Don't pursue agendas under guise of academic freedom

The Yale-NUS campus landscape.
The Yale-NUS campus landscape.PHOTO: DARREN SOH

I share Yale University's concern over the cancellation of the programme on dissent and resistance at Yale-NUS College, but only by how the school had farcically approved a course that was drawn up by a rag-tag of highly partisan activists, before ignominiously withdrawing it upon review.

While some Singaporeans have cited the ongoing protests in Hong Kong to justify the cancellation, I see no reason why Yale-NUS should not be given the latitude to offer such a course to its students, so long as competing and conflicting perspectives on the subject matter are presented fairly, robustly and comprehensively in the proper context.

For example, while street protests and picketing are legal in Hong Kong, they are not condoned in Singapore.

Is Hong Kong a "freer" place than Singapore as a consequence?

Not when one considers the other viable channels to express one's view constructively to the authorities here without fear or favour.

In fact, it would appear many Singaporeans are dead opposed to street protests taking root on our shores as they see these as a major public nuisance to their daily lives.

But this is Singapore. Hong Kongers view their right to protest peacefully as a civil liberty. There is no right and wrong answer when we contextualise the discussion and eschew cookie-cutter conclusions based on our own experiences and biases.

That's the beauty of a liberal arts education: the freedom to treat each field of study as merely a heuristic tool to broaden and deepen one's intellectual horizons and critical thinking skills in abstracto. Such broad generic skills are becoming more important in helping decision-makers see the big picture of a more complex world, before they separate the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, some with opposing views on dissent, resistance and civil disobedience seem capable of casting these only according to their respective fixed mindsets and demagoguery.

The values of academic freedom and open dispassionate inquiry should be protected from abuse by such folk who wish to politicise and promote their self-serving agendas.

Toh Cheng Seong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2019, with the headline 'Don't pursue agendas under guise of academic freedom'. Print Edition | Subscribe