Designated Parks: Notes on Academic Freedom
story | Shawn Hoo, Guest Contributor
photo | Conal Gallagher and Dave Chappell
“We still fly our kites
In designated parks.”
(Alfian Sa’at, “Apathy,” A History of Amnesia)
In many ways, Yale-NUS College carves out an odd space within Singapore’s landscape of freedom—as odd as Speakers’ Corner’s perimeters perhaps—things happen here with little resistance where they hardly happen elsewhere. Inverting the existence of ‘authoritarian enclaves’ within democratic states, Bruce Gilley has termed the ‘democratic enclave’ to denote spaces within an authoritarian state that have “gained an enduring ability to act in democratic ways or in espousal of democratic norms.” These spaces are often institutionalised and “operate on a repeated basis according to relatively fixed pattern of interactions that are valued for their own sake.” There are other ways to explain oddity and exceptions—designated parks.
Recently, I helped successfully organise in Yale-NUS College a “Skype Discussion with Joshua Wong” on social movements. The event drew a crowd of more than forty—albeit forty Yale-NUS College staff, faculty and students. Amidst a campus-wide debate on ‘academic freedom,’ this event seemed to signal that ‘academic freedom’ still largely remains in the hands of Yale-NUS College faculty, students and staff. But that was the sum of it.
This comes slightly more than a month after the Community Action Network (CAN) had organised a separate public Skype interview with Joshua Wong and other Singaporean activists. They were investigated by the police for investigations on grounds of their not having applied for a permit. What were the Singapore authorities afraid of that a 20-year-old University student could say? In any case, the investigations loomed over our event during the planning process and we were at stages wondering if the same kinds of ‘investigations’ would be launched upon us. Fortunately, the event ran smoothly despite tense jokes being cracked when the internet connection went down for a few minutes. After all, this is still a designated park.
Our event also came at the same time as several other ‘political’ events on campus. . The screening of Jason Soo’s “1987: Untracing the Conspiracy” and Dean’s Fellow Brea Baker’s talk on organising the Women’s March are just a few examples. Protest artists have been transforming seemingly neutral spaces like lifts and corridors into highly visible and politicised areas. One hopes that we would carve out more spaces for ourselves. Looking outside, in a time where authoritarianism is on the rise, is political engagement not a responsibility that is urgent for our resistance and survival? We only need to look to other universities—past and present—to find this call to action close to heart. Where do their kites fly?
What to do with a space that is oddly carved out?
1. Carve more space around to make its outline discernible.
In all likelihood, we will receive support from the school to organise events, screenings, or talks of a political nature. Where are these unwritten rules inscribed? They are inscribed in the outline of the space that we’re given. We can push boundaries, even if it just to find out where the borders of acceptability and unacceptability are drawn. One action sets a precedence; a set of actions can only set out freedom in perpetual motion. With the recent surge in political events, how do we turn this into a momentum instead of allowing it to fizzle out?
2. Who stands on the other side of the line?
What are the implications that a certain event is restricted to Yale-NUS College students only? What kind of privileges do we have as a college in terms of institutional support compared to the rest of the National University of Singapore (NUS) with respect to the organising of ‘political’ events? I ask this question not to feel good about ourselves, but for us to understand that to protect our academic freedom, we must also believe in freedom—academic or otherwise—elsewhere, in Singapore or the world. Is Yale-NUS College’s academic freedom a symptom of a larger ‘containment policy’ that is reluctant to spill-over? In relation to the larger Singapore population—what kinds of class differences are playing out when only university students get to read some books, watch some films, hear some speakers?
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3. The inside is the outside.
What is Yale-NUS College’s responsibility to the larger Singapore society it resides within, and to the world? Is the inside not also the outside? As a relatively new college, we are only beginning to ask what our college identity is. Perhaps we should ask the broader question of: what is our college’s identity in relation to the larger social world? The university as an institution may be critiqued as elitist and closed, but let me naively consider that we can counter that critique if we start looking outward, and acknowledging our social and political responsibility.
Kites have no need for designated parks.
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