Why Yale-NUS course on dissent was scrapped: Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke about the withdrawal of a proposed Yale-NUS College module and guiding principles for educational institutions in Singapore in Parliament on Monday (Oct 7). This is an edited transcript of his speech.

Members have raised three areas of concern with regard to Yale-NUS College's (YNC) withdrawal of the project originally titled "Dissent and Resistance in Singapore". First, what reasons underpinned the cancellation of the project. Second, the implications for academic freedom arising from the withdrawal of the project. Third, what are the rules on what topics and activities are or are not permitted in our Autonomous Universities (AUs).

I will lay out the facts of the case, state MOE's views on the issue, and finally, set out the principles guiding what activities are permitted or not in our educational institutions.

'Dissent and Resistance' Project

First, the facts of the case and YNC's reasons for withdrawing the project. The project was to be run by Mr Alfian Sa'at, a playwright. There have been some media exchanges between YNC and Mr Alfian Sa'at on the details of their correspondences. So rather than dwell on the details, Mr Speaker Sir, let me focus on the pertinent facts for the House, which are as follows:

First, the "Dissent and Resistance" project was one of 14 projects on the slate for YNC's Week 7 "Learning Across Boundaries", or LAB programme. LAB is a compulsory, credit-bearing programme for all first- year YNC students, and they are required to take it. It is not an elective or a campus activity. There are clear learning and academic objectives, to help students deepen and synergise different subjects they have learnt during the semester, through experiential learning.

Second, there was no special invitation to Mr Alfian Sa'at. He had previously been hired by YNC as a part-time instructor to teach a playwriting course in the first half of 2019. So when YNC called for project proposals, faculty members and other teaching staff like Mr Alfian Sa'at were invited, and he responded.

Third, from the moment YNC received the outline of his proposal in May 2019, it had questions about how academic objectives were to be achieved. But the discussions that followed resulted only in a cosmetic title change, from "Dissent and Resistance" to "Dialogue and Dissent". There were some adjustments to the itinerary, but no substantive change to the overall structure, content, or objective of the programme.

Fourth, when YNC received the revised itinerary in September 2019, it became even more concerned. The proposed project lacked academic rigour and did not expose students to a sufficient range of perspectives. Furthermore, specific activities - a workshop to make protest placards and a visit to the Speakers' Corner - would have put students at risk of breaking the law. From YNC's perspective, if that happened to foreign students, they could lose their student visas.

 
 
 

So to answer Ms Anthea Ong's question, which was posed to the Minister for Home Affairs, the legal risk was real. AUs and their staff and students are not exempt from the law.

YNC continued to engage Mr Alfian Sa'at to register their concerns and work with him to revise and refine the project itinerary. Eventually, YNC concluded that there was insufficient time to revise the project before the start of the Week 7 LAB programme. It therefore decided to withdraw the project and informed affected students on 13 September 2019. YNC then informed the Ministry of Education (MOE) of its decision, as it expected some public reactions. MOE looked through the itinerary and fully supported YNC's decision.

Fifth, YNC accepts that it could have done better in its administrative processes, in organising the project and communicating its concerns on the project. It will strive to improve. But this does not change the basic fact that the proposed project was inappropriately designed. YNC tried in good faith to work with Mr Alfian Sa'at to make the necessary changes, but ran out of time and decided to withdraw the project.

Finally, all the key facts and observations above are also stated in Yale University's own investigation report, which was authored independently from YNC, and based on interviews with staff, students, faculty and Mr Alfian Sa'at.

Acknowledging Different Concerns

This episode has drawn many comments. While a few disagree, most academics, including those from YNC, support the College's decision and its reasons for the decision.

As Associate Professor Eugene Tan, a law professor from Singapore Management University and former Nominated Member of Parliament told the Straits Times: "For me, the biggest concern is... the lack of even-handedness in engaging with competing and conflicting perspectives... (There is an) absence of even a rudimentary theoretical framework to approach and to understand dissent and resistance."

Many members of the public supported YNC's decision too. But reading their comments on social media and letters to the newspapers, it is clear that their reasons differ from those of academics. Their concerns were simpler and I think more fundamental: They did not see why inciting and teaching students to protest should be condoned in our educational institutions. I think this is a valid view that we cannot ignore.

One of those who made this point was Mr Goh Choon Kang, in an opinion piece published in Lianhe Zaobao, which The Straits Times later translated and published too. He worried that there were people seeking to initiate "colour revolutions" in Singapore, that is, revolutions which aim to overthrow governments. In particular, he was concerned that political dissidence had found its way into our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), and asked if foreigners who backed colour revolutions were trying to extend their influence in Singapore. Zaobao and The Straits Times published several letters from readers sharing Mr Goh's concern.

I know that these views make some academics and leaders within our AUs a little uncomfortable. I think this is not because they disagree with the views, but because they worry that the public and the Government will overreact, which would affect the academic freedom enjoyed by our AUs today. They also worry that the Government would henceforth disapprove of liberal arts education.

MOE's Views

So, let me provide the Government's take on this issue.

The worry that our IHLs may be used to conduct partisan political activities to sow dissent against the Government is not unfounded. MOE had that concern too when we saw the itinerary of the "Dissent and Resistance" project.

Besides making protest placards and visiting the Speakers' Corner, the programme included dialogues with personalities such as Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Seelan Palay - both of whom have previously been convicted of public order-related offences.

It also included talks by Ms Kirsten Han and Dr P.J. Thum (Thum Ping Tjin). Dr P.J. Thum has publicly suggested that "Singaporeans should celebrate Malaysia's independence day", and that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad should "take the lead in lobbying for the promotion of democracy and freedom of expression and inquiry in South-east Asia", because Malaysia was "a beacon for many who are struggling for democracy. Not just in Singapore but in other parts of South-east Asia".

Both Ms Kirsten Han and Dr P.J Thum have since announced that while the "Dissent and Resistance" project was withdrawn, they will continue their work through New Naratif, an outfit they had set up which receives significant foreign funding.

Another part of the project would have entailed watching films celebrating foreign dissidents, including Joshua Wong, the young Hong Kong activist, on the topic "Teenager versus Superpower".

And as for Mr Alfian Sa'at himself, in 1998 he wrote a poem entitled "Singapore You Are Not My Country". Let me quote some lines to give you a flavour of his thinking:

"Singapore, I assert you are not a country at all,
Do not raise your voice against me, I am not afraid of your anthem"

Later part of the poem says:

"...how can you call yourself a country,
you terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums
ten minutes' drive from the MRT?"

This is a poem, and we might concede some artistic licence. But Mr Alfian Sa'at continues this attitude consistently in his activism.

In 2013, when 21 Malaysians protested illegally at the Merlion Park, he apologised to Malaysians "on behalf of the Singapore Government" when the protesters were arrested by the police.

After the 2018 Malaysian General Election, he praised the "new Malaysia", juxtaposed it favourably against Singapore, and dismissed the fear of "chaos in the streets, clashes with riot police, traffic at a standstill".

 
 
 

Now, in a post just over the weekend, Mr Alfian Sa'at wrote of "a revival of student activism in Singapore, especially in areas such as political conscientisation". The term "political conscientisation" comes from radical left-wing thought. It is agitation aimed at making people conscious of the oppression in their lives, so that they will take action against these oppressive elements. And I think this is how Mr Alfian saw his project.

I should add that a talk by Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research) was also listed in the programme, but Aware has since clarified with YNC as well as the media that they had not agreed to participate in the programme, though they had received an invitation.

These individuals responsible for the programme are entitled to their views and feelings about Singapore. They can write about them, even vent them on social media, and in the process even have a following. But we have to decide whether we allow such forms of political resistance free rein in our educational institutions, and even taught as compulsory, credit-bearing courses or programmes.

Some may argue that academic freedom grants universities the licence to run such programmes, in the spirit of critically engaging the minds of our undergraduates. A few may go even further to claim that dissent is good for democracies, and hence so is teaching students to become dissidents.

I much prefer the test of an ordinary Singaporean exercising his common sense. He would readily conclude that taking into consideration all the elements and all the personalities involved, this is a programme that was filled with motives and objectives other than learning and education. And MOE's stand is that we cannot allow such activities in our schools or IHLs. Political conscientisation is not the taxpayer's idea of what education means.

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar and Associate Professor Walter Theseira asked about the implications on academic freedom arising from the withdrawal of this project. Let me first make it clear that the withdrawal of the project does not undermine in any way academic standards or open inquiry. Various academics have indeed acknowledged this, and Yale University's independent assessment has also come to the same conclusion.

MOE values academic freedom, as do our AUs. With academic freedom, our universities can create new knowledge, innovate, and contribute to scientific, technological, economic and social progress. Our AUs have always been places where different ideas are explored and debated, and public discourse carried out vigorously and also rigorously.

That is why a liberal arts school like YNC will have a place in Singapore's education landscape. In fact, in all our AUs, there is an increasing focus on inter-disciplinary learning and development of critical thinking skills in our students. But thinking critically is quite different from being unthinkingly critical, and any course offered by our AUs must be up to mark. Otherwise they do not deserve to be part of a liberal arts programme.

Political dissent is certainly a legitimate topic of academic inquiry. Our students read and assess classic works by revolutionary figures such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sun Yat Sen or Mao Zedong. It would also be valuable for students in the social sciences to examine critically present-day issues, such as the causes and implications of protests against climate change or globalisation, or the demonstrations currently happening in Hong Kong. Students can and should also discuss the implications of such political developments for a small country like Singapore. Such open academic inquiry will continue.

Guiding Principles for Educational Institutions

Finally, let me address Mr Seah Kian Peng's question on what activities are permitted or not on our AUs' campuses. It would not be practical or wise to be overly prescriptive in specifying what should or should not be taught in each subject. We have to leave room for AUs to exercise their good judgment. But certain principles should be made clear:

First, all educational institutions must operate within the laws of Singapore. Our laws are enacted by Parliament, which comprises Members of Parliament, who are in turn elected by voters. These laws are the democratic expression of the will of the people. Our educational institutions must operate, and exercise their academic freedom, within those legal limits.

This is a principle that the founding president of YNC - and the current vice-president of Yale University - Professor Pericles Lewis, publicly committed to in 2012. Clarifying YNC's policy regarding freedom of expression, he said: "Any college or university must obey the laws of the countries where it operates."

Every country has their rules and laws, red lines unique to themselves. For example, I do not think the US would tolerate an American university course designed by jihadists to promote violence, or that France or Germany would accept a course teaching that Nazism is good. These would fall foul of their laws.

Second principle, our educational institutions must not deviate from their missions to advance education and maintain high academic standards. Exploring and debating issues within the context of academic study helps students develop important critical thinking skills. This should be underpinned by rigorous intellectual reasoning, with students required to understand and interpret events and facts within a coherent intellectual framework, and at the same time to examine theories against the facts and empirical evidence, and against competing theories or arguments. This is especially important when studying complex and potentially controversial issues.

Third principle, our educational institutions should not be misused as platforms for partisan politics.

Professor Rajeev S. Patke, director of YNC's humanities division, put it very well. In an e-mail to the College leadership, he wrote: "To study is distinct from to practise: to study 'contemporary resistance' or 'contemporary violence' or 'contemporary prejudice' is not the same as to practise resistance or violence or prejudice. We have to ensure that in our educational institutions, academic study does not get confused or compromised by courses of action and intervention which belong to the realm of individual choice."

In Singapore's democracy, there are many avenues for political parties and activists to champion their causes, and for people to make their choices and exercise their political rights. Educational institutions, and especially the formal curriculum, are not the platforms to do this.

When elections are impending, AUs will often host panel discussions comprising representatives from various political parties, and seek to present a balanced range of viewpoints. Otherwise, politicians of any political party - government or opposition - may not campaign, mobilise support or advance their party politics in any of our educational institutions. This has always been the position. When political office holders attend events, give speeches or conduct dialogues with students, they will do so only for the purpose of discussing national policies, not to mobilise partisan political support.

Fourth principle, educational institutions must recognise Singapore's cultural and social context. Every society is a product of its history, culture and unique circumstances, which set the context of what is acceptable, and how things are done. Singapore is no exception.

Our governance approach is shaped by our unique realities. We are a small, multiracial and multi-religious country. Our margin for error is very small compared to bigger countries. Imagine if the demonstrations and riots on the streets of Hong Kong, or the political confusion in the UK, were to take place in Singapore. Our international reputation would be destroyed. Trust and confidence in Singapore, whether by Singaporeans or others, would be severely damaged. Our future would be in grave jeopardy.

Singapore has been able to progress and develop, not least because we have maintained stability. We have built strong governing institutions, engendered respect for the rule of law, and engaged deeply with citizens. We have found solutions and struck compromises before the problems become severe.

Tripartism is an example. We did not wait for protests and strikes to break out before resolving problems downstream. Government, employers and unions forged a compact among themselves, resolved problems and disputes upstream, and thus maintained industrial harmony. This also made Singapore an attractive destination for investments.

We adopt the same approach in tackling many other challenges, be it housing, ageing population, or climate change. Recognise the challenges early, take a long-term view, find solutions, discuss, find compromises, and prevent problems from spiralling beyond control. We should strengthen this collective, constructive approach, and avoid falling into the divisions and dissensions that plague other societies.

Conclusion

Mr Speaker, let me conclude. It is a fact of life that good things always get carried to excess and then get misused. Free market competition is a good thing, and so is capitalism. These promise more jobs and better lives for people, but they are often marred by greed and exploitation. Democracy remains the best system of governance known to humankind, but faith in the system can be weakened by populism and divisive politics. Social media connects people and gives voice to the previously voiceless, but falsehoods and manipulation can also proliferate in that space too.

In all these instances, society needs to recognise the problem and respond, and governments need to intervene in order to preserve the positive objectives and merits of the systems. It is the same with academic freedom. We believe in this fundamental value. Modern-day Galileos would not exist without our academics and researchers being free to pursue the truth, wherever it may lead. But let us also be aware that, given the state of the world today, there will be people who want to misuse it as a cloak to advance their hidden agendas.

To preserve what we cherish, we must be ready to protect it when the situation calls for it. Academic freedom cannot be carte blanche for anyone to misuse an academic institution for political advocacy, for this would undermine the institution's academic standards and public standing.

Academic institutions should internalise the principles I stated earlier. At the minimum, they should not undertake activities that expose their students to the risk of breaking the law. They should not work with speakers and instructors who have been convicted of public order-related offences, or who are working with political advocacy groups funded by foreigners, or who openly show disloyalty to Singapore.

Governance everywhere, of countries, companies and educational institutions, has become far more complex because of technology and the free flow of information. Governance calls for judgment, and that judgment has to reflect the country's norms. Most countries share fundamental values such as the rule of law, incorruptibility, and open discourse. But the way these values are expressed will vary from country to country, depending on their histories, social values and cultures.

In some societies, individuals are more concerned about how far they can extend their fists; but Singaporeans worry about when our fists will reach other people's noses. I have tried to explain Singapore's approach. In an increasingly globalised world, we must not try to impose one country's values and culture on others, or unthinkingly import values and culture from elsewhere into our society. We must certainly work across boundaries and learn from one another, but we must do so while understanding and respecting each other's contexts and norms. And that is the best strategy for Singapore to progress and live peacefully in a diverse and inter-connected world. Thank you.