False Alarm or Forewarning? Lessons from the Week 7 Controversy

Opinion

story | Yip Jia Qi, Staff Editor and Daryl Yang, Guest Writer 

photo | Tomas Ervinas Trosovas

 

Much ink has been spilt on the ill-fated cancellation of a Week 7 program on dissent and resistance in Singapore. In a recent blogpost, Andrew Bailey, Associate Professor and Head of Studies for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Yale-NUS College, has helpfully categorized the reactions into three groups: Local Establishment, Local Opposition and Opposition Abroad, all of which he argues are unfortunately misinformed. On one hand, anxieties that such a program is a prelude to a “color revolution” or social upheaval, which we will refer to in this article as the fear of instability, is clearly unfounded. On the other hand, the concern that the cancellation marked the beginning of the Singaporean state’s assault on academic freedom at Yale-NUS, which we will refer to as the fear of repression, is similarly spurious. 

Mr. Bailey’s analysis suggests that these misinformed reactions were the result of people not “tak[ing] the time to learn about the facts on the ground before forming an opinion.” However, what is interesting is that the divergent reactions were all based on the same basic facts – first, that there was to be a Week 7 program on dissent and resistance in Singapore and second, that this program was cancelled shortly before it was slated to commence. The first fact fed the fear of instability while the second fact kindled the latter fear of repression. This divergence suggests that it is not only misinformation but also what psychologists term motivated reasoning that resulted in the dual backlash that this Week 7 cancellation precipitated. Put simply, each group processed the information differently because they were motivated differently by the fear of instability and the fear of repression respectively. 

Those who fear instability question the motives of our college administration and our students and invoke the menace of foreign interference to explain our treacherous activities. At the same time, those who fear repression deride their critics as uncaring and selfish for refusing to address the social injustices that abound in our society. However, upon further scrutiny, it becomes evident that both groups’ fears seem to spring from the same concern for the wellbeing and future of Singapore society, one that is unfortunately neglected in the face of competing political and ideological beliefs between these groups. 

There is something for us to take away from the cancellation of this Week 7 program but it is neither the danger of foreign interference nor state repression. Rather, this incident has highlighted the urgency of rebuilding trust across political differences. Further, while some have exploited this event to argue against the existence of Yale-NUS as a liberal arts college in a non-liberal state, we suggest that it has instead demonstrated our school’s importance as an experiment in building a diverse yet cohesive community that can offer useful lessons for an increasingly polarized Singapore.

The fear of instability

Some – such as Goh Choon Kang, former Member of Parliament – have expressed concerns that the Week 7 program, and Yale-NUS in general, is a toehold for foreign interference in Singapore’s domestic politics, with the goal of destabilizing Singapore. While the facts suggest that these concerns are unfounded, the fear of instability is nevertheless prevalent, especially among the older generations. After all, the threat of foreign interference is not an illogical or baseless one. Scholars have documented the many instances of American and European intervention in less developed countries in the past and recent events abroad confirm that such practices remain prevalent, having been adopted by other rising powers.

While attractive at first, the purported threat of foreign interference from the West in the guise of “promoting human rights and democracy” in Singapore quickly falls apart. First, recent instances of foreign interference in Singapore have come from regional powers, not Western powers. Second, the accusation that the promotion of human rights and democracy is part of some globalist agenda funded by the Western elite or George Soros has been extensively debunked as an anti-Semitic, right-wing conspiracy. Accordingly, it is both intellectually dishonest and morally objectionable to knowingly perpetuate such charges. 

Given the flimsy basis upon which the threat of foreign interference is founded, it is useful to look inwards instead to understand the underlying fear of instability. Deeply ingrained in the Singaporean psyche is the notion that domestic stability and national unity are imperative to our country’s survival. This is driven by Singapore’s dependence as a small nation on large Multinational Corporations (MNCs) for economic survival. MNCs are drawn here, among many factors, by our political stability. Thus, some might see political dissent or disagreement, which disrupts Singapore’s veneer of stability, as an existential threat. Furthermore, a communitarian ethos has undoubtedly served Singapore well in decades past, delivering rapid economic development and urbanization. Even if this has come at the expense of a vibrant democratic culture, most Singaporeans have perhaps accepted this as a reasonable trade-off. 

Seen in this light, it is not difficult to sympathize with those who fear instability because of the apparent threat it poses to all the success that Singapore has achieved over the past several decades. Recent developments in Hong Kong have also likely intensified such a fear as well. However, this fear of instability so deeply ingrained in our national psyche may not serve Singapore well in an increasingly volatile world. As early as 2004, Lee Hsien Loong, then Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, acknowledged the importance of disagreements and differences: 

“[O]ur world has become more uncertain…. As we engage one another and wrestle with our problems, we will encounter different views. Disagreement does not necessarily imply rebellion, and nor should unity of purpose and vision mean sameness in views and ideas.” 

Accordingly, what may be more frightening than domestic instability in our rapidly changing world is narrow-mindedness. Differences and disagreements will become increasingly crucial for our society to navigate the uncharted waters of the climate catastrophe and a changing world order. Difficult questions must be asked and state policies challenged to ensure that we find the best solutions to the complex challenges our society faces. 

Rather than allow the fear of instability to alienate people advocating for a different vision of Singapore’s future, we should instead strengthen our society’s democratic muscles by nurturing our ability to engage alternative viewpoints. Ironically, alienation creates a vicious cycle, leading to greater polarization that will probably end in political instability – the very thing that was feared in the first place. Instead of giving in to the knee-jerk impulse of quelling dissent and disagreement, we suggest that the fear of instability should be overcome only by improving the quality of political conversations. This means entering conversations to understand rather than to convince or refute.

The fear of repression

Just as the notion that Yale-NUS or the Week 7 program was funded or influenced by some hostile foreign power is spurious, the concern among some Yale-NUS students and members of the public that its cancellation was instigated by the Singapore government is similarly baseless. Nevertheless, it is not difficult either to understand their fear of state repression.

According to Cherian George, current Professor of Media Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, the Singapore government does not employ “unbridled repression” but “calibrated coercion”. It does not overtly exert its power because of the risk of diminished legitimacy from the misapplication of violence. Rather, state control occurs through more subtle and less visible ways, whether through bureaucratic or legislative means. Consequently, it is not always apparent whether or when the state has exercised its powers to censor or control. This perhaps explains the persistent anxiety among Yale-NUS students about the state of academic freedom and freedom of expression on our campus, which are closely related but separate concepts. Almost every semester, a controversy – be it the events policy or the public spaces taskforce – will arise over what some students suspect is the beginning of the end of academic freedom in our community.

At the same time, it is precisely because of this strategy of calibrated coercion that Yale-NUS has been able to exist and thrive over the past seven years. The “gray space” that we enjoy stems from the complex negotiation of interests between the Singaporean state, Yale University and other stakeholders involved in our pedagogical project. But the academic freedom we are guaranteed does not mean that we can simply do as we wish as if our campus enjoys some de facto legal immunity by virtue of our affiliation with Yale. What it does mean is that there are intricate considerations that our students should reckon with when engaging in campus activism or other social movements. 

It would however be a mistake to think that this means that there is no freedom of expression or space for civil society at all. The result of “calibrated coercion” is perhaps more accurately “contingent freedom”, which is not necessarily an oxymoron. It is contingent in the sense that freedom is not guaranteed from the onset but is something that we know we have after the fact; put another way, the out-of-bound markers are not fixed and one often only finds out where they are when she has overstepped the line. This uncertainty may be uncomfortable or troubling to some but it also represents the potential for social change. 

Those interested in advocating for social justice then cannot let the fear of repression blind them to these possibilities for change or paralyze them from acting at all. Instead, the key is in what Lynette Chua, Associate Professor at Yale-NUS, has described as “pragmatic resistance” by carefully evaluating how and when different types of advocacy methods should be employed. Encouragingly, being at Yale-NUS has helped to sharpen many of our students’ sensitivity to and understanding of these nuances in pursuing their visions of social justice. As Pericles Lewis, inaugural President of Yale-NUS, observed in his fact-finding report about the cancelled Week 7 program, “Although the College has graduated only three classes, a number of its graduates and students are already noted in Singapore for their advocacy on social issues.” 

Further, in light of the fear of instability evinced by many Singaporeans, it is also crucial that they find effective ways to engage those who are more risk-averse; after all, any social movement can succeed only with public support. This is obviously not an easy task and demands empathy, patience and a pinch of hopeful idealism. 

Yale-NUS as an experiment in diversity

In his speech at the inauguration of the Yale-NUS campus in 2015, Lee Hsien Loong, current Prime Minister of Singapore, observed that the diversity of our community “adds to the richness of the student experience.” We suggest that the College’s experience with fostering a diverse yet cohesive community also offers something valuable to Singapore at large. As observed earlier, the divided reactions to the cancellation of the Week 7 program reveal a growing polarization between different groups in Singapore society with competing notions of what Singapore can and should look like. If these differences are not well-managed, the worst fears of those concerned with Singapore’s stability may very well come true. 

Yale-NUS students have learnt the importance not only of passionately advocating for what they believe in but also understanding and listening to those with whom they disagree. There are valuable lessons in humility, trust and community-building that we can perhaps share with the larger Singaporean public to strengthen our society’s ability to cope with and thrive on diversity and differences. 

Ultimately, Yale-NUS was born out of the collision of different ideals. As a liberal arts college in a non-“liberal” environment, we have had to grapple with the many contradictions and conflicts that arose from our chimeric birth. We will face many challenges in the years ahead but they are precisely what makes the Yale-NUS experience worthwhile. Many have and probably will continue to declare our college a failed experiment, but only time will tell. Meanwhile, let us persist in pushing the boundaries with our chimeric project.

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

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