SINGAPORE: Education institutions should not be misused as platforms for partisan politics, said Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Monday (Oct 7).
He was addressing questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) about the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) stand on the cancellation of a controversial programme at Yale-NUS College in September, titled Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore.
"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," Mr Ong said.
The course was part of the curriculum for first-year students at the liberal arts college and was to have been led by Singapore playwright Alfian Sa'at. The week-long programme, formerly titled Dissent and Resistance in Singapore, was cancelled on Sep 13, two weeks before it was due to start.
Yale University has released a report that said the cancellation of the course was justified due to concerns about the academic rigour, the legal risk to students and the political balance, but Mr Alfian has disputed the report in a series of Facebook posts.
READ: Yale-NUS underlines commitment to academic freedom after cancellation of course on dissent in Singapore
Mr Ong said some argue that academic freedom grants universities the licence to run such programmes, and a few may 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 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," he said.
“And MOE’s stand is that 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."
SPEAKERS CONVICTED OF PUBLIC-ORDER OFFENCES
Aside from a placard-making workshop and visit to Speakers’ Corner, the programme included dialogues with Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Seelan Palay, who have both been convicted of public order-related offences, said Mr Ong.
Talks with Ms Kirsten Han and Dr PJ Thum, founders of New Naratif, were also part of the curriculum.
Mr Ong said: “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 even gain 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."
Mr Ong also said that Mr Alfian wrote a poem in 1998 titled Singapore You Are Not My Country.
"This is a poem, and we might concede some artistic licence. But Mr Alfian Sa’at continues this attitude consistently in his activism," said Mr Ong.
Mr Alfian saw his project as "political conscientisation" which is aimed at making people conscious of and take action against the oppression in their lives, he said.
He added that academic institutions 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 show openly, disloyalty to Singapore."
Later on Monday, Alfian Sa'at responded to reports of the claims made about him in Parliament.
He said he has not used the word "conscientisation" in any description of the programme.
"I have only used the word 'conscientisation' in reference to what I observe as a political awakening among students, in a post made three weeks after the programme was cancelled. So it’s not accurate to say that this was how I saw the project," he said.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM VALUED
Mr Ong also highlighted that MOE and the autonomous universities value academic freedom and that political dissent is a legitimate topic of academic inquiry.
Adding that many students read and assess works by figures like Lenin and Mao Zedong, he said: “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."
A liberal arts school like Yale-NUS has a place in the Singapore education landscape, he stated.
"In fact, in all our autonomous universities, there is an increasing focus on interdisciplinary learning and development of critical thinking skills in students,” he added.
“But thinking critically is quite different from being unthinkingly critical, and any course offered by our autonomous universities must be up to mark. Otherwise it does not deserve to be part of a liberal arts programme."
Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar questioned if MOE will be exercising "greater scrutiny" over Yale-NUS, its programmes and lecturers.
“The withdrawal of this project does not affect the partnership, I think the standard of this project is so far off the mark that both sides agree there's no implications on academic freedom," Mr Ong replied.
SUITABILITY OF TEACHERS AND INSTRUCTORS
In response to Mr Ong’s concerns on the instructors connected to the Yale-NUS course, Nominated MP Walter Theseira asked if there should be a blacklist of individuals that autonomous universities should not engage, expressing concerns that universities would "overreact and put individuals on the list when they should not be”.
Mr Ong said that a blacklist would not be practical.
“We have to leave a lot of room for educational institutions to decide for themselves, and whether a person is suitable to be a teacher or instructor at all, I think that is a relevant consideration,” he said.
Elaborating, Mr Ong said that activism among faculty is actually "quite encouraged", but political activism and teaching should not be conflated: “As long as they are kept separate, there’s actually no problem."
MP Seah Kian Peng called for more local academics than foreign ones, to "calibrate a right balance", and asked Mr Ong if guidelines will be put in place to address this.
Mr Ong said MOE is taking various steps to encourage more local academics to join universities here, to "make sure we have a strong local core".
“But apart from that, on the issue of understanding Singapore’s context, and teaching and doing research within our context, I would say that it is not just for locals," he said.
"A foreign faculty can also acquire that sensitivity to our context. So I will say it is not so much a local versus foreign issue – but I think all our academics and institutions will have to understand Singapore’s context and operate within it."
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to remove a quote that was not said by Mr Ong Ye Kung. We are sorry for the error.