Yale-NUS cancels programme to introduce students to 'modes of dissent and resistance in Singapore'

The Yale-NUS College in a photo taken in 2017. The institution cancelled a programme that was to be led by local playwright Alfian Sa'at. PHOTOS: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A Yale-NUS College programme that was meant to introduce students to various modes of dissent and organising resistance here has been cancelled two weeks before it was due to start.

The course - originally called Dissent And Resistance In Singapore - was to have been led by Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa'at in collaboration with programme manager Tan Yock Theng of the university.

Mr Alfian, resident playwright at local theatre company Wild Rice, is a poet, playwright and short story writer known for his work which has delved into topics of race, sexuality and politics.

An online write-up that is no longer accessible stated that the programme was expected to run from Sept 29 to Oct 5. The Straits Times understands that it was called off early last week.

Its proposed activities included film screenings and dialogues, and an early outline for the programme said it would look into modes of dissent from "citizen journalism to artistic works, from 'accommodationist' tactics such as pragmatic resistance to 'radical' strategies of civil disobedience".

There were plans for a screening of Singaporean independent film-maker Jason Soo's 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy, which focuses on detainees arrested under the Internal Security Act in 1987, a workshop on designing protest signs and a panel discussion with freelance journalist Kirsten Han, veteran journalist P.N. Balji and historian Thum Ping Tjin. Later plans included showing a documentary on Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong.

Explaining the decision to pull the plug on the course, Yale-NUS College president Tan Tai Yong told ST on Saturday that the decision to withdraw the project - later named Dialogue And Dissent In Singapore - was not taken lightly. He said the university reviewed the proposed itinerary and found that it did not align with learning objectives earlier approved by the curriculum committee.

"The project in question does not critically engage with the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent," he added.

"The activities proposed and the selection of some of the speakers... will infringe our commitment not to advance partisan political interests in our campus."

He also said the proposed activities included "elements that may subject students to the risk of breaking the law, and incurring legal liabilities".

"This is not acceptable to the college as we are committed to operating within Singapore laws - a position set out by our founding president back in 2012."

Yale-NUS student-run publication The Octant, which reported the cancellation of the course, also quoted Professor Tan as saying: "The fundamental reason why we took the decision we did was risk mitigation, particularly for international students, who could lose their student pass for engaging in political activity."

A Yale-NUS spokesman told ST that projects are proposed by faculty. Mr Alfian had a visiting appointment teaching playwriting last semester and had put up a proposal, she added.

The Octant also reported that the project had been "conditionally approved" in June by the school's curriculum committee but that "its description raised serious concerns regarding the distinction between studying and engaging in protest".

Mr Alfian said the programme outline published online was a tentative version and that a final version was eventually rejected by Yale-NUS.

One change was scrapping the panel discussion involving Ms Han who would conduct a "democracy classroom" that did not involve Mr Balji or Dr Thum. The workshop on designing protest signs was changed to a "sign-making workshop".

Prof Tan said: "Although different iterations of the itinerary have been proposed, our assessment is that the planned activities still included elements which put our students at risk."

In a statement on Sunday, Yale President Peter Salovey said that he expressed his concern to the president of the National University of Singapore and the president of Yale-NUS when he learnt of the impending decision.

"In founding and working with our Singaporean colleagues on Yale-NUS, Yale has insisted on the values of academic freedom and open inquiry, which have been central to the college and have inspired outstanding work by faculty, students, and staff," he said.

"Yale-NUS has become a model of innovation in liberal arts education in Asia. Any action that might threaten these values is of serious concern, and we at Yale need to gain a better understanding of this decision," he added.

President Salovey has asked Pericles Lewis, Yale University's Vice President and Vice Provost for Global Strategy, and the inaugural president of Yale-NUS (2012-2017), to conduct a fact-finding.

"I am grateful to Professor Lewis for the work he will do to gather all the facts central to this matter. Once we have a full understanding of what happened, I will determine the appropriate response," he said.

A National University of Singapore spokesman said it supported the Yale-NUS decision as the project did not meet objectives of the Learning Across Boundaries (LABs) programme. The cancelled programme was one of 14 LABs projects, which involve faculty-led programmes of short durations. The Education Ministry also said it supported the college's decision.

Mr Alfian said in a Facebook post in May that he was designing a programme called Dissent And Resistance, which would, among other things, "examine the political, social and ethical issues that surround democratic dissent in authoritarian societies".

Prof Tan said there is not enough time to arrange for a fresh set of activities as the projects are due to start on Sept 27. The 16 first-year students affected were told on Friday that they will be reallocated to other projects.

Singapore Management University associate professor of law Eugene Tan said what happened at Yale-NUS seems to point to circumstances that included a university and instructors being unable to come to a consensus on course content and teaching methods.

He said: "For me, the biggest concern based on the course outline is the lack of even-handedness in engaging with competing and conflicting perspectives. It appears that only one view was to be presented - that of the dissenter and resistor.

"Another concern is the absence of even a rudimentary theoretical framework to approach and to understand dissent and resistance."

He added that questions remain as to why it took so long for the matter to be brought up, as the programme was called off two weeks before it was due to start.

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