News’ View: Keep Yale out of Singapore

Last week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rated Yale one of the worst colleges for free speech. The announcement sparked little fanfare. While we disagree with the Yale Press’ decision to censor cartoons of Muhammad, as well as the administration’s mystifying choice to strike the word “sissies” from a Harvard-Yale T-shirt, to skewer Yale seemed hyperbolic. After all, we attend the college that authored the famous 1974 Woodward Report, which so brilliantly fortified the best American traditions of free speech.

Sadly, our concern extends beyond T-shirts, cartoon anthologies and angry foundations. Benefiting from campus apathy, the administration is scrambling to finalize the budget for a far more troubling project: its first-ever international franchise, a Yale-monikered university in the Singaporean autocracy.

This initiative’s substantive advantages, if any, remain unclear. The new Yale-NUS will look like Yale, but it won’t hand out Yale degrees. Yale appointees will sit on its board, but likely alongside members of the Singaporean government, like those on the NUS board. Its students will take classes taught by Yale professors, but in them, they won’t be able to read banned books about the regime’s death penalty, jailhouse torture, homosexuality prohibition, or its censorship.

Even if local laws do not explicitly limit campus scholarship, self-censorship by students and faculty certainly will. Who would publish a fiery doctoral thesis in a country that metes out caning for minor offenses? A country that slanders and jails academics and authors for running foul of its government? Colonizing a Singaporean campus will not carve out a Western bubble — in the trials of British author Alan Shadrake and American spray-painter Michael Fay, the government has shown it will happily punish foreigners. And it will not create an Asian Ivy, nor somehow convince the Singaporean regime to change its ways. It will foster self-suppressing fear — or it will make martyrs.

Put bluntly, this proposal is driven by branding. Yale wishes to extend its international reputation eastward. But this will probably backfire. Yale will review the campus triennially, and given censorship, it will likely find itself unhappy with the results. Our say in Yale-NUS internal affairs will be meager, and our financial commitment nonexistent. There even remain doubts over whether the rigid Singaporean professional hierarchy will welcome the liberal arts. This newspaper fears that we will be forced to withdraw, suffering the same fate as Johns Hopkins University’s foray into the island nation. We will not walk away without egg on our face.

Embarassment will set back a worthwhile cause: the globalization of Yale. President Richard Levin’s tenure has been marked by an impressive widening of scope. Today, Yale has grown far beyond its puritan New England roots and positioned itself as a major world institution. Its programs in China, over which we exercise considerable control, have strengthened Yale’s educational offerings, not to mention its brand. But an unfunded and unsupervised campus in a repressive autocracy will do more than dilute the Yale name: it will sully it.

Two weeks ago, we learned that Yale and the Singaporean government have yet to reach a budget agreement on the proposal; it’s now delayed, and the plans are stalled. Now is the time for students and faculty to seriously consider the Yale-NUS gambit and its implications for our University’s character. This newspaper hopes that Yale does not prove the naysayers right. We must stop Yale in Singapore, while we still have the chance.


  • The Anti-Yale

    Gutsy editorial.
    On the other hand, it might be an advantage to have a courageous *Yale Daily News* stateside to rail against Singapore’s “chilling effect on freedom of speech” as it unfolds.

  • cyd

    I can assure you that any “jailhouse torture” in Singapore pales in comparison to that regularly meted out by the American judicial (and extra-judicial) system.

  • ds747

    SO gutsy.

  • YaleTemp

    There are 37 Asian countries containing 60% of the world’s population, yet Yale chose to partner with Singapore – why pick a place so notoriously harsh to liberal views?

  • River Tam

    Why not India instead of Singapore?

    > I can assure you that any “jailhouse torture” in Singapore pales in comparison to that regularly meted out by the American judicial (and extra-judicial) system.

    You sure about that?

  • SY10

    @River Tam

    Or Japan or South Korea or Taiwan? None of these places have US-style free speech provisions (no other country protects free speech as strongly as we do), but they are all far, far better than Singapore.

  • weinberger3

    Thank you for this. I presented similar arguments in The New Republic online on December 30, 2010:

    EW ’89
    Cambridge, Mass.

  • pinkbaboon

    I’m appalled at the fact that the writer suggested that Yale ought to allow cartoons of Mohammad. What you call free speech is slander. You are not respectful of the students here who don’t come from the same background as you. And if you can’t even do that, I don’t think you deserve a place in this institution.

    I doubt you’ve ever lived in Singapore, experienced the culture, its educational system, etc.
    To the one that wrote this, if you’re ready to give skewed accounts of a country that will be the most valuable English speaking nation in Asia, you better be ready to show your identity rather than hide behind the shield of an editorial.

  • SY10

    In what world is a cartoon of Mohammad slander? Do you even know what slander is? Cartoons of Mohammad may be a violation of Islamic religious law, but last I checked, those of us who aren’t Muslims and are lucky enough to live in a country that doesn’t enforce Islamic law, have no obligation to abide by it.

    As for the notion that not having lived in Singapore means that one doesn’t have the right to criticize it, you can’t possibly be serious. Criticisms of Singapore are based on the experiences of actual people who’ve lived there and experienced its “justice” system. Must one experience a particular injustice in order to criticize it? If I can’t criticize Singapore for imprisoning people who criticize its justice system simply because I’ve never lived there, can I also not criticize Iran for stoning women for adultery? After all, I’ve never lived there. Or criticize North Korea for its litany of human rights violations? After all, I’ve never lived there either. And, before someone jumps on me, these comparisons aren’t meant to suggest Singapore is as bad as North Korea or Iran, rather that this notion that one must have lived in a country to criticize it for violating the basic principles of a free society (and of Yale, whose principles are, in the end, the relevant ones for this discussion) is absolutely absurd.

  • rayner_t

    A couple of factual errors:

    (1) The Yale administration is hardly “scrambling to finalize the budget”: the project is funded by the Singapore side (according to the prospectus). The Yale-NUS project does not detract from Yale’s own ability to fund our great departments, courses and projects.

    (2) Doctoral theses, fiery or otherwise, will not be a feature of the proposed Yale-NUS college, which will be an undergraduate institution. Nor will faculty or students have any caning to fear, if they don’t engage in “minor offences” like gang robbery, rape, drug running or extortion. (This is a point of opinion, but I am unsure as to what the YDN considers a “minor offence”.)

    What point (2) means is that the academic interests of faculty and students alike will rarely, if ever, conflict with the Singapore government’s interests in social stability – unlike what some faculty members have suggested and what the YDN has enthusiastically parroted.

    @SY10 and River Tam: No doubt India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have great environments for education. What Singapore can offer is receptiveness to students all over Asia. There is no denying that South Korean and Japanese society is much more ethnically and culturally homogenous that Singaporean society. The huge number of foreign students in Singapore high schools is evidence of its attractiveness to students and students’ families from all over Asia. There are other reasons: stability, political commitment, the use of English, and the solid education system we have in Singapore.

    I fully agree that you don’t have to have lived in a society to be able to criticize it; despite our cultural differences we have common standards of human decency, reasoning and respect. But at the same time, there is a real sense that Singapore and Singaporeans emphasize different values, and that this whole Yale-NUS proposal has shown up the gulf that exists between our conceptions of the good.

    And beyond that, there has often been substantial misinformation on the part of YDN writers (aside from matters of opinion pertaining to what constitutes an “autocracy”, “regime” or “minor offences”, I’ve pointed out two purely factual errors in the article). This can only be attributed to dogged, persistent ignorance, or at best disinterest. What is the YDN serving?

    For sure there are free speech concerns which the administration has yet to address; I’m as interested as anyone else to find out what the administration would do if, for instance, a Yale faculty member was arrested in Singapore for defamation or for leading a demonstration.

    I’m both a proud Yalie and Singaporean and would love to have the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about the Yale-NUS project, particularly with those who have evinced a strong distaste for Singapore. If you don’t know Singaporean friends I’d be grateful to have a chance to talk about my country with you.

    Rayner Teo (
    MC ’14

  • Undergrad

    Establishing a campus in Singapore is like establishing one in Mubarak’s Egypt. Had Yale done that a few years ago, they would’ve found themselves in a pretty tough spot now.

    Another problem with Singapore’s regime is the legalization of marital rape. If a Yale professor went there with her husband, he could legally force her to have sex (as long as it wasn’t oral or anal sex, which is illegal anyway because it’s “sodomy”), and she would have no legal recourse. Yale shouldn’t put its faculty and students in the position of having to go to these kinds of places in order to advance their careers.

  • rayner_t

    If Singapore was anything like Mubarak’s Egypt, I’d be waiting with bated breath for the “regime” to collapse. Yet the governing party consistently wins regular elections with convincing majorities. So most demonstrations are illegal, but that doesn’t mean Singaporeans are all geared up to protest against the “regime” – far from it. The reality is far more complex than many of the armchair critics here have grasped. I sincerely hope Egypt can sort itself out (and the signs are encouraging) – but to compare Singapore to Mubarak’s Egypt is simply mindbending, and I’m afraid it’s really out of touch with reality. There are quite literally hundreds of thousands of Americans, Brits, Australians and Canadians living in Singapore – 1/4 of the resident population is foreign – and they wouldn’t be there if Singapore wasn’t doing something right.

    That’s not to say that a substantial foreign presence somehow validates a repressive regime. There’s another reason why Singapore’s system is so easily misunderstood: it’s a city coterminous with a country. You have levels of federal, state and local government, and by and large the federal government (with all the connotations of control and enforcement) is not so much a presence in your daily lives than it is in Singapore. By comparison what you see as the “federal” government is a much larger presence in Singapore, because the Singapore government is a bit of all three. In the same way, there is also greater singularity of purpose, for instance in the enforcement of the law. I don’t think many people grasp this.

    As for marital rape, it is true that it is still legal in Singapore. (It is a fact though that oral and anal sex between consenting opposite-sex adults has been legalized – I hope Undergrad gets his or her facts right next time.) There are still significant archaisms in Singapore’s legal system (which we inherited from the Brits via India), but there is a movement to criminalize marital rape in Singapore, just as there were movements to grant women the vote in Western societies 150 years ago. You might be surprised to learn that books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover were still banned in the US and UK up till about 50 years ago. The point is, it’s a work in progress, and more dialogue between cultures can only be better. On the other hand, prudish liberal sensitivities about how free nations should not be doing business with “authoritarian regimes” will certainly backfire.

  • MirandaSeet

    I do not know why Singapore choose to go with a haughty university like Yale who think they are so almighty and superior in wanting to impose their values and standards on others.

    They should cooperate more with universities from Asia and established more academic credibility based on Asian needs, rather than try to import all these highly disgusting double standard and hypocritical western (so-called) values into our society.

    It’s the era where Asia can established more standards and values for themselves, and it is time Asia’s institutions flush all these western hypocrisies and values out through our toilet bowl.

  • Undergrad

    What are these “Western values” that are so incompatible with Asian culture? Freedom of speech? Equal protection under the law? Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment? How are we supposed to open up a “dialogue” when a Yale professor could get thrown in prison and given 5-figure fines for saying the wrong thing?

  • rayner_t

    @MirandaSeet: I really don’t buy the argument that “Asian” and “Western” values are incompatible. It’s a convenient fiction (i.e. excuse) that we’ve used to explain the lack of communication between these two cultures. Academic values – intellectual honesty, commitment to the truth, rigour, humility and so on – are the same wherever you go, in Asia or the West. Neither does name-calling serve any constructive purpose.

    @Undergrad: Yes, it is true that in Asian societies, freedoms of speech and assembly are sometimes ‘compromised’ – from a Western point of view. One of the most obvious explanations is putting family and social good above the self.

    On the other hand I don’t see how you can claim with any validity at all that the Singapore legal system does not offer equal protection under the law. If your objection is to the laws of Singapore then make that clear – do not confuse the two. Singapore offers equal protection under the law – our laws and their application are as comprehensive and transparent as the best in the West. To put it in terms you might understand: we cane everyone equally. Does that make better sense to you?

    As for your “freedom from cruel and unusual punishment” – you might make the case that caning and hanging is cruel and unusual punishment. On the other hand the consistent and clear application of Singaporean laws has made Singapore one of the safest, best-managed places to live in the world. I consider it extremely cruel and highly unusual that I can’t walk around certain places in New Haven at night; but it’s a trade-off I’ve accepted to have the privilege to engage with some of the best minds in the world.

    Finally, if your hypothetical Yale professor held true to the rigorous standards of academic integrity we expect from the great faculty members we have here, she would not be capable of “saying the wrong thing”. Logic and reasoning do not work differently in Singapore.

  • dm

    Can we also talk about the treatment of migrant workers in Singapore? I don’t think that the situation there is why Yale shouldn’t be involved (freedom of speech is clearly first), but please don’t act like Singapore isn’t free of social problems.

    Additionally, as a native New Havener, I too am saddened by the fact that New Haven can be a dangerous city. But, please don’t forget that Singapore is an incredibly unique nation with a fraction of the US’s population. It can achieve most of the things that it does because of that uniqueness as a historical colonial port with an immigrant base population.

    And yes, I have a problem with Singapore’s laws. I don’t mind terribly their hyper-sensitive “Broken Windows” way of policing, I don’t think that caning is the worst thing in the world, but when viewed in the context of the general policy of all of Singapore’s laws, there is a concern to be had.

    I do agree with your point, though, that people who support liberal democracy shouldn’t give up on authoritarian regimes. I would have no problem with NUS-Yale if Yale issued a statement saying, very simply, “Yale professors will be instructed to teach and speak as they would in New Haven. There will be courses offered in government, including Singaporean government, and literature, international relations, etc. Any attempts to censor professors will be opposed by the University.” If they aren’t willing to do that, then I oppose the university. Put in Taipei or Seoul.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “I do not know why Singapore choose to go with a haughty university like Yale who think they are so almighty and superior in wanting to impose their values and standards on others.”


    The Academy (not just Yale) is dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever it leads.


    The last time I looked even religious universities (Catholic University; Brigham Young University, Oral Roberts University) adhered to this standard.

    If Singapore wants an INFORMATION DELIVERY SYSTEM then let it hire GOOGLE UNIVERSITY which has already capitulated to Chinese censorship.


  • cyd

    >> I can assure you that any “jailhouse torture” in Singapore pales in comparison to that regularly meted out by the American judicial (and extra-judicial) system.

    > You sure about that?

    Yep. The reason I can be sure is that Singapore is not currently engaged in two brutal open-ended military occupations. That alone tips the scales in its favor.

  • abc333

    @rayner_t You state that there is equality before the law and to prove this you state that all people are caned equally. This is ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. In fact the Singaporean statues specifically state that it will not apply equality before the law. In the case of caning, it specifically states women are always exempt from caning no matter what the offense. On the other hand if you are unfortunate enough to born a male, you will not only get the same jail term as your female counterpart but you will also get caning; additionally brutalized while in jail by a legislated flogging (caning). This is punishment is severe, where a man is stripped naked, tied to a frame and beaten with full force with a heavy flexible cane over and over again across the naked buttocks until there is a bloody pulp. The physical consequences take weeks-months to recover, the psychological consequences could be equivalent to a brutal rape or worse.
    Is this equality before the law? Identical crimes with grossly different sentences depending on whether one is born female or male is not equality. Equality before the law is a basic human right. Sentencing depends on the individual not on their gender, race or creed. Absolutely no reason is given for this gross gender discrimination. To give a simple example, being in possessed of personal pot for the third time would get you jail and a caning torture if you are a guy, but if you’re a women you get a fine and therapy. Would that it WAS applied equally because that would mobilize well connected womens issues machinery and likely result in a total ban of this barbaric practice found in only Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. (This is distinct from Sharia canings ,which are meant to humiliate, not hurt and performed ceremoniously and lightly by comparison, not that that justifies it). No, Singapore definitely does not have equality before the law for men or women and it does practice cruel and and unusual punishment on males. (over 6000 men were flogged in Singapore last year in a total male population of about 2.3 million)
    If I was a male I would never visit or even pass through Singapore , just as I would not visit female legislatively oppressive countries.
    Yes, Yale U should have nothing to do with oppressive states.

    For those who think caning is OK . Look at this

  • NUS

    Regarding the legal system in Singapore, and why the foundations for a liberal art -Yale-related college are problematic in Singapore, read this:

    The best way to test this is for Yale admin to enter some classrooms of NUS Arts Faculty (randomly, without prior warning), the answer will be clear. And interview current students and faculty members.

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