Yale-NUS College: Perils and Promises – a re-post of Tan Xiang Yeow’s July 31st, 2012 piece in the Kent Ridge Common


On 16 July, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that Yale-NUS College (YNC) students “are going to be totally free to express their views but they won’t be allowed to organize political protests on campus”. It reported too that partisan politics and political parties will not be allowed on the campus grounds of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

This WSJ article has led to other online reports including those on Huffington PostTIME, Washington Post and Yale Daily News.

After making some inquiries, I thought that it may be helpful to present some findings which may go some way towards clarifying misconceptions perpetuated by these articles.

Protests On-Campus vs. Off-Campus

Most news coverage so far gives the impression that YNC intends to stifle on-campus protests. However, according to the Yale-NUS blog, the relevant part of the original WSJ interview transcript is quite different: “in terms of organized protests heading off campus, they would have to obey Singaporean laws.”

This implies that on-campus protests will be allowed.

The president of Yale refused to confirm this in a Yale Daily News interview, but the president of Yale-NUS was somewhat more forthcoming. While refusing to go into specifics, he told the Yale Daily News that the college would not be obligated to report protests or even party-affiliated organisations to the government.

It seems that YNC does not want to officially state that it is above the law of the land. But it is not clear whether it will try to expand the political space unofficially.

Political Expression is Alive and Well in NUS

These articles also give the impression that politics cannot be discussed in Singaporean universities, especially by opposition politicians. Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of Singapore Democratic Party, in an open letter to Yale-NUS president Professor Pericles Lewis, says that he has “been stopped – twice – from meeting students at NUS.” In a Huffington Post article, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary general of Reform Party, recounted that when he was invited last year to speak at candidates’ forums at the NUS and other Singapore universities, each invitation was rescinded at the last minute.

I have no idea how these events unfolded and would like to know more from the NUS’s side. The turmoil in these politicians’ lives was grim and I cannot possibly begin to understand what tribulations they’ve been through. This, however, does not detract from the fact that the online articles reflect one another when they portray the NUS as being politically repressed. This could not be further from the truth. It conveniently ignores other political discourse occurring on the NUS campus.

The NUS Department of Political Science holds regular forums on politics. In 2011, there was a panel discussion in the NUS called “GE2011: What’s at stake for Singapore?” The panelists came from different political parties and present a diversity of opinions. Michael Palmer (People Action’s Party, PAP), Sylvia Lim (Workers’ Party), Chee Soon Juan (Singapore Democratic Party) and Kenneth Jeyaretnam (Reform Party) were present.

The University Scholars Programme (USP) organizes political discussion seminars and public lectures as well. On 11 November 2011, there was a Master’s Tea Session with Chen Show Mao, a Workers’ Party member as well as Member of Parliament for the Aljunied GRC. On 9 March 2012, Catherine Lim, a political commentator, gave a USP Public Lecture, titled “After that shock General Election of 2011: Promises, Perils, Paradoxes”, in the UTown auditorium.

NUS Political Association organizes the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum annually. Even more recently, on 21 June 2012, Mr Low Thia Khiang, Workers’ Party Secretary General, was invited as a speaker at the Post Hougang By-election Dialogue organised by The National University of Singapore Society (NUSS).

Other than political forums, discussion groups and public lectures, NUS faculty does actively publish research critical of Singapore policies. Some examples include:

Singaporean academics do critique accepted orthodoxies and some of their works are assigned reading in NUS courses.

Because of the fundamental differences in value systems between the two countries, there is consistently cross-talking, misunderstanding and recycling of the same few arguments. Look, the two countries are different and the same issues must be discussed in different ways. Given Singapore’s multi-ethnic composition, socio-political circumstances and relatively short but turbulent history, certain issues must be approached with sensitivity.

The last forty years’ civil harmony and economic development have been hard-won. Any unbiased academic would be able to appreciate the good work of the ruling party, despite its flaws. That said, there are notable fractures in Singapore’s governance – such as the oppression of opposition voices and the state control of mainstream media – and it is not as if Singaporean academics are shying away from pointing these flaws out.  Skeptics who do not believe that NUS faculty are free to research and publish on politically sensitive topics may wish to drop by Singapore’s public libraries or NUS libraries. These books may be bought online as well.

Political discussion groups are already allowed on the NUS campus. Open debates are possible. Academic freedom exists in Singapore. In this regard, YNC is not groundbreaking and will be able to deliver the promised atmosphere of open inquiry and discourse.

What’s the Value of Partisan Politics?

There is a clamour by some factions to allow partisan politics and political parties on the NUS campus. At this stage, it is important to ask: what is the value of partisan politics?

Is it possible to be politically neutral, yet politically aware and engaged? Must this debate be polarised to distinct party lines according to distinct partisan persuasions?

Ms Ng E-Ching, a Singaporean Yale graduate, responds,

“According to my American friends, the Yale Democrats and Yale Republicans exist mainly to register more students as voters, and remind them to attend elections. But in Singapore everyone is registered automatically and voting is essentially compulsory, so those functions are pretty redundant. Not that it makes sense for the government to ban on-campus political parties, but it’s a lot less pernicious than it looks, especially since people can join the Youth PAP and Youth SDP off-campus.

Rather than “politically neutral”, I think many Singaporeans are independent voters, looking at policies instead of party loyalty.

Personally, I think you get more truth with an investigative approach rather than a confrontational one. Confrontation implies that the aim is to win whether or not you are completely right to start with, and then people start using other means, like sensationalism, to defend the point of view they started out with. If instead we start out by questioning and fact-finding instead of debating, then tempers don’t run so high and logic doesn’t get so fried.”

There is a parallel cry for student demonstrations to be allowed by YNC. Will these demonstrations be like the Occupy Wall Street movement or the 2011 Singapore General Election rallies? Apparently, this is not so. Some friends from Western universities tell me that students usually demonstrate by holding up posters or shouting slogans when controversial figures are speaking.

Yes, partisan politics and student demonstrations are key features of the U.S. tertiary education institutes and perhaps they are effective in bringing about changes in America. But this will not be so in Singapore. Mr Rayner Teo, current Yale undergraduate, suggests that “unfortunately in Singapore, we know that change doesn’t come about that way – the Government does a call for public or industry feedback, and then the changes are announced from up high. Protest is pretty much useless.”

There should be an understanding that student demonstrations are only one method of discussing political issues. There exist a host of other avenues and they have proven quite successful in informing and engaging NUS students.

Now, Is This Really About the Rights of Students?

Perhaps because the articles draw their arguments from the same WSJ report, there is a common thread that YNC students will not be able to be politically active on campus. It is therefore surprising that the focus of these articles is not on the political atmosphere of the NUS. Instead, the emphasis is more on various instances of political suppression in Singapore.

Clearly, this current controversy is not about the rights of YNC students on the NUS campus. It is about the political freedom in Singapore.

The articles paint Singapore as a place where voices are muzzled. Certainly they are – in the mainstream media. Alternative media are extremely lively and critical. Academia is equally vigorous. What YNC’s detractors are advocating is therefore a clearer, more open mainstream environment for debate, rather than for more freedom of speech for students.

In Singapore, beyond universities’ grounds, there are venues to speak up and opportunities to interact with different political parties but the government has much tighter restrictions on these off-campus activities compared to the relative freedom on campus.

If it is about effecting real changes and engaging the government in mass media, the stakes are really much higher. One Cambridge-educated civil servant acknowledges, in his personal capacity, that the stakes are steep to keep out people who are not passionate enough, although the flip side is that it regrettably keeps most people out.

While I disagree with the heavily publicised impression that NUS has no academic freedom and that YNC students will not enjoy political freedom, I certainly agree with the need for greater room for political discourse in the mainstream channels.

Accepting Singapore – What It Was and Can Be

As I write this report, one friend reminded me that there is no need to apologise to the West, and show to them how we are just like them, by listing all the things we have that they’d approve such as critical essays or political groups on campus. We should in fact just be happy and proud of what we are, of the changes that are happening and will continue to take place.

The following extract reports on a 1960s conversation between Milton Friedman and S. Dhanabalan, then Economic Development Board’s senior economist.

Friedman: What are you going to do now that you have lost the Malaysian Common Market?

S. Dhanabalan: We don’t know what we’re going to do but I want to assure you that if you came back in 10 years’ time, you will see that we have succeed.

Friedman: What kind of answer is that for an economist?

S. Dhanabalan: I’m sorry but the truth is, we have not the slightest clue what we will or should do. We just have the will and the determination. We will not only survive, we will prosper.

Friedman: Well, good luck.

(Source: EDB via Taymaz Rastin)

While famed American economists like Friedman did not believe Singapore would amount to anything back in the sixties, the PAP did. In the process of pushing Singapore’s development forward, they have steamrolled over many critics, to the extent of imposing great personal costs – such as bankruptcy and exile – on some of them. This, however, does not negate the good they’ve done for Singapore.

At the end of the day, regardless of what the WSJ, Huffington Post et al choose to harp on, they are not stakeholders in Singapore. Some are as cynical as Milton Friedman once was and have actively used the media to portray YNC and Singapore in a negative light.

It is always easy for people to be critical of any new development, especially if they have no incentive to make it work. Singaporeans, whether at Yale or NUS or YNC, have to make it work for Singapore.


This article is not a defence of the incumbent government. It is not a denial of their control of mass media and that they sometimes stifle opposing voices. There is an understanding of the rationales of the critics and an agreement that, in essence, there must be a freer atmosphere for political communication in Singapore.

I do, however, question the dubious portrayal of NUS as being politically repressed and wonder if there are more benign (perhaps equally effective) ways of discussing political issues without going the all-or-nothing, both-guns-blazing U.S. route.

Recently, there has been a fresh storm of criticisms of this YNC collaboration. People are once again talking about pulling Yale out of Singapore. Mr Kenneth Chong (Yr 2 Political Science) has this to say:

“It (Yale) can either choose to wall itself up in a cloak of moral righteousness and critique Singapore for its lack of democratic values – or it can choose to be actively involved in helping to push Singapore towards some of the values that it holds dear.”

Yes, Yale has something to offer in terms of liberalising political structures. In terms of the culture for political discourse, perhaps Singapore has something to offer Yale in exchange.

Fred C. Robinson, the eminent Douglas Tracy Smith Professor Emeritus of English at Yale, says, “I would like to think that maybe a union of Yale with Singapore on the Liberal Arts college in Singapore might educate Yale in a better way to do things.”

Thus far, YNC has been characterised by the potential pitfalls and perils that it may face. Yale has been seen as drawing the short end of the stick. Singapore has been unilaterally painted as a repressive regime without recognising that there are some redeeming attributes in its systems. Critics seem determined that this collaboration should fail and are doing all they can to expedite its end. This should not be so.

The promise of a mutually beneficial exchange should define YNC as well.

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