Yale-NUS criticised for allegedly scapegoating playwright Alfian Sa’at over programme cancellation

Source: Time Out Singapore / Yale-NUS

Yale-NUS College’s cancellation of the “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore” programme has attracted much controversy and criticism from academicians, as well as practitioners in media and the arts.

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 slated to take place from 29 Sep to 5 Oct.

Donald Low, a Singaporean senior lecturer at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, on Sat (5 Oct) said that the cancellation signals something “more important than a spat over differing versions between an academic institution and an artist/playwright”, and even “the state of academic freedom in our universities”.

Low argued instead that the crux of the issue lies in “the kind of academic leadership we have”.

“As Alfian says, he doesn’t care if the college cancels the program; that’s the college’s prerogative. Alfian simply wants the Yale-NUS leadership to assume responsibility for its decision to cancel the module and not scapegoat him with some dubious and unsubstantiated accusations about the lack of “academic rigour” or “putting students at legal risk”.

“Ultimately, it’s about the kind of academic leadership we have. Are they accountable for their decisions/actions? We’ve seen this sort of unfounded accusations, scapegoating and blame-shifting before,” he alleged, citing Nanyang Technological University (NTU)’s denial of tenure to Cherian George, which took place twice.

Then-president of NTU Bertil Andersson told Times Higher Education in an interview in Dec 2014 that George was “subjected to the same scrutiny as everyone else” and that “one can have different opinions if that academic decision [by] our tenure committee was right or not”.

“That is an academic decision. But the decision was not political,” he insisted.

George, who is now professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, wrote in a blog post the same month that the university only cited “political” grounds and not academic ones.

“I was told of a “perception” that my critical writing could pose a “reputational risk” to the university in the future.

“My subsequent annual performance reviews from 2009-2012 never highlighted any deficiency in research, teaching or service that I was required to address in order to secure tenure.

“Professor Andersson’s comments to an influential publication like Times Higher Education, suggesting instead that I had to leave NTU because of academic shortcomings, are thus incorrect, insensitive and injurious to the reputation of a Singaporean forced to reestablish his career outside his home country by his employer’s failure to treat him like other academics,” said George in his blog post.

George, in an email to Yahoo! Singapore, wrote in Jan the following year that “the NTU president’s unprovoked smear left me no choice but to respond with the facts”.

“As with Cherian then, Alfian today has also countered a university’s self-rationalizing version of events with the facts of his case,” said Low.

Low also opined that the Yale-NUS saga reflects the “sad state of public and political discourse in Singapore”, seeing how “the PAP IBs, the speaker of Parliament, and certain establishment figures (including an ex-MP) were quick to jump on Alfian and the speakers he had proposed to involve in the module”.

“It was an ugly collective display of political vilification, pitchforking and whistle-blowing in which these (perceived) opponents of the PAP were branded and accused of all manner of sins, including that of wanting to bring the HK protests (or worse, a colour revolution) to Singapore. The mainstream media, true to form, repeated these accusations dutifully,” he alleged.

Low also questioned as to whether the “accusers” will be accountable for their allegations, in light of Alfian’s revelation of the string of correspondences with Yale-NUS via a series of Facebook posts.

“Now that we have more clarity on the circumstances that led to the cancellation of the module, where’s the accountability from those accusers? Now that we know it was Yale-NUS that had originally asked Alfian to put together the module, and that Alfian had been responsive to their concerns, we should expect those same accusers to retract their ill-founded comments.

“But of course, we know this won’t happen. We know that this episode will be swept under the carpet. The stain on the reputation of these individuals will not be removed; the rifts they have created will not be repaired.

“Why? Because the confirmatory biases and the stories/stereotypes that these establishment figures have formed of these individuals are so deep and ingrained that no amount of facts will change their minds that these dastardly activists are out to undermine Singapore,” said Low.

“Cowardice displayed by the folks at Yale-NUS has been nothing short of disgusting”: Local filmmaker Lynn Lee

Lynn Lee, a film producer at Lianain Films, earlier on Fri also criticised Yale-NUS’s treatment of Alfian, stating that “the cowardice displayed by the folks at Yale-NUS has been nothing short of disgusting”.

“Some people think it’s OK to drag a man’s reputation through mud just to save their own careers. We mustn’t let them,” she said.

Lee also alleged that Yale-NUS is only paying Alfian S$600 in return for the amount of work expected of him.

“For $600, Yale-NUS expected Alfian Sa’at to design a programme, find speakers (full disclosure: I was one of the people he asked), arrange venues, attend meetings, listen to suggestions, make revisions, lead discussions, and be their scapegoat when things got too complicated,” she said, adding that “paying someone $600 for all that work is exploitation”.

Self-censorship a form of “self-harm”: Playwright Alfian Sa’at

Alfian, in a follow-up to Low’s commentary, wrote last Sat that his “refusal” – or “incapacity” – to perform self-censorship for the government has intensified as he grows older, and described such self-censorship as corrosive and harmful to oneself, even if it is considered “a skill” in Singapore.

“I just don’t have the talent to obfuscate, equivocate, paraphrase, water down, declaw, neuter, window dress, etc something just to make it palatable to authorities.

“I know this is often considered a skill in Singapore, along with these ‘tactics’: “Don’t use the word ‘activist’, use ‘advocate’ instead” (why should ‘activist’ be a bad word?). “Pick your battles wisely” (which usually means pick the easiest battles when actually the toughest ones are the most important). “Learn to lie low and play the long game” (why is the game so long and who made it so?).

“The older I get, the more inept I get at this particular skill. Or rather, the older I get, the more I realise that this isn’t a skill at all but a form of self-harm. It’s like taking a spoonful of bleach each time it happens. And it corrodes you from the inside,” Alfian lamented.

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