On April 6, 2012, over President Richard Levin’s opposition, the Yale College Faculty passed a resolution expressing “concern regarding the … lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore” and urging Yale-NUS to “respect, protect, and further those rights,” which “lie at the heart of liberal arts education as well as of our civic sense as citizens, and … ought not to be compromised in any dealings … with the Singaporean authorities.”
Levin objected that the resolution “carried a sense of [Western] moral superiority,” and other Yale-NUS champions insisted Yale must “respect the laws” and “cultural differences” of a country where it’s a guest. Ivory Tower liberals and libertarians shouldn’t condemn Singapore: “What we [Americans] think of as freedom, they think of as an affront to public order,” explained Yale-NUS’s inaugural Dean Charles Bailyn.
But why should Yale have contracted itself with Singapore’s national university and, through it, the regime of a tightly-run city-state whose ruling party and judiciary keep a finger in virtually everything that moves? Are we liberalizing Singapore, or becoming more like it?
Singapore wants us to see superb seaside dinners and clean and efficient public services and markets, not prisons and censorship. But it generates the subtle but pandemic self-censorship among citizens that some American business corporations generate among employees.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 149th out of 179 in press freedoms in 2013 — down from 135th in 2012, owing partly to new restrictions on websites. The prime minister and other sages use meticulous, Kafka-esque legalism to block freedoms of expression they want to block and to permit whatever they decide to permit.
So the liberal arts college to which Yale has given its name, prestige, energy and talent finds itself dancing an ancient dance, this time with an Orwellian “Media Development Authority” over a right that a liberal education depends on and should foster: to show Tan Pin Pin’s political film, “To Singapore With Love,” which criticizes Singapore’s way of turning political and artistic citizens into exiles.
Yale-NUS announced that it would exercise that right by showing the film in a class. But then it announced that it wouldn’t, because Tan Pin Pin had withheld “permission.” To understand this dance, look first at another.
In 2012 Chee Soon Juan, a principled Singaporean opposition-party leader, faced a government ban on leaving the country. Chee, who holds a PhD from the University of Georgia, had been fired from his lectureship in neuropsychology by NUS in 1993 after joining the “wrong” political party. For protesting this, he was railroaded by Singapore’s scandalous judiciary into a “defamation” conviction and fined into bankruptcy. Unable to pay, he was barred from leaving Singapore to accept a human-rights award in Oslo.
Then the Yale International Relations Association and the faculty Southeast Asia Studies Council invited Chee to New Haven. Worried about jeopardizing its grip on Yale’s lucrative name, Singapore suddenly reduced Chee’s debts enough for him to pay them and leave.
And now Singapore’s Media Development Authority has decided to recognize that “media or related courses … may require access to … films that are classified R21 or NAR,” so it has approved “some leeway” to these institutions to screen films for educational purposes on condition that … prior approval has been sought from the MDA before the films are acquired.”
The film is still otherwise banned in Singapore, and the filmmaker, who’s negotiating with the MDA to “edit” it to be “suitable” for Singaporeans who aren’t taking special courses, has asked Yale-NUS not to show the film she actually made.
Certainly the film should reach a wide audience and perhaps prompt change. But should an institution bearing Yale’s name accustom itself to bowing and scraping like this, or should it stand up and pressure Singapore as a lone filmmaker cannot?
Those of us who consider Yale-NUS a grand misadventure warned not that conflicts would erupt between American and Singaporean values but that both sides would grow all-too accustomed to a genteel, MDA-like convergence between Singapore’s authoritarian state corporatism and our own increasingly corporatist surveillance and purchased politics.
A few liberal “permissions,” “exceptions” and libertarian grace notes won’t do. “One should not compromise with an authoritarian state on the grounds that towing the line is better for the locals,” says Kenneth Jeyaretnam, another brave Singapore opposition party leader who spoke at Yale with Chee. “This should not be a debate for Singaporeans only. Without outside pressure, there will be little pressure to change, and some Singaporeans will continue to believe that the government has the right to shield them for their own good.”
No government has that right, and certainly not with Yale’s blessing.
Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A prior version of this article incorrectly spelled Tan Pin Pin’s name.