photo: nus.edu.sg

Yale-NUS cancels primer to ‘dissent and resistance in Singapore’ by playwright Alfian Sa’at

The Yale-National University of Singapore College of Liberal Arts (Yale-NUS College) has reportedly cancelled an upcoming programme titled ‘Dissent and Resistance in Singapore’, set to be led by renowned local playwright Alfian Sa’at at the end of this month.

The Straits Times today (14 Sep) noted that the cancellation of the programme already took place earlier this week.

The programme, which was scheduled to be run by Mr Alfian and programme manager Tan Yock Theng of NUS, was slated to take place from 29 Sep to 5 Oct.

Yale-NUS College president Tan Tai Yong told ST in response to the latter’s queries that the programme’s material “does not critically engage with the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent”.

“The activities proposed and the selection of some of the speakers for the project will infringe our commitment not to advance partisan political interests in our campus,” he added.

According to Tan, activities proposed in the programme will also entail “elements that may subject students to the risk of breaking the law, and incurring legal liabilities”, including a screening of 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy by Singaporean independent filmmaker Jason Soo.

1987: Untracing The Conspiracy depicts the stories of those who were detained under the Internal Security Act in 1987.

A documentary on Hong Kong’s civil rights activist Joshua Wong titled Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower was also part of the proposed screenings in the programme.

New Naratif editor-in-chief Kirsten Han, who was listed as a panel member of a discussion proposed in the programme, branded the institution’s move as “outrageous”.

In a string of tweets today, she questioned the stance taken by Yale-NUS that allowing any viewpoints remotely critical of the establishment will allow for “partisan political interests” to take root on its campus:

Ms Han also argued in a separate tweet that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) however “can skew national-level discourse for their party gain”, even when speaking in educational institutions, and yet such a move is “never described as partisan” but simply seen as espousing “the government view”.

“The issue about exposing students to legal liabilities and operating within Singapore laws also points to one of the major criticisms of @yalenus from the beginning: that it’s a liberal arts college in an authoritarian country where civil liberties is not respected.

“@yalenus is known as a bubble of liberal freedom in Singapore, where activists have been able to speak and engage with students in ways we can’t (or do as easily) in other tertiary institutions.

“Is this no longer true? Is there now a tightening of control even over Yale-NUS?” She added.

Ms Han was set to hold the panel discussion alongside historian Thum Ping Tjin and veteran journalist P.N. Balji.

However, the same ST article was later edited to note that “instead of the panel discussion, Ms Han would conduct a democracy classroom and this did not involve Mr Balji or Dr Thum”, Ms Han observed.

Nonetheless, Prof Tan reportedly maintained that even the “different iterations” of the proposed activities “still included elements which put our students at risk”, and remains unacceptable, as the College is steadfast in abiding by Singapore laws, which is a view held by its founding president, Pericles Lewis, in 2012.

Ms Han pointed out the irony of Prof Tan’s statement, in contrast with ST‘s report on Yale-NUS’ stance on freedom of expression in 2013.

In a 90-page report by a six-member committee led by Yale professor of political science Bryan Garsten, Yale-NUS said that “[t]here are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated” at the institution.

Yale-NUS added that “[a]n education built upon the exchange of arguments can only be fully realised if students and faculty can articulate their thoughts and express them to the various publics that make up the college community”.

The ST article noted that several Yale academicians were apprehensive about the prospect of Singapore curbing the freedom of expression, which even resulted in said academicians passing a resolution in Apr 2012, in which they expressed “concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” in the Republic.