Amid controversy surrounding the Yale-NUS administration’s decision to cancel a weeklong educational program about dissent, the University released a report in September affirming the presence of academic freedom in its sister school and attributing the cancellation to administrative errors.
“Yale-NUS faculty and students I met in Singapore were unanimous in their support for the college administration and in their view that academic freedom is well protected on campus,” Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis wrote in the report.
But interviews with faculty members at Yale and Yale-NUS, including the instructor of the cancelled program, raise questions about the legitimacy of the conclusions Lewis reached in the report. Many faculty members interviewed by the News said operating an academic institution under an authoritarian government often results in infringements of free speech. Still, some defended Yale’s sister school and said the recent incident is not a reflection of the state of academic research at the Singaporean campus.
A series of administrative errors?
In the recent report, Lewis partly attributed the cancellation to the program’s lack of “academic rigor.” The report cited one assignment in the class’ syllabus that led to the cancellation — an “experiential demonstration” that involved making demonstration placards and protesting at Hong Lim Park. The park is the only location in the country where Singaporean citizens are allowed to protest. The report said that this assignment could ask for non-Singaporean students to break local laws.
But in a series of Facebook posts, program instructor Alfian bin Sa’at said he was never informed that the module lacked academic substance and claimed that he had followed all the guidelines from a sample module when designing the program.
While he did hear concerns from Yale-NUS administrators about the political sensitivity of the class, he made changes to the program accordingly, Sa’at said. He added that he tried his best to make sure his course follows the law. Given the risk that the original syllabus would pose for non-Singaporean students, Sa’at said he updated the course plan to include two separate assignments to better protect students.
“[I] suggested that we visit Hong Lim Park on the first day of the program, and conduct the sign-making workshop on a later date,” he wrote in the post. “This way, there would be no chance of the students taking the signs they had made to Hong Lim Park. There would be no ‘simulation’ at all of a protest at Hong Lim Park; only a walking tour. Everyone agreed to this new scheduling.”
Lewis stated that the instructor and the committee had “different risk assessments” regarding the stimulated protests. In addition, Lewis said that “although [Sa’at] was willing to revise the syllabus, [Sa’at] and [Yale-NUS] could not come to any final and timely agreement.”
Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong also emphasized that while the College is committed to academic freedom and open inquiry, the administration draws a line at “undertaking activities that may cross the line of what is legally allowed in Singapore.”
“A terrible idea?”
Since the report’s release, Sa’at and other Yale affiliates have spoken out against both Lewis’ report and the original partnership between the two universities.
“It illustrates perfectly what worried some of us who opposed the Yale-NUS joint venture — that there would be, not an open clash between Singapore’s methods and Yale’s, but an all-too-smooth convergence, in which universities behave increasingly like business corporations … trying to control the kinds of free speech that a true liberal education and a democracy should defend,” political science professor James Sleeper ’69 wrote in an email to the News.
Other faculty members expressed concern about the feasibility of the joint venture. Yale English professor Jill Campbell noted the Singaporean government’s “record of suppressing dissent” for fear that it could impose restrictions on freedom of speech on campus.
Professor Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03 said he has thought that Yale-NUS “is a terrible idea” for a decade now. He added that the government’s authoritarian tendencies could tarnish Yale and its professors’ reputations.
East Asian studies professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan also echoed Oppenheimer’s remarks and criticized what she called Yale’s silence during the “smearing” of Sa’at. The University is staying complicit “in the censorship of a teaching module deemed politically sensitive,” Yiengpruksawan said.
“The Yale Course of Study Committee should assess the module and the subsequent decision to cancel,” said Yiengpruksawan. “The Yale administration — despite the disapproval of the majority of faculty members over concerns about political censorship — chose to establish a satellite campus in Singapore with the name Yale-NUS.”
Yiengpruksawan also suggested possible bias in the report given that Lewis was the founding president of Yale-NUS.
When asked for comment, Lewis forwarded comments to members of the Faculty Advisory Committee for Yale-NUS. None of the members immediately responded to a request for comment.
“Academic freedom is flourishing”
Despite sharp criticism from Yale faculty members, several Yale-NUS professors interviewed by the News said academic freedom is not an issue at the school.
Associate Dean of Faculty and politics professor Nomi Claire Lazar told the News that she has “encountered no academic freedom restrictions whatsoever at Yale-NUS.” She added that the only teaching restrictions she encounters revolve around the academic rigor of a course. These types of restrictions, she said, can be found at “every good university whether here in Singapore or in North America.”
Philosophy professor Amber Carpenter also said for her, the school’s location in Singapore has allowed “ongoing reflection on the difference between academic freedom and free speech.”
“We explore on campus modes of effective contribution to shared discourse in a way that I’ve not experienced on other college campuses,” Carpenter said. “Being located in Singapore requires us to be more thoughtful and reflective about what public discourse is, what the various kinds of freedom are and what good they might be.”
Carpenter added that while many worry that Singaporean laws “necessarily constrain academic discourse and open inquiry,” her experience of campus climate is that Singaporean “laws are not restrictive in this way.”
Carpenter — who has previously taught at the Universities of York and Oxford University — said that compared to her teaching in the United Kingdom, she has “more academic freedom and freedom from state intrusion” at Yale-NUS.
According to Lazar, once the facts of the Sa’at class were revealed, everyone she spoke with among the Yale-NUS faculty members were in agreement that “there had been no choice but to cancel the module” and that the school should improve its procedures around the process. She noted that Yale-NUS has already “strongly and publicly accepted responsibility” for their part, in addition to improving those procedures.
In an opinion piece in the Octant — the Yale-NUS student newspaper — Wee Yang Soh YNUS ’17 highlighted the harm done to the program instructor by the Lewis report, and called on Yale-NUS to “own” and take responsibility for its complicity with repressive actions of the Singapore state.
Yale-NUS student Nicholas Chang YNUS ’22 told the News that he feels “like people make the government” seem stricter than what he has encountered. While he noted that being in Singapore means that illegal activities have harsher punishments, there is no surveillance at Yale-NUS.
Chang told the News that he does not know much about the incident and believes not many students know much about the rationale behind the course cancellation either. Chang also added that the incident is “very out of the ordinary” because he has encountered academic freedom everywhere else on campus.
“Everywhere else in Singapore you don’t really have the freedom of speech and you don’t get to express whatever you want,” Chang said. “But I’d say that in Yale-NUS you can really just say anything.”
Yale-NUS College was founded in 2013.
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