Faculty vote draws attention in Singapore

Last Thursday’s Yale College faculty resolution expressing concern for Singapore’s “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” has garnered mixed reactions in the East Asian city state.

Though several Singaporean residents, National University of Singapore professors and NUS administrators interviewed said they do not expect the resolution to lead to major changes at Yale-NUS, the jointly run liberal arts college set to open in 2013, they said the resolution lacked a nuanced understanding of Singapore’s political situation. Four NUS administrators expressed disappointment to see the resolution passed, and several added that they agreed with the viewpoint of University President Richard Levin, who said he did not support the resolution because it had a “sense of moral superiority.”

“Both the tone of the resolution and some contributions to the debate have definitely struck a note of moral superiority,” John Richardson, director of NUS’s multi-disciplinary University Scholars Programme, said in a Sunday email. “More generally, both the resolution and certain comments assume that Yale, and the U.S. behind it, should and will enlighten the less fortunate parts of the world.”

Many faculty members at NUS have been discussing the resolution, Richardson said, though like Yale, opinions have differed within the faculty.

Shawn Tan ’01, vice president of the Yale Club of Singapore, said while he respected the Yale faculty’s right to voice its opinion, he found the resolution unbecoming of the University.

“I am more afraid of Yale faculty tarnishing the Yale name than of the Yale-NUS collaboration,” Tan said. “I believe it is time to snap out of the “I’m holier than thou” attitude that might have worked in the post-Soviet era, but which actually makes one look like a country bumpkin in today’s day and age.”

Tan added that few of the Yale faculty have actually been to Asia, so they may not be in a position to judge the country.

But Alex Au — whose political blog, Yawning Bread, is widely read in Singapore — said the resolution was fair in its critiques of Singapore, and he added that concerns about “moral superiority” are not a valid reason to avoid discussing a lack of civil liberties in the nation.

“I would say this strikes me as being similar to one of the Singapore government’s favorite defences whenever their human rights record is called into question,” Au said. “As a Singaporean, I reject such a facile attempt at Singapore- or Asian-particularism. If anything, I think it is demeaning to think that we are incapable of aspiration [for more liberties].”

Despite the ongoing debate over moral superiority, eight Singaporeans interviewed said they did not think the resolution would have a serious effect on the new school.

George Bishop, an openly gay NUS professor involved with the planning of Yale-NUS, said he didn’t think the resolution would have a major influence on the program because it concerned a subject that Yale-NUS administrators and potential hires have been discussing for months.

“From what I’ve seen of postings on Facebook from friends as well as discussion on Signel, Singapore’s gay news list, I don’t see any sense of offense,” Bishop said. “All of the arguments raised at the Yale faculty meeting have been heard before, often in far stronger terms.”

Doris Sohmen-Pao, Yale-NUS executive vice president for administration, said any partnership will have moments where differences of opinion emerge, and so as long as they were resolved “through discussion and understanding,” the new college would not be adversely affected by the Yale faculty’s criticisms.

NUS was founded in 1905, 60 years before Singapore became independent from Malaysia.

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