New Home for Liberal Arts

In Singapore, students are attracted to an approach beyond professional training.

October 23, 2015

“Having tasted the forbidden fruits of liberal arts, I realize there are so many amazing aspects to academic life,” says Colette Chiaranussati, who is clearly not regretting her decision to quit her medical course.

The 21-year-old Singaporean completed her first year at King’s College London, but says she felt “stifled” by the focus on one subject and yearned to explore new disciplines.

Now a second-year student at Yale-NUS College, a liberal arts college established in the grounds of the National University of Singapore in partnership with the Ivy League institution, she has thrown herself into a range of subjects, from astronomy to behavioral sciences.

“I made my first subject choice based on a very narrow scope of information when I was 18,” says Chiaranussati.

The focus on taking courses whose sole purpose is advancement into the professions is a problem for the Singapore system, she believes.

“You also feel a greater urgency to dive into the job market when you have been in the army for two years,” adds Jevon Chandra, 24, another student at Yale-NUS College, on the added careerist pressure that Singapore’s national service obligation creates in men.

The founding of the college, whose campus was officially inaugurated by Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, last week, may help to solve this challenge for the nation’s education system.

Although its 15-year-olds’ math and science test scores are top in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the island boasts several of Asia’s top universities, many students who are inclined towards the arts and humanities depart for the U.S., where liberal arts degrees allow them to return to major in the sciences, law or other disciplines if they wish.

“Many talented students are moving away from engineering and sciences to expressing an interest in liberal arts,” says Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the NUS, whose modernist campus university west of the main island consistently ranks as Asia’s top university. (It placed 26th in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings.)

With Singapore increasing its higher education participation rate eightfold in the past 25 years, to 40 percent, one of its new goals is now providing new and distinctive offers to students who might otherwise head abroad, he says.

“This is the kind of education in which an increasing proportion of students in Singapore and Asia will be interested,” he believes.

New Generation

The rising interest in less safe, more unconventional careers reflects the evolution of Singapore as a nation that has been transformed since independence in 1965 from an impoverished colonial outpost into a thriving metropolis with a prosperous middle class, whose offspring have different ambitions from those held by their parents.

“In the past we were all for … a good economy [and] wanted a job and roof above our heads,” explains Ong Ye Kung, acting minister for education (higher education and skills).

“Now our goals are more complex and we have the luxury of allowing people to pursue more diverse goals, from engineering and medicine to music, the arts and sports,” he told the OECD-Singapore Higher Education Futures conference this month.

Diversifying the higher education offer is part of Singapore’s growing maturity and symbolic of its status as one of the world’s most vibrant economies, he adds.

“The rethinking of the meaning of higher education must include the fact that the collective good is attained -- in fact can only be attained -- by the ability of individuals to pursue their own talents and passions,” he says.

With such a background, applications to Yale-NUS College are unsurprisingly very strong: about 10,000 students have applied in each of its first three years, with 4 percent offered a place. A total of 190 students enrolled this year, bringing the student body to about 500 -- a number that will eventually reach just 1,000.

Some 40 percent of students hail from about 35 countries other than Singapore (including 10 from the U.S.), and such a multinational cohort has produced some fascinating discussions in seminars, says the dean of faculty, Charles Bailyn.

“Western students will often start the discussions, and Asian students will join in later but really advance the discussion with a different perspective,” Bailyn says.

Creating a new curriculum and a set of policies that reflected the values of both the college’s founding institutions has required a lot of work, he adds.

“NUS and Yale both did things differently, so we pretty much had to start everything from first principles.”

For instance, it was decided that the first semester of Yale-NUS would not count towards students’ grade point averages to allow them time to feel their way in the new learning environment -- a policy increasingly used by the NUS itself, Bailyn says.

“The first semester is ungraded, and it needs to be because it is when we are talking about new things with students,” he says.

In addition, all undergraduates are required to live on campus throughout their studies to build a sense of community, a nod to Yale’s collegiate system but another change for the normally home-dwelling Singaporean students.

Cross-Cultural Connection

While Singapore’s investment in Yale-NUS is considerable, the college’s founding president, Pericles Lewis, believes it will have impact beyond its relatively small student numbers.

“We’ve seen a lot of college leaders -- in Asia, Europe and the U.S. -- who are interested in what we’re doing as it genuinely brings together East and West,” Lewis says.

“We’ve a very good set of students who will leave the college to do great things, but while they are here, there is real intensity to conversations they are having on campus.”

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