Rights group weighs into controversy over curbs on freedoms at Yale-NUS

Yale University’s acceptance of Singaporean government restrictions on basic rights at the new Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) joint campus shows a disturbing disregard for free speech, association and assembly, Human Rights Watch said this week.

“Yale is betraying the spirit of the university as a centre of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students at its new Singapore campus,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at the international rights organisation.

“Instead of defending these rights, Yale buckled when faced with Singapore’s draconian laws on demonstrations and policies restricting student groups,” he said in a statement released on Thursday.

Professor Pericles Lewis, the newly appointed president of the Yale-NUS liberal arts college in Singapore, told the media this month that students at the Singapore campus – expected to open in August 2013 – will be able to express their views but will not be allowed to organise political protests on campus or form political party student groups.

Students at Yale-NUS “are going to be totally free to express their views”, but they won't be allowed to organise political protests on campus, said Lewis in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that has caused an uproar among Yale faculty in the United States.

Although groups will be allowed to discuss political issues, Lewis was quoted as saying, “we won't have partisan politics or be forming political parties on campus”, including societies linked to local political groups.

Singapore's Ministry of Education has made it clear that faculty and students must comply with the laws of Singapore as well as university laws. Academics and students at higher education institutions in the city-state cannot participate in demonstrations and protests on campus without approval from the university management.

The Yale-NUS controversy has drawn attention to the wider problems of academic rights in the city-state. Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party who is currently barred from running for parliament, said in an open letter to Lewis on Wednesday:

“You can…well appreciate my disappointment when I learned that a revered institution like Yale University would acquiesce to an unreasonable, undemocratic and un-academic policy to ban political parties from engaging students at Yale-NUS.

“I have been stopped – twice – from meeting students at NUS. It is tragic that I will again be unwelcome at an academic institution in my own country.

“My colleagues and I in the Singapore Democratic Party have welcomed the setting up of Yale-NUS because we had hoped that the college would have the courage of its convictions to reject undemocratic rules regulating campus life,” Chee wrote.

“It seems now that instead of Yale opening up the minds of Singaporeans through academic inquiry and scholarship, it is the Singaporean government that will close the minds of the people running the college.”

Human Rights Watch said. “The Singapore government has long severely restricted the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and has imposed harsh punishments on violators.

“Yale’s willingness to curtail rights on its Singapore campus lends credence to those who would deny the universality, inalienability and indivisibility of human rights on the basis of a country’s historical and cultural context and its economic development”, the rights group said.

“Many Singaporean laws are incompatible with the basic policies of a university such as Yale.”

Human Rights Watch outlined a number of laws restricting basic freedoms. Laws curtailing freedom of assembly include the 2009 Public Order Act, which requires a permit to meet for any “cause related activity”. Outdoor gatherings of five or more people require police permission, and the authorities may prohibit indoor meetings they judge to be too political or that take up religious issues.

Limited demonstrations and rallies are restricted to Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner. Moreover, associations of 10 or more members may be denied government approval to operate if the Registrar of Societies judges the organisation “prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order”.

“Yale may find that many of the freedoms taken for granted over its 300-year history are against the law in Singapore,” Robertson said. “If it truly values those freedoms, and expects its students to, it will need to fight for them.”

In an interview with Yale Daily News on Wednesday, Lewis said students at Yale-NUS will be guaranteed “all forms of political expression consistent with Singaporean law” and that he did not expect any restrictions on freedom of expression to be “terribly constraining”.

But he was unable to say how he would handle political protests on campus if they occurred, saying only the policies will become public by the time the college opens in 2013. The Singaporean government, not Yale-NUS, will enforce any potential restrictions on political expression, he was reported as saying by Yale Daily News.

In a statement on Thursday, Yale President Richard C Levin said the university knew on entering into its agreement with the National University of Singapore to establish the jointly run college “that national laws concerning freedom of expression would place constraints on the civic and political behaviour of students and faculty.

“We’re operating in a different country with different laws, and we have to abide by their laws,” Levin said. “We negotiated and carved out guarantees of academic freedom and non-discrimination, and we’ve said that from the beginning.”