Parliament: Educational institutions should not expose students to risk of breaking law, says Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said educational institutions should internalise these "guiding principles" that he outlined in Parliament on Oct 7, 2019.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said educational institutions should internalise these "guiding principles" that he outlined in Parliament on Oct 7, 2019.PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Educational institutions here must operate within the laws while maintaining academic standards. They must also recognise Singapore's cultural and social context and should not be misused for partisan politics too.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said educational institutions, including autonomous universities, should internalise these "guiding principles" that he outlined in Parliament on Monday (Oct 7).

At the minimum, they should not undertake activities that expose their students to the risk of breaking the law, the minister added.

"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," Mr Ong said.

He was speaking in reference to the cancellation of a module on dissent at Yale-NUS College that was to have been run by local poet and playwright Alfian Sa'at.

Earlier in his speech, he had noted that the module would have involved dialogues with personalities like Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Seelan Palay - who had previously been convicted of public order-related offences - as well as talks by Ms Kirsten Han and Dr Thum Ping Tjin of the New Naratif media platform, which he said receives "significant foreign funding".

Elaborating on the guiding principles, Mr Ong said Singapore's laws are the democratic expression of the will of its people, which is why educational institutions must operate and exercise their academic freedom within those legal limits.

"Every country has their rules and laws, red lines unique to themselves," Mr Ong said.

"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."

At the same time, institutions should continue exploring and debating issues within the context of academic study to help students develop important critical thinking skills, he added.

This should be underpinned by rigorous intellectual reasoning, which is especially important when studying complex and potentially controversial issues, Mr Ong said.

Third, on the need for educational institutions to avoid being misused for partisan politics, Mr Ong said that 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.

He added that autonomous universities will often host panel discussions comprising representatives from various political parties, and seek to present a balanced range of viewpoints.

But otherwise, politicians of any political party - government or opposition - may not campaign, mobilise support or advance their party politics in any of the educational institutions, said Mr Ong.

"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," he added.

Lastly, Mr Ong said every society is a product of its history, culture and unique circumstances which set the context of what is acceptable, and Singapore is no exception.

"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," he added.

Mr Ong said tripartism - referring to the three-way partnership between the Government, employers and unions - is one example of how Singapore has resolved problems, before protests and strikes break out, which has helped maintain industrial harmony and 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," he added.

"We should strengthen this collective, constructive approach, and avoid falling into the divisions and dissensions that plague other societies."