On Monday (7 October), local poet as well as founder and organiser of Singapore Unbound Koh Jee Leong, took to his Facebook to inform that he has written to the President of Yale University Peter Salovey, urging Yale-NUS College to issue an apology to playwright Alfian Sa’at for the allegations they slammed at him.
For those who are not aware of the Yale-NUS saga, it all started on 29 September when Yale University’s Vice-President Professor Pericles Lewis released a report over the findings on Yale-NUS College’s cancellation of the “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore” programme.
The programme, which has been since renamed “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”, was scheduled to be run by Mr Alfian and programme manager Tan Yock Theng of NUS. It was originally set to take place from 29 September to 5 October.
In the report, Prof Lewis noted three major concerns about the proposed module – its academic rigour, the legal risk to students because of a “stimulated” protest as well as the political balance of the syllabus.
Following this, on 2 October, Mr Alfian broke his silence and rebutted the claims stated in the report. Commenting on the grounds of cancellation cited in Yale’s report, 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.
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 response to the allegations, Alfian said: “This has given rise to a caricature of myself as defiant, reckless and incompetent.”
Alfian also stressed that he did not “raise any objection” despite not being invited by Yale-NUS to staff meetings and town halls. “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.
Disputes claims of rejecting feedback and revisions
If that’s not all, Mr Alfian also took to his Facebook last Friday (4 October) to refute claims made in the Yale report about him rejecting feedback and revisions.
He said that contrary to the allegations, which he said painted him as “defiant and intransigent”, he was open to removing certain elements from the original programme itinerary and substituting such elements with others, in light of sensitivities arising from current developments.
An example of such, according to Alfian, included removing the screening of a documentary on Hong Kong civil rights activist Joshua Wong after a Yale-NUS representative – who he addressed as “Person D” – on 11 September raised concerns pertaining to the ongoing protests in the city.
Mr Alfian also rejected the allegation that he had “resisted the inclusion of a well-known sociologist” and that of government representatives.
Mr Koh’s take on the issue
In Mr Koh’s post, he supported Mr Alfian’s innocence over the allegations raised in Yale’s report. As for claim that the programme has insufficient academic rigour, Mr Koh said that the playwright “was never informed throughout the four-month discussion of the learning module that the proposed module lacked academic rigor”.
“In fact, the feedback from the college staff was consistently about the ‘politically sensitive’ aspect of the module,” he wrote.
As for the second allegation that the programme was cancelled due to legal risks posed to international student participants, Mr Koh said that Mr Alfian, who is an honorary advisor of Singapore Unbound, “was acutely aware of the potential legal risks posed to students”.
Mr Koh continued: “In fact, he raised the issue first with the staff and then changed the order of activities so that the sign-making workshop would come after, not before, the walking tour of Hong Lim Park. There was no attempt at any “simulation” of a protest at Singapore’s only legal venue for protests. Having worked in Singapore’s arts scene for many years, Alfian is well aware of Singapore’s political and legal boundaries.”
Although Mr Koh said that Mr Alfian accepts that it is the College’s “prerogative to cancel the learning module”, but noted that it’s Mr Alfian’s right to “defend his character, motives, and competence against the impugnment of the Yale and media reports”.
The founder of Singapore Unbound also added that the playwright’s version of the story is very different from what is told by Yale’s representatives. He added that he has seen all the WhatsApp and email messages between Mr Alfian and staff of Yale-NUS, and he supports the version of events penned by Mr Alfian.
“Alfian did not share these messages with your representative at his interview because he did not expect that the Yale-NUS leaders would give out a narrative so different from his,” he wrote.
As such, Mr Koh noted that if Yale’s report is wrong, then they should issue a public apology in order to fix the reputational damage done to Mr Alfian. “If the Yale-NUS leadership misled your representative, they should be removed from their positions of public trust,” said Mr Koh.