From the time it welcomed its first class in 2013, the Yale-NUS college did not allow partisan political groups on campus. It had to abide by local laws that prohibit protests except within a designated area of one city park known as the speakers’ corner. Even then, permits are required.
So critics were not surprised when the university took another look at its one-week-long course on “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore” and canceled it this month. Although only 16 students were enrolled, the decision has revived a debate on whether American liberal arts colleges and other Western universities are compromising their values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas when they expand into places with restrictive political climates such as Singapore, the Persian Gulf states and China.
Most U.S. universities that pursue such growth “recognize that their assumptions about academic freedom will need to be adjusted,” said Kris Olds, an expert on the globalization of public education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “How far will they bend, though?”
In Singapore, the episode has also laid bare a fear among officials that Hong Kong-style protests could someday erupt on their similarly skyscraper-filled, land-scarce shores — an unlikely prospect, experts say, and not one the program was advocating.
The Yale-NUS program was among 14 off-campus learning experiences from which students had to pick one as part of their curriculum. It was to feature a lineup of Singaporean activists discussing what it means to be a dissident in the local context. Students were to visit the park where rallies are allowed, hold discussions with activists and design protest banners.
“One of the best ways to get these insights is to meet some so-called dissidents face to face,” Alfian Sa’at, a Singaporean playwright who helped design the program, wrote in a Facebook post.
The project was canceled because it “did not adequately cover the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent” and risked “breaking the law and incurring legal liabilities,” Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong told The Washington Post.
The proposed program included a screening of “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower,” a 2017 documentary on Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong,who rose to prominence in 2014 street protests against China’s refusal to grant the semiautonomous territory universal suffrage.
Tan Chuan-Jin, the speaker of Singapore’s Parliament, criticized the planned course and quickly made the link to the protests that have roiled Hong Kong in recent months: “Given what is happening in Hong Kong and elsewhere, do we believe that this is the way to go? Is this the liberal education that we need to get us into the future?”
Singapore’s pro-government press published an op-ed in the main Chinese and English language broadsheets that went further, warning that Singapore does not need a “color revolution.” The piece, written by a former lawmaker, parroted Chinese state media descriptions of the Hong Kong unrest, including charges that foreign forces are funding the demonstrators.
Kirsten Han, a journalist and activist who was to lead a class about democracy as part of the program, expressed disappointment over its cancellation, acknowledging that Yale-NUS was always seen as a freer space compared with other Singaporean universities.
“It was problematic from the beginning and it was always going to be really hard for them to navigate, given Singapore is not a place you can teach liberal arts openly,” she said in an interview. “But it was still a safer space, and the students are still incredibly enthusiastic.”
The program’s cancellation sparked consternation at Yale in the United States. Peter Salovey, the university’s president, said in a statement this month that he had conveyed his “concern” to Tan, the Yale-NUS chief, and would review the process behind the decision before determining “the appropriate response.”
But some Yale alumni and academics say such concern underscores naivete on the part of Yale’s then-leadership in believing the university‘s cherished reputation for rigorous academic debate and openness could be upheld when it set up shop in Singapore.
“For some 40 years, the [Singapore] government has made sure universities never become a seedbed for dissent and don’t normalize political contention. There was never a chance that Yale-NUS would be exempted from this taboo,” said Cherian George, associate dean at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication.
George, a Singaporean academic, was effectively pushed out of a university in his home country, a decision seen as punishment for his critical writings.
Some students at Yale-NUS have pressed college administrators for an explanation. Averyn Thng, a third-year anthropology student, was among 30 students who met with Tan Tai Yong and the college’s executive vice president after the class was canceled.
“We were very clearly told that academic freedom is something that has to be managed, and framed in a way that doesn’t allow for partisanship,” Thng said in an interview. “But at the end of the day, what is considered partisanship is in the eyes of those who have power.”
Linda Lim, a Singaporean professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and a Yale graduate, said the college’s decision was tantamount to censorship. Yale-NUS, she said, argued at its inception that the “bedrock value” of academic freedom would not be compromised but rather bolstered by the college’s presence in the city-state.
Yet, “instead of Singapore becoming more like Yale in terms of academic freedom, it looks like Yale is becoming more like Singapore,” Lim said.