Singapore spinoff

National University of Singapore

National University of Singapore

The National University of Singapore's Kent Ridge Campus would be the site of the proposed Yale-NUS College. View full image

All this blue-sky thinking is heady stuff. But even the most enthusiastic backers of the new college concede that Singapore’s government is a valid cause for concern. Singapore is a more open society than China—where Yale already has many partnerships and programs, though none this big—but its people live under restrictions that Americans would find unacceptable in their own country.

The People’s Action Party, headed by Lee Hsien Loong and before him by his father, Lee Kuan Yew, has ruled the country since Singapore gained its independence in 1965. Human rights advocates are critical of the government’s use of capital punishment, especially in drug-possession cases; its use of criminal libel laws to silence its critics; and its rules against public protest. Many Americans who know nothing else about Singapore remember the 1994 caning of an 18-year-old American who had been convicted of spray-painting cars and other acts of criminal mischief.

In terms of academic freedom, President Levin says that Yale’s investigations have shown that “what’s taught in the classroom, and student and faculty expression on campus, are essentially uncontrolled, free, and open. Faculty publications in the scholarly literature are similarly not censored.” He acknowledges that Yale officials were concerned this summer when British author Alan Shadrake was arrested when he visited Singapore to promote a new book that criticizes the country’s use of the death penalty. (His trial began late in October; he could face jail time.) But Levin says the Shadrake case, while troubling, concerned a polemical book for a general audience, and scholarly works are treated differently.

Lance Lattig, a researcher on Singapore for Amnesty International, says academic freedom in Singapore is in the eye of the beholder. “If you ask people who are on faculty in a country ‘how is academic freedom?’ they’ll say it’s fine, but if you ask people who have had to leave because the authorities have given them problems, they’ll say it’s atrocious.” One academic who left Singapore (after running for office as an opposition candidate) is James Gomez, who is now at Monash University in Australia. Gomez writes in an e-mail that an American-style liberal arts environment in Singapore “is clearly not possible because of self-censorship practiced by academics and university administrators.” He adds that it is “just a matter of time before an issue blows up directly in Yale’s face.”

University Secretary and Vice President Linda Koch Lorimer ’77JD says the administration has received 290 e-mails from alumni and 25 from faculty about the plan, with 72 percent of alumni and 64 percent of faculty expressing full support and 11 percent and 8 percent opposed, respectively. Not many faculty at Yale have spoken out against the college plan—few attended a series of forums for faculty to make their views heard—but those who have cite both philosophical and practical problems in collaborating with the Singaporean government.

“I’m worried that Yale’s values will be compromised by allying with an authoritarian, illiberal regime,” says Mark Oppenheimer ’96, ’03PhD, director of the Yale Journalism Initiative and a lecturer in the English department, who has argued against the proposal on his blog. “If you get into bed with human rights abusers, you feel less free to criticize human rights abuse, and if you get into bed with people who don’t take academic freedom seriously, it’s unlikely that you’ll continue to take academic freedom quite as seriously.”

Classics professor Victor Bers, who says he is one of the few professors who has spoken out against the plan at faculty meetings, thinks there is too great a risk that students or teachers will run up against government restrictions. “The potential for some extremely shocking sequelae are there if you have a little imagination and a little bit of knowledge about how authoritarian regimes operate,” says Bers. “My feeling is that the [Yale] administration is honestly naïve and lacking in imagination.” Bers suggests that more traditional student exchanges are a less risky way of engaging with countries like Singapore. “You know the old proverb ‘To sup with the devil you need a long spoon?’” he says. “You need an extremely long spoon here.”

James Scott ’67PhD, a Yale anthropologist and political scientist who studies Southeast Asia, considers the plan to be “a kind of bet” over whether “Yale will liberalize Singaporean education or Singapore will Singapore-ize” the new college. “I respect the motives and the sensibility behind this project,” says Scott, a Sterling Professor of Political Science. “I just remain skeptical about how independent it will remain and whether it will do appropriate honor to the liberal arts.”

Yale officials emphasize that they take these concerns seriously and share them to some degree. They say they spoke to former NUS faculty members, now in other countries, who are experts on Singapore and Southeast Asia. Most were positive, they say, although one was concerned that Yale’s actions might seem to legitimate the country’s politics.

With regard to the practical concerns, administrators point to language in their memorandum of understanding that gives assurances that “faculty and students in the college will be free to conduct scholarship and research and publish the results, and to teach in the classroom and express themselves on campus, bearing in mind the need to act in accordance with accepted scholarly and professional standards and the regulations of the College.”

That said, they also acknowledge that there will be restrictions on expression that students and teachers would have to accept. Public demonstrations are out, and criticism of the government outside the classroom is not advisable. Further, the college rules, Levin and Salovey’s letter says, would ban “defamatory language concerning race or religion” out of respect for Singaporean cultural norms.

As to the larger question of whether Yale should get involved with Singapore at all, Levin’s answer is unsurprising, as he has maintained a similar stance on China for many years. He argues that the best course of action is to “engage and hope that through conversation and interaction there’s going to be some advance in mutual understanding and perhaps some liberalization of the society.”