As the Yale-NUS project develops, much has been made of the danger Singapore’s authoritarian government poses to academic freedom at the new college. Last week, several members of the Yale community, both professors and students, wrote about the threat of what amounts to censorship in the classroom. Opponents of Yale-NUS have crafted quite a pessimistic view of the initiative. However, having studied at NUS last summer, I would like to offer a view of Singaporean education that is not nearly as bleak.
I won’t pretend that a single summer studying at NUS has provided me with special insight into the Singaporean government’s intentions toward Yale-NUS or education policy in general. But what I can say is that my time in Singapore erased much of my earlier skepticism regarding the proposal. I went to Singapore with the fairly common view that the Singaporean state would be strict; I would be expected to give up the Yalie’s proclivity for jaywalking, throw away all my gum and avoid questioning the amazing fortune of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to have won every parliamentary election since 1959.
However, on entering the classroom, I soon realized that the Singaporeans didn’t need a Western influence to prompt them to think outside the boundaries laid down by the government. They were more than capable of doing it on their own. Many students were entirely comfortable critiquing any aspect of Singaporean life and government policy. Similarly, prominent figures, including Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, were not considered sacrosanct. One student habitually referred to Lee with the nickname “Icky,” demeaning the man who is held up as the nation’s George Washington, yet the professor did not demand that such talk stop.
Despite common perceptions, young Singaporeans are not afraid to stand up in the classroom and speak their minds, even when their position deviates from the state’s official line. During my brief time there, we discussed issues ranging from male conscription, which was derided as economically wasteful and an unfair burden on young men, to the state’s egregious policy of pushing its citizens into preset ethnicity boxes.
Several students, quite early into our course on Southeast Asia history, had no qualms about declaring the official Singaporean state narrative obviously manufactured and therefore lacking in meaning. The notion that these young men and women can only conform to state norms or are cowering under the lash of government censorship and are unable to engage in free discussion is insulting both to the students and their professors, who encourage, not suppress, such dialogue. To these young men and women, the Yale-NUS collaboration is an opportunity to expand this incipient discourse.
I will be the first to say some of these anecdotes admit that, under the current regime, serious civil liberties problems exist in Singapore. However, they also reflect that a budding dialogue about such issues is already present in that nation. The Yale-NUS project can be a tremendous force for bolstering this reformist instinct among young Singaporeans.
Yet, in spite of this potential, some here at Yale would prefer to reject this opportunity. They assert that Yale will abandon its commitment to academic freedom by working under government restrictions. Let liberalization come first, they say, and then Yale will engage with the Singaporeans.
Such a strategy may contribute to liberalization in Singapore in the long term, but what about the short run? What about the students who are there now? Are we really proposing to shut the door on them just so we can sit back some 9,000 miles away and pat ourselves on the back for maintaining our sense of academic integrity? I could never support such a position.
I’ve met and lived with these students, and they are not merely nameless people far across the globe. They are young men and women looking to Yale, to us, to help them foster the sense of academic freedom and build the liberal arts education that each of us enjoys. Let’s help them create it. They are certainly no less deserving of it than we are.
Will Moreland is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.