On graduating

In the days and weeks ahead people will be expecting me to reflect on my four years at Yale. Four years is a long time, and it’s rather surprising that I don’t have more thoughts on it. But then again, four years is a period that’s long enough to be difficult to sum up in a bunch of catch-all observations. It wasn’t one unitary experience, but a series of them, and I can hardly offer up my thoughts on such a diverse set of of experiences in any condensed, compact sort of way that does them justice. This piece serves as my first stab at doing something like that. It shouldn’t be my last.

Yale was a very special place for me. But I cannot claim it was very much more special than other people’s colleges were to them. I met a bunch of surprising and delightful friends who kept me in awe of their talents and intellect. They humbled me, and reminded me that I was only one of very many people who are good at something or other–that I was not special in my specialness. But this is something I should have known anyway.

And I think that the fact of my being at Yale, in the eyes of observers, imbued my thoughts and words with more worth than would otherwise have been attributed to them. What I mean is that I had the extreme good fortune of going to a school whose name alone would prime people meeting me for the first time to take me more seriously. Is this unfair to people who went somewhere else? Absolutely. I cannot in all honesty claim this is a reflection of my talents and intellect relative to my friends who went to (for instance) NUS. Maybe all I can honestly claim is that this recognition made me work doubly hard to not be the dud that I would otherwise have been, had I not gone to Yale.

So lesson 1 of going to Yale consisted of deconstructing the myth around it. The typical Yalie is not so much better than an average student at most other colleges–certainly not as much as we’re given credit for.

Yale was also a place of anxiety and low self-esteem. I denigrate my own abilities, but that’s not meant to put down the abilities of my peers. (I should also add that my friends’ achievements were not the achievements of Yale itself, except insofar as they reflected the ability of the admissions office to pick an intimidatingly talented class.) They constantly reminded me, both in the recognition they achieved and simply in the thoughtful conversations we had, that they were better minds–better at parsing verbal propositions, at debating, at entertaining and demolishing unfamiliar arguments, and so on. Or they were more driven, charismatic, or organized. Or they had true hearts of service, or deep curiosities about foreign languages and cultures. I wondered what I brought to the mix. What I realised, though, was not to question my being there–that would have been too much for my battered sense of self.

Lesson 2 of going to Yale, I guess, was to be comfortable with not being the best at any particular thing.

But what I’m grateful to Yale for is for a place to open up my mind and undo an ingrained instinct towards criticism of Singapore, which takes the form of rejecting it outright without admitting it might have merit. (Similar point about students from PR China here.) This is not to say that “the American model” is better. But some Singaporeans take Singapore as a package deal, so that when any one aspect of Singaporean politics, law or society is questioned (particularly by an outsider), they instinctively jump to Singapore’s defence. For instance, I think we saw that mentality in some bloggers’ reactions to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s survey of living costs earlier this year. Some started defending the indefensible: it’s not that expensive if you know where to shop. Or they parroted the government line: the EIU’s living cost survey refers to a basket of goods that is unrepresentative of a typical person’s consumption pattern. This, I thought, ignored the obvious implication of the survey, which was that more and more citizens are being priced out of our society’s progress and development–a trend proceeding faster in Singapore than in any other major world city. Not being open to criticism holds us back, and I think many people have room to develop a more mature, nuanced, and reflective attitude towards criticism of Singapore.

At Yale, I became comfortable with admitting to thoughtful non-Singaporeans that I didn’t like aspects of my country. I also realised that this attitude was compatible with maintaining a sense of pride in one’s country. Again, this isn’t unique to Yale. I actually noticed just a couple days back that my most fruitful conversations with Singaporeans about Singapore have been with those who’ve spent some time overseas. This doesn’t preclude the possibility that people who spend time overseas are also independently more likely to be critical about their country (or even that I’m simply a biased observer who thinks that conversations are fruitful when people agree with me!). But I think there must be some causality involved too–that we grow from being in an intellectual environment different from the one we grew up in, and conversing with people who don’t share our assumptions. And as for Yale’s role in this, I think it can’t have hurt that the debate about Yale-NUS spotlighted Singapore in a way that wouldn’t have happened at any other college.

Lesson 3 of going to Yale, then, was actually about home: that being Singaporean and having pride in it is really compatible with a whole range of attitudes towards different bits of it.

I don’t want to make this all about Singapore, of course–there’ll be time for that. But back to Yale. I can’t really convey how grateful I am to have met the thoughtful people I spent so much of my time with, and how highly I think of them. I’ll miss them loads.

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