Singapore suppresses dissident

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Photo by Drew Henderson.

The Singaporean government is disciplining a British author for a book that criticizes the country’s judiciary system, but administrators said Yale will continue with plans to establish a liberal arts college in the island nation.

A Singaporean judge found Alan Shadrake in contempt of court Wednesday because the journalist’s recent book, “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock,” accuses the court system of overusing the death penalty and sentencing convicted criminals inconsistently. Although Yale has said it will not solidify plans to build a college in conjunction with the National University of Singapore until this winter, Provost Peter Salovey said the University is confident academic freedom will not be curtailed at the proposed campus.

“We have been following Mr. Shadrake’s case closely and are not surprised by the result, given the very different laws in place in Singapore relating to contempt and defamation,” Salovey said in an e-mail. “I would have hoped for a different result, but Mr. Shadrake’s book openly challenged the country’s legal constraints on public criticism of identifiable governmental officials and institutions.”

When Yale announced plans to partner with NUS in September, University President Richard Levin and Salovey said their primary hesitation about the project was the low level of academic freedom present in Singapore. Administrators cited Shadrake’s July 19 arrest and said it led them to question the level freedom of expression for students and faculty in Singapore, Levin and Salovey wrote in the Sept. 12 prospectus they sent to University faculty.

Shadrake’s legal proceedings have raised the question of whether or not Singapore — which is an autocratic state — will provide the level of free speech required by a liberal arts college.

Garry Rodan, a professor of political science at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia and an expert in Singaporean politics, said teaching in a tight political climate such as Singapore’s can encourage professors to self-censor to avoid controversy with the government without realizing they are doing so. Yale, Rodan said, could play an important role in opening up Singapore’s academic culture, but this would require the University to be “firm and clear” about its independence and mission.

Salovey said although Yale administrators value academic freedom highly, they will make sure that everyone affiliated with the new college knows the dangers of denouncing the Singaporean government.

“We will make certain that all faculty and students are aware of the reach of principles of academic freedom,” Salovey said, “[as well as] the risks currently associated with public, personal condemnations of governmental officials and institutions.”

Rodan said the Shadrake incident is one of several similar cases to occur in Singapore over the past few decades. The charge of “contempt of court,” for which Shadrake was found guilty, is “extremely restrictive,” he said, adding that it is virtually impossible to get away with criticizing Singapore’s judiciary.

When the University first announced plans for Yale-NUS College, three Yale professors raised concerns that Singapore’s history of clamping down on free expression would hinder Yale’s academic mission. Two of them — classics professor Victor Bers and political science lecturer Mark Oppenheimer – said Yale should reconsider establishing the college, but expressed doubt that University administrators would change their minds, even in light of the verdict against Shadrake.

Bers said apathy has kept many professors from taking a stand against the issue, and he thinks the fact that few have raised concerns about the proposed college makes it that much easier for administrators to press forward with their plans.

“I don’t think [the administration is] seriously contemplating withdrawing,” he said.

Shadrake’s sentence will be determined on Nov. 10.

Alison Griswold contributed reporting.

Correction: November 8, 2010

The article “Singapore jails dissident” contained several errors. By saying Provost Peter Salovey was “not worried” about Singapore’s laws curtailing academic freedom at the propsed Yale-NUS college, the article mischaracterized Salovey’s sentiments on the matter. After consideration and “written assurance” that local laws would not affect scholarly activities, Salovey said he is confident academic freedom will not be curtailed at the proposed campus. Second, the article’s print headline stated that Singapore had already jailed British writer Alan Shadrake. He was being held in contempt of court and awaiting sentencing. Finally, a caption of a photograph accompanying the article should have identified Kishore Mahbubani as the dean of NUS’ public policy school and that he came to Yale last month for a Master’s Tea, not to speak about the proposed college.

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