PATKE: More than banned books

I write as an academic firmly committed to a future for the liberal arts in Singapore. I am part of a team from New Haven and Singapore planning a curriculum and recruiting faculty for Yale-NUS. We share the conviction that a liberal arts education offers a vital alternative to systems of education centered on early and exclusive specialization. It has the potential to enrich educational options in rapidly modernizing countries such as Singapore.

Some in the U.S. have declared that an alliance between Yale and NUS compromises the ideals of the liberal arts model. On the contrary, not to take up this challenge would be the real dereliction. The liberal arts educational model can secure a fresh lease on life in Southeast Asia and show that there is virtue in hybridity and adaptability.

The notion that Singapore is a repressive society has cast a needless shadow over the venture. The matter of a list of banned books, when read out of context, can appear to support this notion.

Most nations have a history of banned books. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was briefly withdrawn from publication in 1881 by its Boston publisher because of explicit sexual content. In 1929, U.S. Customs banned Rousseau’s Confessions because it was injurious to public morality. These and many similar books are foundational to a humanities education.

There seem to be three reasons why books get banned. They contain material that can offend religious beliefs, promote racial discrimination or violate sexual mores. Nabokov’s Lolita, for instance, was banned for a while in Canada in 1958. The Catholic Church abolished its Index of Prohibited Books as recently as 1966. The Merriam Webster Dictionary was banned in a California elementary school in 2010 for its definition of oral sex. Earlier this year, Arizona banned Shakespeare’s The Tempest and other books in an effort to limit resentment. I could go on and on.

Such instances indicate that all societies face the problem of whether to intervene and what to do when books offend ethnic sensitivities and religious beliefs or confront parents with questions such as “Would I like my daughter to read Lolita at age 14?” The problem is not unique to the U.S. or Singapore. And if a dictionary or Shakespeare can be banned, then how is one to separate that which is alleged to have reference value or literary merit from that which gives deep offence to some segment of society?

Such cases raise the question of whether the freedom to read promiscuously is a principle in danger of losing its efficacy if promoted without reference to social consequences. An education in the liberal arts can open a dialogue between a belief in the freedom of speech and belief in a state’s responsibility to protect its citizens. Engaging in such dialogue is more constructive than turning one’s back on a society because it is alleged to be illiberal.

So yes, Singapore does have a list of banned books. It exemplifies a particular view of how a nation wishes to protect its citizens. Perceptions of what that might entail keep evolving. Meanwhile, the spirit of liberalism inherent to the idea of a liberal arts education can surely be prepared to recognize and respect difference.

Moreover, the NUS library does represent some banned authors: A title by Marquis de Sade, for example, and two by Salman Rushdie are available for academic study, discussion and debate within the university. If there is a list, there is also room for discussing such books within an academic context.

Times are changing. A liberal arts education is part of that process. There is room for evolving models of education to change the nation’s perceptions of its own interests.

Milton wrote in Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” In the spirit of Milton, I might ask, what is the use of a liberal arts system that practices its virtues safely in the U.S., where it meets few challenges to its ideals?

Here, in Singapore, a nation which lacks this option, the idea of the liberal arts has an opportunity to educate young minds towards the ideal of a wiser humanism. More to the point, it has a chance to test itself. Why shrink from that challenge? Why not welcome it, instead, as the logical evolution of a role for the liberal arts in the 21st century?

Rajeev Patke is a professor of English language and literature at the National University of Singapore.

Comments

  • River_Tam

    How in the world was this op-ed even published? It’s riddled with basic errors in logic and fact.

    > Most nations have a history of banned books. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was briefly withdrawn from publication in 1881 by its Boston publisher because of explicit sexual content. In 1929, U.S. Customs banned Rousseau’s Confessions because it was injurious to public morality.

    Ugh. Stating what happened a hundred or more years ago is hardly relevant to democratic ideals today. 150 years ago we had slavery and 50 years ago we had segregation. This doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to societies that still engage in such practices.

    > The Catholic Church abolished its Index of Prohibited Books as recently as 1966. The Merriam Webster Dictionary was banned in a California elementary school in 2010 for its definition of oral sex. Earlier this year, Arizona banned Shakespeare’s The Tempest and other books in an effort to limit resentment. I could go on and on.

    1. The Catholic Church index is not legally binding by civil authorities.

    2. The dictionary was removed from some classrooms because immature kids were looking up the word and giggling uncontrollably.

    3. The state of Arizona did not ban The Tempest. This is factually incorrect and its hilarious that you think this. The Tuscon Unified School District removed seven books from the curriculum, all of which were highly-charged racial tracts. The Tempest was not among them. The report of “The Tempest” being banned is based on one teacher claiming that she asked whether she could teach the play as part of a course on race relations the school said no. Not only was this in the context of a racial studies class (I imagine The Tempest is still appropriate in a class on, say, Shakespeare), but “removing a book from the approved curriculum” is not tantamount to banning in any sense.

    Here’s the difference between the Tuscon Unified School District and Singapore:

    * In Singapore, sale of a banned book (eg: Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a book critical of the Singaporean regime, pretty much any book that suggests that Islam is not awesome) can be punished with up to two years in prison.

    * In the Tuscon school district, The Tempest is not on the reading list for a particular high school racial studies class.

    See the difference?

    • mercurialbeing

      I would go out on a limb to say that, in fact, River_Tam is right. Of course media censorship in the US can’t be compared to media censorship in Singapore. Perhaps “Stating what happened a hundred or more years ago is hardly relevant to democratic ideals today”. Of course democratic ideals are in a constant state of redefinition, and are historically conditioned. But they are also culturally conditioned. And certain forms of cross-cultural comparisons are essentially symptoms of American exceptionalism. Does Guantanamo Bay contradict the idea of America as the land of the free? I don’t know, but I do know that symbolic lists of banned books do not a dictatorship make.

      As a Singaporean, I would love to see this list abolished. i would love to participate in peaceful demonstrations. I would love to see the laws instituting capital punishment and indefinite detention under the ISA (Internal Security Act, very roughly corresponding to the Patriot Act) repealed. But I know that these will happen with or without Yale. It takes Singaporean people who care enough about such issues to ‘liberalize’ Singapore, not a bunch of Americans sitting around splitting hairs over Aeropagitica or any other thing that the writer has brought up. I think River_Tam and John_Rogers have sadly missed the forest for the trees; it really is more than banned books that’s the issue at stake here. Being able to read The Satanic Verses is the least of my concerns; I bought my copy overseas. What matters more is whether Yale is willing to be present at a moment in Singapore’s history that may, on hindsight, prove to be a turning point. And it seems like it has been (at least at the highest levels), so good on you, Yale.

  • N123

    Great article!

    Hilarious comment above though – blinkered view that hopelessly misses the point of the article.

  • John_Rogers

    Rajeev Patke, a professor of English at the National University of Singapore, and part of the team of academics planning the curriculum and hiring the new faculty for Yale-NUS, has in his letter to the YDN of March 30, 2012, written to defend Singapore’s practice of censorship as an instance of “how a nation wishes to protect its citizens.” Books by Salman Rushdie and the Marquis de Sade may be banned in Singapore itself, Professor Patke notes, but there are instances in which a book such as Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” can be made available for study within the safe, cordoned-off space of Singapore’s university classrooms.

    Patke is disconcertingly sanguine about the firewall that prevents certain forms of book-inspired knowledge to cross the boundary from the NUS campus to the larger Singaporean society. And he urges all of us at Yale to celebrate the partnership with NUS by citing one of the most famous passages from the poet John Milton’s monumental treatise of 1644, “Areopagitica”: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” Turning for support to seventeenth-century England’s greatest poet, Patke suggests that Yale needs to “sally out” and engage the adversary of Singaporean authoritarianism with the arsenal of Ivy League liberalism.

    Unfortunately for Patke, the sentence he has extracted from Milton’s sublime treatise can in no meaningful way be repurposed to support Yale’s partnership with NUS. The “cloistered virtue” of which Milton wrote was the falsely virtuous space that England’s authoritarian monarchy attempted to create when it employed censorship to “protect” its citizens from the dangerous ideas that can be found in dangerous books. We must leave the safe zone of the censorious church or university and “sally out” and meet with all the ideas and books we can, Milton insisted, if we are ever to perform the hard but unavoidable labor of creating knowledge and finding truth. Perhaps the earliest and greatest defense of the freedom of the press, “Areopagitica” argued passionately for the dependence of the pursuit of truth on a freedom of expression extended as broadly as possible.

    Five years after writing “Areopagitica,” John Milton would write, and publish, two bold and learned treatises in favor of the regicide that would bring England’s authoritarian monarchy crashing down; those and many others of his intellectually and politically daring works would help prepare him to write “Paradise Lost.” He could never have countenanced any suggestion that the knowledge that arises from the liberal arts can flourish in an illiberal society.

    John Rogers
    Professor of English

  • singaporenative

    It is hilarious how these Yale academics talk about how “the idea of the liberal arts has an opportunity to educate young minds towards the ideal of a wiser humanism” without asking Singaporeans and young Singapore minds about their opinions.
    If Yale do attempt to solicit the views and opinions of Singaporeans, vast majority will not dare to utter a word. That is the kind of fear that the regime has established on the masses. Amongst those Singaporeans will give you an opinion, the majority will parrot the official line, somewhat like what you see amongst North Korean citizens on national North Korean media. You will indeed find a few dissenting voices but they will be the most bitter ones.
    Yale setting up a campus in Singapore is equivalent to Yale setting up a campus in Yangon, Pyongyang or Beijing. In the last 50 years since 1959, a system has been built to shut down minds. That system has not changed. Since the current regime nationalised all newspapers when it first came to power, there is a single media company controlled by the state.
    The government stretches from civil service to statutory boards to “community agencies” to government linked companies (GLCs). There is not a single entity the government has no direct or indirect control over. In this whole network of government bureaucracy and pseudo bureaucracy, everyone is expected to sing the official tune. Anyone who misses a beat will be punished. In such a system, information and evidence becomes a casualty. Instead what is put out is pure propaganda or content which is twisted to match official line.
    The pervasive fear culture in Singapore is so widespread because of what people saw. The regime locked up an elected opposition Member of Parliament for more than 30 years without trial and without charges and on pure allegations that he was a communist. Likewise several others who were all educated doctors, lawyers etc were hunted and arbitrarily held in detention without trial. Their crime was to speak their mind. This later evolved to legal suits that bankrupted anyone who spoke their mind. Naturally the fear to speak or think different grew out of proportion. Just stick out a microphone and ask questions about the regime in public and see how many dare to answer simple harmless questions.
    The difference between Singapore vs North Korea, China and Burma is that the tiny island has successfully managed its image as an exotic, westernised, liberal Asian country. My question to Yale is that can you have freedom of information in your campus in Singapore? Do not even talk about academic freedom or other freedom. In a country that does not even allow anyone to scrutinise any of its policies or structures, can Yale scrutinise anything in this country?
    If Yale’s campus can sustain scrutiny of Singapore, its policies and system through its academic work and student activities for just 365 days, then stay thereafter. If not, pack up and leave or start another campus in Pyongyang.

  • mouldyfart

    oh ! and making all books available would mean that we’re suddenly liberal, political pamphleteers would have a field day and we’d be as fired up as a French and American revolutionary! The real problem in my opinion is: not what books get banned, but what books don’t get read just cos’ no one bothers to. In any case, there’s bittorrent if one is hungry enough. But looking at what Singapore’s got, the political climate would be much different if people actually spent time reading and discussing, just Marx and J.S. Mill, which are available online, for free.

  • DJP87

    May I suggest that comments deal with the invitation in this article to consider the benefits of the Yale-NUS alliance, precisely because of the difference in what constitutes freedom in each country? Dialogue is not precluded by difference; it is in fact invited (if not demanded). Both parties have something to gain: if NUS is in such an oppressive grip because of Singapore’s “regime” — which “singaporenative” so vividly compared to North Korea’s — then we Singaporean students will benefit from Yale’s liberal arts culture, and perhaps become positive agents of change in our society. Critics of this alliance, on the other hand, may perhaps one day realise that the world is “incorrigibly plural,” to quote MacNeice: there are types of freedom other than that of your country; the world is more than your country.

    It is heartening to see such foreign concern over the apparent lack of freedom in Singapore, though I wonder how much of it is reactionary, based on a close-minded idea of what “freedom” or “liberalism” must be. If your concern is genuine, then take the course of action that could aid us, rather than hurl disparaging remarks about the flaws of our country.

    I would also like to point out that if Singapore is as repressive as “singaporenative” says, he/she should be in great fear now, for the authorities are probably on their way. The internet is closely watched, remember?

  • oblivia

    > May I suggest that comments deal with
    > the invitation in this article to
    > consider the benefits of the Yale-NUS
    > alliance, precisely because of the
    > difference in what constitutes freedom
    > in each country?

    The article relies on obvious falsehoods to make its point. Hardly surprising that it inflamed opinion. And considerations about freedom are not defined “in each country”. They are defined over time by generations of thinkers. People who wrote books.

    > Both parties have something to gain:
    > if NUS is in such an oppressive grip
    > because of Singapore’s “regime” —
    > which “singaporenative” so vividly
    > compared to North Korea’s — then we
    > Singaporean students will benefit from
    > Yale’s liberal arts culture, and
    > perhaps become positive agents of
    > change in our society.

    Another take is that the Singapore government is very effective at suppressing “agents of change”. A liberal academic institution that stood by its principles (instead of flogging its brand to the highest bidder), might consider the effect of giving its implicit support to such a regime.

    Lee Kwan Yew is often considered a benign and indeed benevolent dictator. One of the good ones, so to speak. Singapore is a nice, wealthy place and it certainly doesn’t seem like people are harshly oppressed. But… consider his effect throughout South-East Asia. Brutal dictators in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines have all drawn inspiration from Lee. And now the Lee family have enshrined the idea of a benevolent hereditary dictatorship.