Why 1 + 1 = 3 at Yale-NUS: Navigating Academic Freedom at a Liberal Arts College in Singapore

Daryl Yang
Mar 12, 2018 · 10 min read

The first advertising campaign that Yale-NUS had was the equation 1+1=3. Add Yale and NUS, and you get something more than either of them are. It’s pretty cool though it also became the butt of easy liberal arts jokes (we got the equation wrong because liberal arts students can’t do math). The marketing team who devised this campaign might have been getting at something deeper: that additional one is not just some cheesy branding tactic but something very real and important. I think Amanda Leong got it right when she called it “the Yale-NUS gray space”.

Yale-NUS was born out of very real tensions. Since our inception, there have been much debate over the possibility of a liberal arts college in an authoritarian state like Singapore. (It’s interesting that other similar ventures don’t seem to have garnered as much academic and public attention.) From concerns over academic freedom, LGBT+ inclusion and others, this debate has not subsided and continues to grip our community year after year. Last year, students mobilised in alarm over the events policy out of fear that the worst Sleeperian nightmare has finally come true. A year later, the fear remains and manifests itself now in the wake of a consultation over the use of public spaces on campus.

I have written multiple pieces defending the Yale-NUS project and have personally witnessed how the liberal arts can and have thrived in a society with a very different social and political environment than in the United States or what would be considered mature liberal democracies. Indeed, that was the entire premise of this institutional project: the mission of Yale-NUS is to redefine liberal arts and science education for a complex, interconnected world. Elsewhere, I’ve also noted how if the liberal arts should be reserved only for already “liberal” societies, it then becomes a self-defeating endeavour and no more than ideological snobbery. Clearly, a liberal education that avails itself only to those deemed worthy because they already subscribe to certain “liberal” values is perhaps more illiberal than it likes to think itself to be.

The Promise of Academic Freedom

In light of the ongoing public space consultation, some students have recently raised concerns that academic freedom is threatened or illusory at Yale-NUS, no thanks to the expansive legal framework governing freedom of expression and assembly in Singapore. This is not surprising; such worries have been raised since Yale-NUS was but an ideational seedling.

In 2010, Eric Weinberger wondered if “a liberal arts professor at Yale-NUS who does research in politics or sociology presenting what may seem odious comparisons on race or religion — a Charles Murray, perhaps, whose book The Bell Curve touched on forbidden thoughts — is to be sanctioned, first by the College and perhaps too by Singapore, which might jail him?” (Interestingly, Lee Kuan Yew was a fan of Charles Murray’s ideas.) Since then, many others have weighed in with their criticisms. Human Rights Watch accused Yale of “betraying the spirit of the university” and the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) also expressed “growing concern about the character and impact” of Yale-NUS College on academic and personal freedoms. In particular, there are usually three main criticisms about Singapore with regard to LGBTQ rights, migrant workers’ rights and freedom of expression.

How have things turned out since? It seems that no one has yet been prosecuted by the Singapore government and we have had academics conducting research and teaching “controversial” subjects like Professor George Chauncey who specialises in gay history and Professor Anju Paul who studied the treatment of domestic migrant workers in Singapore and actively engages students on these issues. On the part of students, I’ve been actively involved in the growing LGBT+ student community not only within Yale-NUS but also through the Inter-University LGBT Network, which was co-founded by The G Spot, Yale-NUS’ gender and sexuality alliance. Many of my peers are actively involved in advocating for migrant workers’ rights through initiatives like the annual Migrant Workers Awareness Week. Professors have also not shied away from the taboos in Singapore, like religious sensitivities. At a Scientific Inquiry lecture, Professor William Piel thumbed through a bible and juxtaposed photos of parasite infections to excerpts from a Christian hymn. This led to difficult but important conversations on campus over the clash between religion and academic freedom.

Nevertheless, to some, this may still appear to be nothing more than an apologist attempt to defend the college. This is because there clearly are very real constraints on the freedoms of expression, speech and assembly that students and faculty alike operate under, given the significantly less liberal legal landscape in Singapore. For instance, the Public Order Act was amended significantly last year and there are now more amendments pending in Parliament, raising the ire of many civil society activists. This is just one of many legislations that severely limit the scope of the constitutional right of free expression under Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution (which applies only to citizens; non-citizens enjoy only the common law right of free speech). How then does the limited right to freedom of expression in Singapore interact with and restrict academic freedom at Yale-NUS College?

It needs to firstly be made clear that academic freedom is not synonymous with or equivalent to freedom of expression. It is a particular right of free expression as it relates to the academic sphere. At a student consultation at the public spaces task force, some students questioned if the guarantee of academic freedom meant that Yale-NUS students were exempt from Singapore laws that restricted freedom of speech and assembly. Clearly, it does not (and should not) but it is not difficult to see how the two types of freedom may be regarded as being one and the same.

The Yale-NUS policy on academic freedom declares that:

“The College upholds the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry, essential core values in higher education of the highest calibre. 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.”

In contrast, the policy on freedom of expression is stated as such:

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 entire campus. 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.

These policies demonstrate that while there is to be no limit on academic freedom, the scope of freedom of expression is ultimately defined by the boundaries of the law. Back in 2012, founding President Pericles Lewis noted that:

“Any college or university must obey the laws of the countries where it operates. We are aware that there are restrictions on speech and public demonstrations in Singapore.

This is necessarily the case given the cardinal rule of natural justice that everyone is equal before the law. Just because this college was co-founded by an American institution does not mean that we can or should be above the law. While some may argue that there cannot be true academic freedom without full freedom of expression, it is noteworthy that there is no absolute freedom of expression anywhere in the world except the United States (in light of the First Amendment). Almost every other country with a constitution has a limitation clause that limits the scope of the constitutional right to freedom of expression. It would therefore be a clumsy conclusion to hold that there is no academic freedom in Singapore because there is no absolute freedom of expression; the question is not about absolutes but one of degree.

This is not to say that academics enjoy the fullest academic freedom in Singapore and everything is well and good. The threat to academic freedom is a very real problem and Tan Tarn How recently compiled a list of artists and activists who claim to have been denied jobs in academia or asked to leave their full-time or part-time jobs in our universities, polytechnics and sometimes schools. Yet, I am not sure if it can be definitely said that Yale-NUS is experiencing the same pressures that other institutions may be facing from the state, by virtue of countervailing bilateral diplomatic pressures in the operation of the college among other factors. (Interestingly, Cherian George just published this piece on his troubling experience with an invitation to NUS to give a talk; I am pretty confident that if we were to invite him to Yale-NUS to speak, there would most definitely be no issues at all.)

As a final note, some students have repeatedly cited certain experiences as examples of censorship or top-down limiting of academic freedom despite multiple clarifications to the contrary. There needs to be a distinction drawn between administrative staff from Public Affairs providing advice based on their professional expertise and bureaucratic coercion or dogmatic compulsion. It would be unfortunate to conflate the two as being one and the same. I speak also from my personal experience having organised many events, some politically controversial and others socially contentious, where I have witnessed nothing less than the fullest commitment on the part of both academic and administrative staff and leadership to academic freedom on our campus.

The Yale-NUS Gray Space

When Yale-NUS was first mooted as an idea, queer activist and artist Ng Yi-sheng suggested in 2012 that the establishment of Yale-NUS “could have implications for activism in the whole of Singapore, and even beyond.” I think Yi-sheng was right. Apart from the Inter-University LGBT Network which I was a part of, environmentalist classmates have also launched the Singapore Sustainability Network and more informally, a Zimbabwean student also sparked a national conversation on racism. Recently, some Yale-NUS students have also collaborated with NUS students to found CAPE, a new student organisation focusing on advocacy and political education. Clearly, more can (and will) be done but what have been achieved so far is quite heartening, in my view.

The space is gray, which means that the boundaries are sometimes amorphous and drawn very indistinctly in the sand. It is up to us to push those boundaries to expand the gray space, and I think Shawn Hoo was right when he said that “we can push boundaries, even if it just to find out where the borders of acceptability and unacceptability are drawn.” While the boundaries can be pushed, it is an entirely different question as to whether those boundaries should be crossed. There is only so far that academic freedom can reasonably overlap with student activism. This can be both frustrating and exciting for those of us involved in this project of (re)building the vibrant student activism culture that Singapore had in the 1960s and 1970s. One wrong move, and the lines can be very quickly redrawn and the gray space significantly shrivelled to our own detriment.

There are of course always some among us who believe that this tango that we play with the state is unnecessary; the power lies in the people and we just need to put our bodies in spaces to secure our rights and our freedoms. I think that is a very admirable belief but I am not sure that such an approach will succeed at the current stage our civil society is in. This is also why I was deeply uncomfortable with the recent “sit-in” on campus because it directly crossed the line in terms of academic freedom and the law. To clarify, it is not that I thought that some of the issues being raised were illegitimate or not important, I just worried that such means may, in pushing the boundaries, inevitably result in swift legislative, if not executive, action that might quickly undo the slow but real expansion of our gray space for student activism. After all, what is the state to do in the face of competing pressures of maintaining its ties with its Ivy League collaborator and maintaining its legitimacy in the eyes of the public when a group of students blatantly challenge the efficacy of the law?

Some Singaporean commentators have expressed the hope that Yale-NUS will have the indirect effect of helping to liberalise our society. I think we have managed to make use of the gray space quite effectively over the past five years by not only building an open and inclusive college community but also collaborating with our peers from NUS, other universities and civil society at large to foster a more just and equal Singapore. Given our “social and political responsibilities”, as Hoo puts it, we can and should continue to carefully navigate the shifting lines of academic freedom and student activism. This is not the first time we have had divisions in the community over how our college should navigate difficult social and political controversies and I believe, like those before, will only help us to find better solutions to these challenges as we grow over the years.

The Annual March Town Hall on Academic Freedom?

Last year, our community held a town hall over the events policy in March. This year, we are holding another one on the public spaces consultation again in March. I can only wonder what will trigger next year’s March town hall, and whether academic freedom will be on the agenda again (I think most probably).

Clearly, academic freedom is and will remain a defining issue for our college and I don’t expect conversations about this issue to ever be settled. Yet, often, these discussions repeat themselves year after year because people enter these discussions with different conceptions of what academic freedom means, what the role of Yale-NUS in Singapore is and should be and how change can and should be achieved.

There are definitely important questions to ask and debate about academic freedom and other issues but it is equally important to consider the context in which we have these conversations. Yale-NUS was founded with the vision to be in Asia, for the world. We need equally to discuss and debate these difficult questions in Singapore, because this is where we are and I don’t think our college will be moving anywhere else anytime soon.

Daryl Yang is a fourth year student reading a double degree in law and liberal arts at Yale-NUS College and the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore. He co-founded and served as Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network, a network constituted of five student-led organisations with the aim to foster safer and more inclusive campuses, and was previously Coordinator of The G Spot, Yale-NUS’s gender & sexuality alliance. Daryl also co-founded CAPE (Community for Advocacy & Political Education) with a group of students from Yale-NUS and NUS Law.

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