First Year Assembly 2017

Speech by Professor Tan Tai Yong, President, Yale-NUS College

at the Yale-NUS College First Year Assembly 2017

11 August 2017 at Yale-NUS College 


Professor Tan Chorh Chuan and Ms Chong Siak Ching, members of the Yale-NUS Governing Board,

Students, families, and fellow Yale-NUS colleagues


Six years ago, a bold decision was taken to establish a liberal arts college in Singapore. It was never going to be a straightforward task, for it entailed, in many ways, taking the road less traveled. Six years on, Yale-NUS College, the outcome of that decision, has taken root, and is thriving.

We marked a couple of milestones this year. In late May, the College held its first graduation ceremony for the Class of 2017, our inaugural batch of students who, with the support of their families, took that leap of faith by enrolling with us.

A few weeks later, we bade farewell to Professor Pericles Lewis, my predecessor and esteemed colleague, who, along with the Yale-NUS community, took on the challenge of steering the College from its inception to where it is today.

I stand before you as the new president of the College, to welcome all of you. As we look back with pride on how far the College has come in six years, we are also about to begin a journey together, and you can be sure that I am as excited and anxious as you are.

All of you have chosen to be part of Yale-NUS College because you are attracted to, and excited by the promise of a liberal arts and sciences education.

Singapore may at first seem an unlikely place for liberal education to make inroads, let alone thrive. In a country which has traditionally adopted a utilitarian approach to higher education,  and where many more students graduate with first degrees in engineering sciences than in the humanities and social sciences, an education, other than professional or technical, can seem to be an impediment.

Yet, here you are, Class of 2021.

Your presence today speaks of your desire for an education that emphasises humane learning, and a form of independent thinking that would satiate your curious minds. You have not come here looking to be trained for a particular job; your purpose (and ours too) is to cultivate a bent of mind that will allow you to develop mental dexterity and flexibility, giving you the capacity to adapt to and improvise in changing circumstances.

Many of the problems we face today are so deep and complex as to sometimes seem intractable, and their sources profound. Globalisation and technological changes have brought people closer and it has driven people apart. Politics and societies have grown increasingly partisan and parochial. There is a surfeit of news and information but trustworthy sources and balanced viewpoints appear to be shrinking.

That is why we need liberal education more than ever. Harvard President Drew Faust once said, when explaining the importance of a liberal education, “Where there is no rule book, turn to philosophy; turn to history, to anthropology, poetry and literature. Take the wisdom of the great thinkers and leaders before you, and then create your own”.

Herein lies the crux of what we are attempting to do together in a college like this; to develop in you the ability to grasp complexity, to cut through the fog and single out issues that really matter. And then be creative in finding solutions to problems you are trying to solve.

The next few years will be a formative chapter in your life. You will have four years of freedom to discover yourself.

The College will help you cultivate your intellectual potential, build on the strong foundations that we have identified in all of you.

You will be encouraged to question, to think for yourself, to see issues from different perspectives, to arrive at your own conclusions.

Your views will take shape and they will be tested, as they should be, in the cut and thrust of seminar debates, over the course of reading and studying, during conversations with your lecturers, your peers and friends.

You will engage with the works of great writers, and experience the power of ideas to affect, transform and enlighten.

I’m aware most of you are by now tired of the kind of rhetoric employed in speeches to do with education: words like creativity, independent and critical thinking have become stock phrases used liberally and, sometimes, mindlessly.

But let’s just try to take it at face value:  What does independent and critical thinking actually entail?

It requires the courage and the willingness to rethink previously held views; to acknowledge that there are other views worthy of consideration even if they are fundamentally different to yours; to value evidence over conventional wisdom and group think; to push for a different, sometimes unusual, way of understanding a situation or problem; to resist the urge to say and do what everyone else does, especially in the febrile atmosphere of heated debates.

Independent and critical thinking has to be honed over time. It requires you to develop the habit of careful deliberation, the powers of concentration to avoid being distracted by noise and confusion, and very importantly, the ability to empathise, to put yourself in the shoes of others before you pass judgement on them. If cultivated well, you will develop a robustness of mind, tempered by a spirit of humility and compassion. These qualities will help guide your actions and all aspects of your life.

Shortly before their graduation, some students from the Class of 2017 convened a forum discussion on what lies ahead after university. The event blurb started by saying:

“The spectre of life after Yale-NUS looms, for the very first time….Increasingly, seniors have been questioning their values, motives, and pragmatism as they begin to consider their post-graduate plans. Is working for a bank a waste of a liberal arts education? Does dismissing the private sector come from a place of privilege? Would a senior class primarily employed by financial institutions burnish our image as employable, capable workers — or tarnish our commitment to intellectualism and public service?”

To my mind, it is quite reflective of the College ethos. Our students care about issues, they are passionate about their devotion to a cause, and they are constantly seeking to understand their roles in a larger context.

To those who may be tempted to dismiss such attempts as navel-gazing and naïve idealism, let me assure you that our graduates have gone on to secure jobs in the arts, in NGOs, in the fields of management consultancy, and in finance among others. Some have also gone on to pursue their postgraduate studies. In their own way, each of them will bring new perspectives to their chosen vocation.

In four years’ time, it will be your turn to leave us and to venture forth. If you make the best of what a liberal education has to offer, it will sustain you as you make your way through life. Along the way, career advancement and financial circumstances will prove diverting, but there may come a point when you realise it is not enough. What then can you fall back on?

I end with a quote from one of your seniors: “never take the resources we have for granted – we are so insanely privileged! Giving back to the community at Yale-NUS and outside of school is the most energising and fulfilling thing I can recommend as a senior”.

You are now part of our community of learning. While I urge you to take full advantage of the many opportunities that will be open to you, I also ask that you do not forget to give as you receive, and to play your part in sustaining the purpose, health and vitality of our community.

Once again, welcome Class of 2021. May your journey at Yale-NUS be a fulfilling one.

Now, let me invite the president of the Yale-NUS Student Government, Saza Faradilla, to address you.