The cover of the film, “To Singapore, with Love” shows a man staring out across the river into his native Singapore. Among a number of youth leaders forced into exile 50 years before, the man yearns to make a connection with his homeland but ultimately cannot due to his past as a student activist.
“To Singapore, with Love,” became a source of controversy in early September when the Singaporean Media Development Authority deemed the film a threat to national security and prohibited any screening or distribution of it in Singapore. As the MDA makes certain allowances for viewings at academic institutions, however, Yale-NUS administrators said in September that the University would go forth with plans to show the film in a classroom setting.
Upon receiving news that Yale-NUS was planning a screening of her film, filmmaker Tan Pin Pin announced on her Facebook page, and in interviews with different news outlets that she did not authorize the screening. A day later, Yale-NUS spokesperson Fiona Soh said that “To Singapore, with Love” would not be screened. Soh said in an email to the News that Yale-NUS would respect the filmmaker’s decision, and thus canceled the screening.
In a Thursday email, Yale-NUS President said to the News that the school is now waiting to show the film when the filmmaker is ready for them to do so.
Amidst the controversy, University President Peter Salovey said it is of prime importance for Yale-NUS to remain faithful to academic freedom.
“I remain committed to the proposition that faculty at Yale-NUS College must be able to make use of any material they deem appropriate for their classrooms, in which they and their students must be able to study and talk about any topic,” he said.
This controversy has reignited a campus dialogue over whether the Singaporean college can fairly market itself as a defender of free speech in a country with tight restrictions on public discourse. While recognizing that there will always be cultural gaps when American and Asian institutions enter into academic partnerships, many are raising the question of where Yale draws the line between respecting another nation’s social norms and protecting the basic tenants of the liberal arts.
NOT THE FIRST
The issue of freedom of speech does not pertain to Yale alone.
In June 2013, Wellesley College signed a memorandum of understanding — a kind of academic partnership that does not involve a separate campus like Yale-NUS — with Peking University in Beijing to facilitate research collaborations, as well as exchanges between faculty members and students. In particular, the partnership focused on educating women for global leadership.
But when a Peking University faculty panel voted to dismiss a professor at its School of Economics, Xia Yeliang, known for his criticism of the Chinese government, the MOU no longer resonated well with a number of Wellesley faculty members.
In September 2013, over 130 Wellesley faculty members signed an open letter addressed to multiple members of Peking’s administration, defending Xia’s “right of free speech on issues related to democracy, the rule of law, and individual freedom.” Still, in October of that same year, Xia was fired.
Thomas Cushman, a sociology professor at Wellesley who spearheaded the letter-writing campaign, said that while he is completely open to exchanges between American and Asian universities, there has to be a clear distinction between respecting Chinese culture and not blindly relinquishing basic rights.
“[These partnerships] made a lot of sense in a globalized world,” Cushman said. “It would be foolish to be isolationist, but somebody has to draw the hard line and say this is a line you can’t cross. You just can’t have a partnership without considering freedom of expression.”
Cushman said he was particularly bothered by the fact that the Wellesley name was being used as a platform to spread the ideological views of the Chinese Communist Party, which he said has substantial influence over Peking University. He said the letter campaign was intended to drive home the message that professors part of the Wellesley partnership were not going to be fired or censored because of their political views.
Despite heated debate, however, the Wellesley administration has not backed away from the partnership.
In June 2012, Yale cancelled a joint program with Peking University, founded in 2005, that offered Yale students the opportunity to spend a semester at the Chinese university. In its decision, the University cited low enrollment.
In regard to the Singaporean venture, students and faculty have expressed concerns both about cultural differences with Singapore and about legal limits on freedoms considered essential in American society.
French and African American Studies Professor Christopher Miller said that he was initially concerned about Yale-NUS as a gay man, since same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Singapore. Years later, though, Miller is concerned about further controversies that may unfold in the future.
Yale Political Science lecturer Jim Sleeper agreed, saying that the future of these partnerships will depend on students’ impulses to simply speak up to preserve open discourse.
Sleeper, a longtime critic of Yale-NUS, also expressed similar concerns about Yale’s name being stamped on the Singapore project.
Despite his skepticism from the beginning, Sleeper said that Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore was never an attempt to force American values on another country. At the same time, though, Sleeper said Yale-NUS’ primary role as a liberal arts institution means that it cannot completely disregard freedom of speech.
“Everyone misunderstands — we are not trying to impose Western ivory tower moral values on Singapore,” Sleeper said. “But we are saying that something is going wrong with its liberal education. Artistic creativity is compromised by [the Singaporean government] trying to keep such a tight grip on every.”
But University Vice President for Global and Strategic Initiaties Linda Lorimer said the Yale-NUS project with cultural sensitivities in mind.
“We were keenly attentive to political and cultural differences between Singapore and New Haven as we began to explore the possibility of a liberal arts college in Singapore,” she said.
SPREAD THE WORD
Despite the risks of overseas expansion, experts say American universities often look abroad because of demand.
The rest of the world, particularly the Middle East and East Asia, is eager for access to American education, said Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities. But they do not just want the education, Rawlings said — students living in foreign countries often also want to be taught under the properly American principles that underlie that education, such as freedom of speech and academic integrity.
While President of Cornell University from 1995-2003, Rawlings played a decisive role in the university’s expansion to include a medical school in Doha, Qatar.
When American universities were first beginning to extend beyond U.S. borders, it was easier for the American schools to require that the basic tenants of the liberal arts be adhered to, Rawlings said. But now, when so many universities have some international footing, making those demands is more complicated.
“The Cornell program in Doha started years ago at a time when Qatar was highly desirous of a medical school, and so it was not so hard for us to demand certain things,” Rawlings said. “But over the course of so many years, Qatar has brought in some other American universities, and so now it’s tougher to negotiate.”
Rawlings said that when the plan for the Cornell’s expansion was being drafted, negotiations brought up some crucial issues of cultural difference. Among these problems was the question of whether or not classrooms would be mixed-gender.
During the early stages of planning Yale-NUS College, University President Peter Salovey said that Yale was fully aware of Singapore’s more restrictive laws regarding political speech.
“Ultimately, we decided that the risks, when balanced against the opportunity to create an entirely new liberal arts educational experience Asia, were worth it,” Salovey said to the News on Wednesday.
Salovey added that he hoped that policies upholding freedom of expression inside Yale-NUS classrooms would lead to the expansion of free speech in Singaporean society.
Lorimer said that regardless of recent and potential conflicts, both campuses hold fast to their values.
“Controversies will always arise, they do right here in New Haven,” she said. “The important thing will be how Yale and Yale-NUS respond in ways that protect the values of academic freedom.”
Still, beyond Yale concerns persist.
Susan Reverby, a Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley and a player in the college’s campaign to defend Xia, said American universities cannot take the safeguarding of the liberal arts too lightly.
“What’s at stake is the very soul of the American academy,” Reverby said. “Without being completely dramatic, this is really about saying, ‘so are we just going to sell to the highest bidder and do what they want?’ That’s why it seems so serious to us.”
Correction: Oct. 10
A previous version of this article misstated that the former government of Singapore was Communist. In fact, the government of Singapore was not Communist, but rather some student activists in the 1960s and 1970s were.