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Singapore marks the end of a more liberal era in higher education

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The students strolling around the lush green campus of the Yale-National University of Singapore, the city-state’s first liberal arts college, were unusually subdued one recent afternoon.

The Singaporean institution had suddenly announced on August 27 that it would end its partnership with the Ivy League university, leaving students and faculty in a state of shock as the new academic year began.

NUS said its decision to end the relationship would pave the way for a plan to “deliver flexible, interdisciplinary education more accessibly, and at greater scale”.

Giulia, an Italian student in her final year, says she is still confident about her career prospects. What concerns her is the message that the move sends about the situation in Singapore. A city she has called home for years is heading down what she describes as a “worrying” path.

Yale-NUS launched in 2011 with the aim of bringing American liberal education to an illiberal city-state known for its exam-dominated curricula and rote learning.

The joint venture shone a light on the other side of Singapore’s character: a wealthy, upwardly mobile and politically stable society with low tax rates that attracts US and Chinese companies alike, and foreign workers from around the world. It’s a favoured destination for international students, too.

Between 40 to 45 per cent of the roughly 1,000 Yale-NUS students are foreign, as are the majority of staff. Even the school’s architecture is a blend of east and west: the main entrance features a sloping grand roof with a square oculus — a nod to ancient Rome — which sends rainwater into a below pool surrounded by native Singaporean greenery.

But the dismantling of the Yale-NUS community comes amid a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment among the public, fuelled by economic anxiety and hardship.

New political parties have exploited this shift in opinion, putting the ruling People’s Action party on the back foot. As pragmatic as the government is about the need to maintain Singapore’s reputation as a business hub, it also wants to recapture ground taken by the opposition.

Two days after the Yale-NUS announcement, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of the founder of modern Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, delivered the annual national day rally address.

Citing a “growing restlessness over foreigners”, Lee lamented that “most [work pass holders] do not stay long enough to integrate fully into our society. Social frictions arise because culturally, work pass holders are different from us.”

This week, however, the country’s finance minister Lawrence Wong, in response to calls from one opposition party for curbs on expat numbers, warned that anti-foreigner rhetoric is “deepening faultlines”. 

Some in Singapore had hoped that the country would gradually become more open and tolerant. Yale-NUS embodied those hopes. In tightly controlled Singapore, many of its students were emboldened to be politically active in a way that those at other universities were not.

Graduates went on to Oxford, Princeton and other elite universities, or entered top jobs in finance, public service, technology and law. At one point Yale-NUS was harder to get into than any of the US Ivy League schools — including Yale.

“What happened to Yale-NUS is a microcosm of national, regional and global tensions, refracted in education,” says Andrew Hui, an associate professor of humanities at the institution. “It was a victim of its own success.”

Even those critical of the venture pointed to the timing of the decision.

“I was not in favour of this particular model for bringing liberal arts to Singapore,” says Linda Lim, a Singaporean professor at the University of Michigan. “But the timing [of the announcement] fits into the local political and social context.”

For Christina Ho, an alumna based in Singapore, the “closure of the college is deeply personal”. But, she adds, “I’m more concerned about its negative signals about Singapore’s international standing as a global education hub.”

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