The Yale-NUS College’s decision to cancel the ‘Dissent and Resistance in Singapore’ programme last Sep was likely driven “either by direct government intervention, or an act of self-censorship by Yale-NUS”, said renowned playwright Alfian Sa’at.
Mr Alfian in a Facebook post on Wed (5 Feb) said regarding Yale-NUS’ purported self-censorship that much of Singapore “operates on vague out-of-bound markers, so that we all end up overcompensating when we self-censor”,
“The beauty of self-censorship is that one can declare that there is academic freedom, while hiding the fact that the freedom is never fully used. There is no need for external red lines anymore.
“The plan is for these lines to be internalised, so that the state can show off how clean its hands are,” he theorised.
Mr Alfian posited that Yale-NUS’ decision to approve his program, under which certain speakers would have been invited for certain activities and workshops may have consequently made the government “anxious”.
“We were not following the script—which was to isolate, and fear association, with those the state thinks are dissidents,” he said.
He noted that while at first it “felt like Yale-NUS had thrown me under the bus”, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s statement in Parliament demonstrated to him “that the government did not want schools to fraternise with those whom they disapproved of”.
This was, in his view, “an undermining of academic freedom and an act of throwing Yale-NUS under the bus”.
Disappointment with Yale-NUS’ decisions regarding the programme “should not result in something divisive”: Playwright Alfian Sa’at
Mr Alfian also said that while he was disappointed with some of the actions taken by the Yale-NUS administration regarding his programme, the disagreement should not be interpreted as something that should drive a wedge between himself and the institution in general.
“I have come to the realisation that my disappointment with some of the actions taken by Yale-NUS should not put me in a position where I’m pitted against the institution.
“It should not result in something divisive: those who take my side, and those who take the side of Yale-NUS.
“I actually have faith, in spite of what happened, that there is more in common between me and Yale-NUS, than there is between Yale-NUS and certain state actors.
“And there is more difference between me and those state actors, than there is between me and Yale-NUS,” he said.
Mr Alfian also extended his gratitude to certain individuals, including veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, who had branded Mr Alfian “a loving critic of Singapore” and “one of our most talented playwrights” in the midst of the saga last year.
“At the same time, some friends, in a show of solidarity, decided to reject invitations from Yale-NUS to speak or run workshops. I was also heartened by this. It made me feel less alone,” he said.
Mr Alfian encouraged his friends not “to boycott or overly criticise Yale-NUS” to demonstrate their friendship.
“We shouldn’t allow this thing to split us up and pit us against one another. Go accept those invites, keep on engaging with the staff and students, go raise the roof and rock the house there,” he said, adding: “We are all in this together.”
Mr Alfian had previously offered his views on dissent in Sep last year, calling it “the art of saying no” – which goes beyond opposing the establishment, but also “certain ideologies, practices, ways of thinking and doing”.
He said, in light of the cancellation of his programme at Yale-NUS College, that even if it is not possible to “do something” with an institution “with all the constraints they face”, there are many other ways to communicate and express dissent.
“For me, the idea of dissent is a simple one. It is the art of saying no. Not just saying no to the state but also to certain ideologies, practices, ways of thinking and doing.
“If we cannot make space and listen to the person that says no, then democracy dies. It’s that fundamental,” said Mr Alfian.
“There is no ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ if we say no to the concepts of triumph and defeat. If we cannot do something with an institution, with all the constraints they face, then we find ways to do it outside of institutions.
“If we cannot do it in a certain form, we do it in another form. If we cannot do something now, there is always later,” he said.
The programme, which was renamed “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”, was scheduled to be run by Mr Alfian and programme manager Tan Yock Theng of NUS from 29 Sep to 5 Oct last year.