Alfian Sa'at responds to report on cancelled dissent module at Yale-NUS College

Local poet and playwright Alfian Sa'at disputed parts of a report by Yale University's vice-president and vice-provost for global strategy Pericles Lewis which he said portrayed him as "defiant, reckless, elusive, incompetent and ignorant". PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Local poet and playwright Alfian Sa'at has given his side of the events leading up to the cancellation of a module, titled Dialogue And Dissent In Singapore, that he was to lead at Yale-NUS College.

In a statement on Friday (Oct 4), Mr Alfian disputed parts of a report by Yale University's vice-president and vice-provost for global strategy Pericles Lewis which he said portrayed him as "defiant, reckless, elusive, incompetent and ignorant".

Among other things, he took issue with the report's claims that he had rejected all revisions to the syllabus suggested by Yale-NUS staff and students; that he was unaware of the legal issues involved; and that he had persisted in speaking of "simulating protests" at Hong Lim Park.

He also said the concern about the module's lack of academic rigour was never communicated to him.

In response to queries, Yale-NUS president Tan Tai Yong reiterated the college's stance that the key reasons for the module's cancellation were its lack of academic rigour and the legal risks it posed to students.

The episode has sparked public debate, including over liberal arts education, and four MPs have filed questions on the cancellation for Monday's Parliament sitting.

The module was slated to be part of a Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) programme at the college and was to have taken place last month and early this month.

After it was cancelled on Sept 13, Yale University president Peter Salovey asked Prof Lewis to conduct a fact-finding. A report by Prof Lewis was released on Sept 29.

Mr Alfian said Yale-NUS staff had expressed worries at a meeting on Aug 1 that the students might stage a protest or put up unauthorised posters on walls and pillars.

"I assured everyone that I would not push the students in that direction," Mr Alfian said.

"We then discussed some possible changes to the programme, but not in response to anything related to academic rigour, legal risks or political sensitivities," he added.

These changes included adding a visit to the National Galleryand a session with a student organisation, Community Advocacy and Political Education.

Mr Alfian said he later agreed to all revisions suggested by the Yale-NUS administration, including an inter-group dialogue session, but had declined some suggestions from a student's "wishlist" such as inviting a Government representative and sociologist Teo You Yenn as he felt they were unfeasible.

In a WhatsApp conversation with a Yale-NUS administrator, Mr Alfian explained that he had previously found it difficult to get Government representatives to take part in such dialogues. He also felt that Dr Teo's specialisation in inequality did not match the programme's focus on free speech and expression.

Mr Alfian said he was told on Aug 21 that nine international students would join the module.

He said he raised the problems this would pose in a meeting with Yale-NUS on Aug 28 as he had proposed a sign-making workshop followed by a trip to the Speaker's Corner in Hong Lim Park.

"I was fully aware of the legal issues involved in the programme, and had tried to minimise to the best of my ability the exposure of the students to any legal risks," he said, adding that he did not make any more references to "simulating protests" after the Aug 28 meeting.

Mr Alfian said he later suggested that the students first visit Hong Lim Park for a walking tour and take part in the sign-making workshop on a later date.

He said: "This way, there would be no chance of the students taking the signs they had made to Hong Lim Park. There would be no 'simulation' at all of a protest at Hong Lim Park; only a walking tour. Everyone agreed to this new scheduling."

In another WhatsApp conversation on Sept 11, two days before the module was cancelled, Mr Alfian said: "For me the main thing to take away is this idea of 'pragmatic resistance'-What is it that you can do WITHIN the bounds of the law."

In his response to queries, Professor Tan, the Yale-NUS president, said: "While there has been a number of correspondences and meetings with Mr Alfian Sa'at in August to revise the content of his proposal, the changes were inadequate, did not meet academic standards, and still included elements that could subject students to the risk of breaking the law."

Prof Tan added that although Mr Alfian was open to making additional changes, he was not able to meet Yale-NUS staff in September as he was leaving for an overseas trip.

"As there was insufficient time left, the College decided to withdraw the project," Prof Tan said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.