Next year, when Yale University welcomes students to its joint venture with the National University of Singapore, campus political life will likely bear little resemblance to that of its Ivy League model.
The joint venture is the first new college to bear Yale’s name in 300 years – and the first attempt to start a liberal-arts school in one of Asia’s leading financial centers.
But the Singapore campus won’t allow political protests, nor will it permit students to form partisan political societies.
The venture has come under sharp criticism from Yale professors and rights advocates who say the New Haven, Conn.-based school’s mission as a haven for free thought and expression is incompatible with Singapore’s tightly controlled political system, which includes restrictions on public assembly, limitations on free speech, and laws that criminalise homosexuality.
Students at the new school “are going to be totally free to express their views,” but they won’t be allowed to organise political protests on campus, said Pericles Lewis, the college’s new president, in an interview last week.
Although groups will be allowed to discuss political issues, he said, “we won’t have partisan politics or be forming political parties on campus,” including societies linked to local political groups akin to college groups supporting Democrats and Republicans in the US, he said.
Laws in the city-state say protests can be held only at a speaker’s corner in a Singapore park, and even those gatherings face restrictions on what may be discussed. Holding cause-related events elsewhere is illegal without a license from the police.
The college, which is wholly funded by the Singapore government and private donors, expects to admit its first batch of students in August 2013.
In response to the Journal’s questions about campus protests, Singapore’s Ministry of Education said faculty and students of Yale-NUS College “will have to comply with the university rules as well as Singapore laws” and, as in all academic institutions in Singapore, wouldn’t be allowed to participate in student demonstrations and protests on campus unless approved by the university administration.
“As in all our public universities, the Yale-NUS College will uphold the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry,” the Ministry of Education said, while noting that all students and faculty members “shall also act in a manner sensitive to the Singapore context.”
In April, Yale’s faculty passed a resolution expressing “concern” over Singapore’s “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights,” and a number of professors have spoken out against Yale operating in Singapore.
In response, the city-state’s Ministry of Education said it was “disappointed” but labeled it an “internal issue to Yale,.” adding that the Yale administration and NUS have discussed how to “jointly correct any misconceptions about Singapore” among the university’s stakeholders.
Other Singaporeans have criticised Yale professors for what they say is failing to recognise the progress Singapore has made over the years in allowing greater freedoms. Among other steps, the government has loosened restrictions on the Internet, leading to robust political debate on blogs and other social media.
“It is not fair for the Yale faculty to criticise Singapore…without acknowledging that it is only 47 years old and that, in a short time, it has transited from the Third World to the First,” wrote Tommy Koh, a prominent Singapore diplomat and academic, in a letter to the Straits Times newspaper.
Lewis, a professor of English and comparative literature at Yale until he was named president of the new college in May, said the new venture has received assurances from the Singapore government regarding academic freedom.
He said he believes that “to the extent that information is available, the faculty can do whatever it wants with it.”
Addressing the issue of homosexual rights, Lewis said the new college has hired faculty, some of whom are gay, to teach subjects related to homosexuality, and he doesn’t anticipate any problems when they start teaching.
“We have hired political-science professors who work on democratisation, on Asian intergovernmental politics; there has been no political intervention at all in the hiring of our faculty,” he added.
Yale-NUS has in place a nondiscrimination act, which forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation. It also has a committee in place to investigate any breaches of its guarantees from the government to protect academic freedom.
The college has begun hiring faculty and admitting students. Last week, it broke ground on its new campus, with three residential colleges with their own dining rooms, common rooms and student-activity spaces.
The ground-breaking ceremony was attended by Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said the project was “not without risk” but “the right way forward” for higher education in Singapore.
The wealthy city-state has been working for years to become a regional education hub and enhance its citizens’ skill sets to spur more innovation and to make residents more attractive as labour for multinational companies.
For Yale, the venture provides a chance to extend the university’s brand to fast-growing Asian markets and to help introduce the Western liberal-arts tradition to the region.
Lewis said he was drawn to the Yale-NUS project as a departure from the “Western-centered” education model back in the US
Although the “constraints are somewhat different” in Singapore with regard to free speech, he said, the city-state is “generally an open society” and its people “are open to all kinds of cultural experiences.”
Lewis, who was closely involved in the planning of the curriculum, said the new college’s teachings and required texts will focus on comparing East and West, with philosophy classes drawing on the writings from the likes of Cicero and Sun Tzu, and literature classes exploring “The Iliad” and “The Ramayana.”
“Yale-NUS students will be critical thinkers, yet remain respectful of Singapore’s cultural and societal norms,” he said. “We hope [the college] will becoming the nexus of intellectual discussions in Singapore.”