Yale in Singapore: Lost in translation?

By Christopher L Miller, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 May 2011

On March 31, Yale University announced final plans to open its first joint campus, in partnership with the National University of Singapore, to be known as Yale-NUS College. The Web site of the new, yet-to-be-built campus was launched immediately. It features Potemkin-village photographs of smiling students, presumably posing as future Yale-NUS students. So as of now, for the first time since 1701, there will be two Yales. (The old one should henceforth be called “Yale-New Haven,” to avoid confusion.)

On April 11, in Singapore, President Richard C. Levin of Yale, along with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the president of the National University of Singapore, signed the agreement establishing the Yale campus in the city-state, and they unveiled architectural plans for the new campus. In New Haven, faculty recruitment has begun, reportedly in an atmosphere of “enthralled” enthusiasm. But the Yale-NUS venture raises troubling questions about the translation of academic values and freedoms into a repressive environment.

In announcing the plan to Yale faculty, Levin and Yale’s provost, Peter Salovey, claimed that “our agreement with NUS … affirms consistency with Yale’s policy on nondiscrimination” and promised to protect academic freedom. Neither claim is credible.

What is wrong with Singapore? Why should a great American university not engage with a rising Asian state? According to Human Rights Watch in 2010, Singapore “remains the textbook example of a politically repressive state. Individuals who want to criticize or challenge the ruling party’s hold on power can expect to face a life of harassment, lawsuits, and even prison.” Singapore’s penal code sets out more than 20 drug-related offenses for which capital punishment is mandatory.

Most immediately troubling to me as a gay faculty member, male homosexuality is illegal in Singapore. Section 377A of the legal code bans consensual, private male homosexual activity as “outrages on decency,” in effect making it illegal to be gay. Enforcement is not the issue here; this is a question of principle. Yale has no business establishing a campus in a state where some of its own faculty members are subject to arrest because of who they are. By doing so, the university has, in effect, violated its own nondiscrimination clause, which protects sexual orientation. Yale could have stayed away from Singapore until the repeal of Section 377A but chose not to. As a consequence, Singapore’s discrimination becomes Yale’s.

Yale’s engagement with authoritarian regimes in Asia is not new. The Levin administration has struggled for and won a special place in China. When President Hu Jintao of China visited Yale in 2006, we saw what happened to free speech: It was severely restricted, here in New Haven, to avoid uncomfortable questions reaching the ears of the autocrat, whom President Levin heaped with praise. As The New York Times columnist and Yale lecturer Mark Oppenheimer has written with reference to Yale-NUS: “The corruption starts right away. Already, you can’t get Yale administrators on the record saying Singapore is an illiberal, authoritarian regime.”

As plans for Yale-NUS were being reviewed last year, a 75-year-old British author, Alan Shadrake, was imprisoned and fined in Singapore for writing a book (Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock) that is critical of Singapore’s death penalty. Provost Salovey claimed to be “greatly concerned,” but he also said he was “not surprised by the result. … I would have hoped for a different result, but Mr. Shadrake’s book openly challenged the country’s legal constraints on public criticism of identifiable government officials and institutions.” Thus to a prisoner of conscience, Yale says, in effect, “What did you expect?”

This attitude flies in the face of Yale’s claims about academic freedom at Yale-NUS. Anthony Kronman, a former dean of Yale Law School and an adviser on the Singapore venture, says Yale has “been given the strongest possible guarantees by the government of Singapore and by [NUS] that on the campus of the liberal-arts college, the principle of freedom of expression will be honored just as on the campus of Yale in New Haven.”

Such an assurance, like the one pertaining to nondiscrimination, does not bear up under scrutiny. You do not have freedom of expression if, at the same time, as Salovey puts it, you must watch out for the “risks currently associated with public, personal condemnations of governmental officials and institutions.” Each of those terms (“personal,” “condemnation”) will be interpreted by illiberal Singaporean authorities. Nathan Bullock, a Fulbright fellow now working at National University Singapore, reports “censorship” and “intimidation” on campus, and he quotes an English professor there who says “We have no rights.” The professors of Yale-NUS will thus write and teach with a double specter hanging over them: On the one hand, the Singaporean state and its repressive laws, and on the other, a Yale-New Haven administration that defends the repression.

As reported in The Chronicle last month, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne), Nasser bin Ghaith, active in discussions about politics in the United Arab Emirates, was arrested and held without due process. Chillingly, The Chronicle reported, “the Sorbonne’s Web sites are silent about the arrest,” and inquiries have not been answered; New York University’s Abu Dhabi branch has refused to lodge a protest. The comparison to potential trouble in Singapore, and to a similarly indifferent reaction from Yale, is not farfetched.

It is already clear that there is one way of talking about this project in New Haven and another way in Singapore. The “About” section of the Yale-NUS Web site has 14 rubrics, ranging from “Vision” to “Additional Information.” None of them pertains to or even mentions academic freedom or nondiscrimination, which Yale claims to have guaranteed at Yale-NUS. Those principles do not appear to be mentioned anywhere on the site. Something has been lost in translation. Is the very notion of academic freedom taboo at Yale-NUS?

Academic freedom of expression is the stated bedrock of life at Yale-New Haven. The Yale-New Haven University policy on freedom of expression, prom ulgated in 1975, could not be clearer: “The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. … Free speech is a barrier to the tyranny of authoritarian or even majority opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of particular doctrines or thoughts.”

If a policy on free expression is ever formulated for Yale-NUS, will it contain such unqualified language? For the time being, Yale administrators are clearly offering something very different in Singapore: fettered freedom, curtailed expression, and warnings about the dangers of stating unpopular views. Freedoms are only guaranteed on campus—and the guarantee is not credible. Off campus “is a different case,” warns the designated dean of the faculty at Yale-NUS, Charles Bailyn.

In Singapore last month, President Levin proudly cited an 1828 Yale report that defined the liberal-arts education “for a young nation.” He did not quote this part of it: “Where a free government gives full liberty to the human intellect to expand and operate, education should be proportionately liberal and ample.” He did not quote from the 1975 statement on freedom of expression, nor did he say a word about academic freedom.

In response to e-mailed questions from this writer, Bailyn philosophizes: “We live in a morally ambiguous world, and our choices always have a dark side.” (Bailyn has a strange and cynical view of moral and human-rights concerns, which he identified, in the Yale Daily News, with the “monastery … aloof and apart from the sinful world.”)

But would there really be such a “dark side” if Yale were to open a campus in Paris, New Delhi, Johannesburg, or Buenos Aires? Of course not. Unfortunately, Yale did not choose any of those locations, in free and democratic societies. Instead Yale followed the money and sold its principles to autocrats.

To see these issues in concrete terms, consider the following: I am able to write this essay because I am protected by the United States Constitution and by Yale-New Haven’s forceful policy on freedom of expression. Will the professors and students at Yale-NUS have that same freedom?


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