Free speech a concern for Yale-Singapore college

While making the case to build a joint liberal arts campus with National University of Singapore, University President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey have cited other American universities that have collaborated successfully with NUS.

But not all of the Southeast Asian country’s academic ventures have ended well, with conflicts arising between Western institutions and the autocratic Singaporean government. The University of Warwick in England, for instance, decided not to build an undergraduate campus in Singapore in 2005 after learning that the government would not tolerate being negatively portrayed in academic reports. Johns Hopkins University also closed a research facility in Singapore following a falling out with the country’s government. James Scott, a Sterling Professor of political science who also serves on the board of NUS’s Asian Research Institute, said he is worried Yale could also suffer an embarrassment if it goes ahead with this project but is eventually forced to abandon it if its freedom is constrained.

“There’s unlikely to be a cataclysmic moment in which Yale would have to decide instantly whether to leave or stay,” he said. “It’s more like to be a very gradual diminution of freedom of maneuver in which there’s not obviously some decisive threshold.”

Though Scott said he thinks the collaboration could work well, he said the chances of failure are too high to be worth the gamble. He said he fears that, instead of Yale liberalizing Singapore’s educational system, Singapore will slowly transform Yale-NUS College into a place that fits its own needs and culture.

Singapore, an autocracy that does not guarantee free speech, is known for its harsh treatment of political dissenters, who are often sued for libel and bankrupted, imprisoned or exiled, Scott said.

Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said that although students and professors at Yale-NUS will have to follow the laws of the country, meaning they cannot accuse the government of corruption or stage political demonstrations, she believes the sacrifices will be worth it.

“We’ve done considerable investigation with faculty there who have worked in the region and visited there,” Levin said in an interview Monday. “The great majority feel that at least with respect to what can be done in the classroom and publications, there is sufficient academic freedom.”

But, Levin said, students and faculty will have to adjust to the constraints on public literature and journalism in Singapore, and be mindful of the culture they are in.

It was this kind of compromise that faculty at Warwick were not willing to make back in 2005. Singapore had selected the U.K. school to open a campus that would confer undergraduate degrees, but the senate of faculty, staff and a few students voted down the proposal.

“When other universities come to Singapore under the same terms, questions will have to be asked on whether they prize academic freedom and independence as highly as Warwick,” Garry Rodan, Director of the Asia Research Centre at Australia’s Murdoch University, told Reuters at the time.

Johns Hopkins University was forced to close a medical research facility in the country when the government determined that the school had failed to achieve its research and education goals despite the $52 million Singapore had poured into the project. At the time, Johns Hopkins officials also accused Singapore of failing to live up to its obligations.

Scott said he would have preferred to see Yale partner with Malaysia, Thailand or the Phillipines, none of which are democracies, but all of which have more liberal universities and more vocal critics of their governments than Singapore, he said.

Lorimer said none of these countries would have attracted a student body from across Asia, unlike Singapore, which is geographically central and culturally multi-national.

Lorimer said that, as a precaution, Yale will review the college every three years to make sure it is living up to expectations. And, if all else fails, Yale can take its name off the college at any time, Levin said.

But, Scott said, memories of the college’s affiliation with Yale will linger.

“[Administrators] say Yale can just walk away from this, but it will always be remembered as a Yale initiative,” he said.


  • goldoro99

    singapore is an egregious violator of human rights, extending as far as the continued criminalization of male-male homosexual activity – worse than china, philippines, thailand, etc. outrageous.

  • sigh

    “Singapore, an autocracy that does not guarantee free speech, is known for its harsh treatment of political dissenters, who are often sued for libel and bankrupted, imprisoned or exiled, Scott said.”

    This differs from Obama’s America only in degree, kind of like if Singapore = 1984, then the US = Brave New World…

  • Prof3

    Free speech is an important issue in this Singapore initiative. But the more important question is to ask how this initiative benefits *Yale*. I can see that it provides some interesting opportunities for some senior administrators and a few faculty. But will it contribute to Yale’s real mission, which is teaching and research? I doubt it. And that question seems not to be on the table here…

  • pablum

    @sigh: “This differs from Obama’s America only in degree.”

    And what might that degree be? The distance between the Sun and Alpha Centauri?

  • YaleMom

    Mr. Sigh:

    Obama wouldn’t imprison anyone for having sex!

  • pinkbaboon

    Goldoro99, please do support what you’re saying. Singapore has one of the most diverse and educated populations in the entire world. Male-male homosexual activity is NOT criminalized. Most night clubs host “gay nights.” Male spas geared toward queers exist in large numbers. If the government were to take an active stance on the issue, social gay events and venues such as these would have been closed down long ago. Yes, the military is a body in Singapore that classifies homosexuality as a mental disorder, but the US won’t allow gays to serve openly in its military either. And yes, queers don’t get the same attention as they do in America, but they aren’t actively targeted and persecuted. It’s in Yale’s best interest to open a branch in Singapore. Singapore is growing into an economic power in Asia. You won’t find a place as well-run, safe and productive as it.

  • YaleNUSAlum

    Having been a student at both NUS and Yale, I believe that some fears of Singapore’s autocratic government are a bit exaggerated. At their FAS, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the department which most closely resembles a liberal arts education format, has a lot of freedom to teach as they wish. For most classes, anything said in class is simply classroom discussion and it does not necessarily constitute political dissent. Professors are sometimes careful with how they express their feelings toward the government, but it does not hinder the learning experience. Many of them, in fact, are quite willing to cross those lines without fear of repression, and I have experienced this firsthand. Teachers making comments in a classroom setting is very different from public or printed political dissent.

    I think we need to take a look at what this school really means. It is a great step forward for both universities and it establishes Yale in a thriving Southeast Asian country, growing Yale’s prestige and influence to all corners of the world. Take a look at what Singapore is and try not to settle for all of the stereotypes propagated about their government and way of life.

  • cyd

    > > “This differs from Obama’s America only in degree.”
    > And what might that degree be? The distance between the Sun and Alpha Centauri?

    Indeed, calling it a “matter of degree” is ludicrous. Although the Singapore government led America in instituting detention without trial, it did not, unlike America, institute a systematic torture program for its prisoners. Nor, for that matter, has Singapore invaded other countries leading to the deaths of half a million civilians.

    In the latter matter, one could perhaps argue that the deaths of foreign civilians doesn’t count against a government’s human rights record; particularly if they are brown. Still, all things considered, I have to question the wisdom of having a Yale campus in the United States. Perhaps we should decamp.

  • sgcurrentaffairs

    Open letter to Yale staff to oppose Yale-NUS liberal arts college:

    Please do not tarnish your good name and associate yourself with a repressive, totalitarian neo-fascist regime which does not respect the basic human rights of its people.

  • MichaelMontesano

    University Secretary Linda Lorimer (whom I had the great privilege of meeting during one of her trips to Singapore to orchestrate the proposed Yale-NUS tie-up) tells the YDN that other countries in Southeast Asia lack the diversity and centrality of Singapore and thus the inability to draw as many students from across Asia to a Yale-affiliated liberal arts college. One can only wonder what makes her so sure. For Woodbridge Hall is not known as a node of expertise on the Southeast Asian region, and it is just this sort of quick, pat, fairly ridiculous come-back to skepticism about the Yale-NUS plan that ought to deepen our concern about what the University is getting itself into. Why can’t President Levin and University Secretary Lorimer encourage a real debate on their proposal, rather than assure us all that we should trust them to have balanced the pros and cons of an initiative that they will not be in office to see through?

  • Wowbagger


    Male-male sex *is* criminalized in Singapore. There is a law against it, and there are people [still being charged][1] under that law.


  • Wowbagger


    the original comment was that Singapore detains, bankrupts, or exiles political dissenters without trial. This was cited to show that there are no protections for free speech in Singapore. Your examples of human rights-violating actions by the US do not change this point. Those are not actions endangering free speech in the US. So the point still stands.

  • kixes

    Although I’m a Singaporean I’ve never studied in any of Singapore’s universities, so I can’t really comment on academic freedom in Singapore. But certainly it seems strange for Yale to start a liberal arts campus here because even if there is academic freedom that allows students to say what they want in classrooms and write what they want in their academic papers, it seems a little pointless if they cannot translate these critical thinking skills and freedom of expression to situations outside of their studies. For example, a journalism student might be allowed to write what he/she wants to in their university assignments, but what’s the point in that if they cannot apply this when they finish their studies and end up working for, say, The Straits Times?

    Will students of this proposed liberal arts college have to start living a sort of double life where they are allowed to speak freely in the classroom, but the moment they leave their class they have to adapt to the climate of fear again? What’s the point in that?

  • Tres

    Here is an open letter sent by a Singaporean to Yale professor Mark Oppenheimer:

    Dear Prof Mark Oppenheimer,

    I am one of the bloggers from Singapore’s foremost socio-political blog, the Temasek Review. The fact that I have to write to you anonymously speaks much about the repressive state of affairs in Singapore.

    I read that you had questioned whether Yale should be involved with a country that bans books and limits freedom of speech. This is an understatement.

    Singapore not only bans books and limits freedom of speech – it is a repressive, totalitarian police state akin to North Korea, Burma and Iran, the infamous “Axis of Evil” mentioned by your former President George Bush.

    Contrary to public misperception, Singapore is not a democracy. The ruling party – People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in power for more than five decades, controlling all institutions of the state such as the media, police, civil service and the economy. Even the Elections Department itself comes under the Prime Minister’s Office.

    The Singapore opposition has been decimated through the years by a series of unlawful detention without trial and expensive defamation lawsuits. Do you know that Singapore has the longest-serving political prisoner in the world, Chia Thye Poh who was detained without trial for 32 years, four more years than Nelson Mandela?

    Singapore leaders have successfully sued and bankrupted opposition politicians for seemingly innocuous criticisms which nobody will bother in the United States.

    I read frequently that the Republicans have used all kinds of derogatory terms and comments to ridicule your President Barack Obama. They would be either be jailed for criminal defamation or sued till they are bankrupted in Singapore.

    During an election rally in 2006, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong threatened to “fix” the opposition should more of them get elected into Parliament. The PAP currently holds 82 out of 84 seats in Parliament. Do you see such a major parliamentary dominance among democratic nations in the world? No, they are only found in autocratic states like Zimbabwe, Russia and Azerbaijan where elections are no more a facade to legitimatize the “mandate” of the ruling elite.

    Though Singapore’s Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, a series of draconian laws are put in place to curtail the political rights of citizens such as the Internal Security Act, Sedition Act and the latest Public Order Act which outlaws even a solo non-violent protest so as to preserve the PAP’s political dominance and hegemony.

    Continue reading here:

  • S Teng

    Let’s just have a look at what happened recently when the Singapore police hauled up 2 members of the public for their FACEBOOK comments. This is not even anything remotely related to criticism. And even myself, I was thinking twice before deciding to put my real name down.

    Another good example is suing of author Alan Shandrake for his book on Singapore’s execution policy. A big no-no for our government.

    THEN, my alma mater removed a professor from his position with ridiculous reason of being a reputation risk. I’ve more stories to share, but will not be shared here, because being hauled up is a very real risk.

    So good luck to Yale and the professors who might come here. Don’t take our word for it, come here and experience all this for yourself!!

  • CHKYong

    Alas, same-sex acts are in fact criminalized in Singapore. There was a debate about this in Parliament recently, since Singapore was reviewing its Penal Code. After a farcical debate, during which one MP compared gay sex to ‘shoving a straw up your nose to drink’, the government decided to do what it wanted to all along: make gay sex a crime which can lead to two years imprisonment.

    Other egregious human rights abuses include: mandatory death sentences for minor drug offences, leading to the highest per capita rate of executions in the world, abolition of presumption of innocence for drug possession charges, mandatory flogging for minor offences such as hiring an illegal alien, complete state control of the print and broadcast media, complete lack of free political speech since even holding up a sign by yourself in a public place requires a permit, which is rarely granted, moreover decisions about whether to grant permits for political demonstrations are not open to judicial or other public review.

    Finally, President Levin’s claim that students at the proposed Yale-Singapore college cannot justifiably complain about the lack of free speech because they will have to be ‘mindful of the culture they are in’ is ludicrous. This is not a matter of respecting other cultures. In the first place, I doubt that we should respect those cultures or those parts of cultures that sanction egregious human rights abuses. To oppose the stoning of ‘adulterous’ women in Iran is not to disrespect that culture but rather to stand up for human rights. But more importantly, there is no need for this Yale-Singapore college: this is not a matter of respecting the culture of Singapore (whatever that means) but a matter of sacrificing Yale’s commitment to humane values for some risky enterprise of dubious worth.

  • CruEL

    If Yale lends its name to give this government any credibility its as good as abetting a known criminal.

    You may be just an educator. But you are a renowned, famous, elite university where your good name will be tarnished just by being associated with this masochistic, nepotism, dynastic, fascist PAP government.

    Look deeper when you come to Singapore. Look at the streets of geylang, the prostitutes, the masseuses providing sex service, the human trafficking problem, the denial of the existence of homeless people, study the ‘unemployment’ statistic, study what they say and compare it to what they do. The injustice. Subscribe to the Straits Times Online and see how they use it as a propaganda tool to brainwash its citizens. The mainstream media acts as the PAP newsletter, trumpeting its ‘false’ success, where all good things are due to PAP while all bad things are blamed on everyone around the world except themselves. Do your students need to study that in Singapore?

    I think the Singapore subject can be studied better in USA than in Singapore itself. Don’t you know the number of foreign newspaper that have been sued by our government winning its case 100% of the time? A totally compliant justice system that makes a mockery of the word ‘Justice’. Do you know that Lee Kuan Yew has NEVER lost a case on defamation in the Singapore Courts? What can you learn from such Machiavellian acts?

    The only applause Singapore gets is that it is the MOST successful communist country in the world. Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Castro, Kim Jong Il and Karl Marx will stand up and applaud Lee Kuan Yew for hoodwinking the whole world into believing Singapore is a democracy, legalised corruption by paying themselves millions a year (my prime minister’s salary is = Obama, Hu JinTao, Merkel, David Cameron, Jose Luis Rodriquez combined, all other ministers are paid at least 2.5million SGD (1.8m USD EXCLUDING bonuses) , jailing and bankrupting opponents using a compliant court of justice, ignoring sufferings of its own people, hoarding state funds within his own family (If only Singaporeans know the true wealth of lee kuan yew).

    Yale should be giving out research funds to what makes Singapore a successful Communist country instead of lending credence to such a government.

  • leyden

    > I think the Singapore subject can be
    > studied better in USA than in
    > Singapore itself.

    Clearly, everything is best studied from within the U.S., especially other countries. Never *ever* leave God’s own country to step foot into ‘communist’ Asian countries (are we sure CruEL isn’t writing from North Korea?) or, heaven forbid, atheist European socialist regimes — that might seriously upset one’s prejudices. And getting involved in slowly liberalizing systems of higher education systems abroad — an absolute no-no! After all, look what happened in Iraq. Much better to be hounded down on all-American campuses by lobby groups of all persuasions (see what’s happening at the University of Michigan) than having to bite one’s tongue when pontificating in the classroom on domestic politics in a foreign country…

  • Tres

    I’m a Singaporean, and I agree with commentor leyden before me.

  • Fujack

    I find it extremly amusing that some Yale professors seem to place undue weight on the so called cultural sensivity of Singapore.

    Let me remind our American friends that Singapore,whilst touted as a great success for its economic success(not so well known is the fact that it has the highest GINI coefficient in the entire developed world),has been ruled with iron fist by Mr Lee Kuan Yew who is, in the words of one British cabinet minister, “the best bloody Englishman east of Suez”.

  • Fujack

    The follwoing article may be relevant in this discussion.

    No talk on politics and religion without license: NTU(The Nanyang Technological University-Singapore)
    Following the incident in which a student posted an ‘academic blacklist’ of international students, NTU sent out an email warning to its students about the school’s regulatory guidelines on internet postings. The ‘academic blacklist’ contained the personal details of a list of international students — including their nationalities and photographs — accompanied by testimonials from their classmates reproaching their work attitudes and behavior.

    The email, titled “Message on Exercising Freedom of Expression Responsibility“, warned students in particular not to ‘make comments that cause hatred or dissatisfaction with the Singapore justice system’ and not to create ‘web pages/blogs containing information on religion or politics’ unless the student has ‘acquired proper licences from the Media Development Authority AND the written approval of the University.’

    Judging by the wide net of regulations it has casted, many blogs and webpages created by its students would have easily ran afoul of what the university claims is ‘exercising freedom of expression responsibly.’

    While the list of regulations has a few sound guidelines on exercising exercising free speech on the internet, it makes no case to explain why dissatisfaction with the Singapore Justice system, if there was ever one, could not be freely expressed by its students. At the same time, the insistence on a complete blanket ban on blogs that discuss politics or religion without acquiring ‘proper licenses’ from MDA and the school contravenes the very tenets of freedom of speech.

    Interestingly, judging from the contents posted, the blog TheLiberatingTruth, which was responsible for the e-mail reminder, would not have contravened any of the guidelines stated by NTU. Firstly, the blog is neither a site that discusses politics or religion, and neither is it a complete fabrication of allegations against the international students. The testimonials posted on TheLiberatingTruth, which has since shut down, are based on real-life experiences and encounters by classmates of these international students.

    The guidelines for exercising freedom of speech responsibly on the internet seemed to have confused responsible commentary on the internet with ‘positive’ commentary — insofar as you only limit your opinions about another organization, person or entity to positive or nice-sounding words, you are deemed to have commented ‘responsibly.’

  • Fujack


    This is surely a travesty to the term ‘responsibility’ — it is not simply a matter of toeing the safe-line and to have only praises on a subject-matter when criticism is also due. If a good friend of yours asked for your opinion on an essay that is due for submission, would you only mention the good parts of the essay while neglecting the fact that there are some critical loopholes in her argument? Should this be considered as ‘responsible’ commenting?

    Surely, one would rather be forthright in one’s comments to help our friends score a better essay result — rather than just saying the nice things, all the time.

  • Fujack

    5 SDP members fined for public assembly without permit
    By Shaffiq Alkhatib | Posted: 19 October 2010 1742 hrs

    SINGAPORE : Five Central Executive Committee (CEC) members of the Singapore Democratic Party, including its Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan, were each fined between S$900 and S$1,000 on Tuesday for participating in a public assembly without a permit.

    Two of their supporters and blogger, 49-year-old Yap Keng Ho, were also fined a total of S$2,800 for their involvement in the event that took place at a walkway in front of Block 190 Toa Payoh Lorong 6 at around 1pm on 9 August 2008.

    All of them were part of an assembly intended to publicise what the opposition party referred to as the “Tak Boleh Tahan” campaign.

    Prosecutors’ submissions stated that the head of investigations of the Tanglin Police Division found out through the SDP’s website that the party started the “Tak Boleh Tahan” or “Cannot Take It Anymore” campaign to voice its discontent on issues such as the country’s perceived high goods and services tax as well as the cost of living.

    Forty-eight-year-old Chee, who was given the maximum fine of S$1,000, told the court the members will be appealing against their conviction and sentence.

    SDP’s chairman, 67-year-old Ghandi Karuppiah Ambalam, who has also been convicted for being part of the assembly, will be sentenced at a later date as he had disputed his antecedents.

    He will be back in court on October 29.

    The court convicted members of the gathering after a 15-day trial.

    Three others, who had earlier pleaded guilty to the offence, were fined between S$600 and S$800 each.

    They include 36-year-old lawyer Chia Ti Lik and one of the SDP’s CEC members, 49-year-old Sylvester Lim Teck Hee.

    – CNA/al

  • Fujack


    Singapore’s New Weapon Against Dissent

    Written by Paul Karl Lukacs
    Wednesday, 27 October 2010

    Trademark infringement action now will do the job

    The government of Singapore has revealed its new weapon against political opponents: trademark infringement lawsuits.

    Singapore is synonymous with “soft authoritarianism,” a system under which dissent is quashed principally through co-option, self-censorship, gerrymandering and the strategic filing of civil lawsuits against opposition politicians.

    While the Singaporean regime is not above imprisoning its critics, the authorities prefer to use courtroom procedures that appear superficially to be content-neutral applications of typical laws. The island nation’s activists can expect to be sued for defamation or campaign violations, to have financially debilitating court judgments entered against them and to be barred from running for Parliament after they are forced into bankruptcy.

    Now the country’s long-time rulers, the leaders of the People’s Action Party, are attempting to use trademark infringement claims to identify anonymous critics and to squelch oppositional speech. So far as can be determined, despite the fact that the government keeps a tight leash on the mainstream media, it appears to be the first time the island republic has gone after an Internet publication although the opposition Singapore Democratic Party delivers a steady diet of anti-government rhetoric over the Net and an incessant stream of angry bloggers deliver up daily fare.

    The Temasek Review is a more formidable operation. In 2009, one or more unidentified anti-PAP dissidents began publishing news, analysis and opinion on the website. The site’s domain name ( was registered by proxy, and the site indicates it operates through a business entity in Panama, far outside the jurisdiction of the Singaporean courts (in which government-backed lawsuits against political opponents have been consistently successful).

    On October 9, 2010, a state-aligned tabloid, The New Paper, reported that the site’s founder was a Singaporean physician named Joseph Ong Chor Teck. Six days later, the current controversy began in earnest, when Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s principal sovereign wealth fund, served a cease and desist letter on Dr Ong.

    “The purpose of this letter is to request, if you are the founder of the website, that the website stops using the good name of ‘Temasek Review’ and that its name be changed,” the letter stated. The fund explained that it had used the name “Temasek Review” since 2004 as the title of its annual report and that the web site was “capitalizing on the good will and reputation” of the name in a manner that was “misleading and irresponsible.”

  • paul577

    Did anyone from Yale ask any of those posed by Warwick when it investigated Singapore’s invitation to establish a capmus there? For example, in a literature program could we include the work of Salman Rushdie? NO. Would relgious freedom apply to all students? NO. Gay students freedom to be ‘out ‘and active? NO The list of questions put to the Singapore authrorities was quite extensive and on the basis of the neanderthal responses from the Singapore govt, Warwick declined. So should Yale.