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.


  • panthera


  • River_Tam

    > 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?

    Of course not – police surveillance is routine and expected in Singapore. It’s far more common than in the US.

  • ldffly

    I’m not so worried about a professor being arrested for leading a protest. I’m worried about that professor having problems simply for speaking and criticizing. I am also worried about whether western ideas of research integrity can be maintained. If those go by the wayside, the whole things needs to be thrown overboard.

  • The Anti-Yale

    This is tricky. You don’t want to sink the ship before it leaves port. Once Yale is irresistibly ensconced in Singapore and its government doesn’t want the DISGRACE of Yale withdrawing from Singapore, then—– precisely then —– will be the time to make demands for equal rights and uncensored scholarship of the Chinese government.

    Niccolo Machiavelli

    • theantiantiyale

      I could have sworn you signed off as “Paul Keane” the other day. Perhaps, there is another account with a similar name to mine?

    • cathhh

      …Singapore isn’t in China.

  • joey00

    I wonder if their 5 star restaurants and hotels serve kosher meals ?

  • TrueBlueSingaporean

    It is true that Singapore’s and America’s values are different. We have different histories, different make-up of people, different challenges, etc, etc. Why the presumption that Yale’s values are better?

    • ldffly

      Excellent point. I was waiting for this. We here at Yale can’t engage in this nasty cross cultural criticism, now can we?

    • Jess

      You don’t have to make that assumption at all. Yale’s values ARE Yale’s values, and values should not be compromised. That means when our value system is confronted, we must either a) change our values or b) isolate them from threats.

  • FormerNUSfac

    I taught at NUS in the 90s, and yes, surveillance is pervasive. My home phone and those of my expat colleagues were clearly monitored (I actually intercepted the installer at my house, and a Singaporean colleague confirmed this), and censorship in the realm of the arts and education was an ever-present possibility. That the bottom line kept shifting just increased the fear level among artists. Similarly, while there’s certainly a lot of gay action in Singapore, crackdowns were and are an ever-present possibility, again reflecting the fear tactics in use. During my time there, Christopher Lingle was sued by the Singapore government for libel for an article in the IHT discussing corrupt SE Asian judicial systems although he never mentioned Singapore. His laptop was confiscated and his office searched for incriminating evidence, and he had to essentially flee the country, leaving his CPF funds behind.

    It’s true that Singapore’s values are different, but I’d say it’s pretty clear that Yale can and should be held to a higher standard, rather than colluding with the Singapore government.

  • attila

    The focus on freedom of expression is only one of the questions we should be asking about Singapore.

    The other is why the Yale administration has started this massive diversion of effort and focus when there are so many serious challenges facing the “New Haven campus.” Singapore is going to cost money, whatever the administration says, at a time when all budgets are being cut (at the very least, every hour Levin spends fundraising for Singapore is an hour he is not fundraising for New Haven… and I simply don’t believe that New Haven is not losing donors to Singapore). More generally, there are fundamental challenges facing the undergraduate and graduate schools in New Haven. Even if the deans were up to the those challenges, which they are clearly not, by starting this new thing Levin has signaled that he finds the New Haven campus boring. He’d rather be off being a World Elite. That may be all well and good for him and his friends in the senior administration. But it does nothing for the graduate school, which is being turned into a grim generator of paperwork, or the undergraduate school, which has not figured out a way to have any semblance of quality-control for undergrad programs (a *major* in ERM? Please!).

  • ldffly

    Excellent point attila, and this time the sarcasm flag is down.

    I’ve speculated (to myself of course) that the rationale for this has been financial. Meaning that the weight of world finance and trade has been moving in the direction of Asia for quite some time. Levin wants Yale to be in the fight for the wealth being created in that part of the world. I suspect also that one part of the rationale for the new colleges is that it will be much easier to increase the segment of undergrads from Asia itself. Undergrads who might, over the long run, earn more, therefore return more than the typical US undergrad. All speculation, as I said.

    I’m not sure what it will take to get Levin out of the office. Too many alumni credit Levin with the big improvement in the endowment which started under his watch. As you point out, if they paid more attention to the drifting away of the college, they might change their tune and start to pressure the corporation.