Conflict At the Heart of Yale-NUS

~ By Gordon Lee ~

In 2005, it was reported that Singapore’s authorities “have learned a hard lesson after Britain's prestigious Warwick University snubbed the city-state with its decision not to accept an invitation to establish a campus." [1]

This is my University, and I am proud of this decision.

How has this embarrassing event provided lessons for Yale-NUS several years on?

Clash of values

Warwick University was one of two universities shortlisted and invited to establish Singapore first foreign full-scale campus.

As a research University, Warwick was obviously concerned about academic freedom for its professors and students. However, it was very clear that this is lacking in Singapore. NUS Law Prof Thio Li-ann advised Warwick that “the government will intervene if academic reports cast a negative light on their policies. [2]

The Singapore authorities required “international educational institutions operating in the city-state to agree not to conduct activities seen as interference in domestic affairs”. But when Warwick “sought guarantees that staff and students would not be punished by the Singapore government for making academic-related comments that might be seen ‘as being outside the boundaries of political debate’”, the EDB (the authorities responsible) refused to comment. [3]

Yale University believes the guarantee that their staff and students “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.”[4] I think they are deluded, and recklessly sacrificing precious academic freedom and reputation for a new college thousands of miles away in a repressive city state. One wonders what Yale gains from the venture?

Embarrassment to the authorities

The other university that was shortlisted in 2005 – the University of New South Wales – shut just two months after its “grand” opening, which was again a slap in the face of the Singapore authorities.[5]

It is no doubt that the Singapore authorities are extra-cautious this time around to prevent another humiliating affair.

This time around, right as Yale-NUS is in the midst of making faculty offers, the Yale faculty has very recently voted for a resolution which begins by raising concerns over a “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” in Singapore, as well as urging “Yale-NUS ‘to respect, protect and further’ non-discrimination and civil liberty, and states that these values comprise the core of a liberal arts education.”[6] The tempered language of the resolution has helped to avert an otherwise embarrassing fallout that would likely further tarnish the authorities’ scandal-ridden record of attempting to attract top foreign universities. However, the faculty having made clear their views on “Yale values”, have only raised the stakes for the Singapore authorities.

The “problem” of transparency

Warwick’s faculty senate (of senior lecturers) voted overwhelmingly (27-13) against the establishment of the Singapore campus.[7] Even though this vote was not binding, it placed immense pressure on the final decision of the University council (which was keen on the Singapore campus). As mentioned earlier, Warwick even commissioned a feasibility study by NUS Prof Thio Li-ann, and the report was openly published.

As a parallel, it appears that Yale wants the campus (having gone this far with the project), even though many staff and students oppose the plans.

It is no wonder that Yale has reportedly not been forthcoming about some of its Trustees past important positions in GIC and Temasek Holdings, including Ho Ching’s “successor” Charles Goodyear.[8] As a fortunate coincidence, Yale does not have a faculty senate – which is probably why the faculty has taken till now to vote on the issue, after having “to suspend the rules of the meetings to introduce and debate the resolution” regarding the Yale-NUS venture.[9]

Only time will tell whether Yale-NUS proves to be a success for Yale, NUS, and the embattled Singapore authorities. Or.. it might be a nail in the coffin of Singapore’s ambition to be an “education hub”, or the ridiculously termed “hub of hubs”.


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