24 November 2017: The Unfolding 21st Century: a dialogue between Professor Tommy Koh and Dr Fareed Zakaria

By Daryl Yang | Images provided by Yasunari Watanabe and Jolene Lum Xin Hui

On 31 October 2017, Yale-NUS College played host to two renowned intellectuals as part of the President’s Speaker Series. The two speakers, Professor Tommy Koh and Dr Fareed Zakaria, spoke on the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Professor Tommy Koh is Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rector of Tembusu College, Special Adviser of the Institute of Policy Studies, and Chairman of the Governing Board for the Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore (NUS).

Dr Fareed Zakaria is host of CNN’s flagship international affairs programme Fareed Zakaria GPS, Washington Post columnist, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a New York Times bestselling author.

Yogesh Tulsi (Class of 2020) who attended the event, shared, “I was interested in seeing how Professor Koh and Dr Zakaria, two political thinkers with very different backgrounds, approaches and contexts, would engage and interact with each other. They are both incredibly respected speakers whose contributions to political thought have been very important.”

For Lu Zhao Boyu (Class of 2018), she said that it was a great opportunity to hear from Professor Koh in person after having studied his work during classes.

“Professor Koh is a distinguished ambassador and legal academic. During my studies, I have read his articles on ASEAN and international law matters. As such, I was interested in hearing his views about the 21st century regarding regional relations and global phenomena,” she shared.

One of the greatest takeaways for Yogesh was the incisive analysis by both speakers on some of the key global events of the decade.

“Both speakers offered very concise summaries and sharp reframing of popular debates regarding the future of the globalised world,” he explained. “For example, on the topic of the rise of far-right ideologies, populism, and protectionism, Professor Koh suggested that the reverse is actually happening in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Dr Zakaria argued that this is indicative of the fact that the Western world has recently had to deal with intense immigration over the past few years which has endangered social stability. They concluded by arguing that today’s debates are fundamentally about whether the world should be open or closed, a framework that I think certainly helps to contextualise modern day debates and issues,” Yogesh added.

Similarly, Boyu appreciated the speakers’ views on protectionist economic policies. She noted that Dr Zakaria’s views on the recent US presidential elections expanded her perspectives on the matter as well.

“I really appreciated Dr Zakaria’s analysis on the latest US elections, specifically on why a huge population voted for Donald Trump. He spoke about the successes of Trump’s campaign and how he had connected with the people on the ground to garner their votes. He elaborated on the fears and aspirations of voters from their perspective, which is something I had not previously considered as much,” she shared.

“The guests also provided insights on how Singapore could navigate her way in light of the current economic situations and the overshadowing Western power alongside an emerging Chinese economy,” she added.

Hanna Wdzięczak (Class of 2021), who hails from Poland, attended the dialogue because she was interested to hear the speakers’ thoughts on college education. Both Professor Koh and Dr Zakaria have been intimately involved with higher education. The former was Dean of NUS Law School for several years while the latter had recently published In Defense of a Liberal Education. 

“I was particularly interested in the way college education should be organised. On one hand, Dr Zakaria pointed out that making certain classes mandatory might make students less willing to further investigate topics. Recalling his college experience, he shared that the courses that were hard to him were also the most enlightening ones,” she shared.

In his book In Defense of a Liberal Education, which was published in 2015, Dr Zakaria had singled out the Yale-NUS venture as an example of how a contemporary liberal education might “provide a genuine multicultural education in a college designed for a multicultural world.” A unique aspect of the Yale-NUS education is the Common Curriculum, which brings together faculty from diverse disciplines to teach a core basket of classes that all Yale-NUS students will take, such as Comparative Social Inquiry and Philosophy & Political Thought.

The Yale-NUS President’s Speaker Series showcases accomplished and talented luminaries from around the world. The lectures are designed for a broad audience, enabling the community to learn from and engage with some of the brightest academics and practitioners on a diverse range of disciplines on contemporary issues in our world today. Previous speakers include President of Iceland, His Excellency Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Under-Secretary-General of the UN Noeleen Heyzer, Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen and biology professor Frans de Waal.