Let education enrich life, not just the market
If Singapore is serious about becoming a higher education hub in Asia, there is much its policymakers can learn from the debate that has unfolded over its prized venture, the Yale-NUS College.
While the rhetoric has mostly centred on a perceived clash of East-West civilisational values on civil liberty, the real issue that needs attention is Singapore's long-held model of Education Inc, where the university's primary purpose is to enrich the economy more than human life.
To this end, tertiary institutions are akin to factories that produce workers to plug gaps in the labour force. The trend has been to offer industry-centric courses that conform to the government's industrial blueprint of the day.
In the 1990s, the rage was information technology as multinational corporations began to automate their operations. Then the dotcom bubble burst.
Today, biotechnology has replaced IT as the next big thing, bolstered by Singapore's ambition to become Asia's leading biomedical hub, though its appeal, too, has dimmed as the market for bioengineers became saturated.
The Yale-NUS College was supposed to be different. According to senior National University of Singapore (NUS) co-ordinator Lily Kong, the college is to produce well-developed, all-round individuals who will become 'CEOs of major organisations, presidents and prime ministers' and also 'leaders of community organisations'.
Yet, can Yale-NUS escape the grip of this capitalist ethos? While it is the nature of liberal arts to be interdisciplinary, the college's current degree offerings - law and environmental studies - suggest that not much has changed.
This was the view held by some academics spearheading a 'Yale spring' revolt. Seyla Benhabib, a political scientist, wrote that the decision to establish Yale-NUS was made partly by some members of the Yale Corporation who had served on the Singapore government's investment arm. Her spouse and fellow Yale academic, Jim Sleeper, criticised the college's administrators for relegating 'the company of scholars to a roster of corporate employees'.
This aspect of the Yale-NUS debate resonates beyond Singapore: look at Britain, for instance. Its government has embarked on a series of higher education budget cuts that has seen university departments like philosophy and theology with little perceived 'economic' value axed.
The danger of corporatising education is the creation of a world littered with technocrats swaying to the whims of market forces - a life dictated by dollars and cents. Seen in this light, the 'Yale spring' in Singapore must be seen as a surrogate attempt at reclaiming the human soul.
Nazry Bahrawi is a cultural critic from Singapore