An Odyssey in Singapore

Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
Yale-NUS College Inauguration Ceremony
University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore
27 August 2013


Your Excellency, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, President of the Republic of Singapore and NUS Chancellor

Your Excellency David Adelman, Ambassador, United States of America,

Mr Wong Ngit Liong, Chairman of NUS Board of Trustees,

Mdm Kay Kuok, Chairperson of Yale-NUS Governing Board,

Trustees of NUS, Yale and Yale-NUS Boards,

Yale and NUS Presidents,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As our students already are discovering, pioneers, adventurers and people with vision that have changed the world are celebrated throughout literature, history and the arts.  Their stories embody much of what is known as the liberal arts, and now all of us here, are embarked on our own odyssey – – our own voyage of discovery into uncharted waters, dedicating ourselves as a crew to work together in building a new community of learning here in Singapore.  In his great poem about Singaporean identity, “Ulysses by the Merlion,” the poet Edwin Thumboo writes of the Greek hero arriving in Singapore and finding the “lion of the sea.”  He has encountered many strange peoples and places, and seen the destruction of Troy, also known as Ilium, but, says Ulysses,

Nothing, nothing in my days
Foreshadowed this
Half-beast, half-fish,
This powerful creature of land and sea.

Peoples settled here,
Brought to this island
The bounty of these seas,
Built towers topless as Ilium’s.

How did the Merlion become the symbol of Singapore?  Thumboo answers that the Singaporean people were looking for an image of themselves:

Perhaps having dealt in things,
Surfeited on them,
Their spirits yearn again for images,
Adding to the dragon, phoenix,
Garuda, Naga those horses of the sun,
This lion of the sea,
This image of themselves.

This is a central theme in Singaporean writing and art.  Singapore’s writers and artists have challenged the notion that Singapore should mainly be known for its commercial success, its tall buildings and “towers topless as Ilium’s.”  Instead, they celebrate Singapore’s amazing diversity and variety, its energy and hospitality.

When I discuss the founding of Singapore’s first liberal arts college with educators, journalists, and parents here, they often use a Hokkien word for fear of losing or risk of failure and ask whether a liberal arts education is compatible with the “kiasu” mentality.  My own experience suggests that on the contrary, Singaporeans, and Asians more broadly, have a great hunger for pedagogy that truly encourages critical thinking and a model of liberal arts and science education adapted for the 21st century.

I have had wonderful conversations with some of the students in our first class, and they are anything but kiasu.  Some of these students were admitted to the college as much as eighteen months ago.  Last year, at a Halloween party where the student hosts were memorably dressed as Mao Zedong and Mahatma Gandhi, we talked about the history of Asian state formation and the relevance of American democracy as a model for Singapore.  Over Chinese New Year “lo hei” dinners, we have discussed the poetry of Catullus, the relevance of Jorge Luis Borges to the future of the internet, and the best ways to protect the islands of Southeast Asia from future tsunamis, all issues on which the faculty have engaged these young minds.  On a student blog, our prospective freshmen debate gender and sexuality, the clash of civilizations, and the future of stand-up comedy in Singapore.  These students are eager to take risks and to build a great future for their country.  They are joined here by students from 25 countries on six continents who believe that Singapore offers the perfect opportunity for a 21st-century education in the liberal arts and sciences.  This group of students was selected from over 10,000 applicants from all around the world, and they have lived up to our highest expectations.

I would like to express my gratitude to the students here for choosing to be pioneers.  Thank you also to the parents and grandparents who have supported their children in joining this exciting venture.  I am grateful also for the tremendous efforts of our faculty, leading teachers and researchers from around the world, to create a unique curriculum and pedagogy.  Let me also thank the staff who have worked so hard the past year and more to prepare for the arrival of the students, to prepare for this day.  Thank you to Mr Wong Ngit Liong, Chairman of the NUS Board of Trustees, Mdm Kay Kuok, Chairperson of the Yale-NUS Governing Board, and the other Board members and supporters at Yale and NUS.  Without the generous investments of the government of Singapore, Yale and NUS would not have been able to create an entire new college.  And the financial support of generous donors—individuals, foundations, and corporations has allowed us to admit students without regard to their financial means and to build our academic programs.  Thank you all.

Last year, the faculty and staff of Yale-NUS came together to articulate the vision and mission of the College.  We are

A community of learning,
Founded by two great universities,
In Asia, for the world.

I would like to speak very briefly about the ways we expect this vision to unfold.

We have formed a community of learning in which students and faculty interact not only in their classes but in the dining halls and common lounges, in which all over campus there is a broad discussion of a shared curriculum in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences.  Students in the past week have been reading the Indian epic Ramayana, learning about the history of the periodic table, studying Chinese Buddhist philosophy, and analyzing the causes of inequality in modern societies.  Next week, they will be reading Homer’s Odyssey, to which Thumboo’s poem refers.

We expect this community to grow even stronger as we build our wonderful new campus and grow to encompass 1000 students from Singapore and around the world.  We draw on the traditions of two great universities.  We are drawing on Yale’s residential college model and supplementing it with the best current practices to intertwine living and learning.  Both Yale and NUS faculty have shaped the initial plans for the curriculum and hired the outstanding inaugural faculty of 50 who have made that curriculum a reality.  I believe that in the classes the students are currently taking we have found an excellent answer to our overarching question: “what must a young person learn in order to live a responsible life in this century?”

Yale faculty are visiting Singapore in large numbers to participate in the teaching.  In addition to faculty involvement, NUS provides libraries and laboratories, student services, and a broader community.  We expect this partnership to grow with the introduction of our combined degree programs with both Yale and NUS professional schools and with continued exchanges of faculty and students.

Finally, we are very much aware that our mission is to educate students in Asia, for the world.  Our curriculum stresses the interaction between Asian and Western civilizations.  Our unique student experiences allow students to take advantage of this remarkable region, whether to study biodiversity, the unique cultures of Southeast Asia, or patterns of global finance.  And we are educating citizens of the world, people who will have a broad familiarity with the great achievements of human art and science and will feel that their responsibilities extend not only to their local communities but also to the betterment of humanity at large.  We have already traveled together to New Haven and to the United Nations in New York, where we were addressed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Let me close by exhorting all of you, our students, parents, grandparents, faculty, staff, supporters, and friends, to join in this voyage of discovery we are taking together.  To quote another poem about an Odyssey, Tennyson’s “Ulysses,”

All experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

Let us embrace the experience of founding a college that we hope will be a model throughout Asia and the world, and let us promise, with Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”