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The Yale-NUS Gray Space

All PostsOpinionThe Yale-NUS Gray Space

story | Amanda Leong, Contributing Reporter  

photo | Amanda Leong, Contributing Reporter


EDITOR’S NOTE, December 22, 2017: 

Yale-NUS Director of Public Affairs, Ms. Fiona Soh, and Director of Infrastructure, Safety, and Security, Mr. Dennis Aw have written in to dispute the article’s claim that the article’s claim that the Occupy installation was taken down “without further consultation.” They clarified that the installation was removed because students involved “did not have the prior approval of Elm Rector Brian McAdoo to put up the publicity wall at Elm College and Rector McAdoo had instructed the students to remove it that evening,” but the students were unavailable to do so during that time.

Ms. Soh also wrote that the claim of “potential police investigations and some visceral reactions from the members of the public” causing the change in venue for the “1987: Untracing the Conspiracy” screening was also inaccurate, noting that “Public Affairs is not in a position to approve or disallow the use of space on campus.”

We have updated the article with the relevant changes and corrections. The Managing Team apologizes for any misunderstanding that may have occurred.


Freedom of speech has been the source of much criticism and skepticism regarding the feasibility of a liberal arts institution in Singapore. Yale-NUS College lives in what some call a “gray space” of freedom of speech, which has been brought into question during the recent Occupy controversy.

As part of publicity for their event, Occupy: The Politics of Youth and Space, a group of Yale-NUS students installed a wall at the Elm gateway on Oct. 21. Student organizers also encouraged students to bring loud hailers to attract more attention to the event, which was to be held on Oct. 26. According to one of the co-organizers of the event, such actions were taken in order to provide “a break from the enclosed classroom space as the preferred venue of political discussion”. According to Matthew Ware ‘18, by setting precedence through the implementation of this event, the organizers intended to test and push the “gray space” in order to expand it.

On Oct. 26, a security officer approached the students to take down their personal details, on the pretext that the wall may not be permissible due to its political content. Subsequently, after being contacted, the students in charge of organizing the event informed Yale-NUS Infrastructure that they would deal with the impermissible installation the following day. However, the installation was completely removed the next morning without further consultation.

(Ed: the Infrastructure, Security, & Safety office has clarified that the installation was removed as it did not have permission from Elm Rector McAdoo, and also because the students were unavailable to remove it at that point in time)

For the college administration, this publicity stunt had crossed a line. According to President Tan Tai Yong, the use of loud hailers suggested the intention of “trying to attract [non-Yale-NUS] people in”, especially because the publicity material was placed in a more ‘public’ area—the Elm courtyard—where people from outside Yale-NUS could look in when walking by. Mr. Tan said that such actions could be seen as breaking the Public Order Act, and due to legal implications, this mandated a “hard no” from the administration.

Mr. Tan also said that while the Occupy activity was halted by the administration, there have been plenty of activities and conversations on campus that could otherwise not easily have been held within Singapore. He said that Yale-NUS College’s right to hold such activities have and will always be defended on the grounds of academic freedom. Mr. Tan explained that considering the watchful eyes of the general public, because Occupy did not take place within a classroom and did not have ‘performative elements’, it would have been hard for him to defend such an activity. He said that while he still encourages students to continue pushing the boundaries of our gray space, he also warns that we should do so strategically and carefully or risk losing it completely.

However, Ware believes that the administration’s fears are unfounded, as he and other Occupy organizers believe that Singapore’s stance towards freedom of speech has progressed greatly from the era of the 1987 Operation Spectrum. They also believe that it is better to be daring and push boundaries in order to stop this gray space from shrinking, especially after the recent Event Policy’s top-down approach, which could be seen as a  trend toward a less consultative administration.

This begs the questionwhat is the gray space exactly? And is this gray space decreasing?

Some believe that the gray space is the contradiction between Yale-NUS’ identity as a liberal arts college and the at times politically repressive context of Singapore. This can be most prominently seen from the tensions between the environment of free speech within Yale-NUS and the Non-Discrimination Act implemented by the Singaporean government.

Although it is easy to understand Yale-NUS and the Singaporean political scene as two extreme ends of a spectrum concerning freedom of speech, this may actually not be the case. According to the Yale-NUS Free speech and Non-Discrimination Policy, the college is “firmly committed to the free speech of ideas in all formsa central tenet of liberal arts education”. However, we are also told to “be mindful of the local Singaporean context”. While political ideas and discussion “should filter into and out of the classroom”, “partisan political campaigning and fundraising, however, are not permitted on campus”. These are the ambiguous lines we are told not to cross, and the tension created by this ambiguity is reflected in the changing boundaries of expression through the college’s history.

In 2014, Ware carried out a social experiment as a challenge to Alfian Sa’at’s pessimism surrounding the true limits of freedom of speech in Yale-NUS, in which he put up a poster in an elevator in RC4 about the Occupy protests in Hong Kong, reading “In Solidarity with Hong Kong students”.

When the poster was taken down, there was a flurry of protest by faculty and students across Facebook, and the administration immediately explained that it was a miscommunication on the part of the NUS Office of Housing Services. For many, the indignation and quick response by the administration was a huge relief—it was a message that Yale-NUS students’ freedom of speech would be fully supported by the school. Ware described those early days of the college as “the expansion of this gray area where firm rules were not put down.”

However, the gray space seems to have noticeably decreased since then.

In March 2017, Jonas Un ‘18 held a screening of 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy. Owing to the larger-than-expected size of audience, Saga College Rector Sarah Weiss agreed to change the event venue from the Rector’s Commons to the Tan Chin Tuan Lecture Theatre. However, Un said that this move to change venues was eventually turned down by the Public Affairs office due to fears of “potential police investigations and some visceral reactions from the members of the public”.

(Ed: the Public Affairs office has clarified that they cannot approve or disallow the use of campus space)

This trend of decreasing freedom of speech seems to have continued and has been consolidated by the passing of the Events Policy earlier this year, which imposed many more restrictions on events on campus. For example, the policy bans any event requiring licenses or permits under the Public Entertainments and Meeting Act, and the Public Order Act. This more explicit invocation of Singapore law in school policy is seen by some as a sign of our shrinking gray space. Although changes have since been made to the Events Policy after facing criticisms, some still see that the implementation and construction of this policy as unilateral and non-consultative.

However, Mr. Tan and the rest of the administration believe that the gray space has expanded rather than decreased, considering the special liberties that Yale-NUS seems to have been accorded under the principle of academic freedom. They said that gaining MDA approval to screen To Singapore with Love, which is banned in Singapore, is one example of this.

There is no precedent for Yale-NUS. This is the very reason why many of us have chosen to come here. Because there is no precedent, the canvas is blank and we can paint whatever we want—pink, yellow, green. But no matter how hard we wish or try, we have to accept that the canvas will always be tinged a certain color—gray.

Yale-NUS occupies a very unique space ideologically between two societies with very different notions of what freedom means. Through our reactions to events like Occupy, and through the creation of these events in the first place, we are establishing new norms and legacies for what it means to be Yale-NUS.

This means that we—the student body and the administration—have a tremendous responsibility to craft our Yale-NUS identity. Clearly, we have different conceptions and understandings of what Yale-NUS wants and needs. It is only through careful and transparent conversations about this gap in perspective that we can meet at a good middle ground.

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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