Yale-NUS slammed for ban on political protests, groups

UPDATED at 10pm, 19 July to include Human Rights Watch's response

Yale University
’s plan to restrict students’ political activities at its new campus in Singapore has drawn flak from a human rights group and an opposition party in the city-state.

In a press release issued on Thursday, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the University’s move as showing a “disturbing disregard for free speech, association, and assembly”.

“Yale is betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students at its new Singapore campus,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW.

“Instead of defending these rights, Yale buckled when faced with Singapore’s draconian laws on demonstrations and policies restricting student groups.”

A collaboration with the National University of Singapore, the Yale-NUS College, the first one to bear Yale’s name in 300 years, will not allow students to organise political protests on campus or form political party student groups, the college’s president, Pericles Lewis, told media last week.

Supporting Lewis’ position was Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat, who said that Yale’s Singapore campus, which will open in August next year, could have “academic freedom and open inquiry…in a manner sensitive to the Singapore context.”

HRW, however, felt that Yale’s willingness to curtail rights on its Singapore campus lends credence to those who would deny the universality, inalienability, and indivisibility of human rights on the basis of a country’s historical and cultural context and its economic development.

Yale’s agreement to “prevent the exercise of these rights at Yale-NUS effectively negates the university’s policy”, the international organisation stressed, drawing reference to Yale’s 1975 University Policy on Freedom of Expression.

Turning next to Singapore’s broad restrictions on basic freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, HRW highlighted that many laws in Singapore, including the Undesirable Publications Act, the Internet Code of Practice and the 2009 Public Order Act, are incompatible with the basic policies of a university like Yale.

“Yale may find that many of the freedoms taken for granted over its 300 year history are against the law in Singapore,” Robertson said. “If it truly values those freedoms, and expects its students to, it will need to fight for them.”

The Singapore Democratic Party has also criticised Yale-NUS College’s planned restrictions.

In an open letter to Yale’s president Lewis on Thursday, SDP chief Chee Soon Juan said the ban is "disturbing on two levels".

"Would you care to point out what Singaporean law prohibits the conduct of partisan political activities by students or bans the formation of political parties and groups in universities?" Chee asked in the letter dated 18 July and titled "Respect the rights of Singaporeans".

Chee also asked if Yale-NUS was "short-changing" its students by depriving them of a similar educational experience as their counterparts in the U.S where students are allowed to form political parties along Republican or Democratic Party lines.

The Yale-NUS joint venture has been questioned by Yale professors and rights advocates who say the school's tradition as a place for free thought, debate and expression is not completely in sync with Singapore's tightly controlled political system.

In April, the Yale faculty voted 100 to 69 to pass a resolution expressing concern over Singapore’s “lack of respect for civil and political rights”.

Speaking to Yahoo! Singapore after the media conference held at NUS’ new University Town in May, Lewis, who has been a Yale faculty member since 1998, explained that the relevant concerns raised by his peers have already been addressed.

At the campus’ groundbreaking ceremony earlier this month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Singapore government is fully committed to the success of the Yale-NUS College.

While the new college will not be replica of Yale, Lee said it will be a “bold effort to create something new and different”.

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