Photo by Christopher Khew
Early morning on Oct. 10, David Chia ’17 saw an official from the NUS Office of Housing Services (OHS) remove a poster reading, “In Solidarity with Hong Kong students” from a Yale-NUS elevator. The incident refused to leave his mind.
“I felt like I should write something,” recounted Chia who posted about the incident on the Yale-NUS College Students Facebook group at 11.11 a.m.
Within seconds, Chia was “overwhelmed” by the response of his classmates who started actively debating possible political reasons for the removal on Facebook. Nur Qistina Binte Abdul Wahid ’17 revealed, “I felt quite surprised and genuinely upset because it took away our rights to free speech, to share our views.”
Assistant Professor Dr. Jessica Hanser too felt “surprised” when she heard about the incident from a student at lunch. Earlier that week, she had given a lecture on markets to the freshmen for their Comparative Social Institutions class, where she referred to the situation in Hong Kong focusing on the economic aspects.
Within minutes, the news of the incident spread like wildfire. Dean’s Fellows with access to the Facebook group immediately reported the incident to Kyle Farley, Dean of Students. As the administration gained further information, they decided that the best step would be to approach the OHS officials directly. Farley, Rector Brian McAdoo and Dean’s Fellow Sara Pervaiz Amjad promptly made a trip to the OHS.
What students had feared to be a case of censorship, instead turned out to be a matter of miscommunication. Farley explained, “The miscommunication was that the person who worked [at OHS] thought the policy was that they should take it [the posters] down.”The community breathed a collective sigh of relief when Amjad clarified via a post on the Facebook group, liked by a third of the student body, at 2.25 pm that the removal had not been sanctioned by Yale-NUS administration and the posters should be put back up. The incident seemed resolved when the posters were back up on the elevator walls by late Friday night.
However for many, the conversation had just begun.
The poster was a social experiment by a freshman. Matthew Ware ’18, the creator of the posters, said a talk on campus by provocative Singaporean writer Alfian Sa’at on Oct. 7 inspired him to put up the posters that very night. “Alfian Sa’at was asking us what is the extent of academic freedom [at Yale-NUS] … [and] most of us there said…that we feel that there is a very high degree of it …he challenged us [to test] what exactly are the limits of the bubble. So, I did wonder could someone put up a poster like that?”
When interviewed, President Pericles Lewis reiterated Yale-NUS’s policy, “We encourage all free speech on campus and the removal of poster was a mistake due to miscommunication with OHS so we immediately approved putting the posters back up and we never had any intention for the posters to be taken down.”
However, many students are still concerned. “Even if it was just a mistake, which I am inclined to believe…it still happened and I think that raises the underlying questions that have been there from the start… not about freedom of speech which is protected …but those questions about how Yale-NUS fits into… the broader NUS policy,” said Michael Moore-Jones ’17.
Responding to student concerns about whether the removal of the posters points to a greater debate about Yale-NUS’s place within NUS and a clash of ideologies, Lewis said that, “I don’t think its so much difference between Yale-NUS and NUS because from what I understand the colleges here in Utown like Tembusu … have basically the same policy that we do… OHS has explained it was a mistake and not part of NUS policy. I don’t think it had any ramifications for broader free speech [in Yale-NUS]… it is we who determine that policy and what happens in our elevators and in our classrooms and outside our classrooms”. When asked about NUS’s official policy, Farley elaborated, “My understanding… is that NUS’s policy is to not remove posters without communicating it to the leadership of that building.”
OHS corroborated this stance in an email statement which stated, “This is all a misunderstanding as we had the impression that the poster could have been put up by an unauthorized external party. The moment Yale-NUS clarified with us, it was put back up immediately. Going forward, OHS will work closely with Yale-NUS College first before taking down any posters.”
All the 13 students interviewed agreed that there is absolute freedom of speech on campus while 6 of the 13, said that any inhibitions to free speech only arise due to social student pressure. Timothy Lim’ 17 articulated this sentiment, “I think there is an atmosphere in the campus which makes us want to self-censor … look to confessions; it seems the idea that someone could not be feminist is foreign to some, or that some people don’t actually want to tolerate homosexuals. The attacks on these anonymous views are just another form of inhibiting the open airing of all views.”
Ware too agreed that there is full freedom of speech on campus , “That’s one of the things that articles in The Yale Daily News get wrong, the people who write them have not been here, they don’t know what the actual climate is like.”
When asked to respond to critics of Yale-NUS College who might use this incident to argue that Yale-NUS should not be in Singapore, Farley stressed that the incident was a case of miscommunication, not a clash of policies and said, “I think it would be unfortunate if someone took one employee who works for Housing services removing one piece of paper thinking that it was the policy of an entire institution and read into that Yale-NUS should not be in Singapore… I know that some of our external critics who are looking for anything, would make that jump, I just hope that people inside Yale-NUS don’t.”
Moving forward, students demand a more detailed and explicit written policy outlining all mediums of free speech on campus to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated.
Moore-Jones highlights, “I think …this is the most important issue that Yale-NUS actually has over the next two years because the way that is dealt with now, in a joint conversation with students and faculty and college leadership, sets the tone for how the college is seen in Singapore… and around the world for a long time to come.”