Yale-NUS College withdraws programme on ‘dissent and resistance’ over concerns of ‘partisan political interests’, ‘legal liabilities’

Activist and artist Seelan Palay was arrested outside Parliament House on 1 October, 2017 by police officers. He was listed as one of the speakers involved in the programme. (SCREENSHOT: The Online Citizen/Facebook)
Activist and artist Seelan Palay was arrested outside Parliament House on 1 October, 2017 by police officers. He was listed as one of the speakers involved in the programme. (SCREENSHOT: The Online Citizen/Facebook)

UPDATE: This story was updated at 1pm on 15 September to reflect Yale University’s response on the cancellation.

SINGAPORE — A week-long Yale-NUS College programme to introduce students to “various modes of dissent and resistance in Singapore” that was scheduled to start in late September has been cancelled.

In response to queries from Yahoo News Singapore about the programme, which was slated to have been held from 29 September to 5 October, the College said in a statement that the College has “not taken this decision lightly” to withdraw the “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore” project.

The programme was one of 14 projects offered under this year’s Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) projects.

Professor Tan Tai Yong, President of the College, said the proposed activities do not align with the LAB’s concept and learning objectives that were earlier approved by the Curriculum Committee.

The project “does not critically engage” with the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent, Professor Tan said.

“The activities proposed and the selection of some of the speakers for the project will infringe our commitment not to advance partisan political interests in our campus.

“The proposed activities also included elements that may subject students to the risk of breaking the law, and incurring legal liabilities. This is not acceptable to the College as we are committed to operating within Singapore laws – a position set out by our founding President back in 2012,” he added.

While different iterations of the programme have been proposed, Professor Tan said the College has assessed that the planned activities still included “elements which put our students at risk”.

The schedule for the programme, which was last accessible on Thursday, was taken down from the NUS-Yale website the following day.

In an info sheet attached to the programme, the organisers stated that “the project will examine the political, social and ethical issues that surround democratic dissent in authoritarian societies”.

The programme’s project leaders were listed as playwright Alfian Sa’at and Tan Yock Theng, a programme manager from the college’s Centre for International & Professional Experience.

Yahoo News Singapore has reached out to Wild Rice, where Sa’at is a resident playwright, and Tan.

Among the speakers and presenters who were scheduled to take part in the project were Jason Soo, director of 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy, a documentary about Operation Spectrum; activist Seelan Palay, who was fined $2,500 last year for taking part in a public procession; Kirsten Han, editor-in-chief of New Naratif; activist Jolovan Wham; and historian Thum Ping Tjin, who is best known for his research into Operation Coldstore.

A photo of Palay carrying a mirror and facing a policeman, taken outside Parliament House on 1 October 2017, was attached to the info sheet.

Han called the decision to withdraw the project as "outrageous".

In a tweet posted on Saturday afternoon, she said, “What does Yale-NUS mean when they refer to partisan political interests? In Singapore, anything that doesn’t conform to the establishment view can be tarred as ‘anti-PAP’ and suddenly becomes partisan.”

Yale responds

Yale University’s president Peter Salovey said on Sunday that he had expressed his concern to the presidents of NUS and Yale-NUS when he found out about the cancellation.

In an e-mail to Yahoo News Singapore, he noted that Yale “had insisted on the values of academic freedom and open inquiry” while working on Yale-NUS with their Singaporean counterparts.

“Any action that might threaten these values is of serious concern, and we at Yale need to gain a better understanding of this decision,” said Salovey.

He added that he has tasked Yale’s vice-president and vice-provost for global strategy Pericles Lewis to conduct a “fact-finding” on the matter. Lewis was also Yale-NUS’ inaugural president, serving from 2012 to 2017.

“Once we have a full understanding of what happened, I will determine the appropriate response,” said Salovey.

-with additional reporting from Wong Casandra

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