story | Alysha Chandra and Harrison Linder
photo | Yip Jia Qi
The College has cancelled a Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) project titled ‘Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore’ two weeks before it was meant to start. Senior administration said that the program, led by playwright Alfian Sa’at, risked exposing students to legal liabilities, advanced partisan political interests, and lacked critical engagement. The Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE) informed first-year participants on the program of its cancellation on September 13, saying they would be allocated to other Week 7 programs that they had expressed interest in.
“The fundamental reason why we took the decision we did was risk mitigation, particularly for international students, who could lose their student pass for engaging in political activity,” said Tan Tai Yong, President of Yale-NUS College. Week 7 LABs are mandatory parts of the curriculum, and students should not be compelled to take on the risks that activists take on, he added.
The proposed LAB included a visit to Speaker’s Corner and workshops by Yale-NUS College student organization the Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE) and activists Kirsten Han and Cara Ow. There were also discussions with activists Jolovan Wham, Prashant S, Priyageetha Dia, Seelan Palay, Jason Soo, Subhas Nair, and Daniel Hui.
Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) told The Octant that the LAB was “conditionally approved” in June by the Curriculum Committee, whose task is to ensure high quality in all credit bearing courses.
Nomi Lazar, Associate Dean of Faculty (Curriculum), who chairs the Curriculum Committee, said that they found Mr. Alfian’s proposal interesting when they considered it in June, but its description raised serious concerns regarding the distinction between studying and engaging in protest.
“If the purpose was to actually engage in protest or partisan politics, then we were not supportive of the module because it is not appropriate for an academic course to engage in partisan activities and it is certainly not appropriate to put our students at risk of breaking the law,” she said.
According to Trisha Craig, Dean of CIPE, the College had been continuously working with Mr. Alfian to address these concerns but was not able to do so in a timely manner. “Changing the curriculum of a Week 7 LAB is not as simple as adding or removing activities or readings – the program has to function as a cohesive experiential learning experience,” she said.
On Friday, September 13, the College decided that with Week 7 only two weeks away, there was no longer enough time to address these concerns, and that the program had to be canceled. Mr. Tan said that Mr. Alfian, who taught the module ‘Introduction to Playwriting’ last semester, was understanding of the situation. “Mr. Alfian remains supportive of the College,” he said. Mr. Alfian could not be reached for comment.
Activists who were slated to speak in the LAB expressed concern that the Singapore government pressured the College to make this decision, with Jolovan Wham tweeting on September 14, “Elections are coming in #Singapore, so the government and ruling party are hypersensitive to such events. The irony of a liberal arts college in an authoritarian state.” In a tweet on the same day, Kirsten Han noted the College’s reputation as a bubble of liberal freedom in Singapore, asking, “Is there now a tightening of control even over Yale-NUS?”.
Mr. Tan, however, stressed that the decision to cancel this LAB was not caused by outside pressure. According to Mr. Tan, he consulted the Ministry of Education and was told that students on the program could not be protected if they inadvertently ran into trouble. “Ultimately, we judged the risk to students too high,” he said.
“Our risk assessment is that globally and in Asia, it’s not a good political moment for us to cross boundaries over the edge of what is tolerable,” said Ms. Roberts.
The 16 first-year participants of the LAB were told that they would be assigned to other local programs. Bryan Timothy ’23 selected the LAB as one of his top choices. “I feel disappointed but I understand the severity of the situation and why it was canceled,” he said.
Muhammad Khairillah ’23, who had selected the LAB as his first choice, said he was disappointed by the reasons behind the program’s cancellation. “One of the concerns raised was about optics and not being seen to be encouraging students to protest, which I felt was not a strong enough reason to pull the trip,” he said.
Faculty The Octant spoke to were largely supportive of the administration’s decision. Andrew Bailey, Associate Professor and Head of Studies for Philosophy, Politics and Economics said that academic freedom in the College was not threatened. Mr. Bailey referenced a faculty resolution passed in 2012 that emphasized a commitment to the free expression of ideas in all forms, saying, “Nothing I’ve seen in my seven plus years in the College suggests we’ve wavered from our original intentions.”
Rajeev Patke, Professor of Humanities and Director of the Division of Humanities, also distinguished between studying dissent and practicing it, saying, “if the College had approved this project, it would have amounted to requiring students to participate obligatorily in a confusion between the object of study and a mode of practice. That would be contrary to the College’s vision and mission.”
Mr. Patke added that he taught a seminar on ‘Violence and the Arts’ last year without sacrificing academic freedom. “The freedom we partook of was to think of the “why” of violence, not of the “how” to practice it,” he said.
Jiang Haolie ’21, Coordinator of CAPE, told The Octant that while the organization is independent and non-partisan, the cancellation of the LAB is of concern to them given that academic freedoms are fundamental to the pedagogy of the College. CAPE was scheduled to run a workshop in the LAB on the history of social activism in Singapore and academic theories of social change.
Mr. Tan urged concerned students and faculty to not assume the worst, and affirmed the College’s commitment to supporting them in navigating the boundaries of academic freedom.
Mr. Tan told The Octant that the LAB was a lesson for the College to better communicate expectations to leaders of such programs. “We’re not a startup anymore, but I feel like we are constantly discovering things where we can do better and we can refine this process,” said Ms. Roberts.