In a Liberal Direction: a re-post of Bryan Cheang’s April 9th, 2012 piece in the Kent Ridge Common

The recent completion of the proposed partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, was recently shrouded in controversy, stemming from Yale’s passing of a resolution that expressed “concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore”.

According to TODAYonline’s report entitled Yale-NUS college saga rages on …, undergraduate student Ms Koh Choon Hwee spoke out against these criticisms levelled at Singapore by western academics and students. She said that “These scholars and students, whether or not they have been to Singapore, appear to see the world only through the blinkers of their prejudices.” Her comments echo that of Mr Fareed Zakaria, who painted the resolution as “a form of parochialism bordering on chauvinism … on the part of supposedly liberal and open-minded intellectuals”.

These comments on both sides are unsurprising, considering the unprecedented nature of such a partnership in the history of Singapore’s education sector, and the vast differences in academic and political culture that characterise both Singapore and the United States.

As such, despite some of the controversy that has been stirred up in recent days surrounding the passing of Yale’s resolution, this new partnership should be welcomed with open arms. The new Yale-NUS liberal arts college should be seen as a big step forward in terms of strengthening the ability of our education sector to nurture diverse talents.

Thus, instead of focusing on the critical rhetoric on both sides, these developments should prompt us to consider a larger point. Whatever the prejudices that exist on both sides of the argument, it is nonetheless true that Singapore still has a long way to go in terms of embracing greater civil and political rights. Certain laws that exist, such as Penal Code 377A and the Internal Security Act, cannot be considered in the spirit of individual liberty by most standards.

Thus, I argue that this new partnership between Yale and NUS should prompt some reflection amongst Singaporeans about the kind of society that we would value and desire going forward.

For most of Singapore’s history, it is safe to say that our government has made great contributions to the progress of Singapore. But maybe it is time to ask if continued progress into the future can continue to exist with such strong government at the helm. In the words of Former Minister George Yeo, have we adequately “pruned the banyan tree” of PAP dominance and fostered greater civil society and self-reliance of the individual? This would been an excellent opportunity to consider the merits of a free (not necessarily Western) society where each individual possesses natural rights, and in which government exists primarily for the preservation of those rights.

In such a free society, laws like 377A would not exist since we would not criminalise private activity that nonetheless do not harm others. It is true that Singapore is still highly socially conservative. But let us not forget that we also strive to be a meritocratic and inclusive society where ascriptive factors do not hinder each person. A free society would actually encourage us to be actually be more tolerant of others who are different from us, whose lifestyles we do not approve of. Legalisation need not mean endorsement at all.

Freedom can bring people together; it can unite people from different political persuasions since different people will want to use it in their own ways. But they will rally around common ground, because they will acknowledge that they will exercise reponsibility for their own actions and respect the choices of others. This is a society that will not use government legislation to coerce others to conform to the lifestyles that we each choose. Let us consider: “The triumph of persuasion over force is the sign of a civilized society.” – Mark Skousen

Perhaps our society has matured enough for serious discussion to take place: regarding the merits of moving toward a more liberal direction.

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