Two months after some Yale-NUS students voiced concerns about a speech by Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large, where she defended Singapore’s sodomy law, Chan came to campus for a closed-door dialogue on March 30.
Earlier in January, Chan, who also serves on Yale-NUS’s governing board, defended Singapore’s decision to uphold Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code at a United Nations human rights review session. In the days after the speech, several Yale-NUS students called for Chan’s removal from the school’s governing board, saying that her defense of a sodomy law that criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men contradicts the school’s mission of diversity and inclusivity. Other students disagreed, arguing that Chan’s role as an ambassador — which requires her to represent her country — is different from her role as a school governor.
In light of the campus debate, the Yale-NUS student government and the G Spot, a student group that raises awareness on issues of gender, sexuality and feminism, invited Chan to campus to speak and answer questions from the college community. Regina Marie Lee YNUS ’18, president of the Yale-NUS student government, said Chan offered to speak to students about Singapore’s human-rights approach even before her organization and the G Spot sent a formal invitation.
The event was closed-door at Chan’s request, Lee said. A G Spot Facebook post publicizing the event said that it was Yale-NUS only because of an overwhelming interest from the community. Attendees interviewed did not offer specifics about the conversation but said the dialogue was positive overall. Around 50 Yale-NUS students, staff and faculty attended the session.
“I believe our community had a fruitful and engaging conversation with Ambassador Chan about Singapore’s human-rights approach and treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ individuals,” Yale-NUS Executive Vice President Tan Tai Yong said.
Days after the speech sparked a debate in early February, Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis told The Straits Times, Singapore’s most-read newspaper, that the school would not consider asking Chan to relinquish her position. In a February online survey conducted by a Yale-NUS student publication, The Octant, 85 percent of the 117 respondents did not think Chan should resign from the governing board. Still, 62 percent said they thought Chan should engage in a dialogue with the student body.
Peter Ooi YNUS ’18, who attended the March session, said he was glad to have engaged in “an honest and genuine” dialogue with Chan. He added that hearing Chan speak does not end the campus debate, but only adds more material to the ongoing conversation.
Nik Carverhill YNUS ’17 said he also attended the session but declined to provide further comments to the News. On Feb. 3, Carverhill published an op-ed in the Octant on the issue, arguing that the school does not have to accommodate the government’s official position on gay rights within its leadership ranks. The column was widely cited in Singaporean news.
Six other Yale-NUS students interviewed said they did not attend the dialogue due to other commitments, but said they were glad the dialogue took place.
Tinesh Indrarajah YNUS ’17 said although he was unable to attend the session, he has been following the ongoing campus debate and called the meeting “productive” based on what he heard afterward.
“Many of the individuals who had issues prior to the meeting were able to get their views heard, and they seemed satisfied with Ambassador Chan’s replies,” Indrarajah said.
Geoffrey Martin YNUS ’19 said a dialogue with Chan was the right move because “air needed to be cleared” in a manner that was not purely sensational. He added that many students were unhappy about Chan’s speech and wanted clarifications of her position on the issues.
Chan served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. from 1989 to 1991.