Skull and Bones, Singapore Style? Imagining the Ivy-League in Authoritarian Confines

Dr. Jason Luger is an urban geographer currently lecturing at the University of California, Berkeley, in the College of Environmental Design.  His research focuses on the production of urban space, the relationship between material and digital activism and social networks, the nexus of art, politics, and space, and authoritarian urban geographies.  Jason’s research has been featured in journals such as IJURR, Antipode, Geoforum and CITY, and his co-edited Volume “Art and the City: Worlding the Discussion through a Critical Artscape” (with Julie Ren), was published in 2017.  He is an assistant editor at the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies.  

In August 2012, Yale / NUS Liberal Arts College opened its doors to the first crop of students at its campus in Singapore.  Instantly, a new history was created, combining mythologized elements of the storied ‘Ivy League’ university (Yale, in New Haven, USA) with Singapore’s own National University of Singapore.  The hybrid, the first standalone liberal-arts college to open in Asia, is a complex and intriguing example of the way in which global mobilities and imaginaries circulate and are assembled via bilateral flows of ideas and capital.  Partially governed by Yale, though independent, Yale / NUS offers Singaporean students (and those from outside Singapore) the novel experiences of an all-encompassing campus experience through a liberal-arts design featuring small class sizes, residential colleges, and a multi-disciplinary, arts-heavy curriculum modeled after the liberal arts colleges of the United States.  This represented a dramatic shift in Singaporean higher-education, which has traditionally emphasized the ‘STEM’ subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and where the majority of students live at home, rather than on-campus.  Other campus features include a ‘quad’ (central green and social space), a black-box multi-purpose theatre, and a garden-like environment taking advantage of Singapore’s lush, tropical climate.

Main Quad Singapore

Fig.1: Main Quad at ‘University Town’, NUS and Yale / NUS, Singapore (Jason Luger, 2013)

However, the question of how a liberal arts college, with all that entails, can operate within Singapore’s illiberal, soft-authoritarian confines, became a troubling one that generated much controversy inside and outside of the City-State.  Yale faculty took issue with the limitations on freedom of expression (particularly around political themes) in the City-State, as well as Singapore’s restrictions on LGBTQ rights, such as the local Penal Code 377A which permits the arrest of gay men partaking in consensual sexual activity (even if hardly ever enforced).  Other restrictions forbid students to form political parties on campus, or to extend official invitations to speakers on certain political themes. These, critics said, prevented the true operation of a liberal arts college.

In some ways, Yale / NUS has demonstrated a locally-situated operationalizing of the Yale model (albeit with Singaporean characteristics), such as the creation of a ‘secret society’ for elite students in the style of the famed ‘Skull and Bones’ society at Yale, of which several American presidents have been members.  Questions remain, however, about the degree to which students can (or want to) push the critical boundary of controversial topics, themes and opinions, given local restrictions on things like free speech, assembly, and political organizing.  It is here where Yale / NUS diverges most significantly from its North American counterparts (places such as Middlebury College, Vermont, which has seen raucous protests in 2017 in response to controversial invited speakers).

Yale Singapore

Fig. 2: Yale / NUS campus under construction, 2013 (Jason Luger, 2013)

The faculty maintain a statement on the freedom of expression, which can be found on the Yale / NUS website:

Faculty statement on the freedom of expression

‘We are firmly committed to the free expression of ideas in all forms—a central tenet of liberal arts education.  There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated.  This principle is a cornerstone of our institution.’

However, where exactly the line is, or as it is known locally the ‘Out of Bounds’ marker (sometimes shortened to ‘OB’), is at best, hazy.  While there has been on campus support for the LGBTQ community, including an ‘Ally Week’ featuring events in support of LGBTQ students, there has also been push-back from authorities about what is, and is not, permitted.

Most recently, new restrictions were put in place about the use of space on campus: among them was a change in policy in the usage of space in the college, which sees a new ‘Event Approval Committee’ to assess the “desirability and feasibility” of holding an event on campus.  And any event that requires licenses or permits under the ‘Public Entertainments and Meetings Act’ or a permit under the ‘Public Order Act’ would not be allowed (The Straits Times, Feb 2017).

Yet, the case of Yale / NUS should push observers to turn their gaze back toward so-called liberal arts campuses in the ‘liberal’ West.  I conclude by asking the question: are they truly free of authoritarian restrictions, self or de-facto censorship, or the other benchmarks of authoritarian power which, as Foucault (1980) proposed, flow in a circular and sometimes ground-up manner (rather than in a top-down, hierarchal direction?)

Rather than being an outlier or an authoritarian step-child of the liberal arts geography, Yale / NUS may actually serve as a useful mirror of the current authoritarian paradigm that is increasingly global in scale and deeply embedded within, and across, supposed ‘liberal’ structures and locales.  The securitization and neoliberalisation of the university campus is a global reality a generation in the making; administrators often find themselves playing the role of the police or even the autocrat on campuses where activism and violent political rhetoric threaten operations and safety.  The most ‘liberal’, at least in popular imagination, of American major universities – the University of California at Berkeley – has gone so far as to ban speakers altogether whose presence is deemed a security threat.

Yale / NUS may be, therefore, a replica of what already exists – a Singaporean mirror of the new reality, and sign of things to come.  The possibility also exists for a new form of liberalism altogether – one that may yet open up spaces for critical thought and expression that those too focused on a ‘liberal’ lens may fail to see.

References:

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Pantheon.

The Straits Times, (13 Feb, 2017) Yale-NUS space use a bone of contention, by Calvin Yang.

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