27 September 2019: Eminent husband-and-wife anthropologists named Visiting J Y Pillay Professors

By Jiang Haolie

Photo by Charmaine Chua.

Eminent anthropologists Professors Jean and John Comaroff, renowned for their joint work in African Studies and anthropology as a husband-and-wife team, were recently named Visiting J Y Pillay Professors at Yale-NUS College. The Professorship is part of the J Y Pillay Global-Asia Programme, which was established to honour Professor J Y Pillay, a pioneer who made ground-breaking contributions to Singapore as a top civil servant and corporate leader.

Describing the J Y Pillay Professorship as “greatly meaningful”, both Comaroffs effusively shared that they were very honoured to be its recipients. Prof Jean also praised the Professorship’s important role in building important links across global communities of researchers and attracting academic talent to Singapore as well as to Southeast Asian research.

Commending the Comaroffs as “outstanding scholars”, Professor Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs), expressed delight at the Comaroffs being awarded the Professorship. “It is wonderful for our students and faculty to get the opportunity to learn from them,” she said. It matches well with our goals of having visiting professorships bring in world class scholars and also, where possible, to have these visitors broaden and diversify the scope of our offerings.”

In their short time teaching and interacting with the Yale-NUS community, both professors remarked that they were profoundly impressed by the dynamism, intelligence and talent of Yale-NUS students and faculty, describing the students as approaching classes with “maturity, entrepreneurial spirit and intellectual vibrancy”. Prof John said, “Jean and I love to challenge students. Our classes are not easy. Yet, our students have dealt well with complicated ideas and joined in very thoughtful discussions.”

Both Comaroffs were also convinced that the College’s Anthropology  faculty and students are well-placed to take the lead in the reinvention and renewal of anthropology as a discipline here. Prof Jean noted that Yale-NUS, while small, has access to the larger research community at the National University of Singapore, affording it an immense advantage. She added that its position in Singapore offers opportunities to reflect on modernity and postcoloniality.

“You have all the virtues of youth and experimentation! Everything is possible!” Prof Jean remarked. Prof John also pointed out how Yale-NUS’s philosophy of decentring academia might contribute to shifting the postcolonial axis of anthropological discourse “from the vertical to the horizontal” – giving increasing voice to the subaltern, thus to shift knowledge-production and its authority away from the west. Altogether, Yale-NUS, according to both Comaroffs, also contributes to the ongoing renewal of liberal arts and science education around the world.

The Comaroffs also spoke enthusiastically about the relevance that Singapore has for their own research on Africa – from the Asia-African axis to our shared postcolonial experiences. In their assessment, Yale-NUS’ youthful dynamism was also emblematic of Singapore and its place in the global order. In this regard, Singapore, according to Prof Jean, is emerging as the chosen model for other nation-states, including ones in the Global North; this because of the way in which it has managed a whole host of issues such as development, education, employment and environmental issues. “It’s like the metropole looking to a [former] colony for inspiration” – a delicious irony and reversal of relations, Prof John noted.

While they have spent decades living and researching on the African continent, the Comaroffs are no strangers to Singapore or to Yale-NUS. Their son, Joshua Comaroff, is an Assistant Professor of Social Sciences (Urban Studies) here at Yale-NUS and – together with his partner, Ms Ong Ker-Shing – was also involved in the landscape design of the campus. When the Comaroffs are not in the classroom, they spend their time playing with their Singaporean grandchildren or eating delectable local dishes. “You can’t be in Singapore and not be eating really well!”, quipped Prof John, who singled out laksa and otah-otah as two of their guilty favourites.