Two staff reporters for the News, Ava Kofman and Tapley Stephenson, traveled to Singapore over spring break, interviewing more than 80 sources on the founding of Yale-NUS College — how Singaporeans view the project, how the liberal arts function in Singapore and how the country’s values differ from those on Yale’s campus. This is the final part of the three-part series. (Read part 1 and part 2.)
SINGAPORE — On the edge of a small park in Singapore’s financial district lies the “Speakers’ Corner,” a grassy field the size of a residential college courtyard that serves as the only place in the country where public demonstrations are allowed.
Elsewhere on the island, the Singaporean government more strictly curtails activism and freedom of expression, but Yale administrators say Yale-NUS College will create a new space for political discourse in the nation. In signing the founding document outlining plans for Yale-NUS, Yale and National University of Singapore administrators agreed to allow “academic freedom and open inquiry” at the joint liberal arts college.
But the new college will enter a setting where a majority of 27 Singaporean students interviewed said they habitually measure their words to avoid overstepping government restrictions on freedom of expression — both inside and outside the classroom.
For Yale-NUS to offer courses and extracurriculars that draw on systems ingrained at Yale, it will have to find ways to place them within the Singaporean framework. While construction crews are already laying the foundation of the new college, it remains unclear to what extent Yale can maintain its values of freedom of speech and expression in Singapore.
Singaporean students and faculty said Singapore’s policies on free speech are vague and often inconsistently enforced. They frequently referred to “out of bounds markers” restricting free speech, though few could explain exactly what the government deems unacceptable.
Ten journalists and four lawyers interviewed in Singapore said these rules are unclear, which can lead to confusion and a hesitancy to voice opinions.
“We’re trained to police ourselves,” said Kirsten Han, a widely read blogger and activist. “There’s a sense about how you have to be careful and can’t say anything too specific.”
She also cited recent legal warnings sent to bloggers regarding material on their sites as the examples of the government regulating speech through “soft coercion.”
Charles Bailyn ’81, Yale-NUS dean of faculty, said the political climate in Singapore does not preclude NUS students from seriously debating political issues in classes.
“NUS has a lot of classroom discussion on what you might describe as sensitive issues, if you look at the syllabi and talk to the people who teach the courses,” he said. “It’s not like there’s a commissar in the corner taking notes. That’s just not how it is. It became clear to us as we investigated this … that the question of limited freedom of expression didn’t really exist in the gross ways that some people had imagined.”
But most Singaporean students and faculty interviewed said they err on the side of caution when stating controversial opinions about politics, race and religion. Rebecca Zhang, a prospective Yale-NUS student, said students at her high school sometimes warn each other be to wary of governmental restrictions on free speech.
“There is a bit of peer censorship in the sense that even if you’re not one who is scared of government rules, if you want to say something, your friends might say, ‘Oh, don’t say that!’ ” Zhang said.
NUS political science professor Terence Lee said academics in Singapore can publish on “90 or 95 percent” of topics, and topics that are not pursued do not detract from the studies that are published. He said professors are free to criticize government policy, but studies that question the “character” or “integrity” of an individual public official risk drawing defamation lawsuits from the government. For example, he said an analysis of nepotism would require extra sensitivity. The academic’s publisher would need evidence of nepotism that is “water-tight” and “leak-proof to five kilometers,” he said.
English professor John Rogers ’84 GRD ’89, along with some other professors at Yale, have contended that any restrictions on scholarship limit the freedom of inquiry necessary for academic endeavors.
“The potential for the academic freedom at any of Yale’s campuses to be either narrowly constrained or cynically redefined should worry every member of the Yale College community,” Rogers said.
James Scott ’67, Sterling professor of political science and anthropology who specializes in East Asia, said he thinks this hesitation to address politically sensitive material could influence universities’ faculty hiring and research programs. For example, NUS Law professor Michael Hor said Douglas Sanders, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, was not allowed to give a public talk on sodomy laws.
But Pericles Lewis, an English and comparative literature professor who chairs the Yale-NUS humanities faculty search committee, said an academic community can still thrive in a nation that is not completely free.
“I don’t think that a liberal education depends on being in a totally free society,” he said. “I don’t mean to say there are no problems, but the problems are such where you can have a liberal education in Singapore.”
Questions regarding freedom of expression in Singapore extend beyond the classroom to other activities on college campuses. Prospective students, Yale faculty and Yale-NUS administrators alike have expressed particular concern about the Singaporean law banning homosexuality, known as Section 377A.
Yale-NUS administrators, as well as several Singaporean residents, have said the law is not proactively enforced and that Singapore has an active and safe gay scene. Simon Chesterman, dean of the NUS law school, said it is common for governments to keep controversial laws without always enforcing them.
George Bishop GRD ’76, an openly gay NUS psychology professor, attributed the continued existence of 377A to Singapore’s conservative Christian population, which he said would protest vigorously if the government ever considered repealing the law. He added that he feels safe as a gay person living and teaching in Singapore.
But Indu Lekshmi, a queer activist in Singapore and graduate of the NUS law school, said the law is “obviously being enforced” because it is used by law enforcement as “a weapon against gay and transgender people.” She is currently working with prominent human rights lawyer Ravi Madasamy on a case involving two men who were charged under 377A for having sex in a public bathroom.
“Because there’s no gay bashing, people think it’s just okay here,” she said. “They don’t see the laws as active discrimination, [but] it’s possible to discriminate without meaning to.”
Yale and NUS administrators have varied in their responses to how an LGBTQ advocacy group may function on the Yale-NUS campus in the face of the government’s ban.
At a Yale-NUS information session about college life on March 17, Melissa Tsang, a prospective applicant to Yale-NUS, asked admissions representative Austin Shiner ’10 if she would be able to start an independent queer activism group at Yale-NUS.
“Yale-NUS is in Singapore, and our organizations will abide by Singaporean law. It will be lawful,” Shiner responded. “If you want to start an organization, we will help you start that organization, lawfully. So that’s a balance we will have to strike.”
NUS Vice Provost for Student Life Tan Tai Yong said he is not aware of any LGBTQ advocacy group at NUS, and he said such a group could not exist officially, in part because parents of students would “write in” complaining that school was promoting a “lifestyle” they do not support. Still, he said students could create an unofficial group as long as it did not attract attention to itself.
“If it’s a question of forming a formal society, where registry gets involved, we get into all these issues of the statutes,” he said. “But if students were to form their own [group] and stay below the radar screen — basically an informal group, an alliance — they can call it whatever they want, without any formal constitution, I mean, ‘don’t ask don’t tell.’ ”
He added that NUS would not actively “curtail” the private activities of LGBTQ students.
Yale administrators have said the U.S. military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy — which barred gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military — had kept officials from allowing the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to return to Yale’s campus, as University policy states that students cannot be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.
University President Richard Levin said Yale-NUS would have the right to create its own regulations for student organizations, though he could not comment on specific rules on group registration since they have not yet been written. He said students would be able to form groups focused on gay-straight and LGBTQ issues, adding that he does not “see any connection” between the Yale administration’s stance on DADT and the situation at NUS.
“There are gay students and faculty at the National University of Singapore; gay subjects are taught; it’s not required for gay people to keep their identity confidential as there was in the [‘don’t ask don’t tell’] policy,” Levin said. “I really don’t see the analogy.”
AN EVOLVING, UNCERTAIN RELATIONSHIP
Yale-NUS administrators and Singaporean residents said they see Yale-NUS as a marker of increasing liberalization in Singapore, but they differed on how Yale-NUS will fit into Singapore’s changing society. Citing greater press freedom on political blogs and elevated discourse during the most recent general election, Singaporean residents said their country is noticeably more liberal than it was a decade ago.
Still, laws restricting freedom of expression limit people’s ability to voice their opinions and protest peacefully. Though the Yale-NUS agreement includes provisions protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus, it does not protect the right to assemble.
“They take demonstrations in a kind of different way,” Bailyn said. “What we think of as freedom, they think of as an affront to public order, and I think the two societies differ in that respect.”
Tsang, a prospective Yale-NUS student who hoped to begin a LGBTQ advocacy group, questioned the usefulness of studying queer theory in the classroom if she “can’t have a parade with [her] friends.”
NUS Vice Provost Tan said NUS has allowed students to organize protests over “international issues” that do not involve Singapore — such as imprisonment of monks in Myanmar — but only within lecture halls.
Lewis, the Yale-NUS humanities faculty search committee chair, said he felt that an absence of organized protests would not limit the “free exchange of ideas in the classroom and free expression.” Lily Kong, Yale-NUS acting vice president for academic affairs, said academia can substitute for activism as an instrument of change in Singaporean society.
“I don’t, excuse the phrase, burn my bra, if we’re talking about feminism,” explained Kong, whose research focuses on urban planning and conservation. “But I do that through my scholarship, and through the work that I do.”
Lewis said Yale-NUS itself could help push Singapore toward more liberal policies. There has been a movement toward “greater pluralism” in Singapore, he said, adding that Yale-NUS can “contribute to that.” He said students who graduate from Yale-NUS will have a chance to “go on and shape Singaporean culture and society in the future.”
Bishop said a liberal arts curriculum could encourage students to think critically about Singaporean policies and consider ways to alter them. For example, he said, the course of study at Yale-NUS could sway Singapore toward more liberal policies regarding homosexual behavior.
But Alex Au, an influential Singaporean blogger and workers’ rights activist, said he thinks the college will operate independently from the rest of Singaporean society and have little effect on the country’s political situation. In order to preserve the government’s commitment to upholding academic freedoms at Yale-NUS, Au said he thinks the school will need to avoid drawing attention to any of its potentially controversial programs or speakers.
“The biggest compromise that Yale is going to make is to accept that there is a fence between academia and society at large,” Au said. “You’re going to find that you’re going to bargain in order to protect your academic freedom within the fence.”
As the school has yet to recruit most of its faculty and students, the society within the college still has not taken shape. Bailyn and Yale-NUS Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan ’03 said the campus culture will ultimately be defined by the personalities and outlooks of the first group of students and faculty who join Yale-NUS for its opening in fall 2013.
“You’re a pioneer if you’re coming here as a student,” Quinlan said. “If you’re coming here as a student … you’re going to have to like a certain amount of uncertainty.”