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The Promise of Academic Freedom at Yale-NUS

All PostsOpinionThe Promise of Academic Freedom at Yale-NUS

story | Daryl Yang, Guest Writer

photo | Photofunia


Recently, there has been much talk about the promise of academic freedom on our campus in light of the ongoing work of the Public Space Task Force (a periodic review of the existing Yale-NUS College regulations on academic freedoms and student activities in College spaces), which partially culminated in a sit-in protest in the Elm courtyard. Concerns over this issue is not new; last year at around the same time, students mobilized in alarm over the events policy out of fear that the worst nightmare of Jim Sleeper, an American political commentator and outspoken critic of the college, had finally come true. While it is heartening that students care deeply about this issue in our community, it may be helpful to consider what this promise entails before deciding whether it has been broken.

The Promise of Academic Freedom

Back in 2012, Pericles Lewis, founding President of Yale-NUS College, issued a Presidential Statement where he guaranteed that Yale-NUS College is “committed to academic freedom and open inquiry… [and] specifically protects academic freedom for research, teaching, and discussion on campus and for publication of the resulting scholarship.” At the same time, he noted that “any college or university must obey the laws of the countries where it operates” and acknowledged that “there are restrictions on speech and public demonstrations in Singapore.”

It is clear then that academic freedom is not synonymous with or equivalent to freedom of expression, as Mr. Lewis himself noted in a 2015 interview with The Octant. Rather, academic freedom is a particular right of free expression as it relates to the academic sphere. In that same interview, Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, defined academic freedom as “the ability to teach and learn about anything on campus.”

At a Public Space Task Force consultation with students, some students questioned if the guarantee of academic freedom meant that Yale-NUS students were exempt from Singapore legislations that restrict freedom of speech and assembly. They asserted that Yale-NUS’ free speech policy promised unfettered academic freedom. The policy states that the college is “firmly committed to the free expression of ideas in all forms – a central tenet of liberal arts education. This… is not limited to the classroom. It extends to the entire campus.”

It is noteworthy that the policy continues with the qualification that “we ask that you be mindful of the local Singaporean context, just as we would encourage you to be mindful of the local context wherever you travel, live, work or study in the world.” The question then is whether it is the responsibility of the college to display all relevant legislations in Singapore to help students understand the scope of academic freedom that they will enjoy. From my knowledge, no other university does so and in any case, it was Aristotle who said nemo censetur ignorare legem (nobody is thought to be ignorant of the law).

In any case, Yale-NUS cannot possibly be exempt from the law for two reasons. Firstly, such an arrangement would violate the cardinal principle of equality that everyone is equal before the law. Just because this college was co-founded by an American institution does not mean that members of the Yale-NUS community can or should be above the law. Secondly, no country other than the United States of America guarantees an unfettered right of free expression. Academic freedom nonetheless exists in most parts of the world; the question is not one of absolute freedom but the degree of reasonable limitation.

There is no question that there are very real constraints on the freedom of expression in Singapore. For instance, the Public Order Act was amended significantly last year and there are now more amendments pending in Parliament, which has raised the ire of many civil society activists. This is just one of many legislations that severely limit the scope of the constitutional right of free expression under Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution, which incidentally applies only to citizens; non-citizens enjoy only the common law right of free speech.

This has led some to suggest that the Yale-NUS project is intrinsically flawed because there is no complete freedom of expression in Singapore: how can a liberal education possibly flourish in a less-than-liberal society? Mr. Lewis forcefully responded to this criticism in a reply to Mr. Sleeper on the New York Times: “How does he expect those countries to become more open if their students are denied the benefits of a liberal education and the attendant discussion of political issues on campus?” Indeed, I have suggested elsewhere that such an attitude is both self-defeating and no more than ideological snobbery; a liberal education that avails itself only to those deemed worthy because they already subscribe to certain “liberal” values is perhaps more illiberal than it likes to think itself to be.

It is important also to remind ourselves of the unique and sometimes uncomfortable position that Yale-NUS is in as a collaboration across culture. As Professor Anju Paul noted in her First Year Assembly speech: “We are not Yale in Asia, and we are not NUS-lite.” Part of the Yale-NUS experience is navigating and contributing to the project of how a liberal education can flourish outside of the West; there would be no need for the Yale-NUS experiment if our college operated under the exact same conditions as Yale in New Haven.

How then does the limited right to freedom of expression in Singapore interact with academic freedom at Yale-NUS College? Principally, there does not seem to have been any form of institutional incursion into the academic freedom on our campus to study, research, or to discuss any topic or question. In fact, professors have not shied away from even the most obvious “out of bounds” markers in Singapore. Rather, the tension surrounding freedom of expression often arises from within the community rather than the administration, over controversies like parody posters about the transgender identity and the canonization of Mother Teresa and the use of an anonymous confessions Facebook page.

Nonetheless, in light of the Public Space Task Force, some have averred that a meaningful liberal education would be severely undermined if a bright line is drawn between the public and the private. Examples raised include how a class on social movements must involve practical organizing so that it is not merely theoretical or how a student in a literature class on political aesthetics might want to investigate how a public demonstration might function as a performance text.

Yet, this is again a question of reasonable limitation in light of the expansive definition of what a “public place” is under the Public Order Act; how far can we stretch the conception of academic freedom when that exercise of academic freedom directly threatens to or in fact does break the law? Take a more extreme example: can a student consume illegal drugs in the name of academic freedom to complete his Arts & Humanities capstone, like how painter Bryan Lewis Saunders did to complete his series of self-portraits?

The Potential of Academic Freedom

At least in the case of social movements, learning to navigate the laws and creatively work around them is arguably a part of our education as aspiring student activists. Ironically, it is the demand that the promise of academic freedom shield us from any legal repercussions that would undermine our growth as students and as aspiring activists. It is nonetheless clear that the academic freedom that we enjoy on our campus to pursue controversial and difficult issues has allowed student activism to flourish on our campus. Relatedly, while some students have alleged instances of censorship by the administration, there needs to be a distinction drawn between Public Affairs staff providing advice based on their professional expertise, and bureaucratic coercion or compulsion.

When Yale-NUS was first mooted as an idea, Ng Yi-sheng, queer activist and artist, suggested in 2012 that the establishment of Yale-NUS “could have implications for activism in the whole of Singapore, and even beyond.” I think he was right. Personally, I served as leader of The G Spot (Yale-NUS’ Gender and Sexuality Alliance) for two terms and recently co-founded CAPE, a new student organization focusing on advocacy and political education. Many of my peers are also deeply engaged in advocating for different social causes, from environmental initiatives such as the Singapore Sustainability Network and YNC Divest, to migrant workers’ rights like Migrant Workers Awareness Week and youth empowerment.

However, this space to conduct student activism that we have carved out of the guarantee of academic freedom is a gray one, as Amanda Leong ’21 puts it. There is only so far that academic freedom can reasonably overlap with student activism and the boundaries are both amorphous and drawn very indistinctly in the sand. For those of us who are interested to utilise this gray space to advocate and agitate for social change, the burden then is upon us to tread carefully and thoughtfully. It is up to us to push those boundaries to expand the gray space, and I think Shawn Hoo ’20 was right when he said that “we can push boundaries, even if it just to find out where the borders of acceptability and unacceptability are drawn.”

This can be both frustrating and exciting for those of us involved in this project of (re)building the vibrant student activism culture that Singapore had in the 1960s and 1970s. One wrong move, and the lines can be very quickly redrawn and the gray space significantly shriveled to our own detriment. However, given our “social and political responsibilities,” as Hoo puts it, we should continue to carefully navigate the shifting lines of academic freedom to pursue whatever social causes that we believe in. I speak from my experience that the college is here to support us in these pursuits; there are larger external forces that we must contend with, and mistaking our college as one of those forces would be regrettable.

Academic freedom has been and will remain a defining issue for our college and I doubt conversations about this issue will ever be fully settled. Hopefully, we will continue to discuss these difficult questions with greater clarity and context. At the end of the day, as President Tan noted during the recent Town Hall, we are all headed to the same destination to make Yale-NUS a successful model of liberal arts education in Asia, for the world.

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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