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Yale’s Ng E-Ching: The Need for Cultural Translation

Yale Ph.D. student Ms Ng E-Ching is the author of the article “Show Singaporeans Some Respect”. Temasek Review Emeritus has posted a response to that article by Ng Kok Lim, titled “Ms Ng, Yale Resolution is Not Annoying”. The following is Ms Ng E-Ching’s response to Ng Kok Lim.  (For background on the Yale-NUS resolution, click here).


Dear Mr/Ms Ng Kok Lim,

Please call me E-Ching. Thank you for your email, which makes important points! One disadvantage of trying to say so much in such a short article is that my focus on adding something new to the discussion resulted in one-sidedness. A letter like yours is needed.

It is precisely because I saw the Yale faculty resolution as both a “sincere expression of basic goodness” and an unwitting “request to be kicked out of the country” that I decided to write my article. As both a Singaporean and a Yalie, it was painful for me to see good people on both sides misunderstanding each other so deeply. I am optimistically certain that if they better understood each other’s expectations, much of the negative feeling that has arisen over the resolution could be lightened. There is a need for both you and me to try to bridge the differences, by first recognising them and then identifying the deeper commonalities.

Some differences are fairly well-known, such as the laws on gay male intercourse. Some need to be better known, such as GRC gerrymandering and the distance between law and enforcement. As you may know, the Straits Times (20 April) told the world that I broke the law by giving my students a banned article, and the police haven’t come knocking since then. Obviously, I agree with you that it shouldn’t have been banned in the first place. But the lax-to-non-existent enforcement in certain domains was the part Yale faculty didn’t seem to know yet.

We are both aware that the resolution annoyed people in Singapore who are totally unconnected with the government. It’s brought about an amazing upwelling of patriotism. I don’t see this as loyalty to our “rulers” – I respect my fellow Singaporeans, and I think our country holds very few unthinking fans of the People’s Action Party. Rather, I think the reaction was rooted in genuine love for “the city-state of Singapore”, as the final wording of the resolution puts it. I’m quite certain the Yale faculty never expected criticisms targeted at the government to irritate such a broad swath of the Singaporean people, and they really need to know that’s what happened. [Added 15 May: I think it made Singaporeans ask themselves: why would Yale faculty want to upset the government enough to break off the partnership? Is the country not good enough for Yale?]

As a writer on the Temasek Review Emeritus website, I’m sure you agree that it’s important not to say “Singapore” when we mean the PAP. It’s equally necessary to be clear when we’re talking about Singapore the government, versus Singapore the people and Singapore the city-state. When I say Singapore society is extremely open to foreign influences, I mean the people, and perhaps you mean the effect of censorship on the city-state? The myriad points of congruity and disjuncture between these different Singapores must be very difficult for others to keep straight without a lifetime of experience, especially when the people are so very diverse in the first place – and I’m not even talking about race, language or religion. Let’s help by being as clear as possible.

For my part, I should clarify that I would have seen myself as taking the easy way out of intercultural communication if my article had simply pointed to similarities between many Singaporeans’ and Americans’ stated opposition to censorship, or between Singaporean and American laws such as the ISA and the Patriot Act. I felt that this would mask important underlying differences that become visible when we look at specific test cases such as the 1991 backlash against relaxation of film censorship in Singapore, or the recent Dove World Qur’an-burning controversy in the US. To clarify further, I see democracy and free speech as a means to achieve an aim, which is human welfare defined according to a hierarchy of needs. When I read in the International Herald Tribune (16 Feb) that Americans see democracy and free speech as absolute goals in themselves, I was at first disbelieving, then astounded when my classmates confirmed that this seemed self-evident to them.

Having understood this, I would like Americans to consider the possibility that a different perspective might facilitate practical consensus-building between diverse communities with different traditions – because after all, survival, physical well-being and emotional well-being are universal values in a very basic and unifying sense. Democracy and free speech are important ways to realise these states, but I hope you will agree that there is value in recognising more fundamental goals. Even as the PAP liberalises, I think it is increasingly failing by these fundamental standards, and that is where I stand in opposition to them.

Incidentally, you are quite right to point out that the Internet has driven recent political liberalisation. However, I would say that it is because the greater availability of information has forced the PAP to liberalise for fear of not getting elected. The Internet has lowered barriers, but I don’t think our desire for change itself is recent. The more of our history I learn while researching the development of our many language varieties, the more respect I have for the marvellously sceptical and independent-minded generations of Singaporeans who have been aware all along of many points on which the PAP’s rhetoric departs from reality.

At the risk of boring Singaporeans, after the national press has told us so many times not to take offence at the faculty resolution, I’d like to share some of my own learning process. When I started writing my article, I thought the resolution really was the faculty’s way of telling Singapore they didn’t want Yale-NUS. So I was amazed when I found out that a majority voted against the word “proposed” to describe Yale-NUS, signalling their acceptance of the partnership. No one could spend two and a half hours toning down the original wording unless they were really trying to be tactful. But I had to blink again when the Yale Daily News editor requested: “Just flesh out how the resolution will damage the relationship, because I think most Yalies think it won’t because it doesn’t call for any action.” They were trying not to be … bossy? Um, thanks!

When the American visa officer asked me, “How do I know you won’t stay in the US?” I told him, “I don’t want to bring up my kids there.” But as a Singaporean who wants the best for my country, I genuinely think Yale-NUS will benefit Singaporeans if done right. One of the unexpected rewards of writing my article has been increased dialogue with Singaporeans who are more sceptical about this, such as NUS student Koh Choon Hwee and recent Yale graduate Huang Zhipeng. I think all of our perspectives are needed to avert a massive waste of Singaporean time, money and effort, and to help many more students access the kind of education that I feel so fortunate to have had. Although actually, I think the Yale-NUS curriculum is better, partly because it takes cultural translation seriously.

I hope this makes it clearer where I think we agree and disagree. Thank you again for responding to my article so thoughtfully and in good faith.


Filed under: Campus, Cover, News


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  1. lawless says

    Dear Ms Ng

    The police did not come knocking on your door because there was no directive issued by their political masters to do so. No such directive was issued because you are not perceived as a threat to their political domination. And as far as political domination is concerned, talk of “lax-to-non-existent enforcement” is laughable. Ask Chee Soon Juan.

    In any case, the Straits Times article referred byyou was published to counter criticisms against Yale-NUS and the government. The authorities would be cutting their nose if they were to send their goons to knock on your doors.

    On a separate note, would you happen to know whether the Patriot Act has ever been used by one political party against its opponents?

  2. Pingback: Re Ng E-Ching: Is your statement on cultural translation a red herring?

  3. Pingback: The need for cultural translation: a re-post of Ng E-Ching’s response in the Kent Ridge Common to Ng Kok Lim – The Liberal Arts in Singapore

  4. Ng Kok Lim says

    Dear E-Ching,

    Very honoured to receive a reply from you.

    I don’t think Yale misunderstood expectations. It is quite obvious our government will not be happy about it and I respect Yale for saying what they said knowing the feathers they will ruffle.

    I still don’t agree with the notion of freedom behind closed doors. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves that that is freedom.

    GRC gerrymandering is absolutely unnecessary and exists only as a tool to entrench the regime. Because even though we elect a collection of say 5 individuals for the GRC, those 5 individuals have clear, distinct districts within the GRC that they take charge of. In other words, there is no need to lump 5 individuals together if the minority candidate is only going to be responsible for just one district. We can simply designate that one distrct to be minority contestable only and the purpose of the GRC would be served just the same.

    All the people that I know couldn’t care less about the resolution. The biggest noise came from the government because it was targeted at them. Therefore, I don’t see it as patriotic upwelling but government upwelling.

    Loyalty to our rulers is not patriotism. As Chen Show Mao famously said, there can only be one patriotism, which is for the red on white, not the white on white. Red on white is represents our flag, our country, our people. White on white represents our ruling party. We must not mistake white on white for red on white. For all the respect you have for the 60% Singaporeans who voted for PAP, don’t respect them if they mistake white on white for red on white.

    Don’t underestimate the number of unthinking fans of PAP. It’s not that they can’t think. It’s just that we don’t have a free press, so they grew up imbibed with propaganda that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Don’t underestimate the power of state indoctrination. In WW2, both the German and the Japanese governments were able to indoctrinate their peoples so that they see their enemies as untermenschen or pigs to be slaughtered. Post-war Japan similarly doctored their history textbooks so that the Japanese today have no guilt about their war crimes, some even deny them vehemently. That’s why North Koreans continue to support their ruling dynasty so strongly despite famines.

    If as you said, our country has very few unthinking fans of PAP, it should be clear to them that Yale was targeting our government not the people or the country. Because they can think, they know that their beloved “city state of Singapore” isn’t being targeted and so would not feel upset. But if they feel upset, it must be because they can’t think and thought that “Singapore” was being targeted. Because they can’t think, they have the tendency to mistake white on white for red on white.

    I don’t see a broad swath of Singaporeans upset by Yale comments. We can commission a survey. I would think that the broad majority of the people can’t be bothered. It is because they can’t be bothered that they’ve allowed political and civil rights to be disrespected. They can’t be bothered because we have been brought up that way.

    I suppose you are right that we shouldn’t say Singapore when we mean PAP. But then again, if it is obvious to all, why state the obvious? If the people can’t discern the obvious, isn’t something wrong with our society which is really what we should focus on instead?

    The 1991 film censorship backlash is like a man imprisoned in total darkness all his life shunning the bright sunshine when first released. He should be allowed to slowly acclimatise to sunshine. The moral of the story is that we should slowly relax film censorship, not that we should continue with film censorship.

    Without democracy, there is no guarantee that the govt will look after our human well being. For too long, too many Singaporeans have been blindly voting the PAP so much so that they have taken us for granted and pursued strategies that made the numbers look good but worsened the people’s lives. Only with democracy can we nudge the government to do the right thing. Therefore, I would see that democracy as just as important as human well being. Without democracy, it is easy to abuse human well being. Without democracy, our well being is at the mercy of the ruling party. So I don’t see us as having fundamentally different goals. We too need democracy more than we realise it.

    No doubt those whom you’ve read about knows and yearns for change. But I don’t think the general public yearns for change, not even to this day. We won’t have 60% or more voting for PAP all this while if the great majority yearns for change all along.

    Thank you

  5. anon.guest says


    “No doubt those whom you’ve read about knows and yearns for change. But I don’t think the general public yearns for change, not even to this day. We won’t have 60% or more voting for PAP all this while if the great majority yearns for change all along.”

    I know a great many people (though by no means are they the majority, but I would venture to say nonetheless they are a substantial lot) who understood the problems associated with continually re-electing the PAP into power. They eventually chose PAP simply because of the dearth of capable contestants from the opposition, and they were rather unwilling to let these people take the rein just for the sake of limiting the PAP’s dominance. No doubt there were more ‘stars’ amongst the opposition in the previous election compared to yesteryears … however, let’s just say only a limited number possess that ‘oompf’ factor. Take where I am from, for instance – Tampines: much as people do like to complain about Mr Mah Bow Tan (you should hear the things said about him!), look at the opposition! (and I would too contend that NSP has quite … radical policies but that’s a topic for a separate article).

    Minority-contestable-only districts is, IMO, a bad idea. Imagine what the people of that constituency would say if there were told they can only elect candidates from minority races. Sure, we may have more racially tolerant citizens than in the past, but I do not think forcibly restricting the electable options will go down well with the public, at all.

    Re: unthinking Singaporeans. Short response: unthinking individuals exist in abundance on both camps. Longer response: It does not help that there are articles out there doing quite blatantly inaccurate portrayals of our people (two articles come to mind: Walker Vincoli’s “students-button-their-lips-and-absorb-opinions” rhetoric and Jim Sleeper’s drawing parallels between Chinese-Malay relationships and Jewish-Palestinian tensions in Israel). Quite a number of us Singaporeans quite conveniently conflated these articles with the those criticising the PAP government under the fancy banner of “Americans performing moral judgements of Singapore” (some might even choose to use “The West” in lieu of “Americans”, unwittingly casting the similarly unfair generalising statements that they deride so vehemently). Admittedly, this proves your point on the unthinking-ness of some Singaporeans (then again, we could hardly expect perspicacious people to fall neatly into one end of the political spectrum, right?)

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