Source: Time Out Singapore / Yale-NUS

Yale-NUS controversy: Playwright Alfian Sa’at rebuts allegations of rejecting feedback and revisions to programme

Playwright Alfian Sa’at last Fri (4 Oct) gave his account of the events, following a report by Yale regarding findings from its review 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 Alfian and programme manager Tan Yock Theng of NUS. It was originally set to take place from 29 Sep to 5 Oct.

In a Facebook post on Fri, Alfian revealed 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 Sep raised concerns pertaining to the ongoing protests in the city.

“They are very triggered by Hong Kong so Joshua may be a bridge too far,” Person D’s message read.

Alfian replied: “I can actually take out that video screening (Ed: of ‘Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower’)”, adding that the film is available on Netflix.

He subsequently contacted another Yale-NUS representative, who he referred to as “Person C”, to inform them of the change in the programme itinerary.

“Might have to change Day 1 programme a bit to address some concerns […] Because of the heightened sensitivities to HK at the moment, we might have to drop the screening of the Joshua Wong doc.

“We can instead have that programme you mentioned about identities,” Alfian’s WhatsApp message read.

“The above exchanges prove that I did not resist the suggested revision to include the IGD programme, and in fact had decided to incorporate it on 11 Sept,” Alfian said in his Facebook post on Thu, and highlighted that he “had also volunteered to take out an activity the admin was nervous about (the video screening)”.

 

Alfian also rejected the allegation that he had “resisted the inclusion of a well-known sociologist” and that of government representatives.

The playwright highlighted that he had asked Person C as to whether the students had a ‘wishlist’ of speakers they would like him to invite and “would try to accommodate their requests”.

Person C purportedly responded via WhatsApp on 30 Aug, two days after their in-person meeting, that one student had suggested inviting Nanyang Technological University’s Head of Sociology and author of “This Is What Inequality Looks Like” Teo You Yenn, as well as a rep from the government “to provide balance in perspectives”.

Stating that the sociologist in question specialises in issues such as inequality, Alfian said he “wondered about Dr T’s suitability in a programme whose focus was on issues of free speech and expression”.

“I also wondered, if I wanted to invite Dr T to provide ‘balance’, which speaker would this be a balance to?,” said Alfian.

He added that he has attempted to solicit government representatives but found it very difficult to do so, as they either “don’t want to be part of a dialogue where they think or might become a debate” or “feel like they can’t represent a government point of view and can only speak in a personal capacity (which kind of defeats introducing them as a Govt rep)”.

“Most importantly, this ‘suggestion’ was actually a wishlist that I had actively solicited from the students, rather than a recommendation from the Curriculum Committee,” he added.

“So you can you imagine how I felt when I first saw the news report: that the institution is sick,” said Alfian.

Alfian “not sufficiently aware of the legal issues involved in his module”: Yale report alleges

In a report released by Yale University’s Office of the Vice President for Global Strategy on 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.

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.

Yale’s narrative of events “has given rise to a caricature of myself as defiant, reckless and incompetent”: Playwright Alfian Sa’at

Last week on 2 Oct, Alfian broke his silence on the issue, following a report by Yale regarding findings from a review on the cancellation of the programme.

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.

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

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 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 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.