Exchange student is “dead wrong” about NUS academic freedom

Posted on 28 January 2012

Exchange student Walker Vincoli has “academic freedom” explained to him by a letter writer.

Dear New Nation editor,

Recently, an exchange student who spent two semesters in NUS went back to his home country in the West and wrote a disparaging article criticising NUS’ lack of “academic freedom”.

I don’t know about this Walker Vincoli guy who wrote the article suggesting that NUS, its students and teaching staff, are into self-censorship.

I want to complain against him because he is dead wrong.

I don’t know what modules he was taking, (apparently they were political science modules), but those I took were always quite fun.

I was majoring in Comunications, for the record.

Let me say one thing: I spent four years inside the Arts faculty. And every minute I was there, I was free as a bird.

Academic freedom was real.

Believe me, NUS students have a lot of freedom.

When in class, they are free to answer questions or remain quiet.

So when the tutor asks questions, most will look at the floor and avoid eye contact.

In other country’s universities, I heard it can be quite chaotic. People getting into arguments about some esoteric subject or cannot stand being criticised for the weaker but finer points of the argument.

And then they take things outside.

Here in Singapore, we are free to choose. It is our right within the confines of academia. So we choose what is called a “Quiet Democracy”.

Let me explain: Mostly, NUS students remain quiet because Singaporeans are introverted. And not because we choose to be.

Last time, about 5 years ago, SDP opposition politics mentor Chee Soon Juan came to the NUS Kent Ridge campus to pay a visit and eat at the canteen.

Everyone freely ignored him.

No one bothered to stop and stare because students were too busy spending their free time in the canteen eating and having conversations about nothing among themselves.

And partly because no one recognised him.

The freedom to choose to know who is your opposition political figurehead is a right in itself that is underrated.

Moreover, NUS culture is so free to the extent that you don’t even have to attend lectures. All you need to do is just to show up for the exams.

So not surprising, lecturers are also free to give grades. Except that at the end of each semester, he plots all the grades according to the bell curve.

So even if your numerical grade is 99.5, you might have effectively scored a B+.

Partly because that module has plenty of students from China taking it.

But hear me out, all work and no play makes everyone dull. (I knew of a lot of overseas scholars who looked pasty and spent too much time in the library.)

Hence, NUS offers students a lot of free time.

In any given week, you are in school about three days the most.

Academic freedom, hence, is the right to stay away from touching your books when you don’t feel like it.

The girls in NUS are also very free, judging by the way they dress. Ok, regarding this point, I speak for the girls in the Arts faculty.

Their make-up is always very thick, their skirt is reluctantly very short (as I noticed they spend a lot of time trying to hold it down when they sit or navigate the endless flights of stairs uphill and downhill) and their perfume is inclined to be very strong.

They probably take 2 hours to get ready for a tutorial that last 45 minutes the most.

So, as you can see, NUS students express themselves in many different non-verbal ways.

And this in itself is highly politically charged.

Because have you heard of this mantra “the personal is political”?

Well, NUS students are political alright. Their bodies are the domain of politics. They are the poletariats relinquinshing their Foucaultian chains as they resist the Marxist superstructures that control the means of production.

They embody the politics of sexiness.

If you did not understand the previous two paragraphs, then I’m truly sorry, you have not understood our politics of covert-overt expression that goes beyond the academic or textbook.

Needless to say, this brings me on to my next point: I can assure you NUS is very free.

You can go to Vivo City during any weekday, and the place is reeking of NUS students.

And trust me, any student is free to talk politics in any class, even when it is not a political science module.

Just that when you relate, for example, everything in the module (be it history of Southeast Asian art or intro to game theory) back to Lim Chin Siong or Singapore’s hardline censorship stance, you will have no friends and be forever alone.

You will also be ostracised for politicising everything.

But I understand this causes some problems: A lot of people complain that NUS students these days are apolitical and apathetic.

I disagree. This is a gross misrepresentation and an outright injustice.

NUS students are, in fact, being objective.

They refuse to allow politics to cloud their judgement. Or occupy thoughts, if any, in their mind.

You see, when politics get in the way, you wouldn’t have enough focus. And when you don’t have enough focus, you cannot ensure you will not miss out on any online sprees or spot Forever21 sale items.

I still believe NUS students are free to talk about anything they want. That’s why you see them sitting around campus all the time talking about stuff. With their laptops open.

And when NUS students do engage in real work, they are free to pursue their interests in all areas.

To conduct research, students read a lot of papers and articles written by people no one outside of university has ever heard of and write and submit essays citing even more obscure sources that eventually no one ever reads.

This is the pinnacle of scholarly pursuits.

And all these can be very stressful.

That is why to make their lives more interesting, a lot of female NUS students end up becoming blogshop models.

They say the money is good and they get to express themselves aesthetically.

Which is political.

And this is the most free they have ever felt their entire lives.

Yours sincerely,
Tok Kin Kok
NUS Alumni
Class of 2009

P.S. If you all want, you all talking Singlish in the comment section, ho seh boh? Liddat, all the chao ang moh reading this overseas catch no ball! On boh? Simi lan jiao wei also kong, can?

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- who has written 2685 posts on New Nation.

Wang Pei can be considered a new citizen of Singapore. She has been here all her life, just that her environment's changed beyond recognition.

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  • Nib

    Dammit, after 2 semesters at NUS I only understood the second sentence of Singlish.  What a fail.  Well-written article.  I loved NUS, its culture (both mugging and entrepreneurial), and eating lunch in the Arts Faculty canteen (I was in Science Faculty – food there cannot make it).