Academic freedom concerns as Yale-NUS course is scrapped

A week-long university course on ‘modes of dissent and resistance in Singapore’ has been shelved by Yale-NUS College just weeks before it was due to be taught, in a move that has caused much debate in Singapore over whether suspending such an event contravenes the liberal arts college’s claim to uphold academic freedom.

The scrapping of the course led to a statement from the president of Yale University in the United States expressing concern at any threat to academic freedom and open inquiry on the Singaporean campus.

Yale-NUS College in Singapore – a college that is a collaboration between Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS) – said in a statement on Friday 13 September that the decision to withdraw the out-of-classroom course had “not been taken lightly”. The course had been due to run from 29 September and included several people who “practised dissent”.

While different variations of the course had been proposed to the college, Tan Tai Yong, president of Yale-NUS College, said: “The fundamental reason why we took the decision we did was risk mitigation, particularly for international students, who could lose their student pass for engaging in political activity.”

Proposed activities “included elements that may subject students to the risk of breaking the law and incurring legal liabilities”, Tan claimed, adding, “this is not acceptable to the college as we are committed to operating within Singapore laws.”

Consulted Singapore’s ministry

Tan told the Octant, the Yale-NUS campus newspaper, he had consulted Singapore's ministry of education prior to shelving the course, where he was made aware of the legal risks.

Tan added that there was insufficient time to design a new class curriculum that would meet the objectives originally approved by the college's curriculum committee earlier this year.

A workshop on designing protest placards was among the activities that caused concern regarding Singapore's laws.

According to Singapore’s Public Order Act, public assembly, even on campuses, can be illegal if used for political means or if organised by or involving non-Singaporean organisations or citizens. The law is intended to ensure Singapore is not used as a platform for foreigners to further their own political causes.

Tan also claimed the activities proposed and the selection of some of the speakers for the course “will infringe [on] our commitment to not advance partisan political interests in our campus”.

Jolovan Wham, a civil rights activist who had been due to speak during the course, tweeted on 14 September: “Elections are coming in Singapore, so the government and ruling party are hypersensitive to such events.”

In November 2016 Wham organised an event titled ‘Civil Disobedience and Social Movements' at the Agora, an indoor event space, which featured speakers including Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong who joined the discussion over a Skype link. Wham was found guilty in January this year of organising an illegal public assembly because of the involvement of a foreign citizen, which was controversial as Hong Kong’s Wong was not actually physically present in Singapore at the time.

Kirsten Han, editor-in-chief of New Naratif, who was due to teach a ‘Democracy Classroom’ as part of the course, said the decision to withdraw the course was “outrageous”, and dismissed the college’s concerns about party political interests as “rubbish”.

She noted that some Yale-NUS students and alumni were very upset. “Yale-NUS students that I know are very proud that they have a bit more freedom than other campuses [in Singapore] so there is a lot of discussion happening at the college,” Han told University World News.

Fear of protests

Han said the proposed programme would had involved site visits, film showings, guest lectures and Q&A sessions, but noted it was not the first time Yale-NUS had held a Democracy Classroom activity, adding that she had been involved in this in the past at the college.

Yale-NUS had not restricted views in the past, she said, and underlined that she had spoken at the college “multiple times”, including on controversial topics such as press freedom, the death penalty and activism in Singapore. “So this time, I think it could be because it was framed as ‘dissent and resistance’,” Han said.

“I am not sure what they are afraid of. Are they afraid of Singaporean students learning how to protest, because I’m pretty sure they [Singaporean students] know how to do it, if they want to?

“It could be that in Singapore there is a tendency to equate protests with violence, so there is definitely that framing of it. There is also some misinformation going around – I saw one on Sunday that claimed that the course would teach students how to be militant and do civil disobedience and cause disruption to life and have unsavoury individuals talking to students – so there is that type of hysteria going on. I don’t know who is behind that,” Han said.

But she acknowledged that it was embarrassing for Yale-NUS and for Yale University in the US. “They had a lot of this criticism already when they were setting up and they said no views will be restricted, we will have that freedom, so it is embarrassing even before the Yale president stepped in.”

Yale statement

Yale University President Peter Salovey said in a statement issued on Saturday 14 September that he had expressed his concern to the presidents of NUS and Yale-NUS college. Yale had “insisted on the values of academic freedom and open inquiry, which have been central to the college and have inspired outstanding work by faculty, students and staff”.

“Any action that might threaten these values is of serious concern and we at Yale need to gain a better understanding of this decision,” Salovey said.

Yale Vice President and Vice Provost for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis, who was Yale-NUS College’s first president from its opening in 2012 till 2017, has been asked to undertake a fact-finding exercise. Salovey said: “Once we have a full understanding of what happened I will determine the appropriate response.”

Nonetheless, Han said she had some sympathy for the Yale-NUS predicament, particularly for the college’s concern about legal implications for their students. “They are in a very difficult position,” she said.

“What they are saying is that some of these activities might be deemed to be illegal and the students, international students who are not citizens of Singapore, might be caught up unsuspectingly… so I can see that for a faculty member that is a concern.

“There is a tension that they [Yale-NUS] cannot reconcile because it comes from a wider context, which is that Singapore has these very broad laws that make you really uncertain about whether you are breaching them or not, so it is really easy to fall foul of the law.”

Even so, she said, if they were afraid of legal issues, that would have been just one thing in the week’s line-up. “What made them think that the entire week would have been a legal problem [so that they] cancelled the entire week?”

She held out little hope that the course would be reinstated.

Link to Hong Kong protests

Others have weighed in making a much broader point about inciting young people to dissent, in particular pointing to protests in Hong Kong.

Tan Chuan-jin, the speaker of the Singapore parliament, said in a social media post that while it wasn’t his intention to label the entire programme, he linked it to events in Hong Kong, saying: “Is this the liberal education that we need?”.

The situation in Hong Kong has caused some concern in Singapore, with Singapore universities last month cancelling exchange programmes to Hong Kong after the Singapore government warned its citizens to defer travel to Hong Kong because of the “unpredictable” protests which have at times been violent.

Alfian Sa’at, a renowned playwright who was the course leader, said in a Facebook post: “The programme ‘Dissent and Resistance’ is not designed to train students ‘to stage protests in public’. Any comparisons with what is happening in Hong Kong right now is off the mark.”

Alfian said the course was, however, “designed to guide students to think about dissent in Singapore. What is a dissident? Why does the media persist in labelling certain individuals or groups as ‘troublemakers’? Who are they making trouble for?”

“One of the best ways to get these insights is to meet some so-called dissidents face to face. To give the students unfiltered access, so that they can ask questions. Why is your art or cause so important to you? What do you consider acceptable risks? What are the creative tactics you have used to express dissent within the bounds of the law?”