Story | Daniel Ng & Daryl Yang (he/him), Guest Writers
Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)
In our previous article, we discussed whether the Yale-NUS experiment succeeded as a liberal arts college in Singapore and the importance of equal participation of students. Since our article, this principle of equal participation was echoed by a journalist, who noted that it is “this aspect of community building that stands out for [her] when it comes to Yale-NUS College.” NUS President Tan Eng Chye also affirmed that he “consider[s] Yale-NUS a great success” in The Straits Times while Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing observed in Parliament that Yale-NUS is “seen as a paragon of academic freedom” despite doubts about a liberal arts college in Singapore at its inception.
In this piece, we address Chan’s claim that the academic freedoms enjoyed at Yale-NUS “were created by taking reference from NUS’ practices, and that these practices have remained unchanged since then.” This claim may not be entirely accurate and may have to do with Chan’s narrow definition of academic freedom as referring only to research and classroom teaching. We first trace how Yale-NUS became what Chan calls the “paragon of academic freedom in Singapore” and how it conceived of academic freedom more broadly as also comprising learning outside the classroom as well as student life. We then make three recommendations on how the New College can continue to be a paragon of academic freedom and free inquiry which will allow the liberal arts to thrive.
How did Yale-NUS become a Paragon of Academic Freedom?
Since the college’s inception, skeptics of its pedagogical experiment in Singapore have questioned whether a liberal arts college can survive and thrive in a country where the freedoms of speech and assembly are limited. For instance, the American Association of University Professors charged that “one needs to give serious consideration to whether academic freedom, and the personal freedoms that are a necessary prerequisite to its exercise, can in fact be sustained on a campus within what is a substantially authoritarian regime.”
However, as Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing noted during the recent September 2021 parliamentary sitting: “Few believed [10 years ago] that Yale-NUS would live up to its ambition… It is perhaps ironic and a testimony to National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale-NUS’ efforts all these years, that Yale-NUS is now seen as a paragon of academic freedom in Singapore.”
In his parliamentary speech, Chan claimed that Yale-NUS’s policies on academic freedom were created by taking reference from NUS’s practices. However, it is not clear what these NUS practices are. As Sina Westa observed, the phrase “academic freedom” is not mentioned anywhere in NUS’s statutes or regulations. In Westa’s words, “academic freedom is [not] a talked about issue in Singapore [or] in the National University of Singapore.”
Notably, in 1986, when Member of Parliament J.B. Jeyaretnam asked about the Government’s policy towards academic freedom, then Minister for Education Tony Tan did not explicitly address the concept except to say that NUS “expects its academic staff to ensure that what they publish is carefully researched, accurate and of high academic standard.” He also noted that “when staff members, especially expatriates, express opinions on areas likely to generate domestic political controversy, they do so on their own personal behalf and not that of the department or faculty they teach in.”
Chan’s assertion also runs contrary to the former Yale University President Richard C. Levin’s Presidential Statement in 2012 where he noted that Yale had entered the partnership to set up Yale-NUS “in full awareness that national laws concerning freedom of expression would place constraints on the civic and political behavior of students and faculty.” In this context, he explained, “[w]e negotiated language protecting academic freedom and open inquiry on the Yale-NUS campus, as well as the freedom to publish the results of scholarly inquiry in the academic literature” (emphasis added).
The language that Levin was referring to is enshrined in Yale-NUS’s policies on academic freedom and non-discrimination. In addition, the Faculty Statement on the Freedom of Expression states that the college is “firmly committed to the free expression of ideas in all forms—a central tenet of liberal arts education. There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated. This principle is a cornerstone of our institution.”
This explicit affirmation of academic freedom at Yale-NUS allowed students to explore their academic interests not only in the classroom but also outside of it through talks, workshops, and student activities which allow them to explore their academic interests not just through reading and research but also through community engagement. Immediately after the inaugural class was formed, students came together to set up the first LGBTQ+ student group in Singapore, The G Spot, to examine issues around gender and sexuality. In 2015, the now defunct Yale-NUS International Relations and Political Association (YIRPA) organized the Policies Not Platitudes forum and invited representatives from nine political parties running in the 2015 General Elections to speak and debate on their parties’ policy proposals. Subsequently, a group of Yale-NUS students founded the Community for Advocacy & Political Education (CAPE) in 2017 together with some NUS students to increase political literacy among young Singaporeans. Since then, Yale-NUS students have gone on to help organize the Singapore Climate Rally and contribute to legislative debates on the controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods & Manipulation Act as well as public discourse on important issues through publications such as Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, which presents alternative viewpoints for thinking about Singapore’s developmental story.
Of course, there were instances where the contours of academic freedom and free inquiry at Yale-NUS came into question. After all, academic freedom is not synonymous with free speech and does not exempt the Yale-NUS campus or community from Singapore law. As an experiment looking to adapt Yale’s liberal arts model to Singapore and Asia, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested, these episodes are to be expected—and even embraced as part of the experiment.
Indeed, the first time that the contours of academic freedom appear to have been explicitly addressed by the Government was in 2019, after a Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries module titled “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore” by playwright Alfian Sa’at was canceled two weeks before it was to commence. Despite findings by the Yale Faculty Advisory Committee on the cancellation which reassured Yale President Peter Salovey of Yale-NUS’s “strong commitment to academic freedom,” many wondered if the cancellation of the Week 7 program was politically motivated.
Among those concerned were several Members of Parliament who fielded multiple parliamentary questions on the cancellation, including Nominated Member of Parliament Assoc Prof Walter Theseira who asked how the Government intends to assure university students and faculty that they “continue to have the academic freedom to responsibly and critically examine social and political issues in Singapore.”
In response, Ong Ye Kung, then Minister for Education, affirmed that the Government “values academic freedom” which allows universities to “create new knowledge, innovate and contribute to scientific, technological, economic and social progress.” He then set out four principles in determining what activities are permitted on university campuses: first, compliance with Singapore law; second, adherence to the mission of advancing education and maintaining high academic standards; third, protection of universities from misuse as platforms for partisan politics; and finally, sensitivity to Singapore’s cultural and social context.
These principles would be familiar to the Yale-NUS community, which has been navigating and negotiating the “gray space” that the college occupies. This “gray space” exists because of the explicit guarantees of academic freedom and free inquiry that the founding members of the Yale-NUS community secured in 2012. Because of this “gray space,” Yale-NUS could become a “paragon of academic freedom,” as Chan called it, as students, staff, and faculty pushed the boundaries of learning both inside and outside the classroom.
This does not mean that such freedoms are unlimited; rather, as former Rector of Elm College and Professor of Philosophy Amber Carpenter noted, “Being located in Singapore requires us to be more thoughtful and reflective about what public discourse is, what the various kinds of freedom are and what good they might be.” Yale-NUS’s experience thus far is instructive and New College should foster an environment that sustains these reflections and negotiations.
Protecting Academic Freedom and Free Inquiry at the New College
It is currently unclear whether the New College will also enjoy this “gray space” given that there is no explicit guarantee of academic freedom and free inquiry on NUS’s website or in its constitutional documents. The NUS administration and the Education Minister have also not provided any reassurances that these principles will be part of the “best of… the Yale-NUS foundation” to be retained at New College.
Notably, a recent survey conducted by AcademiaSG suggests that this ambiguity has raised concerns about the existence and strength of academic freedom in Singapore. The survey found that more than three-quarters (77.5%) of around 200 Singapore-based academics and researchers believed that universities in Singapore only exercise “some” institutional autonomy or less. Around one-third of male academics (33.1%) and more than half (50.9%) of female academics did not feel that they could freely invite guest speakers.
To avoid any misunderstanding, this is not to say that academics in institutions other than Yale-NUS have not enjoyed any academic freedom at all; instead, as Assoc Prof Daniel Goh helpfully points out, academics at NUS have often been able to conduct research on and teach difficult and controversial subjects long before Yale-NUS’s establishment. Nevertheless, if the New College is to succeed, we believe that it must take seriously the critical importance of academic freedom and free inquiry in the liberal arts and its extension beyond the sphere of academic research to the sphere of learning outside the classroom as well.
To quell any potential fears or uncertainty about the experience that future students at New College will enjoy, the NUS administration should actively take steps to guarantee that it will uphold the principles of academic freedom and free inquiry at New College, just as they were upheld at Yale-NUS for all involved parties. A straightforward way to do so is to directly adopt the Yale-NUS Statement on Freedom of Expression and recognize the principle of free inquiry as a cornerstone of the New College.
Students should also feel supported in exploring their interests both inside and outside the classroom. They should be able to flourish in a pedagogical space where they are allowed to raise difficult, uncomfortable, and controversial questions that interrogate and sometimes challenge power and the status quo. On this, the New College administration should ensure that students can organize activities and events that contribute to a diversity of perspectives and experiences beyond the classroom. We recommend that the current relationship between student organizations and the Dean of Students (DOS) office be retained at New College, where the administration plays an administrative and advisory role rather than gatekeeping when it comes to student activities and events. This is set out in the Yale-NUS Events Policy, where student organization events are considered “Business As Usual” unless the event is large-scale, involves external partners, receives external sponsorship and/or collects registration fees. This “Business As Usual” approach contrasts with NUS’s current approval requirements, where the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) requires students to submit an event proposal at least six (6) weeks prior to the start of any event for approval.
Finally, to make clear the New College’s and NUS’s commitment to these cardinal principles, the administration should establish an independent academic freedom ombudsman office which will investigate and monitor academic freedom issues that may arise. A similar proposal was recently made last year in the United Kingdom by education think tank Policy Exchange for British universities. The ombudsman office should comprise both local and foreign academics from outside of NUS, who will be able to provide independent assessment and scrutiny of the developments at New College. Its role will be similar to that of Founding Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis, who conducted a fact-finding mission and published a report on the cancellation of the Week 7 program “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore.” The operation of the ombudsman office should subsequently be studied and further expanded to serve the larger NUS community and similar offices should eventually be set up across other Singapore universities.
As we have earlier argued, the liberal arts can and did flourish in Singapore over the past decade since Yale-NUS College was established. The principles of equal participation as well as academic freedom and free inquiry were key in ensuring that Yale-NUS and its diverse and engaged students flourished. With policies and safeguards in place to ensure the same open environment at New College, we look forward to seeing this new institution thrive just like Yale-NUS College did and continue to cultivate new generations of leaders and thinkers to guide Singapore and the world through an uncertain future.
Daniel Ng graduated in 2019 from the Double Degree Programme in Law and Liberal Arts jointly offered by Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law. He furthered his studies at Tsinghua University as a Schwarzman Scholar, and is now a practicing lawyer.
Daryl Yang graduated in 2019 from the Double Degree Programme in Law and Liberal Arts jointly offered by Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law. He is currently pursuing a Master of Laws at Berkeley Law School as a Fulbright scholar.
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