Ong: Facing up to Singapore’s harsh realities

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Photo by Amelia Sargent.

In Singapore, we have an acronym for people who love to talk about grand ideas or criticize others, but ultimately, take no action: “NATO” — No Action, Talk Only.

Unless Yale can address the grave challenges of operating in authoritarian Singapore, I strongly believe that administrators, faculty and students at the newly proposed Yale-NUS college will end up in “NATO” territory.

In the abstract, the project appears foolproof: With minimal financial costs, Yale can extend its brand reach to Asia and educate its next generation of leaders.

Yet despite these exciting imaginary prospects, we must consider the practical difficulties involved in implementing a true liberal arts curriculum in a deeply restrictive autocratic state. I spent my undergraduate education at NUS’s rival university, the Singapore Management University (SMU), and am currently pursuing my master’s degree at Oxford. My educational background in Singapore and abroad moves me to challenge Yale’s optimistic outlook about the project.

Liberal arts programs nurture intellectual leaders who not only excel in the classroom, but also take up passionate causes or debates outside of it: organized public assemblies, social justice organizations, protests, rallies, societies. Scholars on a university campus must not only critically engage with one another, but also with the wider society in which they are embedded. But students at Yale-NUS will be prohibited or discouraged from these kinds of proactive, political extracurricular activities.

Yale will not be able to forge an authentic liberal arts program in Singapore if it fails to surmount the following challenges: First, Singapore’s highly restrictive laws regarding public assembly. According to the nation’s Penal Code, an assembly of more than five people in public may be considered an “unlawful assembly,” subject to various definitions of what is considered “unlawful.”

For example, in late 2007, Burmese and international students in Singapore organized peaceful public rallies against the repressive Burmese government. But their efforts were repeatedly thwarted by the Singaporean police. The cops “advised” people to leave or risk facing charges, formally interrogated participants over their “illegal procession,” and contacted university administrators to crack down. Burmese students from my undergraduate university faced so much difficulty in obtaining the necessary licenses that they had to hold their events indoors.

Yale students in New Haven are accustomed to the freedom and right to protest; in authoritarian Singapore, the reality is much more complex. If students cannot express themselves publicly on important issues, can the Yale-NUS program still offer a meaningful liberal arts education?

Second, there are a host of others laws that Yale administrators, faculty and students will find unpalatable. The death penalty is still a reality in Singapore, and its government steadfastly rejects foreign intervention in what it deems a local debate. The regime has no patience for critiques from foreigners: British author Alan Shadrake was recently charged and thrown in prison for his book about the death penalty. Homosexuality is still criminalized (although the regime has hypocritically pledged not to enforce the law, in a bid to attract “foreign talent”). And faith is still a delicate and explosive issue in multi-religious Singapore. Our defamation and sedition laws favor protecting individuals and communities from offense — at the expense of free speech. Authorities continue to enforce censorship laws on print, video, film, radio and the Internet, stifling discussion of politics, sexuality and more.

Granted that these laws are local concerns subject to local debate, all stakeholders in the project will have to confront them on a daily basis in the wider Singaporean society. Is Yale-NUS program going to restrict itself to the comfort of the classroom — or will it risk and allow students, faculty and administrators to push the debate into the public sphere?

The third and final point concerns the viability of student organizations within campus. Will the local administrators, some of them affiliated with the ruling party, allow student organizations to confront sensitive topics? To date, there is no LGBT society at any of Singapore’s universities; students in such a society would be openly committing a crime. And student societies that discuss religion or politics have to register with the local Registrar of Societies under the Ministry of Home Affairs.

As one of the founders of “Apolitical,” the first student political association at SMU, I faced great difficulty. I had to jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops just to register our organization. Hosting a simple seminar about the upcoming parliamentary elections in Singapore was even harder. The SMU administration was so concerned with the university’s image that it imposed a media blackout; we couldn’t publicize the event at all.

I am not entirely against a Yale-NUS partnership. But the practical realities of operating in authoritarian Singapore must be recognized. Yale’s administrators must immediately address them in order to prevent the college from becoming just another “NATO” institution.

Elvin Ong is a graduate of Singapore Management University. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree at the University of Oxford.

Comments

  • Tan

    Good job. About time a Singaporean spoke up, even if it’s one from outside Yale.

  • The Anti-Yale

    According to your criteria, The Anti-Yale would be in jail if he wrote from The Singapore Yale campus.

  • graduate_student

    >With minimal financial costs, Yale can extend its brand reach to Asia and educate its next generation of leaders.
    >Yet despite these exciting imaginary prospects, we must consider the practical difficulties involved in implementing a true liberal arts curriculum in a deeply restrictive autocratic state.

    With Levin at the helm, Yale is much more interested in “extend[ing] its brand reach” than it is in “implementing a true liberal arts curriculum”; the differences between for-profit and non-profit institutions in education are rapidly diminishing. It’s less about propagating the ideals of the academy — free thought, enterprise, innovation, skepticism, etc. — than it is about finding new markets for the Yale-brand education.

    I hope that Yale does not continue down the path of so many other mail-order universities, like NYU:

    >When John Sexton, the president of New York University, first met Omar Saif Ghobash, an investor trying to entice him to open a branch campus in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Sexton was not sure what to make of the proposal — so he asked for a $50 million gift.
    >“It’s like earnest money: if you’re a $50 million donor, I’ll take you seriously,” Mr. Sexton said. “It’s a way to test their bona fides.” In the end, the money materialized from the government of Abu Dhabi, one of the seven emirates.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/education/10global.html

    It’s a particularly vile form of intellectual prostitution, the same kind that led the London School of Economics to lend legitimacy to the Gaddafi dictatorship and a group of US, Harvard-based professors to accept money from Libya in exchange for good PR.

    When the oldest institutions of education in the US are abandoning their original missions and adopting the practices of slightly more storied and prestigious Universities of Phoenix, we have problems.

    This is about Levin pimping out Yale, nothing more.

  • ldffly

    This is very depressing. I wish President Levin and his expanded college enrollment, new colleges, Singapore campus, and all the rest would just call it a day and retire.

  • River Tam

    > Second, there are a host of others laws that Yale administrators, faculty and students will find unpalatable. The death penalty is still a reality in Singapore, and its government steadfastly rejects foreign intervention in what it deems a local debate.

    Someone needs to tell Mr. Ong about US law…

  • log1104

    Enlighten us Elvin what does your “Apolitical” stand for.

    The Singapore Government takes hard decisions but does try to balance it with mainstream or you might even say popular sentiments. They do after all need to win votes. So while they do some popular vote buying policies but the mark of a true PAP politician is the ability to sell hard ideas.

    It is inefficent to deal with policies that is hijacked by fringed demands.

    “Homosexuality is still criminalized ” — well they tested waters and to reverse this and they know they will lose more votes so they continue with it.

    The young is naive in seeking “freedom” in all forms. There is a price to everything. But of course some like Elvin would like to impress others with this pseudo babble that adds nothing new to the discourse of what Singapore is and should be otherwise.

    I like new line of arguments rather than pandering to such dribble that will duly gather the usual support posting here. Tell us something we don’t know if you want to make an interesting argument.

    • Eddie_the_Eagle

      “”Homosexuality is still criminalized ” — well they tested waters and to reverse this and they know they will lose more votes so they continue with it.”

      I find that particular statement rather dubious. None who thinks that homosexuality should be criminalized would be inclined to vote for the liberal opposition instead of conservative PAP.

  • Elvin

    Thanks for all your comments everyone. I would like to share some clarifications that I made on facebook about the article.

    First, I am definitely not challenging Singapore law or saying Singapore law is wrong or oppressive. I am merely stating the local law as it is: (a) that we have highly restrictive laws on public assembly, (b) that we continue to have the death penalty where the government rejects foreign criticism on it, (c) homosexuality is criminalized, (d) our sedition and defamation laws bend towards protecting individuals and communities from offence, (e) we continue to have a lot of censorship laws. These are not my opinions. These are facts. And I mentioned that “granted that these are local concerns subject to local debate”.

    The problem, therefore, arises in the PRACTICAL process of having a liberal arts education. And my contention is that in the process of having a liberal arts education, faculty, administrators, and students may find themselves running afoul of the local law in various circumstances (for example holding public seminars on sensitive topics like religion or LGBT issues). In such situations, how should the Yale-NUS administrators, faculty and students respond? In general, the default response is usually to limit the issue to classroom discussion only, but then I raise the question, “Is that really a true liberal arts education?” And my contention is it may not be.

    Second, I am not denying that Singapore is really a wonderful place to be in. Crime is low. By per capita income our country is indeed very rich. Corruption is low etc. Most people have homes. I do realise that Singapore is a very good place to live in.

    Yet it would be unwise not to realise that Singapore has its own set of serious problems that it is confronting, of which there are no easy answers. We have the second highest income inequality in the developed world (between 0.48 and 0.43 depending on whether you take into account government transfers), far surpassing Korea, Japan, US, and the UK. As a result, Singaporeans are grippling with a stratification of society where the rich, the middle class and the poor cannot understand each other. For example, we have many children who go to school without money in their pockets to buy food during morning or lunch breaks. It is very disheartening to see that , considering the idea that we are indeed supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world.

    In addition, for such a tiny island, we are struggling to cope with a booming population due to foreign immigration at a time when our public transport infrastructure can barely keep up with the population boom. With so many people on this tiny island, there is friction, misunderstandings, there is little privacy and hence people get upset.

    Ultimately, the issues that I raised in the article are PRACTICAL issues which I argue that Yale has to confront and in no way am I advocating for liberalism or freedom or criticizing Singapore itself.

  • log1104

    Thank You Elvin. You provided a calm response while I deliberately tried to be a bit provocative.

    While I generally agree with the arguments that our government make and in fact I agree and support it. We cannot stay still and not debate it.

    I take your point.

    But I think this initiative is a 2 way street of challenging assumptions on what is western idea of democracy and expression.

    Take note while Singapore is small, its success has spread “LKYism” or the Singapore way across the emerging economies. Do a Google check, do they say I aspire to be like America or any western countries? Do they want a dream like the Americans do. No they don’t. You will surprisingly see, we want to be “like Singapore”

    Perhaps someone should define what that is? What is so appealing?

    And so you are right smack in Singapore, in the lion’s den, for its students to live in Singapore not from afar … to debate and challenge it, to say I have lived here and to say “I dont’ like it.”

    If they are risks, I think that is even more exciting, interesting for the students and for Yale — you have less to lose, Singapore would have to be extremely skillful to curb those opposing ideas — the fact is they can’t but they are confident that its own ideas would mount a good fight.

    Haven’t you thought the challenge is more dangerous to Singapore then the other way round. A mark of an authoritarian system would be to restrict information and “burn the books” syndrome. But this step forward, they want to be challenged. Give it to them!