Singapore has made a name for itself on the global stage through scientific and technological innovation. But what about the other less tangible qualities, such as creativity and critical thinking?

Liberal arts education is essential for innovation, Professor Tan Tai Yong, President-designate of Yale-NUS College, tells GovInsider. Yale-NUS is Singapore’s first liberal arts college, and functions autonomously from its co-founding universities, the National University of Singapore and Yale University in the US.

“[Liberal arts education] teaches you to question, encourages you to debate, think more broadly, and then come to your own conclusions—and how to apply those conclusions to the questions you have asked,” says Professor Tan, who will be taking on his new role on 1 July.

He shares with GovInsider how he believes liberal arts education “has a place in Singapore”, a country that traditionally values science and tech education.

Reasoning, reflection, and imagination

Within the city-state, there is a strong emphasis on STEM education. In 2014, over 4,500 Singaporean students graduated with first degrees in engineering sciences alone. This is almost twice as many as graduates from humanities and social sciences courses, and three times as many as graduates from business and administration courses, according to

Liberal arts education is a new concept to Singapore, which has a system “that tends toward specialisation and a focus on specialist training at every stage of the way”, says Professor Tan.

The liberal arts emphasises breadth of learning—a student’s major takes up only a third of the Yale-NUS curriculum, according to Professor Tan. The other two-thirds are made up of multi-disciplinary electives and the common curriculum. All Yale-NUS students will take common curriculum courses, which range from literature and humanities to modern social thought and quantitative reasoning.

Through a wide range of electives, the college hopes to develop in its students skills such as critical thinking, creativity and analytical reasoning—qualities that will prove useful in the constantly changing world we live in. “The function [of liberal arts] is not to provide vocational training, or lead to mastery of content,” Professor Tan notes. “A person educated in a liberal arts tradition will have the ability to understand complexity, and see issues from different perspectives,” he remarks.

“A person educated in a liberal arts tradition will have the ability to understand complexity, and see issues from different perspectives.”

A new generation of thinkers

Importantly, the ability to think differently and approach problems from different angles could be a boon for young people growing up in these times. “With globalisation and technological changes—social media, for example—things are happening so fast and are so complicated that you can’t compartmentalise problems anymore,” Professor Tan points out. “The issues of the world are going to become increasingly complex. You need to have a group of people to think more broadly.”

A traditional university curriculum is specialised from the get go. The liberal arts style of education suits those students that do not want to specialise this early on, and want to explore and think more broadly about issues that affect them, according to Professor Tan.

He hopes to make a mark on Singapore’s education system. “Even in a place like Singapore, where there is a lot of emphasis on science and technology—and it’s a kind of fast-paced world where people are always looking for quick solutions and quick fixes—there is a place for a liberal arts college,” Professor Tan says.

Students better suited to the liberal arts are individuals that possess curious minds, and often, they want to understand more about the world around them, Professor Tan believes. “What’s important is that [liberal arts] offers a pathway for people interested in that sort of education,” he muses.

And while liberal arts colleges are products of North America, Yale-NUS College being based in Singapore has its advantages. Professor Tan adds that the Southeast Asian region “offers many examples that allow us to see how the world is changing—economic development, social development, political changes”.

System overhaul

The city-state’s education system has been undergoing an overhaul of sorts. Last year, it was announced that there would soon be changes to the Primary School Leaving Examinations which 12-year-olds sit for.

For example, Primary 6 students will be graded on eight scoring bands, rather than a sum of all of their scores. These changes are part a bid to move away from “over-emphasis” on academic results and part of “a larger shift to better nurture well-rounded individuals”, according to the Ministry of Education.

It is evident that Singaporeans want a more holistic education system. Could liberal arts be part of the solution? “Once you gather a group of very intelligent students and give them the right kind of curriculum, we will produce people who think quite differently from those trained in the more traditional university,” Professor Tan notes. He adds that liberal arts students will learn how to ask the right questions, instead of sitting back and waiting for solutions to be given to them.

“We will produce people who think quite differently from those trained in the more traditional university.”

As Singapore tweaks its education system that values STEM specialisation and book smarts, there may soon be another skillset in demand—the ability to think, reason and analyse the big issues that affect all of us.

Image from Yale-NUS College