Yale-NUS building

Yale-NUS College’s cancellation of programme on dissent “of serious concern”: Yale President

The decision of Yale-NUS College to cancel an upcoming programme on dissent and resistance in Singapore is concerning, said Yale University President Peter Salovey.

In a statement on Sat (14 Sep), Salovey said: “When I learned of this impending decision, I expressed my concern to the president of the National University of Singapore and the president of Yale-NUS.”

“In founding and working with our Singaporean colleagues on Yale-NUS, Yale has insisted on the values of academic freedom and open inquiry, which have been central to the college and have inspired outstanding work by faculty, students, and staff: Yale-NUS has become a model of innovation in liberal arts education in Asia.

“Any action that might threaten these values is of serious concern, and we at Yale need to gain a better understanding of this decision,” he added.

Salovey also revealed that he has asked Yale-NUS’ founding president Pericles Lewis to “conduct fact-finding”.

”I am grateful to Professor Lewis for the work he will do to gather all the facts central to this matter. Once we have a full understanding of what happened, I will determine the appropriate response,” said Salovey.

Yale-NUS’ current president Tan Tai Yong, however, reportedly said that in line with the view espoused by Lewis – that is, to remain steadfast in abiding by Singapore laws – the College nonetheless maintains that even the “different iterations” of the proposed activities “still included elements which put our students at risk” at breaking the law, and that such elements remain unacceptable.

In a 90-page report by a six-member committee led by Yale professor of political science Bryan Garsten released back in 2013, 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 then 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”.

Programme not to replicate mass protests in Hong Kong

Renowned local playwright Alfian Sa’at, who was poised to lead the programme, said in a Facebook post the following day (15 Sep) that the programme was simply aimed at helping students to “think about dissent in Singapore”, not to replicate the mass protests in Hong Kong currently as critics have suggested.

“What is a dissident? Why does the media persist in labelling certain individuals or groups as ‘troublemakers’? Who are they making trouble for?

“One of the best ways to get these insights is to meet some so-called dissidents face to face. To give the students unfiltered access. So that they can ask questions.

”Why is your art or cause so important to you? What do you consider acceptable risks? What are the creative tactics you have used to express dissent WITHIN the bounds of the law?” said Alfian.

He had also included what appears to be a satirical take on the proposed “changes” made to the itinerary of the programme, some of which include “Dissent and Resistance” being changed to “Consent and Compliance” and “Democracy Classroom” being changed to “Detention Class”.

In an earlier Facebook post, Alfian offered his views on dissent, calling it “the art of saying no” – which goes beyond opposing the establishment, but also “certain ideologies, practices, ways of thinking and doing”.

He added, in light of the cancellation of his programme at Yale-NUS College, that even if it is not possible to “do something” with an institution “with all the constraints they face”, there are many other ways to communicate and express dissent.

“For me, the idea of dissent is a simple one. It is the art of saying no. Not just saying no to the state but also to certain ideologies, practices, ways of thinking and doing. If we cannot make space and listen to the person that says no, then democracy dies. It’s that fundamental.

“And it is an art because it’s about negotiating with the boundaries. I have been very blessed to have known many people who have found ways to say no. They do it with humour and heart, to the point where it sometimes seems as if the person who says no is the only human element in a sea of robotic yes-men.

“There is no ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ if we say no to the concepts of triumph and defeat. If we cannot do something with an institution, with all the constraints they face, then we find ways to do it outside of institutions. If we cannot do it in a certain form, we do it in another form. If we cannot do something now, there is always later,” he said.

Edit: A correction has been made to the article to correctly reflect the stance made in the public statement by Yale.