VINCOLI: No student freedom at NUS

My first impression of the country was a threat. No, not the customs form that reads, “Warning: death for drug traffickers under Singapore law.” Within two hours of landing, a security guard threatened me with arrest. My crime? Standing outside the airport subway terminal at 3 a.m., reading the schedule.

Welcome to Singapore.

When responding to concerns about academic freedom at the soon to be launched Yale-NUS College in March 2011, Yale University President Richard Levin made a measured endorsement, citing the “due diligence” Yale conducted and the “widespread sense that faculty in Singapore” enjoy academic freedom.

I could ask how academic freedom exists for professors when, in two semesters as a political science student at the National University of Singapore, I have been taught by only one tenured professor. I could ask how professors have the freedom to judge their students’ work when they must instead follow departmental curves.

However, having completed my second semester in Singapore through a joint program between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and NUS, I will raise a different question. What freedom do students enjoy?

It would be easy to challenge the residence halls’ blue laws, the continued prohibition on male homosexual acts under Singaporean penal code section 377A, the illegality of public protest and the casual jokes about fines and caning. It would be easy to ask whether the Yale Daily News will be forced to make the required $200,000 foreign publication security deposit and designate a local representative to be sued. It would be easy, but none of this was as troubling as my classroom experience.

Yale’s apparent focus on the faculty and not the student overlooks the academic culture at NUS. Students change arguments, button their lips and absorb opinions from on high. Singapore is not a free country and NUS is not a free university.

The litmus test for academic freedom, to me, is the ability of students and faculty to engage their own country’s politics. In Singapore’s case, this happens in PS2249 at NUS: “Government and Politics of Singapore.” I sat in stunned silence week after week as the professor recounted anecdotes of People’s Action Party interference in previous iterations of the class. Lower your criticism of the PAP, he had been told. Reduce your coverage of opposition parties. These little comments peppered the lectures as he covered the basic function of Singapore’s political apparatus.

When writing my midterm paper on press freedom in Singapore, I toned down criticism of the courts’ decisions in successful lawsuits against The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, partly due to a fear of retaliatory grading and partly because I worried my paper broke the law against scandalizing the court.

In a senior seminar on international law, only one student in 25 admitted that he had seen the infamous pictures of Abu Ghraib before being shown them in class. When my disbelief spilled over onto Facebook, a classmate told me that a majority had recognized the pictures but would not speak in class. When I heard that, a memory from “Government and Politics of Singapore” became all the more significant.

The professor polled the class: “How many of you believe that your general election vote is secret?” I was shocked to see that half of the students raised a hand. Hearing my seminar classmate’s thoughts on keeping quiet only made that experience more troubling.

The final exam for the course asked us whether Singapore is a democracy. If half the students believe the PAP will read their votes, would they not also believe that it will read their essays? The course itself explained that the PAP selects the highest performers from the nation’s universities for party building.

On campus, students treat knowledge as a commodity. Questions exist to be answered, not raised. An upcoming talk on campus will cover the Singapore Internal Security Act (think Patriot Act). The event fliers make a modest pitch. There is no mention of a vigorous discussion on the law’s merits, necessity or risks, but rest assured, the talk will “clear your doubts.” You will “have your questions answered.”

President Levin’s due diligence may have revealed no infringement on academic freedom. However, enforcement need not exist, because the society has turned individuals into self-policing subjects. Singapore has succeeded in making self-censorship routine and integrating it into the state-owned media, the state-controlled university and the minds of its citizens.

Depending on what Yale’s leadership hopes to accomplish through this collaboration, the task that lies ahead may be insurmountable. I applaud Yale for raising concerns about academic freedom — something I believe my university ignored — but focusing solely on faculty experience is dangerously myopic.

If Yale’s leaders want a student’s perspective, I would be happy to provide one. I would say things that I did not want NUS’s administrators reading in the News while I was still in Singapore.

Walker Vincoli is a senior in the UNC-NUS Joint Degree Program. He studied in Singapore in the fall semesters of 2010 and 2011 as a Phillips Ambassador.

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