In Pursuit of Possibilities – Five Years of Perspectives with Dr Céline Coderey

This interview series at the five-year mark seeks to feature perspectives from students and fellows in Tembusu College, some of whom have just joined the college, and others who have been with it since its inception. In light of the overwhelming response received during Open Day, Dr Céline Coderey shares with us how she perceives Tembusu might grow over the next five years and some of her hopes for the College in the future.


Dr Céline Coderey received her M.A in Psychology from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and a MA. and PhD in Anthropology from the University of Provence, in France. After a first postdoctoral experience with the Centre Norbert Elias of Marseille, she joined NUS in 2011 for her second postdoc. She is now Research Fellow in the Science, Technology, and Society Cluster at the Asia Research Institute, and Teaching Fellow at Tembusu College. Her research focuses on medical and healing practices in contemporary Myanmar while her teaching at the College has so far included two Senior Seminars: ‘Biomedicine and Singapore Society’ and ‘Time and Life’. For the academic year 2015/2016 Céline Coderey has been the Residential Fellow of Ponya House. Beside her academic work, Céline Coderey collaborates as a volunteer with a local NGO engaged in helping Myanmar migrant workers. In her free time, she keeps alive her passion for travels, photography, classic music and spicy food.

Can you describe the journey of how you ended up at Tembusu?

Originally I am from Switzerland and I grew up there. I first studied Psychology in Switzerland before moving to France to study Anthropology. I did a Master and a PhD at the University of Aix-Marseille, doing research and writing about healthcare and medical practices in Myanmar. After that, I did my first postdoc in France and also worked for a museum in Switzerland where I organized an exhibition of a private collection of Burmese art.

I was looking for a postdoctoral fellowship abroad, and that was when a good friend and mentor of mine advised me to try applying for a position in Singapore. I did so and I got it! I was extremely happy when I saw the email and I vividly remember that moment; I really felt that my life was going to change. And here I am…with a joint appointment with the Asia Research Institute (ARI), where I conduct my research, and Tembusu College, where I teach. I have been here in Singapore for 2 years and 2 months exactly. My contract has been renewed so I will be here for at least two more years. I am looking forward to continuing this exciting journey…

What was your first impression of the College?

I would like to say that since the very first staff meeting I attended, I was really impressed by the respect people had one another. Everybody, no matter his/her rank or title has a voice and everybody else respects his/her opinion. As far as I know in Switzerland and France there are no residential colleges or at least I have never experienced any before. Thus, it is amazing to see the activities that can be done in one, and be part of them.

What did you expect from this experience of being a part of a residential college, given that you have not had the experience of staying in one when you were a student?

For the first two years, the College was just a place of work. I had my own apartment outside the College and I came here a couple of days a week to conduct my classes and attend meetings with the Tembusu staff. Last June when I was still living outside, Prakash Hande, the residential fellow of Ponya House, was about to go on his sabbatical. Gregory Clancey asked me if I wanted to take over Prakash’s duty for one year. I was extremely happy about this offer even though honestly, I was also bit worried about living and working in the same place. But actually, having spent almost two semesters here, I love it now and I am now really sad that I have to leave in July.

Living in the College is like being in the backstage of a theatre: You see everything, all the mechanisms and processes and the people’s interactions and in the same time you are part of it. For me living here has been a very enriching experience; it made me engage with the students in a different way than I do in class. There are several responsibilities also because you are someone students can turn to in case they face some problems; you are someone between a mentor and a friend. It is also very nice to be part of activities organized in the College.

Coming from an anthropological background, how would you describe the Tembusu Culture?

I am glad that we are having this interview right after Open Day. I think that the Open Day really shows what the College is. I came down from the 21st floor that morning and was greeted by a sea of green t-shirts. I really felt the joy and happiness students have from being part of the college and how much they are willing to share their experience with other people. It was impressive because even though you all had assignments and midterms to revise for, you were all so engaged and willing to be part of Open Day. I was amazed at how well organized the Open Day was, with guides and booths and students giving pamphlets. As Gregory Clancey announced on Facebook few days ago, this year we achieved the highest number of visitors in the history of the College. This is something we made possible by working together.

Anthropologically… A culture is a system of values, norms, beliefs and practices; a culture provides a structure but also possibilities. And this is what Tembusu is. As everybody says, Tembusu is “the Home of Possibilities” and there are several reasons for that. First of all, the College is, in my view, a microcosm of Singapore: an island within the island, with people from different cultures and religions and having different personalities and interests. Thus, this is what Anthropology is: the encounter with the ‘Other’: someone different but similar to you. This is why I love anthropology, travelling, and being part of this college. Everyday, there is a chance to meet people who are different and similar to you. There is respect for one another and even though, sometimes, of course, there are problems, everyone can be herself/himself. Moreover through the encounter with other people one can explore new possibilities and hence, maybe, discover oneself and what he or she wants to do in his or her live. By meeting people, there is a chance that someone can give you the possibility to do things you never knew or thought you would do. I myself was studying Psychology; when attending a class on Anthropology, I discovered that discipline and I instantly fell in love with it, shifting my career. I have never regretted that decision.

Essential to Tembusu’s culture is the different kinds of activities we have and most importantly, the seminars. They are simultaneously time topic-based and multidisciplinary, while also giving so much space for interactions, discussion, debates. This is all the more enriching given that students come from different disciplines and you don’t get this within the faculties. Beside the seminars, there are Students’, Fellows’ and Master’s Teas, reading pods, Forums. The fact that students themselves can initiate and organize activities is very important; once again this gives you the chance to explore new avenues. With more than 600 people in the building, you can definitely find people who share similar interests with you and with whom you can organize events or who will attend the events you organize.

All this culture is perfectly encapsulated in our main symbol, (symbols are another important aspect of every culture) which is the Tembusu tree. This is an indigenous plant of Singapore, which couldn’t have grown anywhere else but here. Similarly, this college couldn’t appear anywhere else. Like the tree, the college is rooted and grounded, but grew out with many branches that represent the different people living, working, and studying here. Nevertheless, the branches represent also the possibility to explore new horizons… to take some risks… but they also provide protection, shade, and most importantly, a sense of security.

What are your key areas of interest, as an educator, as an individual, or as a learner yourself?

They are quite separated yet still, somehow connected. My research focuses on Myanmar. When doing my PhD, I studied the healing and medical practices used by Buddhist communities living in the Rakhine state whereas during my first postdoc I have worked specifically on mental health and reproductive health (especially HIV issues) trying to highlight the reasons behind the lacking character of the services operating in these sectors. Currently I am working on two projects; one is on the evolution of traditional medicine and the other one how the political change which is happening in the country (the transition form a military dictatorship to a democratic government) is impacting  the health system.

In terms of teaching, during the first year I taught the Senior Seminar ‘Biomedicine and Singapore Society’, while in the second year I taught ‘Time and Life’, which is also a Senior Seminar. It is a new one created by Catelijne Coopmans and myself. Both have been amazing experiences. For Biomedicine and Singapore Society, I was with Prakash Hande, Shamraz Anvers and Adam Groves, who was the module coordinator. I learned a lot from him; he is an excellent teacher and very good in critical thinking, which is something, the College values a lot. Teaching ‘Time and Life’ was also very nice, not only because I find the topic very interesting – indeed as soon as Catelijne Coopmans launched the idea of this module, I immediately agreed to be part of the teaching team. I had the wonderful experience of writing the syllabus and creating it together with her. I think the students really enjoyed it; they deeply engaged in it. I realized how much I like teaching and how much I learnt from it – not only through the readings we do but also and even more through the interaction and exchange with the students.

What is it that you foresee in the next five years for Tembusu?

I haven’t been here as long as most of my colleagues so I don’t really know how the College was before, but everybody says it has grown a lot and the Open Day demonstrated that it’s still growing and even more. There were so many young potential students who came to visit the College and said they felt this was the place they wanted to be in. The beauty of Tembusu College is that it has a core team of people who are always there to keep things going. They are the veins of the college, but there is always new blood coming in, new staff and new students. Hence, there is a nice balance between stability and ongoing change. Tembusu College will always evolve and be dynamic; it will, I hope and believe, always keep its own values but also bring new things, new possibilities.

Do you have anything else you would like to say to students of Tembusu?

Be authentic, be yourself and accept yourself for who you are with your strengths but also your limits; try – even through all the activities the College offer to you and the encounters you can do – to understand who you are and who you want to be and do whatever you can to reach that goal.

This interview was conducted by Alex Chan, with photography by Jensen Goh.