By Timothy Cheah –
“Can this society be more open”, Associate Professor Shi Yuzhi wrote, ostensibly in reference to China, implicitly in reference to Singapore, “to not immediately dismiss the use of psychedelic drugs?” Shi then invoked the iconic Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO. “To produce a master in inventions, we need an open-minded environment.”
Narcotics are uncontroversial because everyone is on the same page. No one sympathizes with a drug abuser, or worse, a dope peddler, because that would be like sympathizing with a rapist. There is no need for equivocal language, nor subtlety, only assorted round-necked tees which scream “You Use, You Lose!” and other pseudo-witty slogans. We hear of drug-related crime in the West and shrug our shoulders, a picture of indifference and smug disdain. Why can’t these ignorant liberals get their act in order? When someone refutes that belief, we cannot comprehend why he would interrupt the unanimity, to stray deliberately into the cruel wilderness where gorillas and barbarians and hangmen abound.
Make no mistake, absolutes exist. The universe is absolutely expanding, while post-millennium Jennifer Lopez films are absolutely appalling. Other topics within the spectrum however, such as LSD, may require more nuanced treatment. Psychedelic drugs (of which LSD is the most common, Ecstasy a close cousin) are essentially hallucinogens. They enhance creativity by disabling filters which block or suppress signals from reaching the conscious mind, or so the tenuous argument goes. They have been used to treat depression and schizophrenia, although their medical effectiveness is not proven. They have evolved from hippie staple to neuroscientific enigma.
Truly fascinating, but then they are of little to no consequence in this debate. They merely obfuscate the key thrust of Professor Shi’s candid blog post—the lack of intellectual freedom. No academic alive is either naïve or idealistic enough to imagine that anti-drug laws (in both China and Singapore) would be repealed. That we choose to interpret the professor’s blog post in such a literal fashion speaks volumes about our society; our inclination to react rather than think, and even more worryingly, our instinct to protect dogma at all cost. That he only wished to pose the question: “Why are these cows sacred in the first place?” was a notion lost on the crowd baying for blood. Professor Shi did indeed make a grievous error of judgment. That error was to pick a cow so sacred that everyone naturally presumed slaughter.
NUS, for its part, has missed a terrific opportunity to show that it does not merely pay lip service to the concepts of academic and intellectual freedom. It distanced itself from Professor Shi before anyone could say “Bernie Madoff”, and followed that with the insinuation that further disciplinary action is to be forthcoming. Overall, an uninspired and exasperatingly predictable response, and especially poor form for an institution which aspires to become “a bold and dynamic community, with a no-walls culture and a spirit of enterprise.”
The pathetic irony of course, was its indignant and bristling reaction when members of the Yale faculty argued against collaboration between the two universities, citing the lack of academic and intellectual freedom, which they believed would have been incompatible with Yale’s own mission. I am not suggesting that the goal of the exercise was to score brownie points with the wizened arch-liberals now sitting on the Yale board (although this would have been a particularly efficacious method, many of them flower children back in the day).
Instead, a different response, more measured and thoughtful, would have had numerous and consequential benefits. It would have been a shot in the arm for the local academic and intellectual community. It would have provided reassurance in the form of actions, not words, that thought can be exchanged freely in the marketplace of ideas, without fear of being classed as contraband. It would have made some headway in discrediting the opinion that we are bent on producing a nation of technocrats, an amorphous manager-class which places efficiency and growth on a pedestal and are oblivious to everything else.
These substantial payoffs could have been obtained with a minimum of risk. This was not an inherently precarious situation, say of a political nature, that could have left NUS with egg on its face (why it should be subservient to political masters in the first place also warrants some explanation, but that is another topic for another day). NUS could have simply issued a statement, endorsed by its scientific establishment that LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a panacea for creativity. Would Professor Shi please be extra careful when making such claims in the future, but that the university recognizes and respects the liberties and intellectual freedoms of its staff and students?
We ridicule Professor Shi’s claims because they represent a threat to our social values, a threat which we don’t quite understand, but would prefer to remain unequivocal, so that the frame of good versus evil remains intact. Some may claim it is borne out of protective instinct towards the more vulnerable and impressionable sections of society. They might even be right, but such noble intentions betray a lack of confidence in their education, their judgment, their ability to make sound decisions. If we continue to undermine the intellectual development of our youth, then we are clearly tripping if we expect a generation of original thinkers to magically emerge.