Relevance of Liberal Arts Education for Asian Development

Prof Tan Tai Yong

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In recent years, educators and administrators in countries like China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore are recognising the value in strengthening their own higher education institutions by introducing liberal arts programmes as one of the education pathways available to students. it suggests that rapidly developing Asian countries are seeing the social and economic benefits of liberal arts education as their economies move up the value chain in the global economy.

On 26 April 2017, Prof Tan Tai Yong, President-Designate, Yale-NUS College, National University of Singapore discussed the ‘practical’ value of a liberal arts education for Asia.

Prof Tan began by explaining that liberal arts education goes beyond social studies and humanities and emphasises critical reasoning, debate, dialogue and an active participation in civic life. It thrived in the United States, promoting critical thinking, plurality of perspectives and character development among students. However, there has been signs showing American higher education moving away from its liberal arts tradition, and shifting its focus on skills and employability.

In contrast, there is an increasing interest and investment in liberal arts education in Asia. In Singapore, for example, the higher education curriculum has broadened, allowing students to study more subjects outside their majors.

He then highlighted the value of liberal arts education. While it is not the only desirable model for higher education, it offers a good alternative to students who want to strive beyond knowledge acquisition to become also capable of looking at information more critically. Liberal arts graduates can potentially contribute more to their employers as they are more capable of delivering creative solutions and adapting to a fast-changing economy. Liberal arts education is also beneficial to the vast region of Asia as it welcomes diversity and cultivates a spirit of mutual respect. Therefore, liberal arts students do not only grow intellectually but are also trained to be responsible and contributing citizens of the world.

Prof Tan provided more information about Yale-NUS College in Singapore, which is an autonomous college founded in 2013 and was built from the ground up. The college makes experiential learning a crucial part of its programmes, and uses its residential colleges to encourage informal learning and community engagement. On top of that, Yale-NUS’ common curriculum gives students the opportunities to open their minds to knowledge they would not have exposed themselves to if not for the liberal arts curriculum.

Prof Tan believes liberal arts education in Asia presents a valuable alternative to specialised, technical university programmes. Alternatively, universities may also adopt elements of liberal arts education such as its multi-disciplinary approach, learning through experience (such as internships) and character development to shape students to be global citizens with an ethos of service.

The session ended with Prof Tan addressing the audience’s questions, which included topics such as liberal arts education’s contribution to the future economy, the kind of jobs liberal arts graduates can potentially pursue, and how graduates can demonstrate the value of their liberal arts education to employers.

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Mr Ho Swee Huat

Mr Ho Swee Huat is the Founder and Managing Director of Abacus Assets Advisors Pte Ltd. Before starting the company, he had an established career in the banking industry, with 20 years of experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.

He was an Independent Director and Chairman of the Audit Committee of CapitaCommercial Trust Management LTD from 2004 to 2013.

He is the current Chairman of Autism Association (Singapore) which he co-founded with a group of parents in 1992. He is also Vice-Chairman of Eden School, a special school for children with autism.

Mr Ho holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Liberal Arts degree in Economics from Hamilton College, USA.

He has been a member of the Board of the Foundation since its incorporation.