News’ View: A matter of self-respect

Yale and the Singaporean regime have finalized the budget for their partnership. They have put up the cash, and we will lay down our name.

In past weeks, this newspaper has opposed the proposal on practical and academic grounds. Setting up shop in a censorship-laden regime will render true liberal arts scholarship impossible. But beyond the classroom, this collusion has even worse implications. We will become the academic partners of an oppressive autocracy, tools of their illiberal ambitions. Yale will not liberalize Singapore. The People’s Action Party (PAP), the nation’s ruling elite, holds all the chips and pays the checks. To trust the PAP’s assurances about academic freedom would be naïve. But to rope our name to an oppressive autocracy would be profoundly irresponsible.

The Yale community deserves to know the truth about our new partners. Human Rights Watch describes Singapore as “an authoritarian state with strict curbs on freedom of expression, assembly, and association.” The PAP has maintained one-party rule since 1959. Opposition politicians, speakers and journalists are fined or thrown in prison. The regime even bans public demonstrations. Singapore is a quiet despotism: its political agitators disappear indefinitely; its workers cannot organize; its citizens live under scrutiny.

Political repression furnishes a deplorable human rights regime. Singapore has the highest per capita execution rate in the world. Homosexuality is banned and punishable by imprisonment. In 2007, 6,404 men were sentenced to be caned. The nation’s 160,000 migrant workers enjoy no labor rights. And abroad, the PAP props up the military junta in Burma.

For students here, these facts may seem distant or abstract. In yesterday’s email from the President’s Office, Singaporean human rights abuses were not even mentioned. But at Yale-NUS, these realities will be personal. Within miles of campus, untried prisoners will languish in detention facilities. The laborers who sweep its classroom floors will not be able to organize. How would the Catholic community at Yale respond to the PAP’s detention and torture of 22 Roman Catholic social activists without trial? The LGBTQ community, to its homosexuality ban? Our political activists to its habeas corpus-denying Internal Security Act? On a campus of thousands of engaged minds, the apathy has been overwhelming. At a meeting to discuss the partnership, only 25 faculty members showed up.

For many on campus, it is not easy to criticize an administration that has internationalized so successfully. Yale must engage with foreign modes of thought, even uncomfortable ones. But even as we globalize, some of our principles must stand immovable. If we become the partners of the PAP, we lose our moral authority.

This is not another innocuous international program. It is a fully fledged commitment to a partnership that runs counter to our values. And it will set a dangerous precedent for other major institutions looking eastward in the years to come. Yale will become deputized by a ruling elite that is not merely unsavory, but deeply unjust. If we climb into bed with one of Southeast Asia’s most notoriously despotic governments, we will legitimate its abuses. We become complicit. As Yale President A. Whitney Griswold said on June 9, 1957: “Self-respect cannot be purchased. It is never for sale. It cannot be fabricated out of public relations.”

It is time for students and faculty to dispel their apathy. The folly of Yale-NUS stretches beyond academic freedom — it shakes the foundations of our character, name and future. And we may now have passed the point of no return.


  • The Anti-Yale

    *On a campus of thousands of engaged minds, the apathy has been overwhelming . . . And we may now have passed the point of no return.*

    Courageous editorial.

  • Dynasty

    Your points are certainly well taken, but I think a bit one-sided. Isn’t is also possible that by engaging this autocratic society with the values of the liberal education, that we may help to liberalize them? Certainly we will be making an attempt at educating the intellectual elite among the young, presumably future leaders, in a manner more globalized and more enlightened than they otherwise would experience.
    In a sense this isn’t that different from World Fellows or many other programs Yale has that engages individuals from oppressive societies.
    Obviously the key is going to be what happens when the government starts to feel itchy from some protest or other expression of academic freedom. Yale has gotten some level of assurance on these issues; we will just have to see what happens when the assurances are put to the test.
    If the assurances prove empty, Yale can leave and take its name with them. If, on the other hand, it turns out that Yale does make an impact, then the effort will have been quite worthwhile.
    I agree that there is some measure of risk, but if we look at the worst case, it isn’t that much worse than the current situation – minimal engagement and significant oppression. We are taking a stab at making that better. Nothing to be ashamed of in that.

  • augustin

    Don’t be ridiculous. Every “regime” has its dark secrets. May I remind the author that Yale is not the most morally upright university around either.

    Please refer to:

    and finally an article from this distinguished news paper itself:

    My point is not to give a tit-for-tat response nor will I resort to “an eye for an eye” logic. I just want to highlight the hypocrisy in this article and to emphasize that we should not conflate the unethical acts of certain group(s) of individuals with the merits of a liberal arts education anyway.

    In particular, I take offense with some of your assertions. Firstly, partnership with NUS does not mean partnership with the PAP, there are distinct and separate governing bodies. Secondly, I always thought it hypocritical to talk about the PAP’s “despotic” practices. “citizens live under scrutiny” – think Patriot Act. “Untried prisoners will languish in detention facilities” – how about Guantanamo bay? “PAP props up the military junta in Burma” – oh, I wonder which government propped up the Mubarak regime, armed Osama and backed Saddam when it was useful to do so, always in the interest of “stability”.

    Perhaps, we should be asking why Singapore even wants to model the wanton liberalism of the West. God forbid that we have fraternities running around NUS with rape chants. I do think that if you can get past the pretensions, a liberal-arts education can actually be an eye-opener for the Americans as well. Maybe then, you can identify the flaws in your own system before going around criticizing others callously. Please consider your assertions before making such ill-considered comments.

  • Tan

    It’s ridiculous that people keep suggesting moral equivalence between the US and the Singaporean systems. While the US government is responsible for many deplorable things, it’s nowhere near the level of oppression practiced by the PAP. The crucial difference is that oppressive US domestic policies are the exceptions to the rule, whilst in Singapore they are the norm, and the entire system is engineered to enable this oppression. The difference is that when the US government commits acts of brutality, the media, civil society, and the citizens rally to denounce it and campaign against it. When the Singaporean government commits acts of brutality, it is almost always the case that no one dares to speak up for fear of being persecuted themselves, and the media, civil society, and the courts are completely pacified by the PAP.

    The idea that people should ‘identify the flaws in your own system before going around criticizing others’ is just as ridiculous. Just because your system has many flaws is no reason not to criticize even more oppressive systems. Through this kind of criticism, people in different countries can help each other improve their respective systems: you help point out or flaws, and we’ll help point out yours. As ‘augustin pointed out: ‘every regime has its dark secrets’. And so if only citizens living under completely innocent systems have the right to criticize other systems, then we’d probably have no global dialogue or critique at all. The world will be all the poorer for that.

  • Koh

    Why not make this self-righteous rubbish more ridiculous than it already is: What’s Yale so famous for, anyway? Gang violence and, oh, being Rory Gilmore’s second choice for most of her life. And now – this intransigent holier-than-thou attitude. Utterly repulsive. The YDN keeps haranguing NUS for that which Yale has already received safeguards and promises, and refuses, plain refuses to see any advantages at all in cultural exchange with the students from another geographical region with different values (not all of which, surely, revolve around subservience to autocracy). The deal is already stacked in Yale’s favour in so many ways, and NUS is basically whoring itself into a grossly unequal marriage from which Y. can pull out at any time. Quit while you’re ahead, Yale, I’d say; stop abusing your own position in the deal. And start taking stock of what might be gained from the partnership.

  • vitalism

    Funny how YDN decides to take a polemic stand against Singapore and keeps recycling these statements in its “review” of this project. Sure, Human Rights Watch describes Singapore as “an authoritarian state with strict curbs on freedom of expression, assembly, and association.” but let’s see what other organizations say about Singapore: Most transparent, fifth least corrupted and second best country for expatriates to live in (IMD World Competitiveness Report 2010) and best city in Asia to live, work and play (Mercer Quality of Living Survey 2010)

    Insead, University of Chicago, Duke and NYU, amongst others, have set up campuses in Singapore and not one has complained about the “deplorable human rights”. Has it occurred to YDN editors that maybe this country is doing something right after all?

  • khymos

    @Koh: I think you mean New Haven is famous for gang violence (since I don’t remember any reports of Yalies being in gangs) and even then, not really. [As a sidenote: are you a NUS student? I can’t help but notice that you spelt “favour” with a “u”.] And Rory Gilmore chose to come to Yale after being accepted to Harvard and Princeton. I don’t see how that makes it her “second choice”.. get your facts right. Also, what kind of cultural exchange is supposed to take place at Yale-NUS? It’s a college for Singaporeans and students from the region, not American students and certainly not aimed at Yalies.

    What exactly might Yale gain from this partnership? I don’t exactly see the deal as being “stacked in Yale’s favor in so many ways”. NUS obviously has much more to gain from this deal; they would not go ahead and invest such a large amount of money otherwise. The fact that NUS actively pursues partnerships with top universities is proof enough. Vitalism brought up UChicago, Duke and NYU. Firstly, UChicago’s campus is not a partnership with NUS, and is totally autonomous. Also, UChicago and Duke in Singapore are business and medical schools respectively, and hence do not have a direct conflict with any “political oppressiveness” or human rights issues that Singapore might have, as opposed to students pursuing a liberal arts education. The only valid example I would concede is NYU. And no one rejects the notion that Singapore might be doing “something” right. It’s GDP (PPP) is ranked 3rd in the world after all. The question here is whether a liberal arts college can actually thrive and succeed in an environment that YDN might have painted much worse than it actually is, but is definitely still cause for concern.

    The only apparent gain Yale might takeaway, which I can readily observe, is a greater prominence in Asia, and it already achieves this through its Yale-Peking program. Besides, I highly doubt Yale actually needs more international publicity. And as Bers points out (, Yale’s reputation is very much at stake here. I applaud YDN for continually discussing this subject that the majority of Yalies seem oblivious towards. Perhaps this editorial might stir more students from their apathy.

  • Koh

    I _am_ an NUS student, though you got that correct, your process of deduction isn’t all that watertight. I might very well be one of the many people in, oh, the world that, gasp, exists outside America (no way!), who don’t spell ‘favour’ or ‘cultural homogenization’ the American way.

    To be honest, we hear you (general ‘you’), as well as you hear us (general ‘us’). Those arguments that are offered you irk you as much as your arguments bore us beyond a certain point of establishing your self-centredness and hypocrisy about America’s involvement in politics – which, by the way, is not an unfair point to raise about your university and country, since all your camp seems to harp on is NUS’s alleged constraints under its government. All that’s left, really, is, perhaps, to discuss something that’s potentially demonstrable, i.e. Rory Gilmore’s college choices. Sure, she accepted Yale, but for “most of her life,” as I said, before graduating at Chilton, Harvard was second to none in her view. Didn’t you see the poster she’s got tacked up in her room, or the brochures she obtained with Paris from fairs in the first three seasons? I’ll challenge this point with the singleminded determination that you seem to oppose Singapore with all that you know about it.

  • Koh

    And my bad – I did mean New Haven instead of Yale w.r.t. my insinuation of gang violence as one of the few things people know about Yale anyway. I must have got lost in the myriad of loose associations flying around: Singapore = PAP, PAP = NUS, political leaders = the kind of students NUS has. Yes, the students, and not anything else, at the heart of any university.

    I hope the point I’m trying to make gets across, though, that being concerned about reputation’s one thing, and an important one at that, but some open-mindedness (instead of hysterical biases and being blinkered and myopic) about students from the region might be nice from your soi disant liberal institution.

  • khymos

    For the record, I’m not even American, so your accusations leveled at my supposed American-centric perspective really don’t stand at all. I thought you might be a NUS student purely based on the fact that 1. You’re obviously not from Yale and 2. Both NUS and Yale communities have not shown much interest in this topic, much less anyone outside of the 2 universities, so it would be unlikely you were merely “one of the many people in the world that exists outside of America”.

    I won’t bother arguing with you about your interpretation of a television drama series; it really is pretty immature and if your only knowledge of Yale is from Gilmore Girls, then it is you (the specific you) and not “the general us” who is blinkered and myopic.

    I agree that YDN seems to have attacked this issue with a fairly heavy-handed approach, which might come off as close-minded. However, this is “News’ Views” after all and reflect the views of the editorial board at most. Further, I think there is merit in discussion and debate, as spurred on by the YDN, which has been lacking at Yale regarding this issue. The administration needs to know that the students still have concerns, and just writing them off with vague assurances like “Our agreement with NUS incorporates the language protecting academic freedom that we shared earlier and affirms consistency with Yale’s policies on non-discrimination.” ( is not enough.

    You might also want to question NUS’s stance in this matter. If you think that they are indeed “whoring” themselves, why not take it up with your administration?

  • Koh

    @khymos. I did not say or suggest you were American. I’m merely supposing you’re a student from Yale, and you are undeniably Yale-centric, as I am admittedly limited by my perspective and, well, NUS-centric.

    “_why not make this self-righteous rubbish even more ridiculous than it already is: what’s Yale so famous for, anyway?_ [etc.]”

    The bit about Rory Gilmore _is_ immature and a joke, good god, to illustrate (I can’t believe I’m explaining a joke) how undeveloped, shortsighted and ridiculous one’s views have the potential to be if one simply refuses to get off his or her high-horse and think beyond prejudices. You know, you may after all be right in what you suggest, that academics working in universities in Singapore struggle to work around censorship especially in fields that relate to local politics and governance, but (1) think about the students (2) think about why your university (or Yale, just in case you’re going to say next that you’re not a student there) is doing it (3) think about the self-satisfied, other-bashing way you’re saying it. It’s offensive.

  • Skeptic

    Singapore’s aging leadership, themselves broadly educated in a more “liberal arts” tradition, decided that the first priority would be development of a technocratic population and a stable multicultural society (after a difficult time with the Japanese and communists). As one of my (non-Singaporean) friends who is an astute observer of South East Asia, said, Singapore was incredibly lucky, compared to the other nations in that region, in that her leaders just happened to be more or less honest and competent. Now that this small city-state has developed a first world economy, and the multicultural ethos is beginning to take hold, these aging leaders, if one can believe their public statements and actions such as the Yale-NUS project, are urging their population, especially the younger generation to take more risks, take a broader view, and move beyond the technocratic perspective. They know Singapore needs to move forward with new generation of leaders more like themselves. The Yale-NUS project may help in this evolution of Singapore, and maybe some of the rest of Asia, toward a more mature democracy.

    My visits to Singapore, admittedly for only short periods, suggest that the un-nuanced rhetoric in the recent YDN editorials and op-ed pieces do not reflect what I observed in recent years. For example, there is a rather lurid sex shop only a block down the main street from the presidential mansion… and they carry many items of special interest to lgbt customers. I was taken by friends to several gay bars that were as open and public as any in New York or London. Singaporeans I met have always enjoyed contentious political discussions with me on a variety of subjects, including their secular saint Lee Kuan Yew. On the other hand, this young country is still struggling with the proper and effective way to deal with perceived destabilizing threats from religious fundamentalism, from both the Christian as well as the Muslim faiths. In the long run, as some of the comments here note, Yale may make a lasting impact.

  • kixes

    I’m a Singaporean. I’m no big fan of my own country’s human rights record. I support LGBT rights. I actively campaign against the death penalty. I support the abolishment of the ISA. I write as a citizen journalist. On all the counts of accusing the PAP of being oppressive towards its people, I agree. And I too am disgusted by how PAP deals with the Burmese junta at the expense of the Burmese people.

    However, while reading this editorial I felt that Singapore has been overly-demonised, and that isn’t quite fair to my country. We are more than the PAP. Lumping us all together and judging us all by the PAP’s track record, as if just being in Singapore is a blemish on the face of Yale, is simply not fair. In fact, I find it more than a little rude.

    I feel that the issue is not so much about whether Yale will liberalise Singapore, or whether Yale’s name will be ground into the dirt by joining with NUS. From what I hear and what I have seen, there is academic freedom in Singapore. Perhaps it is not to the level that students in America would expect, but I don’t believe that students’ work and research are regulated or monitored.

    The issue as I see it, is whether the students would then be able to apply this freedom of thought to their everyday lives in Singapore. The situation is that you might have students who enjoy all this freedom and critical thinking in their school lives, and then get disillusioned when they try to apply it to their life outside of academia and find all the obstacles in their way. I do not think the PAP’s oppression is as much felt in the schools as it is in regular life outside of academia, and that’s where the liberal arts education is going to be ineffective.

    So I don’t think Yale joining with NUS will be automatically dragging Yale’s name in the dirt. It’s more that there is really no point in trying to have a liberal arts college if there is no environment for the students to apply their learning and knowledge after they graduate.

  • passerby

    (A friend from NUS gave me permission to repost her comment from a Facebook discussion here.)

    Until we rid ourselves of an environment where out-of-bound markers exist and criticism of the government is discouraged/ brushed off as “wanting to be different”, it seems unlikely that a “liberal arts college” in Singapore will come close to those in the West. While I was in NUS, I found out quite a few embarrassing differences between them ‘n us:

    1. Freedom of speech within the classroom does not exist. Out-of-bound markers are maintained, even though the university is the one place where you could hope to have a mature, civil discussion on those topics. During a discussion one day, as a boy was sharing his answers with the class, the lecturer suddenly cut in sharply with something along the lines of: “Stop! Stop right there. I know where you are heading with your answer. We cannot take the discussion into that area.” To be fair, some professors give the finger to OOB markers, and interesting discussions do occur. But it’s certainly ridiculous that the higher ups in NUS have the audacity to ban discussions on some topics, in a UNIVERSITY of all places.

    2. Sometimes, the university even takes it upon itself to control what students say OUTSIDE the classroom. Shortly after Thio Li Ann* made her epic speech on 377a in parliament, a friend of mine who was studying law informed me that all law students had received an email informing them that they were not allowed to make any comments online about 377a; anyone who did so would be dealt with severely. (Earlier, a law-student-cum-blogger named Pleinelune had thoroughly thrashed Thio Li Ann’s speech, and her blog post was circulated widely. I suspect it was this incident that triggered the law fac to ban its students from making any comments, lest it be embarrassed publicly for having such a moron on its faculty.)

  • passerby

    (continued from above)

    3. University professors are forbidden from taking part in certain basic civil society activities, such as peaceful demonstrations. (If anyone here can dig out the details of their contract it’d be awesome.) In other countries, it’s not at all uncommon for the faculty and students to unite in protest of anything under the sun, including rising tuition fees. In NUS, not so. No wonder our society is apathetic; the place where idealism and passion for social issues is traditionally nurtured is crippled in that capacity..

    4. While talking to an Economics professor about certain labour issues, he lamented to me that his research into the area was hindered by the lack of statistics available; he had written in to MOM** (?) to request the statistics, but was refused. In other words, thanks to the lack of transparency in our ministries/statutory boards, the areas of research that can be undertaken by professors are restricted, for the sake of avoiding criticism and saving face..

    If you know who to ask, you’ll probably find out more embarrassing things about NUS that sets it apart from a proper university. Hopefully, the new liberal arts college will not be subjected to the same red tape as NUS. But I doubt it….

    ***Thio Li Ann is a Member of Parliament who made a speech in favour of retaining s377a, which criminalises gay sex.
    **MOM = Ministry of Manpower*.*

  • RRorty

    The observations made in this Editorial are true, but many of them are outdated or lack context.

    Yes, the Singapore Government detained Roman Catholic social activists without trial under the Internal Security Act. But that was in the 1980s – more than 20 years ago. In the past ten years, the ISA has only been used against terrorists. Though they are too proud to admit it, there is a quiet recognition among senior members of the present Government that the ISA has been abused in the past and that it will not happen again.

    Yes, sex between men remains illegal in Singapore. But the Government has stated that the law remains on the books merely to appease the conservative majority and that it will not be pro-actively enforced. If you visit Singapore, you will find gay bars thriving and openly gay people going about their own lives without being harassed by the Government. As Singaporean society becomes more enlightened, it is only a matter of time before the gay sex law is abolished.

    Yes, there are curbs on the freedom of speech, assembly and association. This is unfortunate, and I look forward to the day that these restrictions are lifted. But really, there are many other ways to voice your opinion without having to resort to physical protests. The Internet is relatively free and uncensored, and Singaporeans vent their frustrations against the Government online without any repercussions.

    But most importantly, is there academic freedom? As a law student studying in Singapore, I can say for a fact that some of my professors have published articles criticizing various repressive laws and policies in Singapore. These articles have been included in my reading lists and there is free and open debate in classrooms about these issues. To my knowledge, no academic has been fired because of his or her anti-Government views and many of these Government critics possess tenure.

    In conclusion, Singapore definitely has more room for liberalization, but it is not such a nightmarish place as this Editorial makes it seem. Indeed, your quote – “For students here, these facts may seem distant or abstract” – can apply with equal force to any Singaporean student, because many of the curbs on freedom that sound terrible on paper don’t really affect the daily lives of Singaporeans. There is a big gap between how the Western media portrays Singapore to be, and how Singaporeans actually experience their lives, and that is why you see so many Singaporeans writing in to complain that their country is being unfairly demonized.

  • jt128

    I think you should be able to criticize other people even if you have flaws. If not no criticism would ever be possible. But I also think it affects the credibility of your argument when you are hypocritical and inconsistent.

    Now, unlike some others, I am not talking about human right violations or breaches of international law by the US. I am not even talking about US perhaps being the least liked nation in the world.

    Let’s talk about Singapore. Let’s take your point that it is autocratic, oppressive and brutal. Let us assume that there is no academic freedom in Singapore while at the same time assuming that defending a penal law against homosexuality is a universally accepted cardinal sin. Let’s pretend that the idea of human rights, and the American interpretation of it, is not a controversial topic around the world. Heck! Let’s just go all the way and dream up a world where the National University of Singapore is owned by Temasek Holdings because, after all, it owns everything in Singapore. So ultimately, we shall proceed on the premise that Singapore is the pits and we want nothing to do with this country of barbarians.

    Well, unfortunately, you do. Each year there are probably two to three Singaporeans that go to Yale for their undergraduate degree. Fine. That’s a small number you say. But if you happen to bump into these fortuitous folk in the corridors any time soon, (you will recognize them by the look on their faces – a mix of fear and trepidation on the one hand, and amazement at being in such a free and glorious country on the other) ask them which benign government is paying for them to be there. Here’s a hint: It’s not Dusseldorf.

    Think of it. This fine institution that is the Yale Daily News maybe actually be partially funded by the blood of 22 Roman Catholics. Oh! The depravity!

    Its easy to talk about things far away from you in the abstract. Its harder to talk of things closer home which are real and tangible.

    But you are right. It won’t work out. I can’t see why they would want to tarnish their name partnering with a decadent Ivy League school that will go tits up after the next financial crisis.

  • traveller

    Media manipulation of emotion about Singapore is absurd. For perspective here’s what Human Rights Watch says about the USA:
    Congratulations to Yale on a big win and congratulations to the government of Singapore for its determination to move their country forward.
    Yale gains a window into the cutting edge of globalization and modernization, the key theme of this age.
    Singapore embarks on a deliberate march toward liberalization while they try to figure out why the leading democracy is destroying itself.
    Probably the best thing about the deal is that someone on the YDN Editorial staff will someday have to visit Singapore. I hope that this editorial was posted on April Fool’s day as a parody of politically correct thinking.
    Again congratulations to Yale.

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