Yale-NUS saga: Academic freedom can't be carte blanche for misusing academic institutions for political advocacy, says Ong Ye Kung

A proposed Yale-NUS College module titled Dissent and Resistance was cancelled by the college about two weeks before it was scheduled to begin.
A proposed Yale-NUS College module titled Dissent and Resistance was cancelled by the college about two weeks before it was scheduled to begin.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The worry that institutes of higher learning (IHLs) may be used to conduct partisan political activities to sow dissent against the Government is not unfounded, said Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) had this concern when it looked at the itinerary of a proposed Yale-NUS College module titled Dissent and Resistance, Mr Ong told Parliament on Monday (Oct 7). He said the ministry was informed of the college's decision to cancel the module and fully supported the decision.

The module, which would have been run by Singaporean poet and playwright Alfian Sa'at, was cancelled by the college on Sept 13, about two weeks before it was scheduled to begin.

Mr Ong said the programme would have involved making protest placards and visiting the Speaker's Corner in Hong Lim Park.

It would also have included dialogues with personalities like Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Seelan Palay - who have both previously been convicted of public order-related offences - and Ms Kirsten Han and Dr Thum Ping Tjin of the New Naratif media platform, which receives "significant foreign funding", he said.

Mr Ong quoted from a 1998 poem by Mr Alfian titled "Singapore You Are Not My Country", as well as other statements he had made in the past that compared Malaysia favourably against Singapore.

Mr Alfian had also spoken about "a revival of student activism in Singapore, especially in areas such as political conscientisation" in a Facebook post over the weekend, Mr Ong said.

"The term 'political conscientisation' comes from radical left-wing thought. It means agitation aimed at making people conscious of the oppression in their lives, so that they will take action against these oppressive elements," he said. "I think this is how Mr Alfian saw his project."

The minister told Parliament that those responsible for the programme are entitled to their views and feelings about Singapore.

"They can write about them, even vent them on social media," he said.

"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 programmes."

 
 
 

Responding to questions filed by Dr Intan Azura Moktar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and Nominated MP Walter Theseira, he said the cancellation has drawn many comments.

While a few disagreed, most academics, including those from Yale-NUS, supported the cancellation.

Many members of the public also supported the decision, but for a "simpler and more fundamental" reason. "They did not see why inciting and teaching students to protest should be condoned in our educational institutions," Mr Ong said. "This is a valid view that we cannot ignore."

The minister said some may argue that academic freedom grants universities the licence to run such programmes, in the spirit of critically engaging the minds of their 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 said. "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."

"MOE's stand is we cannot have such activity in our schools or institutes of higher learning. Political conscientisation is not the taxpayer's idea of what education means."

Mr Ong reassured the House that the ministry values 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," he said.

"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," he said.

"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."

 
 
 

He added that Singapore's autonomous universities (AUs) have always been places where different ideas are explored and debated, and where public discourse is carried out vigorously and rigorously. This is why a liberal arts school like Yale-NUS will have a place in the Singapore education landscape.

In fact, there is increasing focus on inter-disciplinary learning and development of critical thinking skills in students in all the AUs, Mr Ong said.

"But thinking critically is quite different from being unthinkingly critical, and any course offered by our AUs must be up to mark. Otherwise it does not deserve to be part of a liberal arts programme."

Political dissent is also a legitimate topic of academic inquiry, Mr Ong said. Students here read and assess works by revolutionary figures such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Sun Yat Sen and Mao Zedong.

He added that it would also be valuable for students to critically examine 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."

In a Facebook post on Monday, Mr Alfian said Mr Ong had not quoted a line in his poem in full, saying it continues with "...although the lyrics are still bleeding from the bark of my sapless heart".

Mr Alfian wrote: "Just stopping on the word 'anthem' might suggest that I am somehow rejecting symbols of the state. But the whole line makes clear that I have grown up with the anthem as a Singaporean, that it bleeds from my heart."