Opposition, US professors weigh into Yale-NUS freedom debate

The debate about academic freedom at the new Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) liberal arts college has continued unabated, with Singaporean opposition politicians and American university professors adding their voices to the barrage of criticism of the venture.

The Association of American University Professors (AAUP), which has some 47,000 members, this week expressed “growing concern about the character and impact” of the new Yale-NUS College on academic and personal freedoms.

In an open letter posted on Tuesday and addressed to the ‘Yale community’, AAUP called for all documents and agreements relating to the establishment of the Yale-NUS College to be released by the Singaporean authorities.

Some Yale faculty have complained of a lack of transparency and discussion by Yale management on the setting up of the college, which will open in August 2013. Some 40 faculty members have already been appointed.

Yale has not made the specifics of its arrangement with the Singaporean government public and Singapore’s Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said in a response in September to a parliamentary question that the ministry was unable to divulge collaboration fees and other confidential details between Singapore’s universities and overseas partnering universities.

The US concern came as Singapore’s opposition Democratic Party Secretary General Chee Soon Juan and Reform Party of Singapore Secretary General Kenneth Jeyaretnam said that Yale’s motives for creating the college needed to be “reevaluated”.

They questioned Yale’s reasons for setting up the college and suggested that the US university was disregarding its established academic goals in order to “simply line [its] own pockets”.

Panel discussion

Speaking at a panel discussion on 30 November, sponsored by the Yale International Relations Association and the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale, Chee urged the “US and its institutions like Yale not to be complicit in helping the ruling People's Action Party to oppress and exploit Singaporeans”.

Chee, a former National University of Singapore (NUS) neuropsychology lecturer who was dismissed from the post when he joined the opposition party in 1993, pointed out that students at the new college would not be allowed to form organisations affiliated to political parties.

“We had hoped that given Yale’s proud history, it would not allow Singapore’s government, or any other government, to dictate the kind of experience it provides for its students,” Chee said.

“But my worst fears were confirmed when it was declared that Yale-NUS would not allow certain political activities”, such as organising political parties and related events.

Chee and Jeyaretnam said political pressure in Singapore could come in the form of visits by the police. Students could be asked by the government to monitor “exactly what professors are teaching”.

Jeyaretnam added that in Singapore, opposition party politicians, national media and bloggers who try to circumvent state control were routinely threatened with defamation suits by the government, which he said had created a “climate of fear” about criticising the ruling party.

AAUP letter

Independently of the politicians’ remarks, but responding to growing concerns, the AAUP called on Yale to guarantee “provisions to ensure academic freedom and tenure and collegial governance”, including “anti-harassment and anti-discrimination provisions and rights to procedural fairness”.

Yale also needed to establish “genuinely open forums” in which the academic and political implications of the new campus could be reviewed, discussed and modified as necessary, the AAUP letter said.

Among the risks to students and faculty it listed were campus speeches, internet postings, email messages and broadcast lectures that may be critical of the Singapore government, laws and officials.

It questioned whether independent internet access, not subject to Singapore’s firewalls or to its monitoring systems, could be guaranteed at Yale-NUS.

Referring to the country’s censorship rules, it raised the issue of whether Yale-NUS faculty, staff and students – including Singaporean nationals – and the institution’s libraries would be exempt from restrictions on importation of publications or periodicals, and whether the right to invite speakers to campus would be compromised by restrictions on visitors to Singapore.

The AAUP also highlighted the issue of the working conditions for non-US staff and workers on the Singapore campus, including those working on its construction, maintenance and services.

This has become a hot topic and has been raised by human rights organisations and others after the Singapore government last week revoked the work permits of more than two dozen bus drivers from China and deported them for striking over discriminatory pay compared to other migrant workers.

In the Yale Daily News on Wednesday, Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said the new college had shown strong commitment to academic freedom.

“The AAUP doesn’t seem to have looked at the documents Yale-NUS has circulated already, such as the principles on academic freedom and non-discrimination,” Lewis said. “It has made assumptions without really investigating the matter.”

Lewis has previously said that "any college or university must obey the laws of the countries where it operates", and that academic freedom would be a "bedrock principle" of the college.

Yale University, in a response to the AAUP, said policies provided for a committee of Yale and NUS faculty to review complaints on discrimination or infringement of academic freedom. It said it did not receive any payment for its participation in Yale-NUS, although expenses incurred were reimbursed.