Recent events surrounding the planned showing of a banned film at Yale-NUS have suggested that free expression on the Singaporean campus is not absolute.

The controversy over “To Singapore, with Love” began in early September when the Singaporean Media Development Authority, or MDA, deemed the film a threat to national security and prevented any screening or distribution of it in Singapore, albeit with specific allowances for certain educational showings. Last week, Yale-NUS administrators said they planned to show the film as part of a course and received MDA permission to do so — but Tan Pin Pin, the maker of the film, announced publicly last Thursday that she would not allow for the film to be shown at Yale-NUS.

Tan, who did not respond to requests for comment, wrote on her Facebook page that despite Lewis’s statement to the News, there are no plans to show “To Singapore, with Love” at Yale-NUS, adding that Yale-NUS administrators have not contacted her for permission to screen the film.

On Friday, Yale-NUS spokesperson Fiona Soh said the college no longer plans to show the film, due to Tan’s unwillingness to have it screened in Singapore.

Before planning to show the film, the school explicitly asked permission from the MDA, according to Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis.

Lewis said the MDA “had no problems with our plans” because the school planned to show the film for academic and educational purposes. Yale-NUS administrators initially drew public praise for their plans to screen the banned film, including from University President Peter Salovey.

But the confusion over Yale-NUS’s ability to show the film has prompted some — including faculty members who have been skeptical of the Singaporean project since its 2009 conception — to again raise questions about whether the college is truly the bastion of free speech that it has repeatedly claimed to be, within a country that otherwise imposes restrictions on speech.

“Yale-NUS claims to be a place of free expression. But freedom for which you have to ask permission — as in this case — is, by definition, not freedom,” said French and African American Studies professor Christopher Miller. “Freedom of expression at Yale-NUS is an illusion, celebrated by those inside its bubble, but now revealed as limited and therefore phony.”

In 2012 inaugural Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn said the Singaporean government promised the school complete freedom with “the core mission of the college” — researching, teaching and unfettered discussion on campus. Bailyn could not be reached for comment for this story.

Political science lecturer Jim Sleeper said the MDA’s broad suppression of the film is incompatible with the values of liberal education. Sleeper added that Yale has never depended on “special permission” from a government agency to use books or show films.

Although Tan has not commented on why she would not allow a screening at Yale-NUS, Miller suggested that her unwillingness to show the film at the college could be a further confirmation of the power of the state in Singapore.

“Artists and dissidents in Singapore are regularly brought to heel by libel suits which result in devastating, bankrupting punitive damages,” Miller said. “If Tan Pin Pin were to allow a screening, even inside the closed walls of Yale-NUS, she might run that risk.”

University President Peter Salovey, who is a board member of Yale-NUS, said he believes Lewis’s engagement with the MDA on issues of academic freedom may ultimately have a “wider, positive impact.”

Salovey added that when the plans for Yale-NUS were first laid out, Yale administrators were careful to examine the issue of academic freedom in the country.

“When Yale engaged with the National University of Singapore to plan Yale-NUS College, we knew that Singapore had more restrictive laws about some kinds of political speech than the United States,” Salovey said. “Ultimately, we decided that the risks, when balanced against the opportunity to create an entirely new liberal arts educational experience in Asia, were worth it.”

The inaugural class of Yale-NUS students arrived on campus in fall 2013.

  • Matthew Ware

    The title of this article is somewhat misleading, someone reading it would probably think that Yale-NUS changed its mind about showing the film. If someone here had bowed to pressure from MDA or anyone else, that would be one matter, but that’s actually not what happened. Tan Pin Pin, the filmmaker, has been declining requests to show her film in Singapore, a decision which doesn’t have anything to do with the school.

    • Michael Montesano

      My reaction is a bit different from Mr Ware’s. It seems that the “leadership” of Yale-NUS announced plans to screen the film before it had done the homework necessary to understand if those plans were realistic. It’s all a bit reminiscent of the way that the proponents of the new college boasted that it would revolutionize education in “Asia” before its first classes had even begun.
      Further, one can only find it a tad odd that the so called “president” (of a college that is part of a university that already has one vice-chancellor-cum-president) is in the business of making announcements about the content of specific courses. Does he do this for other courses at the college, too? Or has this been a one-off instance of (failed and really rather embarrassing) show-boating?
      Finally, there is a broader question that even the half-baked plans to show “To Singapore, with Love” have raised. If the film is subversive and threatens to mislead viewers, by what logic could it be regarded as less risky to show it to young people who happen to have cleared the Yale-NUS admissions process than to other Singaporeans?

      • Matthew Ware

        My guess is that the president being involved in all this probably has more to do with the university being so small, more than anything else. Just because of the size, everyone ends up being involved in everything to a certain extent. Prof. Robin Hemley has collaborated with the president on a few projects (such as a film-noir style documentary some students are working on, chronicling the impact of American and Spanish imperialism in the Philippines.) I wouldn’t blame someone familiar with Singapore politics for having a more cynical interpretation, but often the more straightforward one is right.

        It might be a stretch to say the MDA’s process of censorship/classification has any particular logic, but I do see how it serves the interests of a political hegemony to have a “pressure valve” of sorts, by letting a few select groups of people have access to banned materials instead of no one. The reasons are complicated, but this may contribute to the lack of activist culture on university campuses in Singapore, compared to a country like Taiwan under KMT rule, where there was little effort to placate groups that might protest, and the Wild Lily movement emerged.

        Of course Singapore is quite fond of acronyms and slogans, and the bit about revolutionising education in Asia (and the accompanying “in Asia, for the world” slogan) frequently becomes the object of satire/jokes from students here; there’s also a NUS slogan that sounds kind of similar (it’s painted on the orange NUS buses that go around their campus.) I’ve been living here about three months, and been in school for about two, and my impression is that the culture is shaped a great deal more by the students who happen to be here, rather than whatever the proponents of the project might have said.

  • wondering

    I’m wondering why President Lewis thought he could publicly announce that Yale-NUS would be screening this film before he or the instructor of the course in which they planned to show it had even contacted the film-maker to inquire about screening the film. That seems really strange as well as presumptuous. Can he or members of his faculty explain? We’ve only heard follow-up on the topic from students at Yale-NUS, defending the college in which they’ve chosen to study.