NEWS’ VIEW: It’s time to talk Singapore

At a monthly Yale College faculty meeting yesterday, professors debated a resolution submitted by political science professor Seyla Benhabib that demanded that Yale-NUS “respect, protect and further the ideals of civil liberties for all minorities, the principles of non-discrimination and full political freedom, both on the Yale-NUS campus and in Singapore as a whole.”

Yale’s proposal for a college in Singapore has spurred some debate since its introduction in September 2010. Some criticize Singapore’s limits on free speech, its homosexuality ban and the effects these and similar policies would have on a liberal arts college there. Others argue that Singaporean and American cultures have inherently different values and that compromise is essential.

One camp cites the Singaporean law against homosexuality and asks how Yale — which claimed to have kept ROTC off campus in opposition to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — could build a school in a country where the university population could not live freely. The other says the homosexuality law and others like it are not enforced, points to the hire of a gay Yale-NUS faculty member and brushes off that criticism.

There has been little clear dialogue between the two sides. Up to now it has seemed that faculty, alumni and students are largely uninterested in questioning Yale’s venture into Singapore and what it means for Yale’s vision of the liberal arts. Yesterday’s faculty meeting finally showed that, even if plans for the college are all but finalized, there is a discussion to be had.

Thursday’s faculty meeting focused entirely on Singapore and lasted three hours. This is progress. No matter what the faculty decides when the Benhabib resolution comes to a vote next month, that discussion is encouraging. Too many questions have never been answered sufficiently. The faculty, bearers of Yale’s pedagogical mission, should be asking those questions.

Chief among those is one Benhabib’s resolution poses: What values are essential to what Yale stands for, and how will those values have to be compromised in Singapore? At what point are we willing to sacrifice values we hold sacred for the sake of accepting foreign customs?

There is no simple way to answer that question, but University President Richard Levin commented recently on values he considers fundamental: “Police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinion is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States.”

If an initiative like the New York Police Department’s monitoring of Muslim Student Associations is discovered in Singapore, will Levin issue a similar statement? Is he confident about what is antithetical to the values of Singapore? Will he respond with equal force if a professor is jailed for leading a protest at Yale-NUS?

As the administration delves further into planning Yale-NUS, Yale’s leaders must determine whether Yale’s values can be compromised and how the University’s concept of freedom translates to Singapore.

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