Latest Task Force Report Raises New Questions in Public Spaces Debate
story | Alysha Chandra, Staff Editor
photo | Yip Jia Qi
Following legal consultation, the Public Space Task Force has found that current definitions of public space in Yale-NUS are incongruous with Singaporean law, raising new questions in the debate surrounding academic freedom. In response to this, the Task Force’s latest report recommends that a committee be set up to advise students on events and installations on campus, and ‘advocate for academic expression within the law’.
The Task Force’s previous definition of public and private spaces on campus involved whether spaces were in open air or within roofed buildings and if they had closed or open doors or gates. On September 24, Interim Dean of Students Joanne Roberts invited legal counsel from Drew & Napier LLC to clarify the implications of the Public Order Act in Singaporean law for Yale-NUS.
The Public Order Act defines public space as “any place (open to the air or otherwise) to which members of the public have access to as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission”. According to the report, the legal counsel said that the previous definition was insecure as the Public Order Act is ‘concerned with the likelihood of any gathering to cause public disorder’, regardless of the location or members of the gathering.
However, the report notes ‘it is clear that Singapore does not enforce the law in its broad interpretation of space and public’ and highlighted the potential for self-censorship in the face of the Public Order Act. The report then sets out recommendations to the school, namely that a new advisory committee, comprised of students, Rectors and faculty, be formed to ‘facilitate the fullest possible expression’ in the community and ensure students do not ‘unduly censor themselves’.
To hold an event or set up a free-standing installation in a public space, students currently seek approval from either the Dean of Students (DoS) office or a Rector. If permission is granted, there is a liaison with the Infrastructure Office to discuss issues of implementation, such as safety and the maintenance of grounds. The report recommends that the advisory committee, which ‘should not have approval powers’, be incorporated into this arrangement.
Task Force member Jiang Haolie ’21 said, “I am disappointed that the final report and the legal counsel’s memorandum of understanding did not give us the seal of approval for the kind of freedoms that we had wanted for the Yale-NUS community.”
Still, he said, “[The Task Force] did our best while working under the constraints of the local political climate and the Public Order Act.”
The Task Force, co-chaired by Associate Professor Steven Green and Vice-Rector Suyin Chew, was set up in December 2017 to form clear guidelines to promote full, appropriate and consistent use of public spaces on campus. The public space policy and its implications on academic freedom were one of the frustrations cited by students involved in sit-in protests in March.
Critics of the College have long questioned the ability of a liberal arts college to thrive in Singapore. However, As Daryl Yang ’18 has noted in The Octant, the boundaries between student activism and academic freedom are ‘amorphous’, and ‘drawn very indistinctly in the sand’.
Task Force member Jay Lusk ’18 was involved in editing the report but chose not to sign it as he felt that no action taken by the Task Force would be sufficient to protect academic freedom in Yale-NUS.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with the report itself… I simply believe the legal environment is not conducive to the protections for academic freedom necessary to operate a truly inquisitive liberal arts college,” said Lusk.
The report noted existing frustration with Infrastructure and its role with events and installations on campus, recommending that a set of Frequently Asked Questions be created to address concerns and misconceptions about Infrastructure’s remit. The Task Force also recommended that the college’s commitment to academic expression be consistently presented across college communications, including admissions.
“I feel we should consider taking a step back from the recommendations and decide as a community if clearer public space rules, at the risk of more constraint, is what we want,” said Jiang.
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