Liberal arts, university autonomy and expectations of activism: Yale–NUS in context

Academic Views / Saturday, September 11th, 2021

Meredith L. Weiss argues that while Yale-NUS College has had some success in creating a more open and tolerant campus culture, attempts to preserve this have to be viewed in historical context. Over the decades, students’ engagement in wider society has been suppressed and deprioritised. State controls on student activism and university autonomy have worked in tandem with global trends in tertiary education that emphasize human resource development over the development of citizens’ intellectual or leadership capacities. The Singaporean public has come to believe that political activism is inappropriate and risky, for both self and society. This article is based on her remarks at AcademiaSG’s webinar on liberal education on 9 September 2021. Weiss is Professor of Political Science at University of Albany, State University of New York.

Among the many concerns the closure/merger of Yale–NUS College (YNC) has set swirling are at least two that concern the broad character and position of the institution: what it means to offer a liberal arts education and what justifies the unusual leeway universities and their students traditionally occupy. Rather than home in narrowly on the experience of and circumstances surrounding YNC, I will take a broader view of these overarching issues, both generally and in Singapore’s history.

Liberal arts: whole person education for an active citizenry

First, what do we mean by ‘liberal’ or ‘liberal arts’ education? Martha Nussbaum, professor of Law at the University of Chicago, explains that liberal education, ‘places the accent on the creation of a critical public culture, through an emphasis on analytical thinking, argumentation, and active participation in debate’. As such, it ‘helps young people learn to speak in their own voices and to respect the voices of others’ and ‘to see themselves as not simply citizens of some local region or group but also, and above all, as … “citizens of the world”’, able to understand and appreciate others’ perspectives and needs. Structural features such as small class sizes, seminar-style discussions (especially an interactive ‘Socratic’ approach), opportunities for undergraduate research, extracurricular activities, avenues for engaged or experiential learning (beyond pre-professional internships) all help to support a ‘liberal’ ideological premise or objective. That said, a university may offer small seminars without that ideological basis, or may find other ways to cultivate that same intellectually-curious, intellectually-empowered approach.

While associated with the American ‘liberal arts college’ tradition, this focus has never been exclusive to (and indeed, did not originate in) the United States. The initial framing and objectives for university education in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, in fact, arguably fit within this approach. We see that resonance in part in the shift from a more narrowly tailored institutional scope (e.g., the King Edward VII College of Medicine) to the breadth a full university offers, but especially in the extent to which politicians, university leaders, students, and the wider society alike understood education to extend inherently beyond the classroom. In late-colonial and early post-colonial Singapore, ‘active citizenry’ was a goal rather than an externality of higher education, in line with the ‘whole person’ emphasis of a liberal arts mindset.

The King Edward VII College of Medicine was established in 1905 as a highly specialised tertiary institution. It later merged with Raffles College to form the University of Malaya — part of a trend that saw universities take on a broad public role. [Roots.SG photo]

Over time and across national borders, that ‘liberal’ premise has helped to carve out for students (and academic staff) special space and status. Students take on the status of what Frank Pinner has termed a ‘marginal elite’, along with, for instance, certain members of the clergy and military: they are spatially cloistered to an extent and subjected to separate laws and courts, recruited to that status, and conferred with ‘special privileges and immunities’ by dint of their (for students, largely future) social role and contribution to the public good. It is widely assumed correct that students explore even ideas deemed ‘dangerous’ in the wild, read books that may be banned for general public, and otherwise indulge and cultivate their intellectual curiosity and capacity, as well as that they take interest in important issues of the day. But real tension may arise between having that freedom to develop and practice engagement and leadership on campus as a student versus in public as a citizen, at least while one is still also a student. (We will return to this tension below.)

Students as future leaders, or economic inputs?

Undeniably, students’ special status has eroded over time, across contexts. What has caused that diminution is not just nefarious state action. Perhaps most important among these factors has been a shift toward emphasizing more functional education, or applied versus ‘pure’ knowledge, as tertiary education has become more common and required for careers in a skills-intensive economy. Despite continuing paeans to the importance of being ‘well-rounded’ (and notwithstanding even so many employers’ prioritization of critical thinking and related skills rather than technical training), higher education widely has comes to focus more on human resource development than on developing intellectual or leadership capacity. Such shifts may be all the more clear in postcolonial contexts, where early, especially flagship public universities really did assume the burden of crafting leaders to steer those new states.

To put it bluntly, if 40 percent rather than 2 percent of the relevant cohort have university degrees, clearly not all will end up as sociopolitical or thought leaders. Internationalization of the tertiary education industry also complicates this sort of training function, since students may not be local, but may still feel inspired to engage in society around them. (This issue could be especially germane in Singapore, given rules on foreigners’ involvement in political matters – whereas foreign students elsewhere might help out with an election campaign or the like for the experience, without running afoul of laws or expectations.) All told, globally, we find less support, given these turns over time, for seeing students as moral authorities qua future leaders, with a unique responsibility to and role in society and politics.

At the same time, students and campuses globally and historically have enjoyed, and still can and do expect, a certain latitude and insulation. Robust norms protect that space (buttressed by more formal articulations: for instance, Argentina’s 1918 Córdoba Reforms, enshrining university autonomy), intertwined with a still evident, if more diffuse, sense of students’ and professors’ presumed responsibility to and for society. Again, though, that privilege can either be confined within the campus gates or allowed, even encouraged, to spill outside. Hence, for instance, when Malaysian students organized a high-profile roadshow for the 1969 elections, presenting a progressive agenda for political parties, their rallies and manifesto drew not only huge crowds, but warm plaudits for the students’ social awareness and leadership. Yet then came the fraught election and the violent clashes of 13 May. As the dust of emergency rule settled, enactment of the Universities and University Colleges Act barred students for decades hence from national politics; over time, campus and political authorities came to suppress even within-campus political activities.

The broader pattern here is not unique to any one setting: we saw increasing efforts especially as of the late 1960s–70s in many countries to contain students and their activism physically to the campus, as well as indignation when security forces have broached campus gates. Consider, on the one hand, the shootings at Jakarta’s Trisakti University in 1998, after student protests against Suharto surged into the streets rather than remaining within the campus, or on the other, the ire of the rector of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras when security forces ‘invaded’ his campus without his authorization in 2019. Over time, following waves of protests as well as more generic security concerns, the presumed impermeability of campus boundaries has weakened, however much a (non-university) police presence on campus may itself increase ‘campus volatility’.

As with the nature of higher education generally, a shift in expectations regarding what student status entails and respect for attendant norms has been partly ‘organic’. Students’ ideas and opinions have garnered less intrinsic respect with the development of a professional class of fully credentialed politicians (since initially, most postcolonial politicians, including the average MP in Singapore, were less well-educated than the average undergraduate), but also with an ideological turn across the postcolonial world from a loosely left-wing orientation in the wake of anti-imperialist struggles to a more technocratic, developmentalist one, not least in Singapore. The democratization and massification of access to higher education – however otherwise beneficial and necessary – has also played a role.

The Singapore state’s suppression of student activism

To be clear, though, what we see in Singapore is not just a standard story of changes in socioeconomic structures, nor of hegemonic neoliberalism. Singapore also has a history of having stifled student engagement in wider society and curbed academic staff autonomy. Regulations dating back to earliest years of the University of Malaya in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur prohibited student societies that were engaged in activities ‘detrimental to the interest’ of the polity or public. Better known to the public then and now were high profile cases against socialist or left-leaning students: the ‘University Case’ against students purportedly active in a purportedly communist-linked Anti-British League cell in 1951, and especially the Fajar case, which saw a group of University Socialist Club students brought to trial (with a young Lee Kuan Yew on their defence team) in 1954. Importantly, though, colonial authorities at least acknowledged that they should anticipate students to be so involved, when they establish universities in their colonies – British officials wrestled with the implications of repressing ‘“intellectual leaders of this type’ in the first case, and the judge in the latter case summarily dismissed the charges, lest conviction stifle ‘legitimate criticisms’, circulating primarily among ‘people [who] can think for themselves’. Nor was it just the British who lauded students’ inclination toward active involvement as citizens. As Malaya’s Tunku Abdul Rahman insisted in 1960, ‘Our college students today are conscious of the larger world outside their campuses, and are endeavouring to participate in the life and activities of the society in which they are growing up’.

The Straits Times, 8 October 1963: Restive students at Nanyang University were particularly troublesome for the authorities.

As merger with the Federation of Malaya approached, then after it failed, the tide turned. However much the Singaporean public and politicians assumed the still-small number of undergraduates destined to lead the country forward after graduation, their outside political involvement as students, in the liberal arts-inspired, active-citizen mode, came to seem beyond the pale. (The state did still welcome more anodyne social-welfare efforts and the like – perhaps foreshadowing the distinction People’s Action Party minister George Yeo later drew between troublesome ‘civil society’ and productive ‘civic society’, or the state’s embrace of ‘administrative incorporation’ to gather up safely atomized and depoliticized input.) The newly independent government, confronting challenges both at the polls and in the wider political milieu, saw students – especially, but not only, Chinese-educated students in restive secondary schools as well as Nanyang University (Nantah) – as particularly troublesome. A new ‘Suitability Certificate’ enacted in 1964 was a preventive measure, barring matriculation of ‘undesirable” students’. Other measures were reactive and punitive. Two of the most notable cases warrant brief mention here: one that laid bare the line students were not to cross, and the other (for its seeming parallel to the current YNC case) for what became of the institution.

We turn first to the University of Singapore and its Students’ Union (USSU) in 1974. Under the leadership of Juliet Chin and Tan Wah Piow, USSU sought to make the university ‘socially relevant’. Students mobilized against government repression and detention, on foreign-policy issues, and especially on behalf of labour: the USSU Council established a Retrenchment Resource Centre to support the thousands of workers retrenched that year in a financial downturn. Although they also took action on campus-specific issues – against a hike in fees, for instance – the students’ efforts transpired on the national, civic stage, directed toward the PAP’s political leadership, rather than just on campus, engaging campus authorities. Indeed, USSU encouraged students that year to ‘go into life’, by working in factories during school holidays, to learn about the ‘workers’ plight’. (That initiative echoed the near-contemporaneous anti-authoritarian minjung movement in South Korea, in which students determined to forge alliances with workers left universities for factories.) The pushback against this over-assertion of sociopolitical initiative proved severe. Tan was arrested and ultimately sought asylum in the UK; five Malaysian student activists, including Chin, were deported. USSU rallied, boycotted classes, and otherwise expostulated, but to no avail; further restrictions not long after forestalled further such confrontational involvement.

Straits Times and New Nation articles in 1974 and 1975: University of Singapore student union leaders’ attempts to make the university more socially relevant met severe pushback.

Second, we consider Nantah. British and local authorities had been suspicious since the university’s founding that it was a bevy of left-wing or Malayan Communist Party-linked activities, then of its ties to the PAP offshoot and rival, Barisan Sosialis. Raids on and off campus had seen scores of students (and even more alumni) detained, under the Internal Security Act or other regulations, or expelled in the 1960s. 1963 was especially devastating: Operation Cold Store in February, on the cusp of merger, saw a round of arrests (including of Nanyang University Student Union leaders) for alleged pro-communist activity, then the September elections saw even more. Ten of 46 Barisan candidates that year were Nantah alumni, and over 500 Nantah students campaigned or raised funds for Barisan – and while students had campaigned energetically for the PAP, too, over the years, without penalty, this more challenging involvement was different.

All the while, Nantah did experience problems of academic standards, facilities, and so forth; the government had pressed restructuring (dangling the carrot of recognizing Nantah degrees) since the early 1960s, to students’ ire. By the late 1960s, student activism had really subsided – well before Nantah’s final reorganization: its merger in 1980 with the University of Singapore, as NUS. Yet that history, as well as the wider cultural politics of Chinese education of which Nantah was an iconic part, unsurprisingly generated deep scepticism about the ‘real’ reasons for this step.

Beyond efforts to keep students in check, we might recall, too, Singapore’s history of curbing academic staff. The most obvious turn toward such praxis was PAP minister Toh Chin Chye’s appointment as vice-chancellor in 1968. Widely seen to disregard norms of autonomy and free speech among both students and staff, Toh undercut faculty governance, too – for instance, by appointing deans whom the faculty had previously elected; the deans were then accountable to him, not to their faculty peers. That scarring precedent suggests why faculty might worry if, for instance, academic grant programs or hiring decisions seem unconvincingly insulated against political considerations today.

May 2017: President Tony Tan (middle) and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung (left of Tan) with Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis (right of Tan) and Yale-NUS board members. [MCI Photo]

Yale-NUS College and the burden of history

All told, the history and pattern of purposeful suppression of both student activism and the university autonomy that supports it, alongside a more organic, but still concerning, reframing of higher education, help to explain why not just the content, but specifically the top-down, sudden manner, of the recent declaration of YNC’s merger into NUS has raised concerns and hackles.

YNC had promised, and arguably delivered, a return to the active, aware citizenship ideal that liberal arts education intends to foster – and which was also a core part of what national leaders expected and sought of students in the early years of higher education in Singapore. The administration (seemingly more at the ministerial than institutional level) took the decision to merge YNC with NUS’s University Scholars Program (USP) absent any deference to faculty governance as a bulwark in defence of university autonomy, on the one hand, or to the specific motivations that might have brought students seeking a liberal arts education and approach to choose YNC over NUS or other options, on the other.

The opacity of the process leaves it to observers’ imagination to suss out the cause of the sudden decision – and the clues history offers suggests YNC’s regime-discomfiting support of sociopolitical awareness and engagement, and amidst a substantially international student body, could have been a spur. It bears noting that there were real concerns about academic freedom and university autonomy when YNC launched (indeed, part of justification of YNC at time was as a lever to raise the bar for Singapore), but nothing in this restructuring seems to be driven by those concerns. And indeed, NUS widely, or the USP specifically, might, in fact, be about equally supportive as YNC of academic freedom and university autonomy.

But history matters, not only for the specific institutional legacies it leaves, but also for the understandings it fosters. Decades of suppression or denigration of students’ political activism has cultivated an impression across the Singaporean public that such engagement is inappropriate and risky, for self and society, in ever-precarious Singapore; the self-censorship and threat-perception that framing has triggered helps to ‘contain’ intellectual activity or activism premised on student status. The explicit promise of a more open, tolerant campus culture – and the fact of a new institutional framework – encouraged students to return to their activist roots of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s (however unwittingly) at YNC; for them to continue in that vein at NUS will require a much more daunting leap of faith, given the political cultural detritus of past encounters.

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