When I knew I had gotten into Yale, one of my first and most exciting duties was to put in an International Student Financial Aid Application as well as a supplement that the university called its “Biographic Questionnaire.” It was exciting because I knew that with ten or so pages of administrative burden I’d be claiming a scholarship worth a good US$50,000 or so a year; without those forms I wouldn’t have had an ice cube’s chance in hell paying for college.
In that “Biographic Questionnaire,” I came across a funny question, which ran along the lines of “are you the first person in your family to attend college?” Why did this matter? Neither of my parents had. But my stepbrother–whom I barely knew and had never grown up with–was now a psychology professor at a small college in Washington state. How about him? I shrugged it off: Americans have nuclear families, right? Stepsiblings probably don’t count. Unlike me, my mother fretted about the forms. If it was Singapore we’d probably have had to submit supporting documentation for the last ten years of income and expenditure, along with birth certificates and tax forms. (No, I’m only half joking: they would already have the information.)
Thankfully, the money came through. And naturally, I continued checking that box throughout college, and claimed for myself the identity of a First-Generation College Student. If anything, I thought, surely it was an advantage, since it reduced the miniscule possibility that my financial aid would ever be cut. Otherwise, I argued over dining-hall tables and across seminar rooms with the kids of doctors, academics, lawyers, researchers, thinking little about my own patrimony, the son of an administrative assistant and a middling businessman with a late-career turn to property management. Other than that box on a form I had to fill out once a year, that first-generation status was not something I ever noticed.
Two weeks ago, Singapore’s Media Development Authority announced that they had banned public screenings of Tan Pin Pin’s film “To Singapore, with Love.” The film brings together interviews from political exiles and dissidents who have chosen to leave Singapore because they face perceived or real threats of state persecution. The MDA banned it for undermining “national security,” and claimed that the exiles had lied about the circumstances under which they had left. But it also mentioned (seemingly as an afterthought) that private screenings were permissible, and later, that the ban didn’t apply to screenings of the film for purely educational purposes.
While it has become clear that more and more Singaporeans are going to watch the film at events overseas (including over 350 at a screening in Johor Bahru, just across the border in Malaysia), Tan Pin Pin hasn’t agreed to any Singapore screenings, educational or otherwise. She’s specifically come out to say that she was not consulted by Yale-NUS about including the film in one of their classes. Given that till now the film has not been released anywhere for commercial distribution, there aren’t any bootleg copies from which people can organise private screenings. In short, Ms Tan has ensured that as long as the public ban stands, “To Singapore, with Love,” will not be shown in Singapore in any context. In my view this restriction on her part is absolutely appropriate—something I’ll argue in the rest of the piece.
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.