McYale with the death penalty

Muhammad Cohen
Asia Times Online

Singapore and Yale University are collaborating on a new liberal arts college in the Lion City. For Singapore, it’s a great opportunity to enhance the city-state’s international reputation. For Yale, it’s an enormous challenge to bring liberal arts education to an illiberal place.

“If we are to serve the world as successfully in a 21st century as we have served our nation in the 20th, a greater global presence will be required,” Yale president Richard Levin and provost Peter Salovey wrote in their letter to faculty announcing the project.

“Yale is essentially partnering with an anti-democratic regime,” Yale Journalism Initiative director Mark Oppenheimer says. “Rather than demanding Singapore become more Western and democratic, Yale is compromising its own principles.”

Academic freedom is the key concern for critics of the deal. Yale has an agreement with the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore’s Ministry of Education to allow open discussion on campus and free academic publication.

“I realize Yale administrators think that they have assurances about academic freedom. But where you don’t have full rights, you don’t have academic freedom,” Oppenheimer, who holds a PhD from Yale and writes the New York Times “Beliefs” column on religion, says. “It’s not serving Singapore students well. They can already get an illiberal, unfree education at the schools they have.”

No PAP smears

Since achieving internal self-government in 1959, Singapore has been ruled by the People’s Action Party (PAP), founded by Lee Kuan Yew. He served until 1990 as prime minister, the post now held by his son Lee Hsien Loong. Political rights including free speech and assembly are limited, and Singapore’s rulers use the courts to suppress and bankrupt dissidents.

The government controls mass media, and, along with its use of corporal punishment including caning, Singapore has the world’s highest per capita execution rate.

“My beef is not with Singapore,” Oppenheimer says of the city-state of five million that he’s never visited. “My complaint is with the Yale administration for getting to bed with an anti-democratic regime.” He calls the partnership “… a betrayal of what academics are supposed to stand for”.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale plan to open a joint program in 2013. From its name, Yale-NUS College, to the limited presence of Yale faculty, to its attempt to replicate Yale’s residential college system and curriculum, albeit with Asian characteristics, the new school will be the closest Yale has come to creating a branch campus. Founded in 1701 and considered one of the world’s leading academic institutions, Yale will join at least nine other US universities with programs in Singapore.

“Singapore is one of the best locations for an international campus,” Andy Nazarechuk, founding dean of the Singapore campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas William F Harrah College of Hotel Administration, says. “They have great infrastructure, security, cleanliness, and English is the common language. Additionally, the Singaporean government has consistently supported education initiatives and proactively supports bringing the best educational institutions from around the world to Singapore. They understand that providing the best educational opportunities for their community is an investment in the future of Singapore.”

West meets East

Yale-NUS College will eventually accommodate 1,000 students for a four-year program with 100 faculty members hired by the jointly administered college. Yale professor Charles Bailyn will serve as the initial Dean of Faculty, and Yale says it hopes that some members of its home faculty will come to Yale-NUS to teach two week short courses or stay for a semester.

For students and their parents, the main attraction of Yale-NUS, aside from its name, will be its broad-based American liberal arts curriculum that incorporates aspects of Asian intellectual tradition. That approach contrasts starkly with the Asian university norm of immediate specialization focused on building professional skills rather than more general analytic and critical thinking abilities.

“The novel ‘West-meets-East’ educational approach … will also place us at the leading edge of the profound currents of change sweeping higher education in Asia, particularly China,” NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan said at the school’s formal launch in Singapore in April. “It will enable our students to benefit from a world-class program which also incorporates the ideas and contexts of Asia.”

“A model college in Singapore, drawing students from throughout Asia as well as Singapore, can have a profound influence on the future of all of Asia – and thus on the future of the world in the century ahead. Let us dare to be this ambitious, together,” Yale president Levin added.

Prostrate trouble

Despite publicly acknowledging concerns over academic freedom at the school – or perhaps because of it – Levin felt compelled to kow-tow to Singapore’s rulers at the launch.

“[T]his is a momentous day for Yale because in Singapore your government understands that education and research are the twin engines of the economic development of the country and the social advancement of its citizens,” he effused. “NUS’ rapid advance in the rankings of global universities underscores the seriousness of your government’s commitment to make Singapore a leading global center for higher education and research.”

Singapore will pay for the new 10.5 acre (4.2 hectare) campus on the northern edge of the NUS main site at Kent Ridge, southwest of central Singapore. The budget was the final issue settled after two years of negotiations that grew out of the two university presidents meeting at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009.

Copying Yale’s model, students will live in residential colleges, “living and learning communities that promote personal and intellectual growth while cultivating citizenship and leadership”, according to the joint news release. Diplomas will say Yale-NUS College -“Graduates will be hit up for money by two schools,” Yale Club of Singapore president Devin Kimble quips – but the degrees will be awarded by NUS only.

Magnet school

“The Yale-NUS College has the potential to be a strong talent magnet for NUS and Singapore,” Professor Lily Kong, NUS vice president for university and global relations, says. Before the ink dried on the agreement, international advertisements appeared featuring Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS and author of Can Asians Think?, touting Singapore as the thought center of Asia.

“The buzz word we keep hearing is ‘globalization’, but whatever the supposed benefits, the ones worth pursuing do not seem to need a college bearing Yale’s name – but not exactly Yale’s full control or a ‘Yale degree’ in a strict sense, rather something like ‘Kokah-Cola-Lite ฎ’ brown carbonated beverage,” Yale classics professor Victor Bers says.

“I can imagine [former] Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew – great title, no? so much more palatable than ‘Generalissimo’ – pleased to see how Yale-NUS contributes to the selling of Singapore as a real democracy. What I can’t imagine is Lee wanting to see real change in that direction. Of course, pigs could fly…”

One of the few full faculty members to speak up against Yale-NUS, Bers says the general lack of Yale community concern over the partnership demonstrates “how apathetic the campus has become over the last four decades”. Faculty at Britain’s Warwick University rejected establishing a branch campus in Singapore in 2005 due to worries about limited academic freedom.

“The idea of a truly free zone within a political entity with no independent press or judiciary is ridiculous,” Bers, the son of Columbia University math professor Lipman Bers, who led efforts to secure the release of Soviet Union dissent scholars, says. “There is no cordon sanitaire around any field. Mathematics is, in a sense, far further removed from human reality than the human world of classical Greece … yet mathematicians – my father included – were deeply, in fact dangerously, involved in demanding human rights.”

Vive la difference! The agreement between Yale, NUS and Singapore’s Ministry of Education states:

The College upholds the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry, essential core value in higher education of the highest caliber. Faculty and students in the College will be free to conduct scholarship and research and publish the results, and to teach in the classroom and express themselves on campus, bearing in mind the need to act in accordance with accepted scholarly and professional standards and the regulations of the College.

Levin and Salvoney warned faculty that the laws of Singapore will still apply on campus, including its draconian rules on defamation and sedition that have been used against political opponents and even visiting scholars. “Those who decide to go to Singapore to teach or study will need to understand these differences,” the administrators wrote.

“The limitations we would need to accept, given Singaporean tradition and law, have to be weighed against the opportunity we have to influence over time the curriculum and pedagogy in a major part of the world.”

“In the real world, the job of a politician is to do the best they can, to compromise,” Yale’s Oppenheimer says. “The job of a scholar is to get the truth at any cost. I expect that my elected officials and army generals can’t tell the truth at all times. But that doesn’t apply to scholars, who are supposed to be the truth tellers in society.” He adds, “Yale should stick to its principles. Truth and honest inquiry is the backbone of academic freedom.”

Oppenheimer contends, “Already, this partnership has been deleterious to academic freedom at Yale. Try getting a straight answer from Yale administrators about whether Singapore is an anti-democratic regime.” Asked whether Singapore’s government is anti-democratic and suppresses freedom, Yale’s Office of Public Information replied, “Yale as an institution does not critique the governments of the nations around the world. That’s the realm of faculty members as part of their relevant research and teaching.”

Yale-NUS College can benefit the city-state, opposition Singapore Democratic Party chairman Chee Soon Juan believes, “only if Yale is committed to its goals of academic freedom. Many academic institutions that come to Singapore start censorship of themselves and those around them for the sake of business. They change instead of changing the minds of others.”

Chee – sued by Lee Kuan Yew, bankrupted and barred from seeking political office – urges Yale faculty that come to Singapore, “Be true to your professions and yourselves. Academics pursue knowledge and this can only come about when there is no authority than tells you what you can and cannot teach or do research in.

The temptation to self-censor will be great and the pressure from the PAP to toe the line will be ever-present. But the faculty must remain firm if they are committed academicians. Otherwise they do their students a disservice. Freedom of expression is an integral part of academia without which we end up producing graduates who may know much but think little.”

Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America’s story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

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