In terminating Yale NUS College, the question is what elements of Yale University will continue in Singapore. The 319-year-old Ivy League university has a history of protest and espionage, so it will be interesting to see whether this part of the American university’s DNA can ever take root or flourish in Singapore’s socio-political eco-system.
On August 27, the National University of Singapore (NUS) announced it will establish a provisionally named “New College” that in 2025 will merge Yale-NUS College with NUS’s University Scholars Programme. Then Yale-NUS College will cease in 2025.
On August 26, YaleNews reported, “The original affiliation agreement signed in 2011 between NUS and Yale has always given either party the opportunity to withdraw in 2025. By announcing four years in advance its intention to withdraw, NUS is providing all current Yale-NUS College students with the chance to complete their undergraduate studies as planned.”
Yale President Peter Salovey said in a statement on August 26, “We would have liked nothing better than to continue its development.”
From the YaleNews report and Salovey’s statement, it appears that NUS was the prime mover in terminating the Yale NUS College which took its first students in 2013.
“We are pleased that (NUS) President Tan (Eng Chye) has said that he wishes to draw on the best features of Yale-NUS College in creating the new college,” Salovey said.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his speech at the inauguration of the Yale NUS College campus on 12 October 2015, said Yale NUS College should adapt the Yale model to Asia. He added, “This will not succeed if Yale-NUS is just a carbon copy of Yale in New Haven.”
“The countries are not converging on a single universal social or political model that will best deal with these challenges under all circumstances, because each country is different, and has different situations – different natural endowments, different historical experiences, different geopolitical circumstances, different social structures, cultures and values. Each therefore faces different constraints and has different possibilities open to it,” Lee said.
By saying this, the Singapore Prime Minister perhaps hinted Yale NUS College must accept the greater media censorship and restriction on protests in Singapore compared to the US, where the rights to free speech and assembly are enshrined in the US Constitution.
The magnitude of protests at Yale University is unlikely to be allowed in Singapore.
Yale students participated in Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and 2015. As part of the Black Lives Matter protest, Yale students and community members called for the university to abolish its police department in June 2020.
Three bombs exploded at the Yale campus on 1 May 1970 as part of protests related to the Black Panthers, a militant African-American organization that was dissolved in 1982. Shortly before the bombing, Yale President Kingman Brewster had opened the university to people who wanted to express support for several Black Panther members who were on trial for the kidnapping and murder of a fellow Black Panther whom they suspected of being an informant for the FBI. On 1 May 1970, protestors on the Yale campus threw rocks and bottles at American National Guardsmen and police, who retaliated with tear gas. Fortunately, there were no deaths despite the bombings and violence.
With strict laws on racial harmony, the Singapore authorities would probably dampen down demonstrations on racial issues or ban them. I have no doubt that the Singapore Law and Home Affairs Minister would swiftly nip in the bud any racial protest that might involve bombings and violence.
The expected visit and speech by US Secretary of State William Rogers at Yale in May 1972 aroused hostility by part of the student body. Yale President Brewster had his statement printed on the front page of Yale Daily News on 12 May 1972, where he upheld free speech and expressed his dislike of the administration of US President Richard Nixon, but threatened to expel students who would deny Rogers’ right to free speech. Rogers cancelled his visit.
Can you imagine a head of Yale NUS College behaving like Brewster over a visit by a Singapore minister? In September 2019, Yale NUS College cancelled a course on dissent and civil disobedience. Commenting on the matter, Singapore Parliamentary Speaker Tan Chuan Jin wrote on Facebook, “Given what is happening in Hong Kong and elsewhere, do we believe this is the way to go? Is this the liberal education we need to get us into the future?”
Besides dissent, there is another side to Yale, which is espionage. Yale has produced spies since its earliest days. During the American revolution against British rule in the 18th century, two Yale graduates who spied for the American rebels were Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge.
By the 1950s, Yale had had a long association with US government intelligence, wrote James Lilley in his autobiography “China Hands”. “Because of their high intellectual calibre and language abilities, Yale graduates were considered attractive candidates for work.”
After graduating from Yale, James Lilley joined the CIA and rose to become the top CIA officer in China. He was the US ambassador to China during the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. As he related in his book, Lilley helped the Chinese dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi escape from Beijing to the US during the Tiananmen event.
“During my time at Yale, recruiters on campus for the CIA included the varsity crew coach as well as eminent professors…..One of those professors invited me to see him on a fall day in 1950. I quickly signed up for the CIA. So did about a hundred of my classmates,” Lilley recalled in his book.
Yale had played a part in the formation in 1942 of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US intelligence agency during World War II. From Yale’s class of 1943 alone, at least 42 young men had entered intelligence work, and many of these men helped form the CIA which took over the duties of the OSS in 1947, according to Lilley’s book.
“The connection between Yale and the new CIA started at the top,” wrote Lilley.
Yale’s president during most of Lilley’s studies at Yale was Charles Seymour, who was on close terms with Allen Dulles, the CIA director during the 1950s and early 1960s, Lilley disclosed.
Spooks who graduated from Yale include George H.W. Bush, who was CIA chief, the top US envoy in Beijing and US President, and William Bundy, who was a CIA spy and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the 1960s when he played a key role in the Vietnam War. Another CIA chief, Robert James Woolsey, graduated from Yale Law School.
A recruiting ground for spies at Yale was a secret society, Skull and Bones, which was established in 1832. Yale students who were regarded as potential future leaders in government, business, journalism and the arts were invited to join this all-male club. Skull and Bones members include George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush (who was also US President), William Bundy and his brother McGeorge Bundy (former National Security Adviser), John Kerry (former State Secretary), Winston Lord (former US ambassador to China) and Steven Mnuchin (Treasury Secretary under US President Donald Trump).
Strange ceremonies are believed to take place at the headquarters of Skull and Bones, a windowless building on the Yale campus called “the Tomb”. Years ago, a young Hong Kong lady who was a Yale undergraduate told me Skull and Bones ceremonies included naked mud-wrestling, but I don’t know if that is true, since Skull and Bones members are sworn to secrecy.
Do secret societies like Skull and Bones exist at Yale NUS College? I don’t know.
Skull and Bones with its bizarre rituals bear partial similarities to Chinese triad secret societies where gangsters partook of ceremonies with an occult flavour in settings reminiscent of Chinese Taoist temples. Will Skull and Bones, which is part of Yale’s DNA, fuse with the Chinese tradition of organized crime to produce in Singapore a cross-cultural secret society that breeds future movers and shakers? When Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore Prime Minister, he seriously reduced triad criminal activities which were previously rampant in the Lion City. If Lee Kuan Yew was alive today, I suspect he will not look kindly on secret societies since he crushed them.
Singapore already has its style of elitism, where scholars are sent to top universities abroad like Yale, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, then promoted in the armed forces and government. I doubt Singapore scholars will engage in naked mud-wrestling to qualify to be a minister.
But how can Singapore-based students advance to a higher level, where they can become movers and shakers who will be more influential, whether in government, espionage, business or the arts? Does it take a secret society like Skull and Bones to achieve that?
Bombings and violent unrest must never be allowed in Singapore, while gatherings courting racial and religious controversy should be heavily controlled. However, there are certain ingredients behind Yale’s traditions of dissent and spycraft that will be valuable if mixed into Singapore’s education cuisine. The questioning attitude behind dissent and the high-quality education with an international outlook that produced spies at Yale will nurture broader and better minds in Singapore-based students, who can then make a bigger impact on society.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.
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