So try to imagine my shock when I discovered that Yale-NUS’ student activism scene would bear little resemblance with its American counterpart.
To be fair, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, did say (back in July) that “Yale-NUS College will not be a replica of Yale College in the US, but it'll be a bold effort to create something new and different.” He added that the venture is not without risk, but the government believes this is the right way forward.”
So, following PM Lee’s comments, can one conclude that “something new and different” constitutes bans on political protests and forming partisan political societies? And so, are these bans what the government believes to be “the right way forward”?
What is more concerning is the fact that Yale-NUS proposes to be Singapore’s first liberal arts college! What is a liberal arts college without the liberal freedoms of expression in speaking up and taking a stand to address relevant socio-political issues?
This disconcerting move has understandably come under fire from both human rights advocates and Yale’s own professors who say that Yale’s “mission as a haven for free thought and expression is incompatible with Singapore's tightly controlled political system, which includes restrictions on public assembly, limitations on free speech, and laws that criminalize homosexuality.”
Although the Singapore government and private donors wholly fund Yale-NUS, Yale’s faculty’s concerns are very well founded as Yale-NUS represents Yale’s values and brand as a liberal institution.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also issued a press release on the 19th of July condemning this move, saying that this news displays “disturbing disregard for free speech, association, and assembly”, and that “Yale is betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students at its new Singapore campus.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, added, “Instead of defending these rights, Yale buckled when faced with Singapore’s draconian laws on demonstrations and policies restricting student groups.”
The Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) secretary general, Dr Chee Soon Juan, also issued a statement, saying:
“The ban is disturbing on two levels. First, would you care to point out what Singaporean law prohibits the conduct of partisan political activities by students or bans the formation of political parties and groups in universities?
In fact, under the Singapore constitution, Article 14 guarantees that "every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression" and "all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations." It is the ruling People's Action Party that has hijacked the constitution and laid down these repressive laws.
If Yale wants to be a truly law-abiding corporate citizen then it should respect the constitution which is the "supreme law of the Republic of Singapore ", not unconstitutional pronouncements made by the ruling party.
It seems like this ban by Yale-NUS on political parties is yet another pronouncement made arbitrarily by the ruling party to safeguard its authoritarian control in Singapore. Tragically, Yale seems a rather willing partner in the exercise.”
Dr Chee also questioned whether Yale-NUS students would get a second-rate academic experience because of these restrictions, asking, “If it is all right for Yale students to organise themselves and for political parties, like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, to engage in partisan politics in the Yale campus, why is it different for Singaporeans? Are Singaporean students – who, by the way, pay good money to participate in the programme offered by Yale – not entitled to similar educational experiences as their counterparts in the US? Are you not short-changing your students in Singapore?”
I echoed these sentiments at a forum held on Saturday, at the Singapore Management University’s (SMU) Lee Kong Chian School of Business. Organized by The Singapore Globalist – an international affairs publication – the forum featured Edgar Liao, NUS History Lecturer; Sugumaran Devaraja, Executive at OneAsiaConsult and founder of SMU’s political club, ‘Apolitical’; Genesis Shen, NUS Law Student and active member of Young PAP; and Bernise Ang, founder of Syinc – a non-profit organization that seeks to empower young people and effect meaningful change.
The topic of discussion was student activism.
The one and a half hour session evolved into a heated debate on the restrictions of Singapore’s authoritarian ruling party and the effects these constraints have on the scope for student activism.
I posed a three-part question to the panelists on the Yale-NUS situation and it was Mr Shen who volunteered to respond to my questions. And his answers baffled me.
My first question was on the controversial restrictions imposed by Yale-NUS. “Do you think that this encroaches on a potential student’s right to freedoms of expression and speech?” I asked.
I continued, “Do you think that these constraints constitute a deficit in the scope of exposure a potential student will get in terms of socio-political activism. And lastly, following the theme of student activism, will this move eventually make students of Yale-NUS socially inactive and politically apathetic?”
It is a simple question, really. Yale-NUS’ restrictions on student activism obviously curtail any potential student’s fundamental freedoms of expression and speech and limit students’ exposure to socio-political activism. And it is entirely possible that these constraints may cause political apathy and social inactivity among potential students.
In his reply,, Mr Shen launched into a defence of how Singapore is a multi-racial country and ignored my questions entirely. Mr Shen would have probably gone on and on preaching the benefits of living in Singapore if the moderator had not interjected.
Moderator: “Mr Shen, if you could answer the question…”
Mr Shen, in a hesitant tone: “Well…uh, freedom of expression? It will happen. We didn’t have freedom of expression ten years ago. Freedom of speech and expression. It will happen.”
Another participant interjected at this point and asked, “How? How will this happen?”
Mr Shen, looking flustered, blurted, “It will happen lah!”
Sadly, we cannot blame Genesis Shen alone for his answer, which is nothing more than a speculative one, although he seems genuinely convicted by his beliefs. Instead, it seems that Mr Shen’s attitude is due to the socio-political environment in which Mr Shen is conditioned.
This is, I think, another kind of apathy. The kind where you are conditioned to believe in something blindly, as opposed to looking at the real picture and forming your own opinions based on your own experiences.
And sadly, this is probably the kind of socio-political conditioning that Yale-NUS students will spend their formative university years in.