Sunday, March 26, 2023

On the Yale-NUS Governing Board, Tolerance is Not Enough

Story by Nicholas Carverhill, Guest Columnist

On Jan. 27, 2016, Yale-NUS Governing Board Member Ambassador Chan Heng Chee spoke at the Universal Periodic Review of Singapore’s human rights, hosted by the United Nations. At this review she defended Singapore’s position on gay rights and the existence of Section 377A—institutionalized inequality—in the Penal Code. No less than 12 delegations recommended that Singapore protect LGBTQI+ persons more robustly—most of those delegates called explicitly for Singapore to repeal Section 377A. Ambassador Chan is, admittedly, merely acting as a mouthpiece for the Singapore government’s oft-repeated position on the issue—discriminatory laws on the books, but not in practice. Be that as it may, it is unacceptable that Yale-NUS College, a community composed of a strong LGBTQI+ student population, retain Ambassador Chan as a member of its Governing Board so long as she must advocate for this position.

The Governing Board is responsible for the highest level of strategic oversight of our College, and it is morally imperative that those members are able to defend this community’s values unequivocally. Ambassador Chan may very well be fulfilling her role as a civil servant, whose job it is to defend Singapore’s position on gay rights. In this capacity, she is obviously unable to speak freely on legislation like 377A.

Such is the unfortunate reality of being an ambassador—or, in many cases, a file-and-rank politician. Regardless, if Yale-NUS is to live up to its claim of “creat[ing] a pluralistic and inclusive college community, in which all students are able to openly express the multiple social and personal identities they hold,” it cannot have leadership that must actively advocate for policies that contradict this commitment—as Ambassador Chan has this past week. Section 377A is undoubtedly harmful to LGBTQI+ individuals; it perpetuates damaging norms and leads to tangible discriminatory practices—these have been catalogued and documented widely by civil society groups in Singapore. Tolerating (unofficial) gay bars, (a heavily regulated and challenged) Pink Dot, and a thin representation of queer characters in theatre (those are the ones that get by the censors) is not enough. So long as gay men are singled out in official legislation, the state will be endorsing the norm that they are ‘different’ from the ‘rest of us’ whose sexual choices are not subject to official censure.

Yale-NUS may be beholden to the laws of Singapore, but we do not have to accommodate the government’s official position on gay rights within our own leadership ranks. We must have the backbone to reject discrimination in any way we can. This issue should not be up for debate in the Yale-NUS College community; all students deserve equal treatment in practice and in theory. We have an entire office (Diversity) dedicated to this principle. To suggest that we can negotiate this issue is antithetical to the ethos of this space that we share. Causing potential offense is an inadequate justification for discrimination. This is not an endorsement of the ‘gay lifestyle.’ It is, plain and simple, a commitment to equality through leadership that is positioned to defend this norm.

So what next? The first step is to welcome Ambassador Chan and our College’s leadership to engage in conversation with the student body on the issue—it is important to hear from them. Although unlikely to result in a public reversal of her position on the issue, we ought not jump to immediate conclusions. Half-measures, however, will not do. Barring a willingness to defend the rights of LGBTQI+ students—including a stand against official discriminatory government policies—Ambassador Chan must be asked to relinquish her position on the Governing Board.

We, as a community, must have the collective moral fortitude to put our highest aspirations of equality and opportunity above power politics. Ambassador Chan is no doubt a valuable contributor to the Governing Board; her connections, intellect, and experience surely serve us well. What’s more, there is no doubt that Ambassador Chan is tremendously accomplished in academia, politics, diplomacy, business, and other fields. It also goes without saying that she has made meaningful, and progressive, contributions to the endeavours with which she has been involved—including international diplomacy, philanthropy, and community building.

Nonetheless, we abandon the core of our College’s commitment to diversity and inclusion if we choose to sacrifice our LGBTQI+ peers at the altar of political expediency. Let there be no mistake about it, that is what retaining Ambassador Chan would entail if all else remains equal. Yale-NUS is morally bankrupt if we stand in silence and complicity—#WeAreYaleNUSToo, and we will defend equality and inclusion, even at the cost of political capital.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to:


  1. The write up contains too much absoluteness, and understandably so, as it is one that advocates a demand, not a discourse. That however, leaves readers unconvinced.

    It has been repeatedly mentioned in the article that Chan is unable to represent and defend the Yale-NUS community’s values simply due to her representation of Singapore at the Universal Periodic Review of Singapore’s human rights.

    Whether an individual is qualified to represent and to govern a certain body is entirely based on his/her performance in the questioned capacity. The key question to ask here is, has Chan, in her role as a Yale-NUS Governing Board Member, gone against the values of the Yale-NUS community? The article failed to provide any proof of such an allegation. It is judging an individual’s performance entirely based on distinct and unrelated responsibilities.

    The matter of fact is that individuals can take up multiple roles, and each one of them does not necessarily interfere with the other. In this case, Chan cannot represent both the Yale-NUS community and Singapore at the same time. Depending on the circumstances, her position on the topic of LGBT can vary. By stating that Chan is unable to represent the Yale-NUS community, is the article then casting doubts on Chan’s ability in distinguishing the multiple roles she juggle?

    Following the article’s logic, does that then mean that an individual who subscribes to Christianity should be barred from standing in the Presidential Election of the United States simply based on the fact that the nation officially supports same-sex marriage?

    To remove an individual from an appointment based on such a logic is hypocritical, it sends a message that the role of a Yale-NUS Governing Board Member functions only at the symbolic level, that symbolism takes priority over actual function and performance. What difference is there between such a move and the non-practised criminalisation of homosexual act (which the Yale-NUS community is very apparently opposed to) then? They are both symbolic in nature.

    To assess situations strictly in black or white seems to be a weakness of the predominant Western thinking. I had thought that Yale-NUS prides itself on critical and flexible thinking.


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