneuverings of the govt are all critical of those actions.

      Criticisms by NUS faculty are not delivered in the same brash manner as in the US. If you read the articles and/or their published books, there are many criticisms, even by establishment figures like Lily Kong. They just don’t go around doing rabble-rousing things in the flashy, showy way that Western academics do.

      Many criticisms are also made in the classrooms, in informal contexts with students.

      There’s so much critique and criticism going on, these Yale professors are just thoroughly culturally ignorant and looking at the wrong places — they’re essentially looking for replicas of themselves, of people who act like them.

    4. Michael Montesano says:

      What Oreomonster says is fair and important. It also underlines the importance of understanding the local context and articulating one’s understanding thereof. Last August 23, Yale’s president told me to my face that he did not consider it his job to have any such understanding. Contrary to what Ms Koh Choon Hwee writes about my long article, the point of that article is not that it is impossible for different sorts of institutions to work together. It is that clarity about differences (real differences, not just vague East/West differences) early on makes more likely a successful partnership over the long haul. Yale’s leadership has failed to show mastery of what makes Singapore different and to explain this difference to stake-holders at Yale. This failur ought to make the Singapore side, which is paying for the endeavor after all, worry.

    5. oreomonster says:

      in reply to Montesano below: Yea, your article didn’t do much to elucidate matters either about real cultural differences.

      You sound much more reasonable in this comments thread than in your article. I guess this student response piece about Yale elitism jolted you into feeling more responsible for your words. Unfortunately, not as many people are going to read this comments thread as those who’d read your article man.

    6. oreomonster says:

      i meant in reply to Montesano above, the placement of this comment thread is confusing

    7. Michael Montesano says:

      In reply to Oreomonster, below:

      Oreomonster, I am, I will be the first to admit, not much of a culturalist. I like to deal in more concrete terms than culturalism allows. So when I wrote about differences in my post, it was not cultural differences that I had in mind. And, again, difference is not what troubles me. What troubles me is failure to recognize such differences as really exist and the resultant risk of entering into a partnership like the Yale-NUS tie-up unawares.

      But, no, Ms Koh’s piece did not jolt me into any new-found sense of “responsibility” about the words that I use. What I wrote in my original piece was pretty carefully considered, believe it or not. I fear only that the two-stage argument that I made was not clear enough. My point was that Yale’d leadership does not understand Singapore and that, therefore, Yale might not be able to serve as a responsible partner for NUS.

      The charge of elitism and ethno-centrism is one to which I turn the other cheek, as it comes from one who does not know me.

      I am, however, very much intrigued by your own invocation in your most recent message of what is “responsible.” Contact me by e-mail please if you’d care to explain this to me in more detail. I would very much like to hear more, Sir.

    8. octopi says:

      Montesano – You ever had a girl turn you down, and then she says, “it’s not you, it’s me”? Well for starters you sound a little bit like that girl – when you said that Yale is not necessarily the most responsible partner for NUS.

      It is the liberal tradition that people learn from many other cultures. (But then again the “liberal tradition” has been used before as a contrast to multi- culturalism so I’m afraid I don’t really know what it means. I’m not even sure it’s really that liberal – but I digress.)

      It’s never been a big problem for Singapore students to adapt to the liberal arts. We’re probably one of the most westernised country in Asia. Yale is probably very cosmopolitan – not only do the students come from all over the world, the Americans come from all over the states. What sort of due diligence does the admissions department do for each student? Do they, for each student, discuss about cultural differences between the student and Yale? Well, you check the scores, read the essays and glean what you can. And for many, the first time you meet them in person is the first day of school. And then people adjust to each other.

      The fact is, you never really know. I’m agnostic about the idea of NUS-Yale. I’ve never been too crazy about borrowing somebody else’s name.

      Are the faculties of both schools going to work things out? There’s only one way to find out for sure, and that’s to go through the experience. It may or may not work out. Either way, I guarantee that both parties will learn a little more about each other.

      From my experience in another part of the Ivy League, and what I know from NUS, things will be very interesting but failure is definitely not a foregone conclusion. You will probably find that Singaporeans are better at adhering to the letter rather than the spirit of things.

      Actually I think that you would know both Yale and NUS better than I do, so I would guess you have your concerns – other wise you would have just given it a bye, right? Anyway you live in Singapore so you should have an opinion.

      In any case you’re the second person (after Mr Sleeper) to have clarified that the real issues are between the faculty and the administration. OK, fine. But doesn’t that mean that the resolution (which only mentions our less than sterling civil rights) is somewhat less than totally respectful? As though that issue were just a bloody pawn to be sacrificed in your game of chess?

      So the more I think about it, the more bone-headed that resolution seems to me. It doesn’t articulate the real problem, and it pisses people off for nothing – and supposedly the people who drafted it are the one of the smartest groups of people in the world!

      As I see it, a part of responsibility involves saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Particularly when that piece of paper has the word “resolution” written on it.

    9. octopi says:

      To be fair, I also note that American academics have had some problems with academic freedom in the past while in Singapore. Certain bad memories Lingle on into the present.

    10. Michael Montesano says:

      Octopi, your opening analogy is not bad, not bad at all! Just forgive me for answering in haste now.

      As I noted in Today, I understand unhappiness here with the resolution. For sure, it could have been better targeted. I am with you. (That having been said, I know some prominent Singaporean intellectuals who believe that expressions of unhappiness with the resolution are a pretext for not addressing real shortcomings here in Singapore. That is not my position, but it is the position of some people who know this country and have far larger stakes in this country than do I.)

      Also, I have never exactly said that the real issues are strictly between Yale’s faculty and its administration. One of the reasons that I dwelt on NUS’s history at some length in my piece is that both proponents and opponents of the Yale-NUS tie-up at Yale speak as if NUS and Singapore have no history. Well, Yale has a history, too. And, contrary to the apparent convictions of Ms Koh, that history is not just about selective admissions and elitsm. It’s about good things and bad. One of the bad things is that, historically, Yale has been a very hard place to manage effectively. Its current president has led it for nearly two decades, the first fifteen years of which were an economic boom-time. Now, when the challenges of running Yale are growing greater, he is diverting his time and energy to a distant venture unconnected with the core mission of the university.

      There are other aspects of Yale’s history with some bearing on all this. But, as said, I write in haste. And I am serious in saying that a Yale that has entered into this arrangement with Singapore so clumsily is hardly destined to be a good partner for NUS over the long haul.

      And–yes!–students in Singapore are hugely adaptable, and well and truly suited for a “liberal arts” education. Much about FASS and the USP have effectively approximated that education for many years now. That having been said, the allusion in your messages and others to “cultural” exchange puzzles me. I have never really thought that that is what this is about. What I learn from people in different parts of the world and their different experiences is something very different from “culture”.

      Finally, does it not trouble you at all that Yale’s leadership is taking Singapore tax dollars to undertake something here without having any understanding of this country? Don’t you expect more from the representatives of an institution of higher learning? I sure do. Don’t you think that it is odd that Yale’s leadership goes on and on about “Asia” but has nothing to say about Singapore and the “fit” between local interests and priorities and this proposed college? Can this be good? And, please note, the conclusion of my long piece offers concrete and specific suggestions for Yale’s approaching this undertaking more effectively, suggestions meant to increase the chances that the undertaking is indeed a success. I would like nothing more than to see those suggestions taken up.

      Two more things.

      First, do you have an explanation for Singapore’s interest in establishing a liberal arts college at NUS? I have several, but I’d appreciate hearing others’ views. I am certain that you have given this some thought.

      Second, I enjoy these exchanges, with you and Oreomonster both, but it’s a bit curious that they have to proceed on the basis of your anonymity and my identity being open. You know how to contact me directly.

      And thanks for writing.

    11. octopi says:

      Now it is also mentioned somewhere that the resolution is actually really about the way the administration has conducted the business of wrapping up this partnership. Even though this is not explicitly mentioned in the resolution. That begs another question:

      Why are you brave enough to criticise NUS and the Singapore government, but not brave enough to criticise the Yale administration?

  4. While the author is quite right to note my contention that the controversy at Yale over Yale-NUS is not mainly about the sins of Singapore, neither is it about how to preserve Yale’s “taint me not” exclusivity. It is about a dimension of freedom that has no borders. Let me try to show what I mean briefly right now by posing a simple question, and, when I have posed it, perhaps the author and other readers will help me make my point:

    Since Yale faculty and students, like those at other American universities, have never hesitated to criticize and challenge the United States Government by holding forums and writing articles and organizing demonstrations and movements that denounced the Iraq War (even when it was being planned and fought), Guantanamo, and economic and social policies of the Bush and Obama administrations, rulings of the Supreme Court, and laws passed or defeated in Congress, would the author and readers of this article please indicate directly what they consider to be the three most objectionable policies and practices of Singapore’s ruling party and government?

    Might they object to the Singaporean’s government’s policies and practices toward migrant workers? Might they object to practices of surveillance and occasional, exemplary punishment that induce self-censorship? In a free society, citizens can document such abuses and can examine inevitable “gray areas” of self-restraint that are sometimes necessary and sometimes unfairly imposed. We have these problems in the United States and even at Yale, and we are constantly addressing them. Many at Yale would like to know what the main problems are in Singapore and how you are addressing them.

    1. Melissa says:

      http://theonlinecitizen.com/

      The Online Citizen is considered the premier alternative news/activist blog site in Singapore. A perusal of the front page indicates that Singaporeans already are addressing the following topics: pointing out that speaking up is not the opposite of patriotism, the need for integration of immigrants, the revamping of the wage system. If you follow the site for longer, the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, gay rights and censorship are perennial topics.

      I hope that answers a question you could have easily Googled.

    2. Irreducible Interlocutive Chicken says:

      Mr Sleeper will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that answers his question at all. He wanted to know what you think about Singaporean politics, not which websites you read. I think it’s fair to assume he knows how to use google.

      If Mr Sleeper was teaching in a classroom, and asked what the biggest issues in Singaporean politics were, would you tell him to read TOC, or would you answer his question? And if you wouldn’t answer it, why wouldn’t you? I think that’s what he’s trying to find out here. It goes to the heart of the differences that are being discussed and debated.

    3. Melissa says:

      Fair enough.

      I have a massive stick up my butt and that question came across as being like this http://memegenerator.net/instance/18972884

      So I responded accordingly.

  5. anon.guest says:

    I’ll recommend that those who still retain the slightest vestige of interest in the whole YNC saga to read this incredibly obnoxious, off-putting article:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-sleeper/yale-has-gone-to-singapor_b_1476532.html?page=1

    However, I would strongly caution those who are allergic to sanctimonious claptrap to steer clear from it, if you still value your life. I concede that Singapore still to this day has issues that may not sound very comforting to a US academic, and that there are the occasional salient nuggets sporadically interspersed among all that twaddle, but his embarrassing depiction of modern Singapore is so divorced from reality it is a pain to read. That, and the really overbearing cultural imperialistic tone. So, be warned.

    So much for espousing the virtues of an education in the liberal arts; if I were to spend a few years studying the liberal arts and by the end of my education come up with something like that, you bet I’ll be ashamed, very ashamed of myself.

    1. jim sleeper says:

      “Anonymous Guest” warns readers ” to steer clear from” my essay, ” if you still value your life.”

      I think that he has made my point more strongly and polemically than I did in the piece, which does not argue that anyone’s life is at risk but that liberties are so constrained that we wind up with self-censorship like… well, like what you see in anon.guest’s post. I hope that no one will be risking his life by reading the essay, although I do warn you about this: It is 13,000 words long.

  6. I think that the Yale-NUS partnership is the start of a brighter future for the students in Singapore. Yale is finally opening its doors to provide the best academic experience for everyone. However, since academic freedom is extremely important, students and professors at Yale-NUS should do everything to make sure that this right is preserved.

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