Renowned Singaporean playwright and literary figure Alfian Sa'at. Source: poetry.sg / YouTube

Yale-NUS saga: Playwright Alfian Sa’at breaks silence regarding allegations listed in Yale report

Playwright Alfian Sa’at, who was slated to be the instructor for the “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore”, broke his silence today (2 Oct) following a report by Yale regarding findings from a review on the cancellation of the programme.

The programme, which has been since renamed “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”, was scheduled to be run by Alfian and programme manager Tan Yock Theng of NUS. It was originally set to take place from 29 Sep to 5 Oct.

Alfian highlighted that some of the allegations included rejecting all revisions suggested by Yale-NUS, that he “insisted on compelling students to ‘simulate’ a protest”, and that he “was ignorant of the legal risks of international students carrying signs in Hong Lim Park”.

In a report released by Yale University’s Office of the Vice President for Global Strategy on Sat (28 Sep), it was alleged that the Yale-NUS staff in charge of the week seven LAB “communicated frequently with the instructor in June and July but found it difficult to reach him by email”, and that “they met with him on August 1”.

It was also alleged in the report that Alfian was “not sufficiently aware of the legal issues involved in his module”.

“In particular, the instructor offered a summary of the module late on August 13 that suggested he had not taken the recommendations of the Curriculum Committee and the CIPE staff into consideration,” the report added.

“The instructor should have been given a clearer explanation, sooner, of the inadequacy of the materials he submitted,” according to the report.

In response to the allegations, Alfian said in his Facebook post today: “This has given rise to a caricature of myself as defiant, reckless and incompetent.”

“Some online sites with malicious intent have been only too eager to parrot and amplify this characterisation,” he added.

Alfian stressed that he did not “raise any objection” despite not being invited by Yale-NUS to staff meetings and town halls.

“Naively, I thought that this would be the ‘gentlemanly’ thing to do.

“To my surprise, a narrative was produced that was at odds with my own experience of interacting with the college. My silence was being taken advantage of,” he said.

Alfian also said that he is in possession of “detailed emails and WhatsApp messages that will definitively prove that the allegations are false and defamatory”.

Commenting on the grounds of cancellation cited in Yale’s report released on Sat (28 Sep), Alfian said that while he believes “it is the college’s prerogative to cancel it based on their own risk assessment or even evaluation of its academic merit”, the grounds of cancellation are immaterial to him in this case, and that the more important issue is the alleged blame-shifting placed upon him.

“I can say, in all honesty, that I do not care at all whether the decision to cancel the programme was made internally or whether there was external pressure.

“It is not my mission to find out why. But what I care about is that the college takes full responsibility for their decisions, and not try to shift the blame on my supposed non-compliance,” he said.

He stressed that “no issue regarding the programme’s lack of academic rigour had ever been raised” by Yale-NUS with him.

It was found from Yale University’s Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis’ consultations with leaders of Yale-NUS, including college president Tan Tai Yong, three vice presidents, the dean of students and the dean of faculty that the cancellation was “a result of administrative errors”, according to a report on Sat (28 Sep).

Such a finding is contrary to critics’ assertion that the cancellation is symptomatic of a lack of academic freedom at Yale-NUS, Lewis added.

Lewis was urged by Yale University president Peter Salovey to conduct a review on the cancellation of the programme.

In a statement on 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”.

“[The decision] did not, in my view and the view of all the participants I met, infringe on the academic freedom of the proposed instructor or of anyone at the College,” said Lewis in the report.

Lewis, who was also the founding president of Yale-NUS, however also concluded that the Curriculum Committee should have been involved more continuously and the legal risk assessment, particularly to international students, should have taken place sooner.

“Convenient” to scapegoat the artist as “troublemaker”: Alfian Sa’at

Alfian lamented how “very easy” it is to paint an artist like him as the “troublemaker”, given that “the institution is to be trusted, and furthermore one that is supposed to be a liberal arts college”.

“I have struggled with making public my side of the story, because I do not know what the fallout will be.

“What will happen when it is proven that some members of a college–a college supposedly devoted to the pursuit of truth and knowledge and high principles–have been lying? Which junior staff members will have to take the rap? How will the administration be able to face their own students?” He said.

Stressing that he has “tried to be as restrained as possible” and had even “rejected all press interviews” because he “expected the college to handle the matter in a transparent and professional manner”, Alfian said that he is planning on revealing his side of the story, as such allegations may end up tarnishing his name.

“I am in the process of crafting a proper press release, with a detailed chronology of events, with supporting documents and names redacted. It is laborious and I would much rather be doing something else.

“If I continue seeing inaccurate allegations made against me in the press, I will have no choice but to go public,” said Alfian.