Despite protests from some academics and political observers over the trial and sentencing of British author Alan Shadrake this week, a tie-up between America's Yale University and the National University of Singapore for a liberal arts college in Singapore looks set to go ahead.
NUS Vice-president Lily Kong said the steering committee for the project was in final stages of talks with Yale, with details likely to be unveiled next month.
She said the Ministry of Education's high-level International Academic Advisory Panel, which advises Singapore universities and includes former Cambridge Vice-chancellor Alison Richards and Boston University President Robert Brown, had thrown its support behind the collaboration.
"We talked about how we might move ahead and [the panel] were quite categorically in full endorsement of the direction we are taking, and there's no doubt of the value of this," she said in remarks reported in the Straits Times.
Kong added that the two universities had reached a "good understanding" and could work through "issues that arise".
On Tuesday the High Court sentenced Shadrake, 76, to six weeks in prison for contempt of court, for criticising the judiciary in a book on Singapore's death penalty. He was also fined US$15,400 for remarks in the book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore justice in the dock.
The trial and sentence has revived debate on Singapore's political system and renewed calls for the Ivy League college to re-examine the move.
But the proposed partnership between Yale and NUS is winning a roar of approval in the city-state dubbed the 'Lion City'.
While some individuals have taken issue with the feasibility - and irony - of a Yale-branded liberal arts education in Singapore because of the nation's infamously strict laws, especially with regard to freedoms of speech and assembly, Singaporeans say the criticisms are ill-founded.
"I think there is this terrible and quite mistaken perception that Singapore still exists in the 70s and 80s," Professor Kirpal Singh, an English literature and creative thinking lecturer at Singapore Management University, told University World News.
"Most of those who seem to object don't have, I think, a real grounding in the changes that have come about since this perception of Singapore being a 'tight' society was formed early in our history," he argued. "We have changed and come a long way."
Some Singaporeans also shrugged off criticisms of the political system. "True, we don't have free speech, but we advocate responsible speech," said Lee Kok Wei, a marketing executive. "It has worked for us much better - socially, politically and economically - than many of the countries that think everyone should be given the right to say and do whatever they want."
"Besides, if Singapore is truly wrong in our way of thinking, then all the more Yale should come, and 'teach' us. Isn't that the whole point of an education?" he added.
But not everybody agrees. Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, told University World News that Shadrake's conviction and sentence "signals another sad day for freedom of expression in Singapore.
"Rather than move towards a more tolerant and freer brand of politics, this country is tragically going in the opposite direction. There will be a price for society to pay for this continued intolerance to criticism."
Commenting on the Shadrake verdict, Yale classics professor Victor Bers said: "I am sorry to say I am not surprised." But he added: "I do not think [the Yale administration] is seriously contemplating withdrawing."
Yale's Provost Peter Salovey told the university newspaper that the institution had been following the Shadrake case closely and was "not surprised by the result, given the very different laws in place in Singapore relating to contempt and defamation.
"I would have hoped for a different result, but Shadrake's book openly challenged the country's legal constraints on public criticism of identifiable governmental officials and institutions," Salovey said.
He added: "We will make certain that all faculty and students are aware of the reach of principles of academic freedom and the risks currently associated with public, personal condemnations of governmental officials and institutions."
The Shadrake case was already a cause for concern before his sentencing this week, when the tie-up was put before Yale faculty in September this year.
SINGAPORE: Conviction casts doubt on Yale tie-up
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It is regrettable that Yale is to press ahead with its Singapore University partnership. Yale, along with other US institutions, has enjoyed a high reputation as a place of unfettered learning. A university's reputation is in no small part dependent on its willingness to permit the free and unfettered exchange of ideas.
Given the outcome of the Alan Shadrake case, it is clear not only that such freedom does not exist but that the Singaporean Government is not prepared to tolerate it.
Should Yale college in Singapore encourage freedom of expression in the city state, it will be opening others up to possible prosecution. Yale's decision must be regretted by any Western university - and, presumably, by the majority of the Yale fraternity.
One thing is certain: Yale is a lesser university today.
author of The Night Traveller
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