Behind the Scenes: Organizing Controversial Events at Yale-NUS
story | Minsoo Bae, Staff Writer
photo | Lucy Kuo
In early February, Yale-NUS College hosted a Skype conversation with Joshua Wong and the screening of 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy. These two events took place on the cusp of the college informing student organization leaders of a controversial new events policy.
Many students and the Yale-NUS Student Government expressed concern about the policy’s impact on freedom of expression. In particular, students pointed to provisions requiring a license under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act, or a permit under the Public Order Act.
The events policy has since been amended in response to students’ feedback. This included the removal of all mentions of the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act and Public Order Act. Dean of Students Christopher Bridges, said that the College stands in full support of free speech and that the event policy “will have no impact on that commitment in any way.”
Still, the ensuing discussion about academic freedom has brought new scrutiny to controversial events on campus and the challenges students face in organizing them.
A Skype Conversation with Joshua Wong
A Skype conversation with Joshua Wong took place in the Saga Rector’s Common on Feb. 1, 2017. Wong is a student activist from Hong Kong who, as part of his student activist group Scholarism, launched a non-violent protest for universal suffrage in 2014. Coined “The Umbrella Movement”, the protest brought Wong international attention, ranging from the negative (such as being blacklisted from traveling to numerous countries) to the positive (Wong was featured on the cover of Time Magazine). The talk consisted of a presentation explaining the brief political history of Hong Kong followed by a Question & Answer session with the audience.
This talk on the Yale-NUS College campus came right after the Community Action Network (CAN) had organized a separate Skype discussion with Joshua Wong and other Singaporean activists. CAN is a Non-Governmental Organization in Singapore concerned with the freedom of expression. However, they were called for investigations by the police on grounds of their not having applied for a permit due to laws in Singapore making it illegal to hold any cause-related activity without proper licensing.
In contrast, the Yale-NUS event ran smoothly and with little restraint from the college administration. Shawn Hoo ’20, one of the event’s organizers, said that they “didn’t expect nor meet any reaction from the school.” He said that Public Affairs (PA) appeared more wary of any possible state backlash and preparing the organizers for media reactions just in case. Nevertheless the event went smoothly.
One aspect of the event left unfulfilled was the organizers’ initial intention to open the event up to the National University of Singapore (NUS). PA advised against this on the grounds that the Saga Rector’s Commons was too small to accommodate NUS students and that there was enough participation from Yale-NUS students alone.
This brought up the question of policy of containment and its hindrance to academic freedom. The implications were that this was a privilege given to Yale-NUS students, emphasizing again the ideological gap between Yale-NUS and NUS, despite the schools being physically next to each other. Hoo described Yale-NUS as a designated park of academic freedom, in an article in The Octant.
1987: Untracing the Conspiracy
Jonas Yun ‘20, the co-organizer of the screening of 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy, gave a similar reflection as Hoo. “Objectively speaking, there was a lot of support that was given,” Yun said. He said that he had confidence that none of them were trying to obstruct the event.
He did, however, run into a problem in confirming the venue. Yun said that PA gave a “positive response” to holding the event in the Tan Chin Tuan (TCT) Lecture Theatre, following the initial sign-up of 130 people. PA later soon changed its response, citing a number of reasons. These included the worry that the TCT was “more publicly accessible”, not everyone who signed up would turn up, and the Rector’s Commons would conduce a more intimate and honest environment for conversation. When asked for response, PA commented that “for events such as the Rectors’ Teas, the decisions on the location and event format are made by the Rectors.” PA said that its office is not in a position to approve or disallow the use of space on campus, and that its main task is to provide advice on publicity and events management if approached.
In regard to the second concern of flaky attendees, Yun conducted a second survey in order to produce a list of attendees who were certain in their going to the event. 85 confirmed their attendance. This time, PA responded that because the movie was given the age restriction rating of 21, the movie could not be held in the more public venue of TCT. Yun checked the validity of this claim with the Media Development Authority as well as the activists—who had screened the movie in several venues—and confirmed that this was not true. Age restriction of movies only applies to movie theatres.
Following the confusion in confirming the venue, Yun had a conversation with the senior manager of PA. He was promised that the PA is always on the side of the students, and that the members of PA were not the right people to ask about the feasibility of holding events at certain venues—the Arts and Spaces committee knew about the legal aspect of such matters. Because PA has to deal with the repercussions of any controversy from the events, it would always make decisions on the safer side.
The political events held on the Yale-NUS campus reflect that the college administration has, thus far, upheld its mission to allow academic free speech. In the light of recent events, the campus is rife with discussions regarding the extent of this freedom, with the power balance between administration and students constantly shoved into the limelight.
Conversations with the organizers indicate that the problems mainly lie in containing academic freedom to Yale-NUS, and not knowing the appropriate committees for consultations on different issues. “We should establish a formalized channel of communication so it can expand our academic freedom to the max while containing it to reasonable boundaries,” said Yun.
An earlier iteration of the article stated that PA denied Hoo ’19 a larger audience of NUS students, but we have since rectified that this is inaccurate. The article also implied that PA disallowed the use of the TCT Lecture Theatre for 1987, Untracing the Conspiracy, but the final location was in fact decided upon discussion with the Rectors. The article has since been updated. PA plays an advisory, and not declarative role in event organization, and the previous article did not properly convey this message. An apology letter will be published on the next issue of The Octant addressing this, amidst other inconsistencies.