Walking into Yale Law School on Thursday afternoon, many students expected to see an unbiased academic discussion panel on human rights in Singapore.
Instead, what they witnessed was a strong invective aimed almost entirely against Yale’s involvement in the Asian nation-state.
The panel — attended by about 50 people — featured international lawyer Robert Amsterdam, Deputy Director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson and law school fellow Tom Dannenbaum as a moderator. Students interviewed before the panel said they thought these speakers would give a detached perspective on very delicate issues and set the record straight where there is misinformation.
The speakers tackled major issues with human rights in Singapore, including rights of workers, immigrants and freedom of the press. But what they spoke out against most vehemently was Yale’s role in Singapore
Robertson opened the discussion by saying that the Human Rights Watch organization had openly disapproved of Yale’s interaction with Singapore back when the Yale-NUS College project started, years ago. Yale negotiated poorly with the Singaporean authorities, Robertson said, and while other American universities have gone to Singapore and clearly presented their standards for civil rights, Yale gave in to Singapore’s policies almost immediately.
“Yale basically folded early because they saw that there was a lot of money to be made there,” Roberston said. “This is a great move for the Yale Corporation but not for the reputation of Yale.”
Robertson cited an interview with the Wall Street Journal last year in which Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said students would not be subject to restrictions beyond those imposed by the Singaporean government. This means that students cannot organize on campus protests, for example, he said. Amsterdam said Lewis’s words gave legitimacy to the Singaporean government and its oppressive rules. Robertson also said that such a policy at Yale-NUS could easily put students in danger.
“Some [student] is going to do something sooner or later that the Singapore government does not like,” Robertson said.
The political situation in Singapore is worsening, Robertson said, as violent racial strifes and riots take place, anti-sodomy laws are debated and freedom of the press is increasingly being violated. Social media platforms are being particularly strictly regulated now, he said, which may pose a threat to students.
Amsterdam, who works as counsel for Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singaporean Opposition Party, said he participated in the panel to advocate that Yale-NUS allow Chee to visit the campus. Amsterdam called his denial a negative decision on the part of both Yale and Yale-NUS, and he urged students and faculty to put pressure on Yale.
“If I were a student here, I would be camped outside the administration,” he said.
Amsterdam said Yale’s position is strengthening Singapore’s current regime. While pulling out of Singapore is not a feasible option at the moment, he said, Yale could still invite opposition members like Chee to the campus.
The speakers’ claims were met with several objections from the audience.
Yale political science professor Jim Sleeper, known for speaking out against Yale-NUS in the past, said the campus has hosted controversial figures before. Sleeper said it could be possible for the state to let Chee come to the campus.
“The government is handling Yale-NUS with kid gloves,” Sleeper said.
One faculty member responded to Robertson’s statement that Singapore’s laws might prevent Yale-NUS students from reading banned books off campus. Another audience member, a student from Singapore, said Yale-NUS should not be viewed as a satellite campus of Yale, but rather more as part of the National University of Singapore.
Yale-NUS opened its doors to an inaugural class of roughly 160 students in August 2013.
Correction: Feb. 24
A previous version of this article mistakenly said that Amsterdam urged students and faculty to put pressure on Yale-NUS. It should have said “Amsterdam urged students to put pressure on Yale.”
Clarification: Feb. 24