What should student activism look like in a liberal arts college in Singapore?

Daryl Yang
Aug 12, 2018 · 7 min read

On 6 August 2018, CAPE, which stands for the Community for Advocacy & Political Education, organised a student dialogue with freshmen from the Yale-NUS Class of 2022 to explore what student activism does and should look like in a liberal arts college in Singapore.

The CAPE team first provided a brief historical overview of this discussion since Yale-NUS College was first proposed as an idea. This was split into three components:

  1. what student activism should look like in the context of a liberal arts college;
  2. what has and can student activism look like in the context of Singapore;
  3. how student activism has developed in Yale-NUS over the past five years.
CAPE members introducing ourselves to the audience

Student Activism in a Liberal Arts College

In 2012, the Yale College faculty passed a resolution expressing concern about the impending partnership with the National University of Singapore to set up Yale-NUS College.

The faculty urged Yale-NUS to “respect, protect and further principles of non-discrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers, and to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society.”

“These ideals lie at the heart of liberal arts education as well as our civic sense as citizens, and they ought not to be compromised,” explained Professor Seyla Benhabib, who penned the resolution.

Jim Sleeper has also written extensively on this issue, noting for instance in a 2013 New York Times article that “at its best, a liberal education imbues future citizen-leaders with the values and skills that are necessary to question, not merely serve, concentrations of power and profit.” He recently reiterated this point in a 2018 Octant article titled “A Liberal Education Should Interrogate Wealth and Power, Not Just Serve Them”.

In response to Sleeper’s NYT article, leaders of NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai as well as Yale-NUS founding president Pericles Lewis wrote letters on how the export of liberal education is in fact a worthy endeavour.

“The fundamental mission of a liberal arts education is to lead students to build the capacity and readiness to critically analyze issues, assumptions and values. Through this educational approach, students develop their own sense of what is significant for themselves, their societies and the world to achieve,” explained Al Bloom and Jeffrey Lehman, vice-chancellors of the two NYU satellite campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.

President Lewis further noted that “while Mr. Sleeper seems to want to keep a liberal education from any supposed contamination by contact with different political regimes, progress actually depends on encounters with the unfamiliar, which are at the heart of a liberal education.”

Activism and Civil Society in Singapore

This was an interesting time to discuss student activism in Singapore, after the Vice Principal at Saint Joseph’s Institution raised the ire of many young people for warning his students against becoming student activists.

“Firstly, what we actually want to think about is the idea of an activist… Has any of you taken part in an active demonstration, et cetera? You do realise that in Singapore, we don’t have the protests that the students do in France and other European countries, and in North America, and so on.
If you read Plato’s [The] Republic, you will know the reason for that… Activism — any form of activism is socially divisive. It divides society, it divides a community,” Vice Principal Leonard Tan said to his students at an assembly talk.

It remains unclear what exactly Plato said in The Republic that explains the difference between Singapore and European or North American countries. However, a useful point of difference may be Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution, which provides that the right to free expression and assembly may be restricted as Parliament decides is necessary or expedient. Many other jurisdictions only permit their governments the ability to restrict these rights on the basis of what is reasonable but the requirement in Singapore is a much lower standard in terms of expediency, rather than reasonableness.

In addition, here’s a short history lesson: student activism is not foreign to Singapore. Whether it was the Fajar newspaper run by pro-independence students in the 1950s or the Nantah students in the 1960s and 1970s, or even the Catholic students involved in advocating for the welfare and rights of migrant workers in the 1980s prior to being arrested as alleged Marxist conspirators, student activism has always been a part of Singapore’s vibrant history.

Students were also introduced to two different conceptions of activism in Singapore.

Firstly, in her introduction to the book The Art of Advocacy in Singapore, Margeret Thomas explained that “in a state with a one-party dominant government, civil society advocacy plays an important role in coming up with alternative ideas and challenging policies that are detrimental to the well-being of the community.”

“Activism tests the boundaries of permissible open debates and helps to forge a middle ground, a safe space amidst the minefield of regulations and restrictions that is Singapore,” she added.

Secondly, NUS Law Professor Lynette Chua developed the concept of pragmatic resistance in the context of the Singaporean gay rights movement:

“To ensure their movement’s survival as well as its progress, gay activists in Singapore adapt a strategy of pragmatic resistance. Activists adjust their tactics according to changes in formal law and cultural norms, and push the limits of those norms while simultaneously adhering to them.

Although they aspire toward legal reform, they refrain from tactics that directly confront the state, such as street protests, and avoid being seen as a threat to existing formal arrangements of power.”

Student Activism at Yale-NUS

After exploring activism in the context of a liberal arts college and in Singapore, we finally arrived at the intersection where the two meet: Yale-NUS College.

Students were invited to reflect on two quotes from recent Octant articles on the state of student activism at Yale-NUS.

The first was on the concept of the grey space by Amanda Leong:

“There is no precedent for Yale-NUS. This is the very reason why many of us have chosen to come here. Yale-NUS occupies a very unique space ideologically between two societies with very different notions of what freedom means. This means that we — the student body and the administration — have a tremendous responsibility to craft our Yale-NUS identity.

Clearly, we have different conceptions and understandings of what Yale-NUS wants and needs. It is only through careful and transparent conversations about this gap in perspective that we can meet at a good middle ground.”

The second was written by me on the intersections between academic freedom and freedom of expression and how those concepts may be relied on to pursue advocacy:

“There is only so far that academic freedom can reasonably overlap with student activism and the boundaries are both amorphous and drawn very indistinctly in the sand. For those of us who are interested to utilise this gray space to advocate and agitate for social change, the burden then is upon us to tread carefully and thoughtfully.

Part of the Yale-NUS experience is navigating and contributing to the project of how a liberal education can flourish outside of the West; there would be no need for the Yale-NUS experiment if our college operated under the exact same conditions as Yale in New Haven.”

Both freedoms are promised by explicit policies of the college, albeit to varying standards.

According to the Yale-NUS College Faculty Handbook, “the College upholds the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry, essential core values in higher education of the highest caliber. Faculty and students in the College will be free to conduct scholarship and research and publish the results, and to teach in the classroom and express themselves on campus, bearing in mind the need to act in accordance with accepted scholarly and professional standards and the regulations of the College.”

Freedom of expression is also guaranteed under the college’s free speech policy, which states that:

“We are firmly committed to the free expression of ideas in all forms — a central tenet of liberal arts education. There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated. This principle is a cornerstone of our institution. This statement is not limited to the classroom. It extends to the dining hall and student suites and the common rooms. It also extends to many forms of expression, including debate, speech, dance, and theatre.

We also ask that you be mindful of the local Singaporean context, just as we would encourage you to be mindful of the local context wherever you travel, live, work or study in the world.”

Discussion, Thoughts & Reflections

After running through these various aspects of Yale-NUS’ history, participants were invited to share their thoughts and reflections.

One student asked about the value of the concept of pragmatic resistance, given that it is likely one that can be exercised by those who are familiar with the system and are able to work around the complex regulations and laws. What about those without the same privileges?

Another asked about the point of student activism if it’s lost within the grander scheme of things. What exactly is the role or purpose of student activism? Yet another also asked whether it is true student activism if it is within the confines and comfort of the college. At the same time, some students expressed concern over the protections that both local and international students can expect from the school when engaging in student activism.

Ultimately, many of these questions do not have clear black-or-white answers and ultimately depend on the context and circumstances. This is exactly what CAPE was set up for as well, to explore these nuances and uncertainties together and to build institutional knowledge and memory to support student activism at Yale-NUS, NUS and Singapore more generally.


Want to learn more or get involved with CAPE? Join us at on Thursday, 16 August at 7pm in Saga College Classroom 3 for our first General Meeting of AY2018/19!

Follow us on Facebook at www.fb.com/cape.sg or contact us at capesingapore@gmail.com.

Daryl Yang

Written by

Depending on your ideological leaning, I am either a “militant homosexualist”, “millennial activist” or a “liberal snowflake”. Yale-NUS College & NUS Law ‘19.

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