In what follows, I briefly explain some recent events at Yale-NUS College and accompanying criticism. I then show why a sober look at the facts shows the critics to be mistaken. I have written this up in the hopes that the perspective of an informed insider will be useful to those who are curious about the College. More importantly, I hope to encourage the staff, faculty, students, and alumni of the College. We face intense scrutiny. It is a pleasing truth indeed, friends, that the facts are on our side.
In September 2019, Yale-NUS College cancelled a module on dissent and resistance in Singapore. The proposed one-week module was to take place within Yale-NUS' mandatory Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) programme. LAB modules integrate experiential learning with traditional academic content in a coherent one-week package. LAB students, accordingly, are taken well beyond typical classroom activity. Lectures, discussions, questions and answers with expert guests, watching and analysing film or media -- though wonderful, these alone cannot be the substance of an effective LAB.
The curriculum committee conditionally approved the proposal because they found it valuable to study and understand dissent and resistance in Singapore. But two concerns were flagged as conditions for actually running the course. First, that the intellectual content of the module was not sufficiently rigorous, and second, that the proposed activities were ambiguous and could involve serious risk to students without informed consent. These conditions were not met in time to mount the programme in a responsible way, and so the module was cancelled.
Backlash was swift, and critics fell into three camps.
Local Establishment: these critics tend to be locals who support the government and view Yale-NUS as a dangerous breeding grounds of radical ideas. They fear that Singapore will, at the prompting of foreigners, become embroiled in protest.
Local Opposition: these critics tend to be locals who do not support the government who view Yale-NUS' decision as censorship. They fear that Yale-NUS is or will become a mere organ of the state and so will stifle opposition-friendly political content in its programming.
Opposition Abroad: these critics tend to be North Americans keen on academic freedom and free expression more generally. Their fear is the same as Local Opposition folks, though some are opportunists who would use any Yale-NUS-related events at all to promote their own political agenda in, say, New Haven.
My view is that all three critiques are founded on misinformation. Few have taken the time to learn about the facts on the ground before forming an opinion, with unfortunate results.
Local Establishment critics are misinformed. Yale-NUS hosts a wide variety of academic events representing a variety of political views. Opposition voices are by no means dominant on campus, and we don't see it as our job to promote partisan agendas. The module in question was proposed, and was to be led, by a Singaporean citizen. It was, finally, cancelled. There is little danger of Yale-NUS indoctrinating and training students in protest. That's not who we are. It does not reflect our priorities or our actual practice. And our students are too sharp to be taken in so easily anyways!
Local Opposition and Opposition Abroad critics are also misinformed, and a look at the curriculum committee's reasons for conditionally accepting the module (and the subsequent withdrawal of it) is revealing here.
The first reason, recall, concerns the intellectual content of the module. The issue here was not its topic, dissent and resistance. Had that been the case, the proposal would have been summarily rejected. It wasn't only that too few views were represented (as experienced teachers know, it's not as though a syllabus must give voice to every possible view). Rather, it was that the range of views represented didn't facilitate critical engagement with the views that were represented. And critical engagement is important for academics -- it's our bread and butter. The College made an internal decision, on defensible intellectual and pedagogical grounds, to conditionally accept the module, and, when those conditions were not met, to withdraw it. This is an exercise, not an abridgement of, academic freedom. Any responsible curriculum committee at any institution would have shared these concerns, no matter the topic of the module.
The second reason, recall, concerns the practical details and risks involved. The proposed itinerary included sign-making and a visit to Speaker's Corner at Hong Lim Park. A video about the module subsequently released by the instructor said that the module would allow students to "simulate" a protest in Singapore.
The significance of these suggestions, taken together, may be hard to understand for folks not living in Singapore. So, here's an imperfect analogy that may nonetheless speak to outsiders, especially from North America. Imagine an instructor proposing that students, as part of a required course, head to Portland and "simulate" either a Proud Boys rally or an Antifa counter-protest. Imagine that the proposal was light on details about what that simulation might entail. Imagine, finally, that many students had only just recently moved to the United States and had no final choice about whether to participate in the programme. This could be a valuable and transformative educational experience. It could also put students at risk of arrest or harassment on social media (if you find the violence in Portland distracts from the point of the analogy, feel free to substitute it with a simulated rally or counter-protest in New York City, perhaps on Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets; what matters is that emotions could run high with unpredictable outcomes). It'd be hard to say which way things would swing; one would want to know more before making that call. Indeed, no responsible college administrator would accept this proposal without some back and forth about the precise activities involved. And were few details forthcoming, it would be no violation of academic freedom to withdraw the course and decline to require students to take part in its activities.
Yale-NUS did what any responsible college would do and engaged in that back and forth. But details remained ambiguous well into September. The time for back and forth had come to an end, and the College cancelled the module. We couldn't, in good conscience, require that students do these things. We don't gamble with the safety of young people entrusted into our care, and certainly not without their informed consent. One option, of course, would be to axe the ambiguous and under-described activities. We could have had students stay in an air-conditioned room, listen to lectures, ask questions of expert guests, analyse films, and so on. But that hardly seems fitting for a module that is supposed to, in an integrated way, go beyond ordinary classroom activity.
I'll close with brief thoughts on the very idea of a liberal arts college in a place like Singapore. This is not, after all, the first time critics have questioned whether liberal education of any kind could thrive or even exist here.
It was once easy to speculate on the point and to offer theories for and against. But the time for speculation is over. For a good many of us have been engaged in the actual work of running a liberal arts college in Singapore for some years now. The facts are in. It is happening. The decision, furthermore, to cancel this particular module is no evidence against the obvious facts. No sound educational opportunities were impeded. Instead, an underdeveloped module was cancelled.
Opposition Abroad critics sometimes call for Yale-NUS to take on an activist role in Singapore and to work towards liberal policies. I reply: there are many good ways to challenge or change the world while being mindful of one's local norms and environment. Some critics want us to do something dramatic. I don't find that fair, especially for foreigners (many faculty, staff, and students of the College are guests here in Singapore). Dramatic gestures of dissent, especially for foreigners, are both more costly and less likely to succeed than faithfully serving our students, our community, our home, and bending boundaries in a winsome and calculated way, when appropriate.
I welcome engagement on any of these points. You can find me on Twitter or email. Students and alumni: for you, my office door is always open. I speak only for myself: a member of the Yale-NUS community who cares deeply about the College and its mission, adores Singapore, and is all-in when it comes to protecting academic freedom. 🇸🇬