Yale-NUS building

Yale-NUS president affirms commitment to academic freedom within legal boundaries, following cancellation of programme on dissent and resistance

While Yale-NUS College remains keen on upholding academic freedom, the institution remains steadfast in doing so within legal boundaries, in light of the cancellation of a programme aimed at introducing its students to dissent and resistance in Singapore.

College President Tan Tai Yong told TODAY yesterday (17 Sep) that while dissent and resistance are “legitimate objects of study and investigation in university”, he maintained that the proposed activities in “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore” bore the potential to put students “at risk” of “incurring legal liabilities”.

“The college continues to be fully committed to academic freedom – the freedom to open inquiry, discussion and study. This is distinct from undertaking activities that may cross the line of what is legally allowed in Singapore,” said Tan.

He also told Yale-NUS’ student-run publication The Octant that the College’s administration wanted to mitigate risks “particularly for international students, who could lose their student pass for engaging in political activity” in Singapore, CNA reported.

Tan added that the programme was “meant to be an examination or study of protest that would expose students to the wide range of perspectives in Singapore”, which is “something essential for an academic consideration of the topic”.

He also reiterated his earlier stance that the programme’s itinerary “did not adequately cover the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent”.

Both NUS and the Ministry of Education (MOE) also told CNA that they are in support of Yale-NUS’s decision to cancel the programme, which has been renamed as “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”.

TODAY reported that 30 students had the opportunity to seek clarification from the school administration regarding Yale-NUS’ decision to cancel the programme in a meeting held at Tan’s apartment on Sun.

Yale-NUS Student Government president Rachel Juay told TODAY that the College administration’s decision “does not mean that the college is discouraging of the freedom to inquire and to examine Singapore’s history of dissent”.

The student leader, who is a final-year philosophy, politics and economics major, added: “I think that this shows the need for a well-structured course on the topic at Yale-NUS.”

Third-year anthropology major Averyn Thng however told TODAY regarding the lineup of speakers that students could learn more by “critically and academically engaging” with the speakers, all of whom have “differing perspectives”.

“For example, Jolovan has a background in working with migrant workers, Kirsten has a background in political journalism, Thum Ping Tjin has a background in history, Project X has a background in sex work advocacy, Seelan Palay has a background in artistic expression.

“We, as citizens, have a responsibility to engage with these various aspects of civil society,” said Thng.

A second meeting is scheduled to take place later this week, TODAY noted.

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

Yale University President Peter Salovey on Sat expressed his concern regarding Yale-NUS’ decision to cancel the programme.

“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,” said Salovey.

“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.

Tan, 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 intended to replicate mass protests in Hong Kong: Alfian Sa’at

Renowned local playwright Alfian Sa’at, who was poised to lead the programme, said in a Facebook post on 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.