Singapore PM Lee Warns Yale-NUS Alliance: This isn’t New Haven

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at the inauguration of the new Yale-National University of Singapore campus, told the audience that collaboration between the two “cannot be a carbon copy of Yale in the United States if it is to succeed. Instead, it has to experiment and adapt the Yale model to Asia.”

The alliance between the venerable Ivy League liberal arts school and NUS needs a curriculum and a college ethos that responds to the regional context of Asia, he said. “Its graduates have to understand these countries... not just a theoretical, intellectual understanding on paper but actual experience living in Asia, interacting with fellow students from this region and outside."

The comments have raised the hackles of Toh Han Shih, a Singaporean journalist living and working in Hong Kong. “I hope Lee Hsien Loong is not implying by his speech that the Yale-NUS college in Singapore must be restricted to censorship, while political activism and debate and demonstrations must be curtailed,” Toh said in an email. “I hope when Prime Minister Lee said Yale-NUS college must adapt to Asian circumstances, he is just saying Yale-NUS college must be sensitive to the Asian context, and not using this as an excuse to impose restrictions on the college in the name of Asian values. While thousands of faculty and students are demonstrating at Hong Kong University over the decision not to appoint to a top leadership position a respected law professor, Johannes Chan, because of his support of the Occupy Central movement last October and November. Lee appears to be threatening to deny Yale-NUS the freedom and independence that these demonstrators are calling for at HKU.”

The Yale-NUS collaboration has been in place since 2010 although its new campus has just opened and was paid for by Singapore. It has come under withering criticism by Yale faculty in the United States, who in a resolution raised concern “regarding the recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore” and urged Yale-NUS to protect ideals that lie “at the heart of liberal arts education as well as of our civic sense as citizens [and] ought not to be compromised in any dealings or negotiations with the Singaporean authorities.”

Watered down freedom

Principal among those critics is Jim Sleeper, an American author and journalist who since 1999 has also been a lecturer in political science at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Sleeper’s problem is not so much Singapore, acknowledged as an authoritarian and often humorless government, as with Yale and other universities willing to water down their pretensions to intellectual freedom and rigor in return for lucrative arrangements with many such governments in Asia.

In a 6,000-word article written for the Carnegie Council in June of this year, Sleeper pointed out that in Singapore “Almost every year has brought an instance, and sometimes international condemnation, of the persecution of a professor who has criticized the regime or whose scholarship in history, political science, or law seems to threaten it. Johns Hopkins University, University of Chicago, Australia’s University of New South Wales, and New York University’s Law School and Tisch School of the Arts have all pulled programs out of Singapore.”

Diplomats, Sleeper said in a 2013 article in the New York Times, “have good reason to encourage educational collaborations with strategically vital nations. And higher education is under great strain in the United States — witness President Obama’s plans to make colleges more affordable and accountable by rating them — so the temptation to raise money by expanding into rapidly growing [or resource rich] countries is understandable.”

Looking the other way

But, he continued, “if you look past their soaring rhetoric, you’ll see globe-trotting university presidents and trustees who are defining down their expectations of what a liberal education means, much as corporations do when they look the other way at shoddy labor and environmental practices abroad. The difference, of course, is that a university’s mission is to question such arrangements, not to facilitate them. But pretending that freedom of inquiry can be separated from freedom of expression is naïve at best, cynical at worst.”

He called Yale's Singapore arrangement “perhaps no better example of such cynicism…Its decision to create a new undergraduate college in a joint venture with the National University of Singapore touched off one of the strongest controversies in the 20-year presidency of Richard C. Levin, who retired this summer as Yale’s president — a year after a nonbinding faculty resolution expressed grave reservations about the project.”

Indeed, he quoted Kay Kuok – a member of the family of Malaysian sugar tycoon Robert Kuok, whose employees have been dismantling independent journalism at Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and who heads the Yale-NUS governing board – as saying that “We must look at ‘liberal’ in the sense of broad, rather than free. It’s freedom of thought; I’m not necessarily saying freedom of expression.”

Although Levin promised students they would be free to form associations “as long as they are not intolerant of racial or religious groups,” the campus’s president, Pericles Lewis, said they would not be free to form explicitly political associations, much less stage protests of government policies, even on campus.

Keep your opinions to yourself

“In a host environment where free speech is constrained if not proscribed, faculty will censor themselves, and the cause of authentic liberal education, to the extent it can exist in such situations, will suffer,” the American Association of University Professors warned last year in a letter criticizing the Singapore venture. The letter posed 16 questions that Yale hasn’t answered; it won’t even disclose to its faculty the full terms of the Singapore deal.

There is also the question whether Yale is devaluing its own brand. Sarah Ong, a graduate of the home campus in New Haven, wrote in the Yale alumni magazine that “the presence of Yale-NUS seems to be reducing the value of a Yale education in Singaporean public opinion. Both alumni and current Yalies from Singapore who I have spoken to tell me this is true. More than one person has expressed that if they knew that Yale was going to work on Yale-NUS, they would not have chosen Yale when they were entering college.”

"I recall in the 1970s, demonstrations rocked American universities like Yale and Harvard, while a local university student activist Tan Wah Piow fell afoul of the Singapore authorities,” Toh Han Shih wrote.

Tan Wah Piow has been living in political exile in London since 1976. The government revoked his passport in 1987 when he was accused of being the alleged mastermind behind a “Marxist conspiracy” of 16 young people who allegedly planned to overthrow the Singapore government and install a Marxist government. The charges against the 16 were largely considered to have been manufactured out of Lee Kuan Yew’s conviction that activism equated with radicalism.