A bit of a preamble… over the past weekend, the Yale Faculty resolution aimed at the Yale-NUS College was front-page news over 2 days (April 6 and April 8) in Singapore. My reaction is as follows. It is a polemic (to match that of the resolution). It will probably make some think I’m a ‘running dog’ of authoritarian states, but I hope most readers will see that is not the point… So, here it goes…
As an American citizen, long-time resident of Singapore and National University of Singapore faculty member*, I am deeply dismayed by the widely reported resolution on the Yale-NUS college recently passed by faculty of Yale University. It is not clear what the objectives of this resolution were. Reading many articles quoting Yale faculty, there seem to have been multiple, cross-cutting reasons for their support of the resolution. Many of these have to do with internal debates over governance within Yale University. The unfortunate effect of the resolution outside of Yale, and specifically within Singapore, has been to reinforce the worst stereotypes of American high-handed arrogance and general lack of knowledge of the world beyond America’s borders.
While commentary around the resolution suggest that many of Yale’s faculty’s concerns were aimed at Yale’s corporate governance, the resolution itself says nothing of this. Rather, the resolution aims its criticism squarely at Singapore and the Singapore government. The wording of the resolution, citing a “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” suggests that the vitriol is aimed not at contemporary Singapore, but a stereotype of Singapore’s past. Are America or any other country free from such histories? On a grand scale, Singapore would score pretty well against countries that have had systems of slavery, genocide against native populations, political repression (such as McCarthyism), and profit-driven military interventionism, just to name a few things that might make one wary of partnering with an American university that has long been a bastion of that country’s elite establishment.
Why is Singapore singled out for this criticism, when Yale has many overseas partnerships and involvements, for instance with the People’s Republic of China? Why do the Yale faculty attack Singapore’s history rather than engage with the vibrant, increasingly open society that Singapore has become over the past two decades? If the Yale faculty are concerned about civil and political rights in Singapore and at Singapore’s educational institutions, have they made any substantial attempt to engage with either the faculty at NUS or any of Singapore’s many active civil society organizations? In everything I have read on this subject, I have not come across any indication that any of the faculty members involved in proposing and passing the recent resolution have taken any such steps, beyond drawing support for their pre-conceived notions about Singapore from a fairly narrow band of writings and opinions on our city-state.
Had the Yale faculty bothered to engage with Singaporean civil society actors or their counterparts living and working in Singapore at NUS, they would have learned that their rush to judgment and aggressive resolution (at least they softened the wording from “demanding” to “urging”!) would have little effect and likely be counterproductive in Singapore’s public sphere. If their complaint is with Yale’s corporate governance, the resolution should have been about that. By making it about Singapore, it only reinforces the sense that questions of civil and political rights are issues that Westerners are bent on imposing on others, with no regard to the sovereign rights of non-Western nations to evolve their own democratic forms of governance which may not conform to the cultural liberalism of the West. Singapore and other post-colonial nations still remember a 500-year history of racist, imperial colonialism perpetrated by the West and are well attuned to hearing echoes of that history in statements such as the Yale faculty resolution. The Yale faculty, by contrast, seem largely tone-deaf when it comes to recognizing these concerns.
For those of us living in Singapore, especially Singapore citizens, I hope it will be possible to recognize that the Yale resolution is a product of the peculiarities of American political culture. That political culture values free speech – the right to say anything you want, without regard to others – over responsible, informed or constructive speech. It is also a product of American political culture’s divisive tendency to speak out against others rather than substantively engage with them. And finally, we should recognized that Americans are generally more isolated in their understanding of the rest of the world than most others and recognize that this accounts for their trading on stereotypes founded in events more prevalent decades ago rather than today. I hope that Singaporeans will not make too much of these sorts of outbursts attested to in the Yale faculty resolution. Rather, I hope that the Yale-NUS College (which is unlikely to be derailed by this or other resolutions) can develop as a viable space within Singapore where those of us with a stake in Singapore can continue to develop an independent politics, aimed at prosperity, civic duty, and conscientiousness toward others, including a balance between free and responsible speech. In the long run, I hope for the sake of Americans at Yale and elsewhere that they may learn something of these values from Singapore.
*Note: The views expressed here are my own and not meant to represent the views of Americans, the American government, Singaporeans, the Singapore government or the National University of Singapore.