Last month, the Singaporean student newspaper Kent Ridge Common published an excellent column by Koh Choon Hwee, who confessed herself bewildered by the “careless, generalized stereotypes being traded not only by students, but also by Yale faculty members — which seem to betray the very ethos of good scholarship.” She then asked pointedly whether Singapore should reconsider the partnership with Yale, “considering the quality of arguments proffered by some of her tenured best.”
I believe Yalies can think, but I can see why my fellow Singaporeans might suspect otherwise. The crucial problem is that Yalies and Singaporeans have fundamentally different assumptions about political culture.
Americans are outraged at certain Singaporean laws. Singaporeans just break them — and usually get away with it. Homosexual intercourse is illegal in Singapore the way underage drinking is illegal at Yale. The police have never bothered my openly gay brother, writer-activist Ng Yi-Sheng, despite his public gender-bending antics and book of coming-out stories with real names and faces, which became a Singaporean bestseller.
As for censorship, I read Wired’s description of Singapore as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” in a high school class after the magazine was banned, and I later assigned the piece to my own students. There are guaranteed ways to invite trouble in Singapore, at least if you’re not protected by the Yale-NUS guarantee of academic freedom. But usually, where freedom of speech and sexuality are concerned, written laws and enforcement are very different things. It’s a bit cognitively complicated, but if we can handle that, so can you.
The Yale College faculty meant well when they passed Thursday’s resolution championing American-style political freedoms in Singapore. But — I hate to break it to you — our value systems aren’t quite the same as Yalies’. It’s hard for Singaporeans to imagine wanting the right to bear arms if it would mean worrying about getting home safely after partying all night.
Singaporeans ridicule the ruling party’s self-protective censorship, but when it attempted to liberalize film censorship in 1991, public outcry forced it to backtrack. Qur’an-burning is illegal in Singapore, and we like it that way. We prioritize our values differently, and different doesn’t mean wrong. At least, that’s what I learned from a Yale liberal arts education.
Unfortunately, nine years at Yale still leave me trying, in all sincerity, to understand the logic of well-meaning professors who say they support both Yale-NUS and Thursday’s resolution. I see some attempt at tact, but it didn’t translate culturally. To a Singaporean, the resolution looks like a request to be kicked out of the country. Criticizing a partner publicly during this crucial trust-building phase is a last-resort negotiating tactic used just prior to walking away from the deal.
The resolution also annoys the Singaporean in the street, who already thought Yale was getting a sweetheart deal — free campus, free staff, free rein to run pedagogical experiments on free subjects, not even the risk of putting the Yale name on the diploma.
Unlike President Levin and others in the Yale administration, I don’t think it’s imperialistic for Yale to want to help Singapore change. But given the political and cultural constraints, the best way for Yale to effect change is not by stressing differences, but by showing Singaporeans how much we have in common. Singaporean gay movement Pink Dot has borrowed selectively from the U.S. gay marriage and adoption debates. By stressing family relationships and acceptance of diversity — both values at the core of Singaporean identity — last year’s rally drew over 10,000 people.
If enough Singaporean voters want change, the government will respond. After last year’s election exposed cabinet ministers’ pay as a huge grievance for the 99 percent, pay scales were promptly overhauled. It may seem strange to American observers, but our ruling party does care about popular sentiment, despite holding power for over 50 years.
You don’t have to like the way Singapore works, and I don’t want to trivialize the heroism of political dissidents like J.B. Jeyaretnam, who was sued into bankruptcy by the ruling party, but disliking it doesn’t make our political culture any less real, and to change it, you have to start from that reality.
Singapore is not an isolationist or stagnant society — it’s extremely open to foreign influences, as long as they’re seen as our own choice, not the preoccupations of hecklers. The aims of the faculty resolution can best be achieved by simply having a Yale presence in Singapore, not preaching but demonstrating — with steadfastness but also humility — what is admirable about Yale.
E-Ching Ng is a 2001 graduate of Morse College and a fifth-year graduate student in linguistics.