Cancelled course was a ‘legal risk’, says Yale-NUS report

A report by Yale University into academic freedom at Yale-NUS College in Singapore has stressed that a controversial decision to cancel a course titled ‘dialogue and dissent in Singapore’ was made internally without Singapore government interference and its cancellation did not constitute a threat to academic freedom.

However, the course instructor, Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at, has said the report into the matter has “scapegoated” him and has made him seem defiant and reckless.

Academic freedom was a major issue in setting up Yale-NUS College in 2012, a collaboration between Yale University in the United States and the National University of Singapore.

Yale University, fearing reputational damage, is extremely sensitive to suggestions that such freedoms are compromised in Singapore, particularly after a debate erupted over the course, which was cancelled after a process that included consultations with the Singapore education ministry.

Yale University President Peter Salovey launched an inquiry into the cancellation, headed by Yale Vice President and Vice Provost for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis. The report by Lewis, who was Yale-NUS College’s first president from its opening in 2012 until 2017, was made public this week.

Lewis in his report described the decision to scrap the course as a culmination of “administrative errors” rather than a bid to stifle academic freedom.

“The evidence does not suggest that in this case serious violations of academic freedom or open inquiry occurred,” but that staff had “both academic and legal concerns about the proposed module”, he said. Lewis visited Singapore in mid-September to interview leaders of the college, including Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong and other members of the Yale-NUS leadership.

Yale President Salovey, in a statement on 29 September, said he had been “reassured of Yale-NUS’s strong commitment to academic freedom”.

“Input received from faculty and leadership at Yale-NUS consistently points to the conclusion that the decision to cancel the module was made internally and without government interference in the academic independence of the college,” said Salovey.

Consultation with education ministry

Nonetheless, Lewis’s version indicates that advice was indeed sought from the Singapore government.

Some academics have indicated that this “would be considered to be unusual”. One Singaporean academic who spoke on condition of anonymity said “consulting the ministry would be odd in any academic context but particularly in the context of curriculum design and approval”.

Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong in mid-August “reached out to a ministry of education official who serves on the Yale-NUS governing board to see if the ministry could intervene with police in order to ensure that students would not be arrested if they went to Hong Lim Park”, according to Lewis’s account, which adds: “The ministry official said she did not have authority over the police.”

This was a reference to part of the module syllabus that included designing protest signs and carrying them to the city’s Hong Lim Park, where protest by Singapore citizens, but not by international students, is permitted in certain circumstances.

Legal risks involved

“The committee was concerned that some of the activities originally proposed would expose international students to sanctions for illegal participation in off-campus protests,” Lewis wrote and added: “On August 15, the vice president responsible for CIPE sought legal advice from outside counsel and concluded that participating in any organised activities at Hong Lim Park might entail legal risks for international students.”

CIPE refers to the Centre for International and Professional Experience, which administers such courses.

“Since the programme is compulsory … this might have meant requiring students to endanger their visa status in Singapore,” Lewis explained.

“The college did not receive timely assurance from the instructor that he understood the risks involved, particularly for international students, or would mitigate them. It has been noted that this is a time of heightened political sensitivity because of the situation in Hong Kong and an upcoming election in Singapore. Nine of the sixteen students assigned to the module were international students,” Lewis wrote, referring to ongoing student protests in Hong Kong.

The risks to international students were connected to Singapore’s laws on public assembly, he said. “To my knowledge, this is the first time that such laws have affected a decision on a curricular offering at Yale-NUS because it is the first time an instructor has proposed an activity that risked causing students to be arrested or deported.”

Nonetheless, Lewis concluded, the laws, “whatever their impact on civil liberties, did not operate improperly to constrain the academic work of the university.”

Lewis acknowledged that the experiential nature of the programme “heightened the challenges”, noting the course instructor believed students should learn not just the theory but the “praxis” of dissent.

Disputed narrative

But some are disputing the account in Lewis’s report, including the course instructor Alfian Sa’at.

Alfian, who says he had purposely avoided press interviews “because I expected the college to handle the matter in a transparent and professional manner”, posted a statement on Facebook on 2 October saying he felt “scapegoated” by the official account provided by Lewis.

“To my surprise, a narrative was produced that was at odds with my own experience of interacting with the college. My silence was being taken advantage of,” Alfian said.

“Among some of the allegations made were: that I rejected all revisions suggested by the college, that I insisted on compelling students to ‘simulate’ a protest, and that I was ignorant of the legal risks of international students carrying signs in Hong Lim Park. This has given rise to a caricature of myself as defiant, reckless and incompetent.”

He describes the allegations as “false and defamatory”, and added: “No issue regarding the programme’s lack of academic rigour had ever been raised with me.”

This refers to sections in the Lewis report on academic concerns. “Faculty felt that the proposal sacrificed academic rigour to ‘emotive’ activism,” according to Lewis’s account.

The experiential programme was introduced in 2013. But for the first time this year, the college decided to grant academic credit for the programme to count towards graduation and had the Curriculum Committee review all proposals for academic rigour.

“The Curriculum Committee also felt that the instructor, while expert in playwriting, did not have academic expertise in the area of the proposed module,” Lewis wrote. “They felt that the module did not propose to study activism so much as to engage in it.”

Questions of academic ‘rigour’

The committee “did not think that engaging in activism or protest was a legitimate credit-bearing activity irrespective of whether the protests were legal or illegal”.

The instructor subsequently suggested that these were “simulations” of political protests.

Lewis noted that some academic additions were suggested, such as a visit by a well-known sociologist. “The instructor rejected all such revisions, thus contributing to concerns about whether he intended to offer critical engagement in the module,” Lewis wrote.

Staff agreed with the instructor to change the title from ‘Modes of dissent and resistance in Singapore’ to ‘Dialogue and dissent in Singapore’, but they did not reach agreement with him on the content or specific activities of the module.

Lewis does say: “The instructor notes, however, that he did not feel he received clear instructions about how to address these concerns.”

Yale East Asian Studies Professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan, in an interview with Yale Daily News, questioned the impartiality of the university’s investigation, given that Lewis was the founding president of Yale-NUS College.

“I think it is time to implement an evaluation system … by which members of the faculty are given the opportunity to evaluate the policies and actions of the administrators who manage the university,” Yiengpruksawan said.

“Had such a system been in place at the time that Yale-NUS was concocted, I am confident that we would not be revisiting these matters today.”