SINGAPORE: Conviction casts doubt on Yale tie-up

A Singaporean verdict against British author Alan Shadrake has been watched closely around the world, in particular by Yale University in the US, which is discussing collaboration with National University of Singapore. Shadrake was found guilty this week of contempt of court for casting doubt on the independence of Singapore's judiciary in a recent book.

He is expected to be sentenced within a week, and is also being investigated for criminal defamation.

The verdict is causing some consternation as National University of Singapore is in the final stages of discussions with Yale to set up a liberal arts college, NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan confirmed last month, describing it as a "bold and highly strategic investment" in higher education.

The new college, expected to open in 2013, would be fully funded by Singapore but with a curriculum devised by Yale and taught by jointly by visiting Yale professors.

However, in a prospectus designed to win over sceptical Yale academics, Yale President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey admitted they were "greatly concerned" by the Shadrake case.

It "gives us reason to inquire even more deeply to understand how free faculty and students would be to express themselves in scholarly publications, in the classroom and on campus," they wrote.

"We have been grappling with the key question of whether liberal education can be successful where there is not the opportunity for public demonstrations as we know them, where defamation laws are much broader than they are in the United States, and where the popular writings of academics addressed to public audiences may be subject to such laws," the document said.

It warned that "the law governing defamation is much more constraining than ours [in the US] as is the law governing sedition. Those who decide to go to Singapore to teach or study will need to understand these differences."

Shadrake, 75, who lives in Malaysia, was arrested in Singapore in July while promoting his book about the country's use of the death penalty in what amounted to a searing criticism of Singapore's justice system.

He was charged with contempt of court and criminal defamation, which carries a two-year jail term and fine. The book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore justice in the dock includes interviews with dozens of lawyers and death penalty opponents as well as a retired former executioner at Singapore's Changi prison.

Meanwhile in June a former political detainee Vincent Cheng was barred from speaking at a forum organised by the History Society at NUS. The state-owned National Library Board at NUS imposed the ban on Cheng, who was detained for three years in the late 1980s for subversion.

NUS invited Yale last June to "open consultations" on the new liberal arts college to be hosted by NUS.

Publicly, The Ivy League university was cautious, calling the consultation a "planning exercise" which Levin said could even eventually lead to a joint campus in Singapore adjacent to the current NUS campus, that would draw 1,000 students from across Asia.

Levin told a meeting of Yale academics, called in September to discuss the proposal, that the issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech had been brought up during talks with Singapore and that the two institutions had worked out "terms that would allow professors to teach and publish freely".

Several Yale professors have expressed reservations. English and political science lecturer Mark Oppenheimer told University World News that Yale should not collaborate on the venture as Singapore's human and academic rights "do not square with the fundamental ideas on which a liberal arts college builds its convictions".

The Yale administration's arguments "are mostly clichés of how we must go into Asia and how we must globalise, but there is no virtue in globalising to places that do not respect human rights," Oppenheimer said.

"However it is quite obvious why Asian countries want the imprimatur of Yale on their liberal arts institutions - they want a good show about caring about liberties. But they do not need us to tell them how to lift restrictive laws, they can just lift them themselves. They will simply benefit from the Yale name without US levels of liberty."

Yale classics professor Victor Bers told University World News the Yale administration was "dangerously naive" about Singapore, and there was not enough understanding or interest in what is happening in East Asia at the US institution to counter the administration's desire for the tie up.

"I am quite sure the Yale administration has not thought through the likelihood of something really dreadful happening."

Yale needed to consider "the possible risk to students in Singapore who take the idea of free expression seriously and are emboldened by it, and if the oligarchy there is embarrassed and afraid it will spill over to the general public, things could get extremely ugly. At the very least, Yale's name should not be on the institution," Bers said.

However professor of astronomy Mark Ballyn argued: "Our colleagues at NYU [New York University] who have established a law school in Singapore report that sensitive issues such as human rights and capital punishment have been discussed in detail in their curriculum without any problems. So we are confident that scholarly discourse will be protected in an appropriate way, similar to what we are accustomed to here."

Yale's Stirling professor of political science, James Scott, said in the university publication Yale Daily News the chances were that a collaboration would work well, but on the other hand the chances of failure were too high to be worth the gamble.

"There is unlikely to be a cataclysmic moment in which Yale would have to decide instantly whether to leave or stay [in Singapore]," Scott said. "It's more likely to be a very gradual diminution of freedom of manoeuvre in which there's not obviously a decisive threshold."

The US State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in its 2009 report on Singapore released in March this year, said "academics spoke, published widely and engaged in debate on social and political issues.

"However, they were aware that any public comments outside the classroom or in academic publications that ventured into prohibited areas - criticism of political leaders or sensitive social and economic policies, or comments that could disturb ethnic or religious harmony or appeared to advocate partisan political views - could subject them to sanctions."

"Publications by local academics and members of research institutions rarely deviated from government views," the State Department report said.