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 james.sleeper@yale.edu.

A prior version of this article incorrectly spelled Tan Pin Pin’s name.

  • jim sleeper

    In this column, I meant include the following piece of information.( It was purely my own oversight, and I thank the YDN for publishing the column): Not only does Reporters Without Borders rank Singapore abysmally on press freedoms; even more telling, The American Association of University Professors sent a public letter to the Yale community and 500,000 American professors expressing “AAUP’s growing concern about the character and impact of the university’s collaboration with the Singaporean government…. In a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed, faculty will censor themselves, and the cause of authentic liberal education, to the extent it can exist in such situations, will suffer.”
    That’s what’s at stake in this film controversy. Here is the AAUP letter:


  • jim sleeper

    Did Yale-NUS and Tan Pin Pin decide not to show the film in a class in order to assert that it shouldn’t be shown anywhere in Singapore if it can’t be everywhere in Singapore? I consider that unlikely, but, sooner or later, we’ll find out. Meanwhile, the film has been shown abroad, where it has reaped praise and prizes. The moral, intellectual, and artistic bankruptcy of this tiny, rich city-state has many causes, but it also has many effects. See my additional message below, about the letter from the American Association of University Professors.

    Rayner Teo, who commented above, will to return to Singapore upon after graduating Yale here in New Haven. I believe that he will try hard to liberalize the regime and the political culture, and I wish him only the very best in his efforts. He is more likely to be helped than hurt by international controversies like this one. Arguments against Ivory Tower moralism haven’t worn very well in a world that is more interconnected and interdependent than even Singapore’s enterprising billionaires may wish.

  • aaleli

    What a hypocritical farce. Barack Obama has unleashed the hounds of government-hell. Not the least of which is government healthcare. The very same entity which fails at Veteran’s health, has the hubris to think they can run the nation’s healthcare and do it under the GUISE of “concern for humanity”- helping those who could never get coverage. An outright lie, It is government control of a huge part of our economy, over reaching regulations, nothing more, and certainly not improved healthcare.

    The same people who would cry foul at another government’s ideology probably voted for the marxist we now have in office. Sanctimonious pretenders all.

  • Jim9310

    Yale-NUS is not “a grand misadventure”. It is a constructive partnership for innovative cross-cultural research and understanding. Singaporean and American per capita GDP ($51K vs. $50K) and per capita wealth ($223K vs. $221K) are remarkably similar.

    While Singapore might be described as a “nanny state”, the elected government is hardly “authoritarian”. Singapore ranks 149 out of 179 in press freedoms (US rank = 46). However, Singapore also ranks 2 out of 165 in economic freedom (US rank = 12).

    One of the interesting insights provided by Mr. Sleeper is the ongoing “convergence between Singapore’s authoritarian state corporatism and our own increasingly corporatist surveillance and purchased politic”. Although the causes and consequences of corporatism are not well understood, it seems to thrive on expansion of global trade and emergence of super-wealthy international elites (aka. oligarchs).

    Certainly, this suggests that the Yale-NUS partnership might encourage and enable Yale’s economists and political scientists to acquire a deeper understanding of this timely issue.

  • Rayner Teo

    This piece is a rich leap of imagination from someone who over the weekend admitted that “All of these strands don’t yet come together in any way I can understand. I’m willing to blame my own ignorance right alongside Singapore’s opacity and duplicity in all such matters!” Did Mr Jeyaretnam help the ignorant foreigner understand? Or did the ignorant foreigner fiddle with the truth till he got the argument he wanted to present?

    It’s actually indecent that you couldn’t even get Ms Tan’s name right, nor was anyone at the YDN interested enough to check it. It sure is telling of your disregard for her, her work, and the decision she has made on screening the film at Yale-NUS–and indeed how you are merely using her and her work as pawns in your clique’s hopeless campaign against the Yale administration.

    I was far and away the last of the Singaporeans at Yale to get tired of engaging with you, but even I am done now.

    • jim sleeper

      What’s worrisome about these dances with authoritarian practices is their opacity and duplicity — not the diplomacy that’s inevitably involved. It would be a wild misreading of my column and of other faculty’s criticisms to assume that we care only about the freedom of a class at Yale-NUS to see the film. To the contrary: Columns like mine add to the international pressure that Singapore is feeling internationally, as Tan Pin Pin’s film reaps praise and awards at festivals outside Singapore. If the MDA thought that it could keep the lid on this by granting an exemption to Yale-NUS, it was wrong.
      It’s certainly possible that Yale-NUS has decided not to show the film in order to insist, with Tan Pin Pin that if the film can’t be shown everywhere it Singapore, then it shouldn’t be shown anywhere. But if that is Yale-NUS’ reason for deciding not to show it, Yale-NUS should say so, simply and clearly.

  • Rayner Teo

    Incredibly poor form for the YDN to hold my comment in moderation for hours while (presumably) you allow him the courtesy of issuing a cotemporaneous response. I don’t seem to recall you doing student columnists that courtesy.

  • jim sleeper

    The noblest construction one can put on this controversy is to believe that in deciding not to show “To Singapore With Love” on its campus, Yale-NUS and filmmaker Tan Pin Pin are taking a brave stand and saying that if the film can’t be shown everywhere in Singapore, it shouldn’t be shown anywhere. But If that’s what Yale-NUS means to say, it hasn’t said it. The filmmaker’s reticence has been far more understandable, although regrettable, and perhaps she will have spoken out by the time this is posted.

  • DarthChewie

    People used to think capitalism and democracy went hand in hand. Singapore is proving they do not. They are one of many emerging states that combine free trade for the rich with totalitarian restrictions on personal liberties. Same thing can be seen in Qatar, UAE, Hong Kong, Russia, Turkey.

    It’s the new kleptocracy–create luxury spaces for the international business class, and use authoritarian laws to make sure the service class can never challenge the looting of the country and the exploitation of its poor.

  • Arnold_Chong


    Post date: 27 Sep 2014


  • anon627

    Regardless of how Yale or Sleeper feel about this, the holder of the copyright has the legal right to withhold permission. Presumably that is the film maker, Tan Pin Pin. Isn’t it her right to decide if she wants to go against her government – or not? If not showing it in a Yale classroom helps her in her negotiations, is it our right to interfere? Not in my view.

  • jim sleeper

    I agree with you that dissent is often chilled and even punished here in the U.S., but I think we’re well past the time when politically correct mandarins were mainly to blame for the suppression. On our point of agreement I say above that “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.”

    But the main cause of self-censorship is no longer deconstructionists and post-modernists, censorious though they can be. It’s the business-corporatization and national-security-ization of too many centers and programs at Yale. These generate an almost enthusiastic self-censorship among students who think that they can get closer to Power by proving they can be relied on never to suggest that an emperor has no clothes. I discussed this problem in a talk I gave on Beinecke Plaza two years ago. Here it is:

  • ldffly

    ” . . . a tendency that appears to be connected with the sneering, “postmodernist” attitude towards philology, serious discussion, and academic criteria in general, and with the abuses that accompanied the gradual appropriation of power by the “deconstructionists” in various American institutions.”

    Thank you. I have been saying similar things for years and been derided for it. Deconstruction is pernicious, uncritical philosophy which has wormed its way even into the Yale administration. Witness Pres. Levin’s witless remark. Witness also the appropriation of so many deconstructionist/postmodernist catch phrases by our corporate elite. We need critique, but where will it come from?

  • td2016

    Showing this film over the objections of its owner and maker would be obviously the exact opposite of demonstrating respect for her individual rights.

    This article, and all of its author’s comments here, are ridiculous, all the more so for their inability to maintain focus on the actual topic in favor of bogus rehearsals of vast political considerations. It’s a film in a classroom, not a scene and a song from “Les Miserables.”

    Sheesh, what a loon.

    • jim sleeper

      Since Tan Pin Pin holds the rights to her film, Yale-NUS cannot show it without her permission, so the question becomes why she does not want Yale-NUS to show it, even if the MDA was willing to grant Yale-NUS an exemption from the ban, for educational purposes.
      Although I was told that the filmmaker was negotiating with the MDA to edit the film, she has now made public the fact that she is asking the agency to rescind its ban of the film as it is, unchanged. That’s a brave stance, and Yale-NUS should support it, not only by respecting Tan Pin Pin’s wishes that the film not be shown anywhere in Singapore until it can be shown everywhere in Singapore, but also by stating publicly that Yale-NUS supports this principle.
      The filmmaker’s stance — and the praise and awards that the film is getting abroad — have embarrassed Singapore’s authoritarian regime. Yale-NUS should not have compromised with the regime by seeking a exemption from the ban for itself.

  • anonymous singaporean

    to be honest, nobody in singapore cares about Yale-NUS nor do they know it exists

    • joeblow55

      Actually nobody really cares about singapore. Once i saw the authoritarian gig going on there and the terminal ennui and boredom of the place, i booked out of there asap.

  • Guest

    I’m Singaporean and a Yale alumnus; I also have good friends (much younger than I) who attend Yale-NUS. On one hand, i’m grateful for the academic and intellectual opportunities that Yale-NUS opens up for students in the latter category — they might never be able to study the subjects they now can if the school hadn’t opened its doors.

    On the other hand, I *am* concerned, if not dismayed, by the unsubtle subservience and self-censorship that Yale Corporation is showing to the influence and pressures of Singapore Inc. My personal sense is that much of the censure directed against it is true — behind its polish and studied charm, it is in fact a hotbed of ethical compromise, self-censorship, cronyism that makes a mockery of the country’s genuflection to meritocracy, and (surprisingly perhaps) massive waste and inefficiency.
    My concern is not (just) what Sleeper points out — that far from liberalising Singapore, Yale will become like it. It is that Yale has made this move in the first place and continues to defend it today, which calls into serious question the ethical priorities and orientation of the university itself. I loved Yale because she helped me to find my intellectual and ethical way at a time of life that I yearned for it. Can it really be that all of that erudition and direction was nothing but grand posturing and show?