Unease grows over freedoms at Yale-NUS

University President Richard Levin and NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan sign Yale-NUS College's founding agreement in September 2010.
University President Richard Levin and NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan sign Yale-NUS College's founding agreement in September 2010. Photo by NUS.

Concerns over political freedoms at Yale-NUS College resurfaced this week after a Monday article in the Wall Street Journal quoted Pericles Lewis, the college’s president, as saying political parties and political protests will not be allowed on campus.

Lewis claims the article incorrectly paraphrased him on the latter statement. In an interview with the News Wednesday, he said students at Yale-NUS will be guaranteed “all forms of political expression consistent with Singaporean law” and that he does not expect any restrictions on freedom of expression to be “terribly constraining.”

But when pressed on how Yale-NUS would handle political expression that goes beyond what is permitted by Singaporean law, Lewis and University President Richard Levin were unwilling or unable to give clear answers.

Reached by phone Thursday evening, Levin said he does not know whether Yale-NUS will allow Singaporean authorities to break up political protests on campus, or whether Yale-NUS will be obligated to report any unregistered political parties or protests.

“I’d rather just have no comment on these things,” he said.

Asked the same questions, Lewis said to his knowledge, the college will not be obligated to report political protests or the formation of political parties to Singaporean authorities.

Under Singaporean law, protests are only allowed in the Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park. The law forbids students from forming political parties or campus chapters of political parties, akin to the Yale College Republicans and Yale College Democrats, though students may participate in established national parties.

Lewis said he will ultimately be responsible for developing policies to handle conflicts between student political activity and Singaporean law, but said he could not “go into specifics of every potential situation.” He said the policies will become public by the time the college opens in fall 2013. The Singaporean government will enforce any potential restrictions on political expression, not Yale-NUS, he said.

In a Thursday statement, Levin emphasized that Yale knew upon entering into its agreement with the National University of Singapore to establish the jointly run college “that national laws concerning freedom of expression would place constraints on the civic and political behavior of students and faculty.” He criticized “some recent press accounts” for misrepresenting the college’s policies on freedom of expression.

“We’re operating in a different country with different laws, and we have to abide by their laws,” Levin said. “We negotiated and carved out guarantees of academic freedom and non-discrimination, and we’ve said that from the beginning.”

The administration’s defenses have failed to subdue a wave of outrage prompted by the Journal’s article.

Human Rights Watch criticized Yale on Thursday for accepting the Singaporean government’s restrictions on free speech, association and assembly at Yale-NUS. “Yale is betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students at its new Singapore campus,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release.

Chee Soon Juan, chairman of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, wrote a letter to Lewis Wednesday to express his “extreme dismay” upon reading the Journal’s report on political expression at Yale-NUS.

“They say, ‘You have total freedom to express yourself’ — and there’s a but in there — ‘but everything within the confines of what the Singapore government says,’” Chee told the News. “You can do anything within those confines, and therein lies the problem, because very soon you’ll find that circle getting smaller and smaller.”

Lewis said all political discussions “in the context of academic study” will be protected on campus and stressed that Yale-NUS will encourage “robust debate” on political issues. Many students at NUS participate in a “wide variety of political parties, government and opposition,” he said.

NUS has allowed students to protest international issues, such as Myanmar’s treatment of its Buddhist monks. But that protest was held in a lecture hall to avoid national laws that regulate protest in public space, NUS Vice Provost for Student Life Tan Tai Young said in March.

“In public places, we don’t encourage them to [protest],” NUS Dean of Students Tan Teck Koon said.

The Yale College Faculty approved a resolution urging Yale-NUS to uphold principles of non-discrimination and civil liberties at their April meeting.

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