COMMENT: I blame Yale-NUS

Yale-NUS College is Singapore's first liberal arts college with a full residential programme. (File photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP Getty Images)

I wish the Members of Parliament never raised the issue of that cancelled Yale-NUS course. I wish that the Education Minister had just said that this was a matter for the universities to settle, without any need for parameters from the Government. That someone would point out that Yale-NUS College had cancelled the programme of its own accord.

But no, some people HAD to ask the G for pointers. So the pointers came, although frankly, I would think that any academic here would probably know the OB markers that surround what they say or do in the institutions of higher learning. Anyway, they got spelt out in some detail, too.

I had wanted to join in the discussion on the Yale-NUS’ cancellation of its programme earlier, but refrained because I had nothing good to say about how the liberal arts college handled the matter. Every day brought more and more revelations. What I had thought was just a badly conceived enrichment course with a title that should be a red flag to a bull turned out to be a compulsory, credit-worthy course that had to go through a curriculum committee.

Frankly, I had never considered that there would be any kind of G interference leading to a pull-out. Serious. To me, it was simply astounding that a course like Dissent and Resistance filled with speakers who have done some dissenting and resisting would make the cut. It was simply too one-sided. (Not to mention the rather strange workshop about making posters.)

What some people thought had been a case of suppression of academic freedom was contradicted by Yale’s own investigations. The Yale authorities, both over there and over here, stuck to their argument that the course was pulled because it lacked academic rigour. I will take it at face value, although I do wonder why Yale-NUS saw the need to inform the Education ministry of what it had done.

Nevertheless, I heaved a sigh of relief that the question of whether the G intervened in the affairs of an Institution of Higher Learning had been laid to rest. The issue was, in fact, eclipsed by a Yale-NUS versus Alfian Sa’at feud. It’s made for interesting reading because Mr Alfian wouldn’t let the college’s allegations that he had been un-cooperative and resistant about making changes to the course, stand. He’s a playwright, so we got treated to some superb writing.

I sympathise with him, especially if it is true that the college set standards of academic rigour that was not communicated to him. It also makes me wonder if the same rigour is applied to similar Learning Across Boundaries’ courses in Yale-NUS. It’s supposed to be “experiential learning” and I am still flummoxed about how such a course would be assessed academically besides a tick against the box on Class Participation.

Now, we have a “they say, he say” situation, and the intriguing question of whether it was going to pay him $600 (he say) or $3,300 (they say) for helming the course and whether he was specially invited or answered an open invitation by Yale-NUS to conduct the course.

Then comes Parliament. Sigh.

This is the question from People’s Action Party MP, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar: To ask the Minister for Education (a) what are the reasons and concerns leading to the cancellation of the Yale-NUS programme “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”; (b) whether the cancellation of the programme signals a more controlled and rigid education environment in our education institutes; and (c) whether this curtails academic freedom and the critical discourse necessary for academic richness and excellence in our education institutes.

Dr Intan is an assistant professor in the Singapore Institute of Technology and a doctor of Philosophy in Information Studies. I don’t know why an academic needs the minister to explain the reasons and concerns for the cancellation when the Education ministry, so Yale-NUS said, had nothing to do with it. As for question (b), isn’t that something that Yale-NUS should answer? After all, it cancelled the course on its own. About (c), as an academic, she is better placed to answer the question than the minister.

Parameters, not prescriptions

Then there is this question from PAP MP Seah Kian Peng: To ask the Minister for Education whether there are clear rules on what topics and activities are or are not allowed in our autonomous universities.

I am not surprised that he was the MP who asked the question. He was, after all, the MP who pointed out that the meeting between civil society activists and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad in the wake of the Malaysian general election smacked of treason. In response, the Education minister drew up four parameters, mainly on institutions keeping to their mission to educate, but resisted becoming too prescriptive.

What Mr Ong Ye Kung did say though is that institutions should, at the minimum, “not undertake activities that expose their students to the risk of breaking the law”.

“They should not work with speakers and instructors who have been convicted of public order-related offences, or who are working with political advocacy groups funded by foreigners, or who openly show disloyalty to Singapore,” he added.

I can see the various university authorities coming up with their own blacklist even if the minister didn’t want to.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira, also an academic, asked similar questions about the reasons for the cancellation. He also asked “whether and under what conditions political dissent and activism in the Singapore context is a legitimate topic of academic inquiry in our autonomous universities (AUs)”.

He got a yes answer from Mr Ong.

“Political dissent is certainly a legitimate topic of academic inquiry. Our students read and assess classic works by revolutionary figures such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sun Yat Sen or Mao Zedong. It would also be valuable for students in the social sciences to examine critically present-day issues, such as the causes and implications of protests against climate change or globalisation, or the demonstrations currently happening in Hong Kong. Students can and should also discuss the implications of such political developments for a small country like Singapore. Such open academic inquiry will continue.”

So the principle is fine and it comes down to the practice: who is teaching it and how it is going to be taught.

The minister referred to the Yale-NUS fiasco.

“I much prefer the test of an ordinary Singaporean exercising his common sense. He would readily conclude that taking into consideration all the elements and all the personalities involved, this is a programme that was filled with motives and objectives other than learning and education. And MOE’s stand is that we cannot allow such activities in our schools or IHLs,” he said.

I like his first part on exercising common sense, which Yale-NUS doesn’t seem to have much of. Instead Yale-NUS, by its own incompetence or ignorance, has given the ministry a platform to say what it will “allow” in schools. These OB markers have always been vague, giving academics some room to experiment. I’d rather that they stay vague.

There is a third part to the NMP’s question: “What can be done to assure AU staff and students that they continue to have the academic freedom to responsibly and critically examine social and political issues in Singapore?”

If he was hoping that Mr Ong would give a blanket assurance and some general statements on non-interference in academic work, he should be disappointed.

Because, in Singapore, anything that the G pronounces becomes another OB marker that is staked closer to centre. University authorities wouldn’t just blacklist people with criminal records, but start policing tighter to include, say, people with known anti-establishment views. Topics that are by their very nature contentious would be watered down. Students would be told that some questions are off-limits. The mantra would be to play safe.

Am I exaggerating? I wish I was.

‘Unrealistic perfection’

I wish the G would take seriously the idea that people are afraid of what it might think of them, even if they aren’t political luminaries or civil society activists or are just flattering themselves. I can’t say it better than Dr Theseira in his adjournment motion: “What concerns me is that it will become difficult for Singaporean academics to examine and teach contentious topics because the standards must always be exacting, perfect, lest one is accused of subversion, flawed scholarship, or activist motivations. If we ask for unrealistic perfection in our critical academics, our scholars will be biased towards the safe and the status quo. This is a hidden danger that threatens us all. It encourages a sloppiness of thinking, a belief that it is safer to regurgitate received wisdom than to seek new answers.”

It also doesn’t do this country any good if more and more people refrain from saying or doing anything for fear that what they had said or done in the past will be pulled out as an example of a character defect that disqualifies them from being in certain arenas. What’s worse is if organisations and agencies take the cue from here.

For example, I don’t know Mr Alfian personally, but I looked up his 1998 poem, Singapore You are not my Country, that was cited in Mr Ong’s speech as an indication of his brand of political activism. Mr Ong chose to read out only a few lines, which is a pity because the poem, which is rather lengthy, is a lot more nuanced than those few lines. It made me wonder if his use of the poem is an example of how more, not fewer, people should be educated in the humanities, lest they take lines of poetry out of context! I would dread to think that other people will unthinkingly jump to the conclusion that Mr Sa’at’s literary work is beyond the pale, simply because a minister has referred to a few lines of his poem.

Back to my lament about MPs’ questions.

Many, many years ago, a colleague asked a very important person for his views on how our media covered a certain event. I was appalled – and glad that the VIP ignored the question and went on to answer others. I asked my colleague later why he asked the question and his answer was that it would be very good if the VIP endorsed the work we did. But what if he didn’t, I asked. Does this mean we have to change everything because we asked him for an opinion and therefore must think it worthy of action?

He never saw it that way. He looked to the person for affirmation and endorsement – when there is no need to in the first place.

We can think for ourselves.

There is no need to go to the G for everything.


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Scrapped Yale-NUS course on dissent had partisan 'motives and objectives': Ong Ye Kung

Decision to cancel dissent module at Yale-NUS College 'made internally and without government interference': Yale president

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Yale-NUS College withdraws programme on ‘dissent and resistance’