In lieu of the valediction that I was brutally robbed off, I was invited to give a Matriculation Speech at the University Scholars Programme’s Freshman Orientation Week in my capacity as an interesting alumnus. I tremendously enjoyed my time in the USP, and it stands for me as one of the highlights of my 20s, and also the defining feature of my university education (I outline this in the speech below). It’s mostly because it was a progressive, liberal, safe and free-speaking space, and it was a place where weirdness was encouraged and embraced.
When I arrived at the college, the first thing I was ushered away by some student committee members to have a hand-wrangling, anxious conversation about the nature of my speech, which speech the committee members thought might be too “intense” and “negative” for the Freshman. “If you could keep it light… you know, that’d be good, ‘cuz we’re trying to keep the energy high, as this is their first exposure to the USP, and we think, you know, your speech– which is really honest and great, and sincere and passionate– it might be a bit, you know, too much too soon?”
My first exposure to the USP involved being blasted face-on by the crazy weirdness of the community, its eccentric sense of humour, its cultivated vulgarity. The idea that anything might be “too intense” for people selected to join this programme still stuns me. Clearly things have changed, the demographic has changed, owing mostly to the new residential nature of the programme, which I assume changes the kind of people who sign up and are eventually selected to join the USP. It takes a certain kind of person to willingly enter into a residential agreement with strangers, and maybe that kind of person– whose defining quality is, let’s put this mildly, “pleasant and gets along with others”– is a very specific type. Anyway, I felt like I was being censored– which in hindsight, I probably wasn’t– and agreed to tone down the speech in parts to avoid stressing the poor hand-wrangling committee members out, but I’m reproducing it here in full.
I’ve been instructed to talk to you about the USP, and to give you a “teaser” of what to expect in your next four years. Programme details and highlights, a ‘ground-up’ perspective of the USP from someone who’s been through it. I could tell you about my favourite modules, about the fun global programmes, and the various CV-enriching platforms that await. But, spoiler alert, I’m not going to do that. That kind of information, the details of which are foggy in my head, isn’t interesting to me. Plus, it feels dishonest to my experience in the USP. The instinctive memories that come back to me from the USP aren’t the classes and the programmes, though they were and I’m sure are excellent and some of the best classes and programes in the university, but about stranger, less obvious things.
I’m sitting in Chatterbox across the table from a senior, who’s one of the more popular people in the programme. I’m doing my work, or at least pretending to, and he leans across, taps me on the shoulder, fixes his gaze on me and says, matter-of-factly: “eh, you’re gay right? Just checking.” We go on to become very good friends, and that memory is central to my experience of the USP, because it’s where I learned to speak truthfully about myself. So, in that vein, I’ll speak truthfully.
There was a Chatterbox—the USP lounge, so to speak— before the one that you will come to experience, and it was in Block ADM, next to the Central Library. It was a much tattier, much less comfortable space than the one at Cinnamon College. It was bigger; a kind of re-purposed computer lab with a couple of big grey tables of the NUS variety and some couches and bean-bags that were ostensibly donated and that became very worn and lived-in. USP alumni from my batch and upwards don’t speak of it fondly and nostalgically for nothing: it was a glorious space—fetid and messy and disorganized and centrally located, so it made for a good pit-stop between lectures, and it had very good acoustics so you could hear other people’s conversations whether or not either party cared for it, and it became very easy to jump into other people’s discussions. And this is how things happened at the old Chatterbox: spontaneously, earnestly, sometimes a little over-enthusiastically.
I bring this up not to reminisce, at least not simply to reminisce. I bring it up because so much of what the USP experience was for me, and might be for you, is tied up with things to do with space. At the get-go, let me just lay out what I want to communicate to you today, in good USP-form, a thesis statement, as it were: the USP may be an academic programme, with classes and modular credits and a CAP-depressing reputation, but the most important thing about the USP is that it is a space. And that’s part of why the USP is so great and so limited at the same time. I’ll make this point through various anecdotes.
Anecdote one. One day, while pretending to get work done in Chatterbox, I overheard someone saying something to the effect of: “yeah I’m in USP but I don’t come here a lot. It’s full of gays, man.” He left shortly after, and I don’t recall ever seeing him again. Later that evening, a senior, who was taking a playwriting class, regaled everyone within earshot with a dramatized reading of one of his plays, about four suicidal gay men, strangers, who meet at the same cliff. It was a comedy.
Anecdote two. I met up with a good friend of mine while on holiday in the USA. He’d been in the USP too while he was still at NUS, before transferring in year two to Brown University. It’s 2011. By now, he’s spent a year at Brown. We are huddled in a corner at a New Year’s Eve house party in New York, and he is crying. He tells me he misses USP, he misses the conversations.
Anecdote three. It is a Halloween Party, thrown by the University Scholars Club. The USP Admin office has been turned into a haunted house. I am tasked by the organisers to leap out of a room and scream at people. I am in a tatty black dress, with padded boobs, a bob-cut wig and late-career Edith Piaf make-up. Some professors see me before the event starts and they ask me what I’m trying to do. “I’m a dead French hooker,” I tell them, and after a beat, they ask me about my venereal diseases.
Anecdote four. On the night of the General Elections in 2011, someone dug out and set up a projector, connected it to his laptop and screened a live SG-elections tweet feed. As the school-day ended, people streamed in and stayed and cheered and snarked and ate unhealthy food.
Anecdote five. I’m at an intro-to-sociology tutorial at FASS listening to a sexist and racist classmate rack up class-participation points talking over other people in a “safe space” designated by the tutor where people could speak freely. I thought, at that moment, that this guy wouldn’t have gotten very far past his first “I’m not racist, but…” at Chatterbox, where there weren’t very many rules except to please not leave food and drink lying around and to please check your privilege.
The USP is a programme, but most importantly, it is a space. Whether people are in the USP because they’re super smart or interesting or weird or really good at something or another, there’s a special alchemy that happens in the USP that creates the best kind of space: one where you can be, in a pure and un-pretentious sense, yourself. That’s the great thing about spaces with diversity: there’s an agreement that difference is okay; that understanding doesn’t come from group-think, but through grappling respectfully with the views of someone speaking from a different vantage; that weirdness and wisdom often go hand-in-hand; that people are most fully interesting and alive and inspiring when they can be who they are, without fear of irrational censorship and redress.
Friends applying to NUS always ask me if they should join the USP and to tell them why it’s so special. I don’t know how to characterize this space. At its core, I suppose it is a liberal space; it is also a largely compassionate and democratic one; people strongly believe that there are better days ahead, and that being critical is part of the way to get there.
But that’s not really it. It’s the feeling of meeting someone for the first time and realizing you share a deep passion for something obscure and quirky, that flush of understanding and excitement that a friend of mine calls a “friend-crush”. The energy that runs through the USP as a space is this feeling, this “friend-crush,” multiplied several-fold.
In our lives, we reserve parts of ourselves for different audiences. Every set of relationships comes with its set of “conversations I can only have with xyz”. The “conversation I can only have with people in the USP” is a conversation about what it means to be young and passionate and political and engaged and conscious and urgent in Singapore today. And it’s not just about the high-fallutin stuff: when the conversations about international relations and literature and religion and evolution and set theory are over, some of the richest, most intelligent discussions are about sex, love and friendship. It’ll probably disappoint most of your professors to hear this, but these are the conversations that many alumni, and probably some of your seniors, will tell you are amongst the best and most memorable. It’s true.
The USP is a safe space. There’s a Romantic glamour to it. No doubt, you’ve been told to expect unexpected, spontaneous lectures along corridors, lessons in physics at the dining hall, philosophy in the shower. But it’s also a space where, if you’re a woman, it’s celebrated, if not expected, that you wear your feminism on your sleeve; in fact however you identify, it’s part of the ethos; if you’re of an ethnic minority, your views aren’t only respected, they’re drawn on for insight; if you’re queer, you’ve found without challenge one of the most queer-friendly spaces on campus, and perhaps for the first time you can speak freely and openly about your desire and your politics in the same breath to people who aren’t queer, and it’s not to convince them, but to hear what they have to add.
But that’s great about the USP is at the same time its limitation. Spaces have boundaries. The world outside the USP, I daresay even in parts of the University, is not the same. Recent events around the world and at home make this point clearly. We now live in a country where children’s books are threatened with destruction for offending the wrong people. It is a petty world. In the USP, the only sort of pulping that goes on has to do with newspapers and papier-maché and Rag floats.
It’s something almost every USP alum will tell you: the USP is a bubble of like-minded people, energized by many overlapping passions and beliefs, people who “get” each other. It’s a protected and protective bubble.
There’s an edge of elitism in what I’m saying, and elitism is a charge that the USP deals with a lot. And maybe it is elite, and maybe the USP really is just a bunch of privileged, over-achieving people getting together and talking about things that no one else really cares about, and maybe the USP makes a big to-do out of itself, but that misses the point: if it’s an elite bubble, it’s a bubble of kindred spirits who, for a brief four years, find themselves assembled in the same place, at the same time in their lives, and all they have to do is learn together, enjoy each other’s company and be friends. For a brief four years, they witness a vision of a world that is kind and generous, that bridges gaps, that aims to be more humane.
If it’s a bubble, even an elite one, it doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it doesn’t last for long.
Take advantage of the space while you inhabit it. It’s hard to find spaces like this again once you leave. And this is a terrible cliché to bring up at an Orientation event like this, but the four years really do fly by.
To go back to that opening memory, the one at Chatterbox, across the table from my senior, later friend. I said “yes,” and suddenly the space was charged for me, it became a space where I could be honest, could be passionate and fierce and loud and silly.
In his fourth year at NUS, that senior turned friend would be kicked out of his home by his parents for being gay and they didn’t reconcile for a long time after that. The four years he spent in the USP, he tells me, were amongst his happiest.
The USP is a programme, but most importantly, it’s a space. Treasure it while you have it, it doesn’t last long, and it’s not something you can find easily again. Take it from me. On behalf of many alumni who would love to be speaking here, but can’t because, unlike me, they have day-jobs, congratulations. We miss this space terribly and envy you your four years in the sun.