Alum recounts Williams hospitality

As a Singaporean student who has spent three years at Williams College, I sometimes wonder why I should be studying in an American institution that has shown blatant disrespect to the Prime Minister of my country. I am thankful to this college for providing me with a wonderful education; I think that is sufficient reason for me to be here. However, I need to express some last thoughts so that I can leave Williams without regrets. First of all, I have heard so much in this campus about human rights violations in Singapore that I wonder if people here know what they are talking about. Moreover, there have been a number of unpleasant incidents when students confronted me because of my nationality. It is therefore my desire before I depart to leave an account of some of my experiences and to offer a kind message to Americans.

I transferred to Williams a semester too late to witness the convocation of 1995. Nonetheless, during my time at Williams — especially in my earlier semesters when the debate over Prime Minister Goh was still fresh in people’s mind — I have met students whose attitudes towards Singapore range from curious to outright antagonistic. I remember the first week of my sophomore year, living in a suite where I was a stranger in a group of juniors. After I revealed that I am Singaporean, my suitemates directed me to the living room and the whole group started challenging me with questions about Singapore along with some unkind remarks. I answered as truthfully as I could but realized that these suitemates really expected me to say negative things about my country to justify their prejudices. This was far from an isolated incident.

That is why my objective here is not to defend anything my government has done because any positive remarks I make will probably be construed as blind submission. In any case, no one claims that the Singapore government has never done anything wrong. But neither is the U.S. government perfect. During my first month at Williams, a student mocked me with the criticism that the minority races are repressed in Singapore because their views can never be heard by the Chinese majority. Of course, I find it very odd that an American should preach to me about racial equality. I am in no position to speak for the Malays and Indians because I am not one, but at least I know that when the Chinese settled in Singapore, they did not exterminate the indigenous Malays or import Indian slaves. Moreover, Singaporeans of all races have had the full right to vote since 1959. In retaliation, I asked him to explain the ugly riot that happened in Los Angeles in 1992. “Exactly,” he exclaimed, “the LA riot shows there’s freedom of expression in the United States!” To add to the absurdity, he claimed that I enjoy living in Singapore only because I belong to the privileged majority.

Privileged majority? That is probably the last thing I should be associated with. I may belong to the Chinese majority in Singapore, but in no way was I privileged. It takes me some courage to write this because I am about to divulge something about my past that I have kept secret to almost everyone I know. My father passed away when I was only four years old. My childhood was not an experience I like to recall because I only remember my mother struggling to bring up three children – my two older brothers and me – with her meager income. Welfare support was an option my mother refused because she wanted to depend on herself. So she turned to the grass-roots organization in our neighborhood for help. Since my town was managed by the People’s Action Party (the governing party in Singapore), I remember accompanying my mother to a number of PAP meet-the-people sessions, which are held weekly in every neighborhood to handle problems faced by residents. Within two months, my mother got the job she asked for.

It is hard for me to believe that I live under an authoritarian and repressive government. It’s even harder to convince me that my government has violated human rights. I don’t feel that I am getting any more freedom in the United States than I had in Singapore. When Singaporeans have a need, more often than not the government will fulfill it. It is through years of commitment to serve and improve the lives of Singaporeans that the Singapore government has won convincingly in elections.

I used to consider Singapore too insignificant a country and desired a change in environment. I dreamed of studying in the United States because I thought that it was a place superior in every way to Singapore. This dream has come true, but with some surprising revelation. My few years abroad only taught me to appreciate Singapore more. Many Singaporeans have expressed this sentiment, but I would not believe it until I experienced it myself. Being in the United States helped me realize how fortunate I am to have grown up in Singapore. Seeing the cities here let me discover how beautiful Singapore is. Many people have asked if I will live permanently in the United States, but Singapore is really the place I want to call home. I don’t mean to be rude to Americans; I need to tell my true feelings.

New York City is probably the greatest city in the world. But I have lived there and seen homeless people scavenging for food from the garbage dump. I wonder if there is any moral conscience left in a place where the rich can live comfortably, oblivious to the poor. Do the poor get any freedom of expression in the United States? Apparently not. In Singapore, even the plight of stranded foreign Indian workers has been reported in the press and evoked a public response to help. I live among the poorest in Singapore, but at least I live with a much greater dignity than the poor in America. Are Americans so obsessed with proclaiming their ideals of freedom and human rights to the rest of the world that they have forgotten that some of their own people live like stray animals in the streets?

The Williams community that had vehemently opposed to the decision to confer an honorary degree on Prime Minister Goh argued that he does not embody the ideals of ‘political, academic and social freedoms that Williams is supposed to stand for.’ I wonder what made these people think they are any more liberal-minded. The fact is I have witnessed parochialism in this campus that was unmatched by any of my previous experiences. As far as I can see, the College has failed miserably to teach students how to look at the world with an open and rational mind. Do those Williams students who protested against Goh actually think they are speaking up on Singaporeans’ behalf? Singaporeans have heard all about criticisms of the Prime Minister, and most are amused by how silly and uncivilized Williams students can be. I have received an excellent education at Williams, but as a Singaporean, I wonder if this college deserves to be the alma mater of Singapore’s Prime Minister.

I am not trying to degrade Americans. I have enjoyed my stay in the United States and I think Americans are wonderful people who have enlightened me about what goodwill is. I will always have feelings for the U.S. and wish to contribute to the American community as a way to repay the kindness and generosity that this host country has showered on me. Even when I see things I don’t like in the U.S., I always recall a message from home – to learn good things and disregard the bad.

Indeed, there are lots of good things to learn from Americans. But all too often, I find that Americans have the reverse attitude – refusing to acknowledge the merits and only criticizing what they perceive as shortcomings in other countries. Worse still, Americans do not seem to recognize problems in their own society. If Americans choose to associate Singapore only with caning sentences, chewing gum bans and other negative traits, then that’s very sadly short-sighted. Because there are many good things about this little country that Americans and the world can learn from.

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