Moments like last Monday night make me proud to be a Yalie. It’s rare for a university president to speak out so forcefully against the government, but that’s exactly what President Rick Levin did in a Monday email to the Yale community. He was clear and unambiguous; even when Mayor Mike Bloomberg attacked him the next day, Levin stuck to his conviction that Yale remain free and tolerant.
Most Yalies agreed with Levin. We shook our heads at Bloomberg’s comments and told him to take his prejudices elsewhere. The Yale community stood by our president, our Muslim friends and our culture of openness. We were going to lead — especially against a mayor who somehow believes that our Muslim friends are more likely to be terrorists than us.
The NYPD used religious association to distinguish between innocents and potential suspects, and that led them to monitor the wrong group of people. They wasted their resources on Muslim student associations at colleges across the Northeast. These Muslims are our age: our classmates, neighbors and peers. They are college students, many of whom are very much living out the famed American dream. For what reason would they have a higher likelihood to resent this country than the rest of us?
I’m proud that Yale was the first college to respond forcefully against police abuse. The great task for us now is to ensure that we respond equally in force to all breaches in civil liberties — particularly to even more blatant ones we will face at Yale-NUS.
Singapore is a nation that still uses caning as a common punishment, that cracks down on peaceful protests, that detains citizens without trial, and that even bans the import of chewing gum. I cannot conceive of any way that basic academic freedoms — to inquire, critique and assemble — can flourish under such an autocratic government. Levin has repeated his idealistic vision that Yale-NUS may help liberalize Singapore, but in a match-off between Yale and the Singaporean government, I would definitely place my bet on the government. The practicality of creating an atmosphere of freedom under an iron fist is harder than it may seem.
Without freedom, a liberal arts education is an intellectual exercise of no use. But the Yale Corporation has already voted on this new campus, and it appears that there is no way to stop this initiative from moving forward.
At this point, all we can do — and must do — is press the importance of academic freedom at Yale-NUS. The faculty must speak up at the next meeting about their concerns about Singapore’s academic climate. The administration must know that Yale has an obligation to stand for civil rights and liberties everywhere; just because the campus is in an oppressive country halfway around the world does not mean that Yale’s standards should be lowered. Yale must fight rights abuses in Singapore with the same fervor as we would in the United States.
Yale will need to fight many battles against Singaporean authorities. It will need to fight against detention without trial. It will need to fight against censorship. It will need to fight against unfair discrimination based on sex, religion and political leanings. These battles will not be easy, and they will most likely be lonely ones. But if we are to have a campus in Singapore, Yale must be willing to fight these battles with all the conviction it can muster.
The crucial issue is this: How would Yale act if police surveillance were conducted at the Yale-NUS campus instead of New Haven? If a situation arises in which a group of students is being unfairly profiled by Singaporean authorities, will Levin act as forcefully and unequivocally as he did on Monday?
These questions are not intellectual exercises — they are very real situations that Yale will face in the coming years. Now, we must ask ourselves whether Yale is ready to issue a public response, to condemn the Singaporean government sternly and always to stand sharply and uncompromisingly on the side of its students every single time a civil rights abuse occurs.
In his email on Monday, Levin wrote that baseless surveillance is “antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States.” But such draconian behavior is also antithetical to the values of justice and fairness all around the world.
Yale cannot afford to defend civil liberties at New Haven and ignore such abuses in Singapore. Not only would that tarnish the Yale brand, but a double standard would also make this institution culpable of the very kind of discrimination Levin decried — of selectively choosing which group of students deserve protection of their rights and liberties and which group does not.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.