Singaporean opposition leaders challenge Yale-NUS

Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, urged Yale to not become complicit with the ruling People’s Action Party’s restrictions on campus freedom.
Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, urged Yale to not become complicit with the ruling People’s Action Party’s restrictions on campus freedom. Photo by Benjamin Ackerman.

Singaporean opposition leaders challenged the establishment of Yale-NUS at a panel discussion in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall Friday afternoon.

Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party Chee Soon Juan and Secretary-General of the Reform Party of Singapore Kenneth Jeyaretnam called for a re-evaluation of Yale’s motives in partnering with the National University of Singapore in the creation of Yale-NUS, condemning Yale’s alleged compliance with restrictions enforced by the People’s Action Party — the party currently in charge of Singapore’s government. Roughly 100 members of the Yale community attended the panel, which was co-sponsored by the Yale International Relations Association and the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale and also included Meredith Weiss, associate professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany.

“When you seek to advance your interest at the expense of ours, I wonder if you are our friends at all,” Chee said. “Teachers and students, if you will not accept anything less for yourselves here in New Haven, why do you deny it in Singapore?”

Chee, whose speech elicited a prolonged applause from the audience, said his worst fears were realized when he found out the Singaporean government would restrict political activity on the Yale-NUS campus, and urged Yale not to be complicit with the ruling party’s oppressive policies toward the Singaporean people. In October, Yale-NUS administrators announced that branches of existing political parties in Singapore as well as organizations “promoting racial or religious strife” would be prohibited on the college’s campus in accordance with the nation’s laws.

Jeyaretnam said he thinks healthy political debate cannot exist in a society that is not free. In Singapore, he said, all national media and bloggers who attempt to circumvent state control are frequently threatened with defamation suits by the government, which he added are facts that Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis has overlooked. By the time they enroll in a university, he added, young Singaporeans are conditioned to self-censorship, as most live in government-owned flats.

But Bryan Garsten, a political science professor and member of the social sciences faculty search committee for Yale-NUS, said in a question and answer session following the panel that intellectual liberty has been fundamental in the college’s planning process.

“It is hard to sit and hear the generalizations about Yale and Yale-NUS [being made here],” Garsten said. “I want to state that intellectual freedom has been essential and assumed in all of the conversations about the Yale-NUS curriculum.”

Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said that the college’s charter is available on the college’s website. No one involved in the venture is trying to hide any specifics, he said, adding that Yale-NUS administrators welcome advice on how to proceed with the venture.

Keith Darden, a political science professor at Yale until last semester and an associate professor of social sciences at Yale-NUS, said during the event that since Yale is a not-for-profit corporation, it cannot legally profit from the Singaporean liberal arts college. The Yale-NUS community is made up of top scholars who are not controlled by anyone, he added.

Because channels that would allow Singaporean citizens to express themselves freely remain absent or blocked, Weiss said, most Singaporeans raised under the rule of the People’s Action Party do not expect to have a major voice in the government’s decision-making process. Still, Weiss said she thinks Singaporean civil society has “increasing space for engagement.”

Both Chee and Jeyaretnam questioned Yale’s financial reasons for establishing the new college, expressing concern that through Yale-NUS, the University will “simply line [its] own pockets” and disregard its established academic goals to maintain a presence in Singapore.

“For [President Levin], this is purely a business transaction,” Jeyaretnam said. “What happens to the citizens of my country is not his or Yale’s concern.”

Chee said the Yale-NUS degrees — which will be awarded by the National University of Singapore instead of Yale — are evidence that Yale’s engagement in Singapore might be superficial, though he added several times that he hopes his suspicions will be proven wrong.

“Is Yale not proud of the students it produces in Singapore?” he asked.

Chee and Jeyaretnam both said that since Yale-NUS is “a done deal,” Yale’s next steps will be crucial for the success of the venture.

During the Q-and-A session following the panel, history professor Glenda Gilmore and classics professor Victor Bers said the Yale-NUS agreement formalizing the joint venture should be made public to clarify Yale’s role in the project.

E-Ching Ng GRD ’13, a Singaporean graduate student, said she thinks several facts, such as that Singapore is 40 percent more expensive than New York, were misrepresented during the panel, but she was impressed by Chee’s sincerity during individual conversations with audience members. Rayner Teo ’14, co-president of the Malaysian and Singaporean Association, said after the event that he thought Jeyaretnam appeared “more interested in regurgitating his party’s platform than engaging in substantive dialogue.”

Marko Micic ’15 said he still believes Yale-NUS’ fundamental problem lies in the secrecy surrounding the project.

“Nobody is really sure what the real motivation for creating it is, and so consequently people are free to speculate,” he said.

The Yale-NUS campus is scheduled to open in August 2013.

Comments