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.

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