‘Academic Rigor’ in Service of the State
story| Wee Yang Soh, Guest Writer
photo | Gov.sg
As I watched yet another petty Yale-NUS College internal affair make national headlines, my initial bemusement grew into mounting unease as the political implications of the Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) saga began to crystallize. The few initial press reports about the cancellation of an experiential module at Yale-NUS became a cause célèbre, as state actors quickly identified and condemned people thought to be involved in organizing the module. At the same time, Yale expressed concerns that the cancellation was due to state interference on Yale-NUS’ academic freedom.
While Yale launched an investigation into the affair, state actors speculated, opined, and held parliamentary debates on the value and perils of a liberal arts education. The state’s characterization of the LAB as causing dissent in Singapore rather than theorizing dissent in Singapore caused much alarm. Several social commentators criticized the college for organizing the programme, conveniently forgetting that, by the time it was reported in the press, the LAB had already been cancelled. In the resulting witch hunt, Tan Chuan Jin, Speaker of Parliament, even named members of the Yale-NUS staff presumed to be responsible on his Facebook page.
Why did this massive overreaction occur? Since the institution’s founding, Yale-NUS has been prefigured as fertile grounds for foreign interference and political dissidence. This imagination of Yale-NUS hails back all the way to the institution’s founding, when the kinds of political activities that students can engage on campus were debated. And ever since the College enrolled its first class, the activities of the College have been placed under heavy scrutiny, as evinced by the routine thrusting of the most mundane of college affairs into media limelight.
The aim of this piece, however, is not to critique the peculiar cultural logics of postcolonial Singapore. It is also not to evaluate different parties’ responses to the College’s decision to cancel the Week 7 LAB, as that has been covered elsewhere. Rather, this piece seeks to reveal the College’s position as an institution of knowledge production located within a hypersensitive state, and to discuss how the College can pursue its primary aim — knowledge production — while still being attendant to a hawkish state’s insatiable need to be reassured that Singapore’s worst fear of a Hong Kong-style upheaval is not going to materialize. At least, not through Yale-NUS.
As Yale-NUS has been perceived as a dangerous breeding ground for threats to Singapore’s sovereignty, the institution has felt the need to carefully manage the political valences of its image. This has foreclosed the kinds of positions the College can occupy on controversial issues. When issues like Week 7 LABgate explode in the Singaporean public, the institution’s only possible course of action is always a defensive one, one that involves demonstrating the non-threatening nature of Yale-NUS’s projects. This usually manifests through claims that the College has no interest in politics or advocacy, but just in the most sublime enterprise of “rigorous” knowledge production, as voiced most recently in Yale-NUS’s justification for canceling the LAB.
The problem with such claims to a putatively neutral and elevated enterprise of “rigorous” knowledge production is that it allows the state to use the College’s stances in ways that end up going against the College’s values of pluralism, respect for diversity, and academic rigor. Once the Yale investigation was concluded, affirming the College’s decision to cancel the LAB on the basis of a lack of rigor and political balance, Alfian Sa’at, the LAB’s instructor, was subjected to a very public vilification for his “anti-national” activism. He had his poetry dissected for evidence of anti-national ideology, was framed as a repeat offender of public disorder, and implied to be a “charlatan” that may pose a security threat to Singapore. Yale-NUS’s appraisal of a “lack of academic rigor” in the short experiential course ended up granting authority to the instructor’s state-wide condemnation.
Mr. Alfian will suffer the consequences of two compounding ignominies: a condemnation as an anti-national enfant terrible who (1) poses a continual threat to the social fabric and (2) whose works and intellectual labor lack the necessary “rigor” to be engaged seriously on their own terms. The second ends up reinforcing the first, crystallizing an image of Mr. Alfian as a troublemaker whose perspective brings no value whatsoever to discussions about his own country. This image has been very fruitful for the state, not just because it allows the state to creatively construe threats to social and political stability. It also allows the state to justify their heavy-handed stance in regulating speech, thought, and knowledge production, and to generate national solidarity by demonizing individuals claimed to propagate such perceived threats. It is indisputable that the College has been complicit in the state’s political projects, voluntarily or not.
The College can no longer assert itself as a guardian of academic “rigor” in the pursuit of knowledge, pretending that such a position is not implicated (or not implicatable) in local political processes. Rather, the time has come to recognize how the College’s actions play unwittingly into the state’s politics. If “rigor” is taken as the methodical and ethical application of technique in research, then it would seem that the College has ironically moved away from rigor in its bid to distance itself from a demonized playwright. We should all be very alarmed when state actors are invested in picking apart literary works for anti-nationalist sentiments line-by-line, demonstrating, ironically but perfectly, what a rigorous intellectual inquiry should not be.
An unfortunate consequence of the whole saga is that it will further marginalize certain kinds of social positions and bury voices that already suffer from underrepresentation at the state level. The character assasination of Mr. Alfian, whose works often try to illuminate the lived realities of Singaporeans who do not fit into widely accepted social categories, will further cripple grassroot efforts to address structural problems of equity in Singapore. This dual dismissal of Mr. Alfian reverberates loud and clear, sending a frightening message that only certain kinds of state-affirming knowledge can be tolerated, and any other kinds of knowledge that interrogate state ideology and practices are liable to be mischaracterized and repackaged as ammunition for charges of sedition.
What could have been done better? Of course, the best case scenario is for the state not to have made the multiple interpretative leaps that allowed the cancellation of a week-long module to be taken up as evidence of political subversion. Unfortunately, given the state’s current track record, especially pertaining to issues concerning Yale-NUS, we can continue to expect such melodramatic displays of outrage at the slightest perceived threat to social order. There is thus a pressing need for the College to reflect on the ways in which internal decisions are taken up by the wider Singaporean society, and on how the College should change its approach accordingly.
Barring changes to the state’s predispositions, there are two courses of action Yale-NUS can take to prevent future College issues from devolving in the ridiculous manner of the Week 7 LAB fiasco. The first approach is prophylactic, to guard against mischaracterizations of College issues through greater transparency of College decisions right from the start, given the press’s truly regrettable penchant to blow trifling matters completely out of proportion. The College needs to ensure and facilitate the proper and timely communication of objectives and concerns among all the involved parties and students so that issues can be resolved internally before the public gets involved. What this requires is a thorough investigation and review of where communication channels within the College have failed, unnecessarily complicating a rather straightforward matter.
When preventive measures fail — it would be wise to work on the assumption that they will — and an issue blows up, the College should own, accept, and examine the sociopolitics of the issue, instead of disavowing all political responsibilities by retreating to the seemingly impartial ground of “academic rigor”. This would also involve standing with rather than against bringers of knowledge from less represented, misrepresented, and/or marginalized positionalities.
In this particular incident, the College could have appeased state concerns not by offloading all the blame on an instructor it had formerly engaged, but by clarifying that the cancellation was due to simple miscommunication and mismatch of expectations. I do not doubt that the College’s decision to cancel the Week 7 LAB was made in good faith, but good intention is besides the point. I take particular issue with the unceremonious way the College jettisoned an instructor so quickly, as if tossing out last week’s leftover lasagna, once trouble started looming over the Singapore horizon.
As a self-proclaimed bastion of liberal education in Asia for the world, Yale-NUS should actively seek out and honor partnerships that help illuminate the social world in which the institution is located. The last thing the College needs is to lose the confidence of local artists and other valuable potential partners in knowledge generation, because that is when a rigorous liberal education starts moving away from the very epistemological grounds it has staked its values and authority on.
Wee Yang Soh (Yale-NUS Class of 2017) is an Anthropology PhD student at the University of Chicago. His research is on statecraft and politics of culture in Singapore and South Korea.