Intellectual freedom at Yale-NUS
Nathan Steinberg’s column about Yale-NUS College (“Stay home, Yale.” Oct. 10) includes several factual errors. The premise of his column is that, as he writes, “the Yale-NUS administration refused to screen a documentary — ‘To Singapore, with Love’ — on campus after the Singaporean Media Development Authority classified it as a ‘threat to national security.’” This is not true. The Yale-NUS professor who wanted to show the film in his course on creative non-fiction found no obstacle in the college administration. In fact, when the president of Yale-NUS was asked about the case by the News, he expressed only support for the professor’s plan and an expectation that the film would be shown in the course.
The only action taken by the Yale-NUS administration was to ask the Singaporean MDA to clarify the relevance of its restrictive rating to universities. Perhaps partly in response to this request, the MDA issued a public statement, reported in the main Singaporean newspaper, indicating that restricted films could be shown in relevant academic settings in universities. This was a clearer endorsement of one aspect of academic freedom than had previously been available from the MDA. The MDA also specified that its rating would not prevent the screening of “To Singapore with Love” in the Yale-NUS course.
Steinberg’s column implies that Yale-NUS chose not to show the film. This is incorrect. The particular film in question is not in general circulation; it is available only from the filmmaker, who has so far declined to send it to Yale-NUS for viewing. She understandably wants broader access to the film in Singapore. But the filmmaker has an open invitation to show the film at the college, and when the film becomes available on DVD or online, the professor can decide on his own whether or not to show it in his course.
Steinberg also suggests that Malcolm X’s writings on race in America and Thoreau’s writings on civil disobedience could not easily be read at Yale-NUS. This is incorrect. Those books, and other (much more controversial) books, including books whose sale is restricted in Singapore, can be read in university courses and are available on campus. More generally, the required courses at Yale-NUS demand that all students read and write about sensitive issues including race, religion and sexuality. More than 30 Yale faculty members have visited Yale-NUS since its opening, and they can speak best about the energy and engagement on campus, both in and out of class. When I was there this past March, I gave a lecture on John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (a required text in a required class) to a large lecture hall full of students and saw a lively discussion about the book in a smaller seminar.
The author is not wrong to raise the issue of intellectual freedom on campus — it is a vital question at all colleges, and especially so in the many countries with more restrictive laws on expression. Faculty at Yale, at NUS and at Yale-NUS regularly discuss the issue, watching new developments carefully and diligently seeking to remain informed about the facts on the ground.
The writer is a professor of Political Science and Humanities. He is co-chair of a joint Yale University-NUS Consultative Group on academic freedom at Yale-NUS College.