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Yale-NUS underlines commitment to academic freedom after cancellation of course on dissent in Singapore

Yale-NUS underlines commitment to academic freedom after cancellation of course on dissent in Singapore

Yale-NUS College campus. (Photo: Yale-NUS College)

SINGAPORE: Yale-NUS College remains fully committed to academic freedom, but it is also committed to operating within Singapore laws, the President of the college Tan Tai Yong said on Tuesday (Sep 17).

The course, titled Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore, 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 Friday, two weeks before it was due to start.

The college had found that the proposed activities were not in line with the concept and learning objectives earlier approved by the curriculum committee, but did not have time to arrange for a fresh set of activities, it said in a statement.

"We have not taken this decision lightly," Prof Tan said.

Prof Tan said that planned activities in the course schedule would have put students at risk of breaking the law, and of "incurring legal liabilities". This included a workshop on designing protest signs followed by "an external tour on topography of protest".

"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," said Prof Tan. 

"The college continues to be fully committed to academic freedom - the freedom to open inquiry, discussion and study. This is distinct from undertaking activities that may cross the line of what is legally allowed in Singapore," he added. 

"All institutions have to operate within boundaries of legally permissible activity, and that is true in all countries." 

Prof Tan noted that dissent and protest are "legitimate objects of study and investigation" in any country. 

"The project was meant to be an examination or study of protest that would expose students to the wide range of perspectives in Singapore, something essential for an academic consideration of the topic," he said. 

"However, the project in question did not adequately cover the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent."

Arrangements were made for the 16 students who were affected to take other programmes, the college said.

According to Yale-NUS student-run publication The Octant, senior administration said the programme "risked exposing students to legal liabilities, advanced partisan political interests, and lacked critical engagement".

“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,” Prof Tan told The Octant. 

In response to CNA queries, NUS and the Ministry of Education (MOE) both said they supported Yale-NUS's decision to cancel the course. 

The president of Yale University Peter Salovey had earlier on Saturday expressed his concerns following the course cancellation. 

“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: Yale-NUS has become a model of innovation in liberal arts education in Asia," Prof Salovey said in a statement. 

"Any action that might threaten these values is of serious concern, and we at Yale need to gain a better understanding of this decision."

Prof Salovey said that he had also asked Professor Pericles Lewis, Yale University’s Vice President, Vice Provost for Global Strategy and former president of Yale-NUS, to conduct fact-finding, adding that he will "determine the appropriate response" when he has a full understanding of what happened.

In response to queries about Prof Salovey's concerns, Prof Tan said they had communicated on the issue once the college made the decision to withdraw the programme, and added that the college will work with Prof Lewis on his fact-finding.


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