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.”