A speech delivered by Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large who also serves on Yale-NUS’s governing board, sparked a heated debate at the young institution after she defended Singapore’s sodomy law.
Speaking to a group of delegates at the 24th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva on Jan. 27, Chan defended Singapore’s decision to uphold Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code. Section 377A, also referred to as Singapore’s sodomy law, criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men even in a private setting. Prior to Chan’s comments, more than 10 delegates from different countries such as France and Norway suggested Singapore repeal Section 377A and any legislation that discriminates against people on grounds of sexual orientation. In her speech, Chan responded by explaining that the rationale for retaining the status quo, citing Singapore’s largely conservative society and the government’s position not to proactively enforce the sodomy law. Created by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006, the UPR involves a review of the human rights records of all U.N. member States every four and a half years.
Chan’s comments caused a split among Yale-NUS students shortly thereafter. Some students called for Chan’s removal from the school’s governing board, while others said a removal would be unfair because Chan was speaking as a Singaporean ambassador, not as a governor of the college.
“Yale-NUS may be beholden to the laws of Singapore, but we do not have to accommodate the government’s official position on gay rights within our own leadership ranks,” Nicholas Carverhill YNUS ’17 wrote in a Feb. 3 op-ed in The Octant, a Yale-NUS student publication. In the same article, he said that if Yale-NUS is to create an inclusive community, it cannot have leadership that actively advocates for policies contrary to the school’s commitment of inclusivity, as Chan did last week. Carverhill declined to provide further comments to the News.
The sodomy law — codified into the Singaporean Penal Code in 1955 — has been a source of contention in the country for decades. On Oct. 22, 2007, the Singapore government passed a bill to protect and maintain the law. On Oct. 29, 2014, a Singaporean Supreme Court ruling upheld Section 377A, stating that it does not violate the country’s constitution.
At Yale-NUS, The G Spot — the school’s main student group raising awareness on issues of gender, sexuality and feminism — issued a “Statement of Concern” on Feb. 1, following Chan’s speech. According to the statement, The G Spot was contacting the Yale-NUS administration to request a closed-door dialogue with Chan on issues related to her comments at the UPR.
Yale-NUS students interviewed said the issue has sparked heated discussion on campus, especially among activists for LGBTQ rights. Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis affirmed that Chan is a “lively and positive force” on the governing board.
“[Chan] has been an integral member of our governing board, and a firm believer in our mission and vision to build a community of learning, where all viewpoints are heard and a respectful understanding of different opinions and beliefs is encouraged,” Lewis said.
Three Yale-NUS students interviewed asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. One student said most at Yale-NUS agree that Chan’s message at the UPR was in a spirit contradictory to Yale-NUS’s core values of equality and nondiscrimination, but that the student body is split on whether Chan should be blamed for delivering a government message. Some Yale-NUS students openly requested for Chan’s resignation from the college’s governing board because as a Singaporean ambassador, Chan cannot help but speak on behalf of the government, whose views might contradict those of the Yale-NUS community, the students added.
The student said others who opposed Chan’s resignation said forcing her to do so would also set the precedent that Yale-NUS cannot have any government representatives or civil servants on its governing board, as these figures would be required to speak for the government regarding controversial issues.
The student said they would be sorry to see Chan resign simply because she fulfilled her government job, adding that Chan’s role as an ambassador does not necessarily conflict with her role as a member of the school’s governing board.
“Calling for Chan’s removal is naïve and demonstrates a lack of understanding of local politics,” said another anonymous student. Changes in Singapore often stem from within, as opposed to through extreme means such as advocating for someone’s removal from office, the student added.
The student said that removing Chan from the governing board, after she “toed the party line” at an international forum, is not an effective way to fight for LGBTQ rights, adding that Chan’s removal would be more appropriate had she spoken in favor of Section 377A outside of a government capacity.
Yale-NUS administrators interviewed said they supported the ongoing debate on campus but did not comment on whether they will be taking administrative action.
Sara Amjad, Yale-NUS’s director of diversity and inclusion, said students responded to Chan’s comments in different ways because of their diverse backgrounds. She added that she is meeting students individually and helping them unpack their thoughts and consider action steps.
Chris Bridges, Yale-NUS’s new dean of students, said the conversation is still unfolding on campus. He added that his office fully supports the debate, particularly as reflections and conversations are key steps before actions, if any, can be taken.
Chan served as Singapore’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1996 to 2012.