SINGAPORE: A shift from science to humanities

The proposed tie-up between the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale University in the United States to set up a joint liberal-arts college in Singapore is more than just a university partnership. It represents a departure for resource-scarce Singapore's emphasis on technology and the sciences.

Science and technology have been promoted for decades and have been key drivers of the economy for the tiny but affluent island-state.

"A liberal arts education is a new thing for most Singaporeans," said Kirpal Singh, an English literature and creative thinking lecturer at the Singapore Management University (SMU).

"Ours has been quite a sustained 'pragmatic' society which, basically, has adhered to a somewhat utilitarian philosophy of education, instrumentalist in its goals," Singh told University World News, referring to the need for education to be linked closely to economic goals.

But he believes liberal arts education will be vital to ensure Singapore's continued economic growth.

"Our current socio-political system is fast becoming outmoded," Singh said. "If we are not careful, we are going to be left way behind the rest of the world in terms of the way citizens think - and consequently feel - about crucial issues confronting a globalised world."

The liberal arts in the US are seen as developing critical and analytical thinking through literature and the arts, and opening young minds to other cultural traditions, valuable for even scientists in a globalised world.

A liberal arts degree would bring about "much-needed changes, even transformation, in the way Singaporeans think about things", Singh said.

"The new economy is rapidly moving away from a narrow, traditional focus on science and technology," he said, adding that "thinking imaginatively" about science and technology will take over from merely using the available tools.

"Once liberal arts are accepted as a norm, we can look forward to a much greater - and much more robust - engagement with science and technology," Singh said.

Yale president Richard Levin has described the proposed tie-up as a "new educational model for the 21st century, contextualised especially for Asia. There has never been greater need for undergraduate education that cultivates critical inquiry".

"In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the qualities of mind developed through liberal education are perhaps more indispensable than ever in preparing students to understand and appreciate differences across cultures and national boundaries, and to address problems for which there are no easy solutions," he said.

Singapore's Education Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters at the end of a recent four-day working trip to the US that such an education trains "the cut of mind" and "lends itself to the 21st century because many of our problems and challenges are multidisciplinary in nature".

Ng said a liberal arts college in Singapore would introduce "a more well-developed approach to the training of future leaders".

Singapore has also stepped up the funding of fine arts courses, with financing for the first time being made available for up to 400 new degree places in art, design and media.

However after years of promoting the sciences, and with the importance of science education for future careers firmly entrenched in the minds of parents, it is not at all clear that a liberal arts education will attract the best and the brightest or be seen as a preferred option.

The Yale tie-up is seen as a shrewd move by the government to persuade a sceptical public.

"To persuade people to accept a liberal arts education, the potential tying-up with a distinguished leader in liberal arts education - Yale - is a very good move," said Singh.

Sentiment on the ground for such a curriculum appears surprisingly encouraging. Darren Tan, whose son is a second-year undergraduate reading engineering at the Nanyang Technological University, believes it is the right time for Singapore to promote the liberal arts.

"There is a perception that having an arts education won't pay well in one's career. What are you even going to work as here? But maybe it's time Singaporeans appreciate the fact that while money is important, it is not all there is in life," said Tan.

Some parents, as the government intended, appeared more interested in the Yale tag than the course content.

"It's up to my children what they want to study and we'll fully support them in whatever way we can," said Rosalind Lee, a mother of two girls aged 16 and 18. While her elder daughter will likely miss out on the benefits as the new tie-up is only expected to come into fruition - if it goes through - in 2013, Lee said she was excited about the opportunities for her younger daughter.

"How often do you hear of a Singaporean saying she graduated from Yale?" she asked. Lee remained upbeat even when informed that degrees will not be granted by Yale, but NUS. "It will be a very strong brand name, nonetheless," she said.

Singapore and NUS will bear all expenses to set up and operate the proposed Yale-NUS College, with seats on the governing board to be shared evenly between Yale and NUS appointees.

Huang Zongwei, 28, an NUS graduate who obtained a masters degree from the University of Oxford and is now a doctoral student majoring in psychology at Yale University, told Singapore's Chinese language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao that the purpose of a liberal arts education was not only to expose students to a wide range of knowledge but also to nurture analytical and problem-solving skills.

"Possessing different modes of thinking is critically important to handling social issues. Future leaders should have this type of vision," Huang said.

"It is timely to consider introducing liberal arts education in Singapore," the country's education minister said in September, when first announcing the non-binding agreement between Yale and NUS to examine the proposal to set up a new liberal arts college.

"The government is supportive of NUS's and Yale's efforts to develop a liberal arts model that will attract top students, and that is contextualised to Singapore and Asia."

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