Concerns raised over prof’s Yale-NUS College call

SingaporeScene

The debate between critics and supporters of the Yale-NUS College continues. (Yahoo! file photo)

A push to protect civil and political rights at the Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) College, a liberal arts college school that is scheduled to open its doors in the city-state in 2013, has sparked some concerns among Singaporeans.

According to Bloomberg, a classics professor Victor Bers has proposed a resolution — to be voted on at a later date — that requires the campus to "respect, protect and further the ideals of civil liberties".

Responding to this proposal, several undergraduates whom Yahoo! Singapore spoke to said they have a few qualms about whether Singapore society is ready for the implications of such a requirement.

Twenty-two-year-old NUS student Estella Goh, for instance, was concerned that "some people might take it overboard".

"What would people expressing their freedom of religion do to our social fabric?" she questioned.

"Moreover, if this resolution is not approved, would it affect the quality of education provided in Yale-NUS in any way?"

"If approved, it seems like it would run on principles that are in conflict with our conventional and traditional approaches in Singapore," the undergraduate added.

Another student, Kang Kai Xin, 24, recognised the proposed resolution "could work both ways".

"Students would have a platform to voice and understand in depth of the current situation which is necessary in education point of view (but) having too much understanding may mean that they… may challenge traditional rights," she said.

Other undergraduates also questioned whether the prestigious American university knows what is best for Singapore and Singaporean students alike.

"I think that the professors' fears are unfounded," said Wee Shi Chen, a political science major in NUS.

"By vehemently opposing the Yale-NUS collaboration on the grounds of "liberty", it seems that the Yale professors have a clear idea of what "ideal civil liberties" ought to be. If that were the case, I feel that they are merely using their moral yardstick to impose judgment on what they perceive to be the current state of affairs in Singapore," added the 25-year-old final-year student.

"If the professors feel so strongly about an encroachment upon their civil liberties, I would like to hear how the Yale professors intend to resolve this issue, rather than gathering to pass something that might be untenable in the first place."

"It (also) seems to me that the professors are forgetting to take into consideration the opinion of a very important group of stakeholders — the students. Do they know what students in Singapore actually want or expect?"

Echoing Wee's views, 22-year-old NUS student Siti Suhara said she was "suspicious of the legitimacy we (they) should award Yale University on the issue of civil and human rights in Singapore".

Suhara added that she was "disheartened" to hear that NUS has been portrayed "an entity in need of a crutch in order to achieve the full extent of 'civil liberties'".

On the other hand, political science lecturer Bridget Welsh seemed to be supportive of the Yale-NUS partnership.

"Today's reality is that for any university to maintain its global competitiveness, it must protect civil liberties, especially academic freedom," the associate professor at Singapore Management University told Yahoo! Singapore.

"The Yale resolution stems from the perception that Singapore does not always respect basic civil liberties in universities and illustrates that more needs to be done to show that Singapore is more open and tolerant," she continued.

Noting that not all are convinced that adequate space is given for discussion even though the country has undoubtedly moved towards more freedoms in recent years, Welsh stressed that "the Yale resolution is an important step towards a healthy and needed debate".

"Yale understands that in order for liberal arts to thrive, there needs to be respect of freedom and limited external interference in university affairs, and this resolution provides more assurances to the academic community," she said.

In an emailed statement last weekend, the inaugural dean of faculty Charles Bailyn maintained that he remains "very optimistic about the future prospects of Yale-NUS College".

Bailyn also noted that "a wide range of opinions were expressed" after Yale President Richard Levin presented a report on the status of Yale-NUS College at a formal monthly meeting of the Yale College faculty last Thursday. About 150 faculty members were present at the meeting.

"A motion (Singapore) was introduced, but the majority of those present felt that the implications and wording of the motion had been insufficiently considered, and so we voted to postpone further deliberation until our April meeting," he added.