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.

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