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.