story | Daryl Yang, Guest Writer
photo | Raffles Hall Phoenix Vol. 7, 1866-1967, p. 84-96
When I first found out that the Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore” was canceled, I felt deeply disappointed. However, it was perhaps for a different reason from most others.
On one hand, many Yale-NUS College students were frustrated that this seemed like yet another instance of the stifling of academic freedom on campus. In my view, this concern seems unfounded. Most of the speakers slated to participate in the LAB have spoken at Yale-NUS before, whether as guests of the college or student groups. Some of the films to be screened have also been screened on campus before, including “1987: Untracing the Conspiracy”. While we have not screened “Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower” on campus, a Skype-in discussion had been organized several years ago with Joshua Wong.
On the other hand, some Singaporeans were shocked to find out that our students were being “radicalized” by the college to rain chaos and violence on our well-paved streets. Perhaps Mr. Tan Chuan-Jin, Speaker of Parliament, put it best in his Facebook post on this controversy: “Given what is happening in Hong Kong and elsewhere, do we believe that this is the way to go?”
While it was frustrating to read these comments, it was not at all surprising. Over the past few decades, most Singaporeans have largely forgotten the crucial role of civil society advocates and student activists in our nation-building process. Instead, most people associate them only with instability, violence and riots. Depoliticized forms of volunteering and community service which do not threaten the stability of extant social structures and institutions have seemingly become the only acceptable way by which one can legitimately participate in society.
For me, I was disappointed that we even needed to have a course to learn how to dissent and resist. It reminded me of the pathetic state of affairs in our society, that university students have to be taught how to be socially engaged and democratically responsible citizens. In any other functioning democracy, that a workshop on how to make protest signs would be controversial is almost laughable; yet, in Singapore, even something as basic as that can be considered an exercise in “liberal” radicalization.
After all, the right to dissent is an integral component of a healthy democracy. The right to express one’s disagreement with the state also is enshrined in our Constitution as a fundamental liberty guaranteed to every citizen. Indeed as founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had passionately declared in 1955, “If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought, and no excuse, whether of security, should allow a government to be deterred from doing what it knows to be right, and what it must know to be right.”
Several days earlier, I had a conversation with an alumnus from the then University of Singapore about student activism in Singapore in the 1970s. He recounted with pride how the students then would advocate for the marginalized or oppressed, whether they be low-income families or migrant workers. Students then knew how to make signs and organize themselves. In 1974 alone, university students organized a public campaign against the hike in bus fares and set up a Retrenchment Research Centre to support low-wage workers who had lost their jobs during the economic downturn.
These activities would be unthinkable today. This is due to the University of Singapore (Amendment) Act, which stripped what was then the University of Singapore Student Union (USSU) of its autonomy. In its place was introduced the National University of Singapore Student Union (NUSSU), which was heavily constrained in what it could do. Many student activists were also imprisoned, deported or punished for their active involvement, which contributed to a chilling effect that continues to haunt our society.
Had the vibrant culture of student activism not been annihilated in the preceding decades, we would have never needed such a course as students today would already be immersed in a community that actively practises dissent and resistance. There would have been no reason why our students need to learn how “citizens negotiate with power in Singapore” because they would already see their seniors and their professors doing that around them. There would also be no need for our students to learn how activists “creatively carve out spaces of freedom and autonomy” because those thought processes would be familiar to themselves as well. That we need to teach our students about these basic ideas speaks volumes about the civic poverty of our university and our society.
We had a brief glimpse of how things could be different earlier this year after Monica Baey revealed her troubling experience as a survivor of sexual harassment on campus. Hundreds of students descended on University Town to participate in the town hall on the university’s mismanagement of sexual misconduct. That our students actually cared about something other than their grades and employment shocked many, including NUS lecturer and veteran journalist Bertha Henson who wrote, “I have often told undergraduates that they are an apathetic lot, who prefer to merely put their names on online petitions than taking the time and energy to speak up for a cause. But over the past week, they have turned their eyes away from the computer screen, even though examinations are due next week, and decided to tackle the university authorities on fundamental issues…”
Despite the students’ remarkable showing in response to the issue of sexual misconduct, it is not a coincidence that most young Singaporeans are largely apathetic. As historian Constance Mary Turnbull observed, the replacement of USSU with NUSSU had marked “the end of student activism in Singapore.” Although this Week 7 was a laudable attempt at reigniting civic consciousness among our students, it is worth reflecting on why we even needed to try doing so in the first place.
In sum, while it is disappointing that the Week 7 program was canceled, a prior question that should be asked is why we even needed such a program in the first place. In any case, I am sure that we can continue to host the discussions with the speakers who had been invited to speak and watch the films that had been scheduled to be screened on our campus. There are important lessons for us to take away from this incident but the fear of Yale-NUS losing the academic freedom that we all deeply cherish is probably not one of them.
Furthermore, if it is any consolation, the cancellation of this programme is unlikely to seriously impair students from learning about and participating in civil society activism at Yale-NUS. Since our college’s inception, many students have started or joined various social movements from migrant workers’ rights to the climate crisis. Though the cancellation was unfortunate, I am confident that the vibrant culture of socio-political engagement that we have built at Yale-NUS since its inception in 2013 will offer ample opportunities for our students to learn and practise active citizenry both within the confines of our campus and beyond.
Daryl Yang recently graduated from the double degree programme in law and liberal arts offered jointly by Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law. In college, he served as President of The G Spot, Yale-NUS’ Gender & Sexuality Alliance. He also co-founded the Inter-University LGBT Network and the Community for Advocacy & Political Education.