DANIELS: Academic freedom is alive in Singapore

Walker Vincoli’s argument (“No student freedom at NUS,” Jan. 26) that Singapore is a totalitarian state unreceptive to the values necessary for a liberal arts education is founded in a flawed ideology of American exceptionalism. It is founded in the idea that Americans have a right to demand changes of others when it suits us and that we should be the models for such change. Vincoli’s portrayal of Singapore and NUS relies on merely a surface reading of Singaporean state and society.

Vincoli neglects to note that Singapore is a dynamic society. As a result of global economic changes, Singapore has recently seen a marked evolution in the very laws and regulations Vincoli noted. While Singaporean law prohibits male homosexual acts, this law is not enforced, and Singapore has a relatively large gay scene. “Let’s not go around like this moral police … barging into people’s rooms. That’s not our business,” former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 2007. Though none of this belittles the flaws of the current restrictive laws, Vincoli denies Singapore’s societal evolution.

The general election in May 2011 was perhaps the most dramatic election in Singapore’s history. One of the top ministers lost his seat, and the opposition won 39.86 percent of the vote — the most it had won since Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965. Considering the longtime dominance of the People’s Action Party, this indicates an emerging freedom of choice.

Singaporean students I talked to when I studied at NUS never said they felt unduly restricted or pressured in their speech or votes. The May elections revealed some Singaporeans’ deep-seated dissatisfaction with growing inequality, the high cost of housing and general disconnect between the state and the people.

Singapore’s ban on spontaneous or non-permitted protest is a legitimate problem, but just because there is an apparent limitation on freedom does not mean that it is a debilitating limit or that Singaporeans do not have other avenues to express their concerns. December train breakdowns that left thousands stranded combined with a general economic slowdown triggered an uproar of dissatisfaction that led to a major review of ministerial salaries at the insistence of the general public.

Singapore, while by no means perfect, is not a country wholly without freedom. Freedom isn’t defined in a world of black and white but in a world of gray that lacks universal logics of societal comparison.

For Yale and UNC, both liberal arts institutions, academic freedom is an important issue, particularly as more American universities seek partnerships in Asia. Vincoli suggests that faculty and students at NUS lack the freedom at the core of American academia. However, he relies on an idealized vision of what happens in an American classroom. And his claim that Singaporean students are self-policing subjects only incapable of hard-hitting analysis critical of their government absorbs typical tropes of students in Singapore as docile non-thinkers capable only of toeing the party line.

In my experience, this was not the case. Lack of engagement with coursework or opinions during lecture might instead be a result of an educational environment where grades reign supreme, rather than a fear of reprisal for stating one’s views. One sees this disengagement in American classrooms regularly as well.

Vincoli makes the mistake of conflating Singapore’s limitations on free speech with academic tyranny. NUS has to ensure academic freedom to remain competitive and able to attract top academics from around the world. The NUS campus magazine surprised me with a critical assessment of Singapore’s censorship laws. Professors screened films on homosexuality and other topics banned to the general public. In seminars, professors and students’ political views varied; some took actively Marxist perspectives — which were once met with government brutality — in their critiques of government policies. Though the state sometimes pushes back against unorthodox ideas, that does not mean that professors and students lack freedom or that this freedom is not evolving on a daily basis.

Finally, Vincoli implies that American universities should abandon partnerships with NUS or similar institutions. Yet with Asia’s rising geopolitical importance, it is vital that American academic institutions spend their efforts on building those connections. We do not change the world by walling ourselves off from it. Building partnerships makes it possible to build an environment in which students from around the world can develop the necessary skills and shared understandings in a diverse and ever changing world.

I wish in no way for this column to be construed as a support or a criticism of the Singaporean government, for it is not the role of Yale (or UNC) to change Singaporean politics. That is for Singaporeans to do. The United States does not have a monopoly on defining freedom.

Joseph Daniels is a junior in the UNC-NUS Joint Degree Program. He studied at NUS in 2011.


  • River_Tam

    > . It is founded in the idea that Americans have a right to demand changes of others when it suits us and that we should be the models for such change

    I would urge Mr. Daniels to read *The Case for Democracy* by Natan Sharansky.

    It is not condescending and culturally imperialistic to promote freedom and democracy around the world. Rather, it is condescending to suggest that other cultures DON’T want freedom and democracy – it is condescending to suggest that some sorts of people might be better off in a society where they’re unable to walk into the village square and criticize their government without fear of retribution.

  • playerkiller

    You’re attacking a strawman.
    I believe his point is that the definition of freedom is subjective.

    • River_Tam

      The basic democratic freedoms are NOT subjective and to think that they are is incredibly condescending.

      (There’s no way to find out if people want to criticize their government unless you let them.)

  • formerNUSprof

    I agree that Walker Vincoli’s argument was very poorly framed and written. But what is the core mission of a university, Mr. Daniels? Is to not to educate, and search for truth, and improve the quality life of citizens and all humankind?

    If we live in a “world of gray that lacks universal logics of societal comparison”, do you think it is fine to imprison members of the political opposition, or censor, or conduct clitoridectomies, as happens in many countries?

    Closer to your home, do you also think it is fine to have the forms of legalized corruption that exists in the US given the nature of campaign financing. Is it also fine to deny health care to American citizens simply because they are members of the working poor and that’s what happens in the US? Is it fine to provide deeply inadequate elementary education simply because some Americans are poor and located in inner city Detroit? People from around the world are concerned about the USA and what is unfolding in the USA. What’s wrong if they jump into the debate, especially if they are students and faculty and are concerned with what is unfolding? Does not debate and critique engender the development of news ideas and potential solutions to problems, regardless of the source of ideas.

    The relativism you push forward in your response to a flawed argument is deeply problematic.

  • joey00

    Sounds like a perfect place to take a business trip,have your Corp. foot the bill..At $400 a night and up ,only the high rollers can afford.. Singapore shows THE highest income gap in the world..Yes the caning, as Amnesty points out it’s always the poor getting the cane..
    Singapore has a rate of 13.57 executions per million people,once again insiders say the number is much higher..It also touts the highest prison population,absolutely bursting at the seams…But boy how pretty , year round warm weather, no bubble gum

    • pharabo

      I think you might like to separate academic freedom from prison population. How are they related? You sound like you’re just trying to criticise Singapore without adding to the discussion.

    • Danielk

      Okay, just to make one point clear: Singapore does by far not have the highest prison population. The country with the highest prison population is the USA. The number of prisonners per 100’000 inhabitants is almost three times as high in the US as it is in Singapore(http://www.prisonstudies.org/info/worldbrief/wpb_stats.php?area=all&category=wb_poprate). And also the income gap of the US is not that much lower than the one of Singapore (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality). So if you want to make your point, please at least use arguments that are true.

  • The Anti-Yale

    The Internet? Facebook? Twitter? Free and unfettered speech?