Singapore: Very few academics get the opportunity to create a new college that claims to re-think the liberal arts and science education for 21st century Asia.

Fewer still would have the full support of two leading universities in Asia and the US—National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale—and be given an enviable budget to get it off the ground, from one of the most prosperous economies in Asia, Singapore, that is slowly emerging as an education hub in this part of the world, experimenting with areas that are beyond its traditional comfort zone of business, science and technology. Some say this is a sign of changing times.

“It is an extraordinary privilege to have the opportunity to lead this new college," says Pericles Lewis, who is the founding president of the Yale-NUS College, a new liberal arts college which opened in August 2013, to both fanfare and controversy. Critics worried that Singapore’s limited protections of free speech would undercut the very essence of a liberal-arts education. Yale professors questioned whether the university should be operating in a country with limited civilian and political liberties.

Lewis offers a counter argument.

“Singapore has invested so heavily in liberal arts education because it wants to encourage thoughtful debates and critical thinking and not turn away from it as it is sometimes alleged," Lewis adds. “It has the self-confidence and vision to move in the direction of self-transformation that will ultimately produce a more well-rounded society."

Lewis, himself a former Yale Faculty member, notes that the college has a strong guarantee in its agreement with the government of Singapore for its faculty and students to pursue any research they wish. “Obviously, political freedoms are somewhat different in Singapore than in America so there are limits on public protests but we knew that coming here. There was still obviously a big upside for Yale in choosing Singapore and NUS as a partner due to the unique strengths they embody," he says.

Indeed, since the college started, the debate about academic and political freedom has somewhat subsided as students and faculty have settled into campus in their first year.

The president and his team can take some credit for the fact that despite the controversy, the college has attracted a cohort of over 150 students from 26 countries and six continents. Lewis’s mandate now is to grow the campus to be home to 1,000 students and about 100 faculty members— no small task. Under his leadership, the college has already built a modern residential college, one of the central aspects of American higher education.

For the 46-year old Lewis, who has largely been an academic for most of his life, these have been exciting and challenging times as he is surrounded by high expectations from all sides but seems unfazed and ready for the job.

“Yale-NUS College is writing a new chapter in the history of liberal arts and science education," he said.

“We seek to redress a lopsided education system by promoting both science and social sciences as well as liberal arts, and second, by placing the East and West on an equal footing. No one else we know is doing this today."

Lewis himself embodies a balance of both cultures in his personal life. A well-known scholar of British and European literature and a leader in the field of modernism, he is a citizen of both Canada and the US. Married to Sheila Hayre, a graduate of Yale Law School who is a senior lecturer in law at NUS, they have two young children, Siddhartha and Maya, with whom they live now on campus in the Yale-NUS residential college.

“We are excited about our new life and move to Asia. Singapore is one of the most innovative countries in the world and one that embodies a unique blend of East and West, and learns equally from both. The Yale-NUS College is a good example of this style of progressive thinking," he says.

He cites the late chief executive officer of Apple Inc., Steve Jobs, who advocated a liberal arts education when he said: “We’re not just a tech company…it’s the marriage of technology plus the humanities and the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple."

Lewis has long served as an advocate in Singapore, the US, and internationally for liberal education and written and spoken about it extensively.

Born in Canada in 1968, Lewis is the grandson of Canadian member of Parliament Andrew Brewin. He earned his undergraduate degree from McGill University in Canada, and his doctorate from Stanford University in the US, in 1997.

Before taking office at Yale-NUS, he served as professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University. An expert on literary modernism, he has authored three books on 20th-century European literature and is also an editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature and The Norton Anthology of Western Literature.

Lewis was appointed president of Yale-NUS by a joint search committee in July 2012. He has scarcely looked back since, as he and his team strive to deliver on an overarching question that the institution seeks to answer: “What must a young person learn in order to live a responsible life in this century?"

Edited excerpts from an interview:

There is a growing trend in Asia in the last few years towards pursuing liberal arts, in addition to the traditional fields of science and business. Why are Asian governments like Singapore, Japan, Korea and India investing so heavily in liberal arts education at this stage of their development?

Indeed, there are signs that Asia is turning towards liberal arts. A nation’s strength comes from the type of education it offers. Asia has traditionally been strong in offering science and technology and not so much liberal arts in recent history, although in the past it was a leader in it with universities such as Nalanda in India.

Asian governments today recognize that in an era driven by innovation, the breadth of an education that encompasses the liberal arts and sciences is a distinct advantage for future workers. Many also recognize the importance of education in history and politics for future citizens in an era of democratization.

Therefore, you see the trend that the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Seoul National University in South Korea, Waseda University in Japan, and the National University of Singapore, to name just a few, have recently made major investments in liberal arts education as an alternative to their traditionally highly specialized and technical university programmes.

At the same time, there are worrying signs today that the United States is turning away from the tradition of liberal arts education that has made it a global leader in post-secondary education over the past century.

How is Yale-NUS College different from leading liberal arts schools in the West and also in Asia?

We are trying to create a new, in-depth civilizational dialogue in the critical fields of liberal arts; and have embarked on an odyssey into uncharted waters. We are building an entirely new way of teaching and learning here in Singapore because we believe that liberal arts needs to take stronger root in this part of the world and it also needs to be updated for the 21st century.

In fact, what we are doing here, we hope will also be of use to other leading institutions globally. We really are a school in Asia for the world.

Our broad motive is to create educational opportunities in the past that did not exist.

At Yale-NUS, we are offering a quality or type of education to Singaporean and Asian students that normally a student would go to the US or England for. We are, therefore, competing with the best institutions therefore in the West. And we are pleased that that we are already very competitive in the first year. Many of our students turned down offers to study at Ivy League Universities to come study with us.

Why would students to be drawn to study in this new college?

There are many key reasons, which include the tremendous uniqueness of our common curriculum, and how it is implemented, the breakdown of traditional departmental boundaries in classroom teaching, and the comprehensive experiential learning we provide. Our students have already travelled to the United Nations in New York, where they were addressed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Can you provide some examples of this type of experiential learning?

To date, the inaugural class has flown to Yale with the faculty for a three-week sojourn. They also went exploring the aftermath of a tsunami in Indonesia with a geology professor, studying a live performance of the Ramayana in central Java with an ethnomusicologist, and went with me to Greece to connect ancient art, literature, and philosophy with its physical context. The college has also lined up companies in Asia and the United States that will offer summer internships.

Could you also cite one example of how differently Yale-NUS teaches versus a liberal arts college in the West that highlights this uniqueness of your curriculum?

Sure. A typical course at Yale, including the one I taught, would start with Homer and students would then read The Illiad, The Odyssey and then move on to Virgil and Dante and other great writers of the West. At Yale-NUS College, we decided to start with the Ramayana and then went on to Homer. The point is that chronologically the students see the epic tradition as something that is broader than the West, and there is no one tradition superior than the other.

What in your view is happening in India in the space of liberal arts education?

While there are some very exciting and positive developments with the setting up of Ashoka University and others, a key issue remains of public investment in liberal arts education. Most of the funds still go to technology and research institutes, which are very successful. There also tends to be over-regulation, which naturally makes it hard to innovate new curriculum. What is positive is that a number of philanthropists have started private universities around new forms of education and they are doing great things; hopefully, that will have a big impact in the field of liberal arts.

Are students taking a risk with their careers when they study liberal arts as opposed to the traditional field of medicine, science, business and law?

Studying liberal arts is not necessarily at odds with studying medicine, law or business. In fact, we have a joint program with the Law School at NUS where students graduate with a BA from Yale-NUS and an LLB from Faculty of Law. We also have a Bachelor of Science with a major in Life Sciences, in addition to a Bachelor in Arts with a major in economics or philosophy or any of the other ten concentrations we offer.

What is most important about a liberal arts education is the breadth of study that a student gets, the opportunity to study broadly and see a subject from various angles makes people more prepared for their careers. We want to produce the next generation of economists, scientists, lawyers and doctors who can also discuss poetry, philosophy and music. By the same token, we also want to produce historians, filmmakers, writers and musicians who can grasp issues in the sciences and economics and apply ideas from those fields to their own field if needed.