Left side of equation = academic freedom
In a twist to the plot surrounding the Yale-NUS issue, a resolution passed by the Yale College Faculty championing American-style political freedoms in Singapore has obviously ruffled feathers. Ng E-Ching, a student at Yale wrote a response with a strongly-worded title that reads “Show Singaporeans some respect”.
Ng insisted that Singapore’s and Yale’s values are different, and wrote that “It’s hard for Singaporeans to imagine wanting the right to bear arms if it would mean worrying about getting home safely after partying all night.” She further added that the resolution annoys the Singaporean on the street, given that the university has already received a sweet deal in the form of free staff, free campus, free rein, etc, to boot.
Koh Choon Hwee, a contributor at the Kent Ridge Common (KRC), chose to address criticisms of academic freedom brought up by Yale student Walker Vincoli and alumnus Dr Michael Montesano. Koh wrote:
” Youth wing leaders of opposition parties – who are also NUS students – go about their activities on campus, and some are regular Dean’s Listers. Their names are well-known, and they have their supporters. Online student newspapers, like the Campus Observer and our own Kent Ridge Common are brimming with critiques of the university administration and of the country’s political system and politicians (and this KRC article also features then-NUS undergraduate Seah Yin Hwa who directly challenged, in person, the Prime Minister at a ministerial forum – the Yahoo! news article here. Repression, much?) All these articles are written by NUS students who have published their full names online, proudly and openly”.
Koh fired a second salvo:
” Yale faculty members critiquing the venture also default upon essentialized representations of Singapore and tend to obsess about the legality of homosexuality in this country. Shall we obsess too about Guantanamo Bay and other dubious “anti-terrorism” laws in the US, remnants of the disaster of George W. Bush’s (a Yale alumnus, no less) presidency?”
In a subsequent article, Koh launched another interesting argument levelled against foreign critics of Singapore system who subscribe to “perfunctory, oft- used academic freedom and illegality of homosexuality arguments”. Koh contended that critics who include the likes of Montesano subconsciously understand “written law” and legal traditions in the west as the only and correct standards. She pointed out that our part of the world has its diverse legal traditions, which are unwritten, but features guiding principles subjected to an adjudicator’s discretion. As a result of this, a gap can arise between the written version of the law and its “lived reality”. Koh further pointed out that these critics tend to favour emphasising the lived reality versus written law especially when they argue against the Singapore system. Koh questioned the justification of emphasising one interpretation (critics) of written law over another (adjudicators and chiefs) from our part of the world.
There is a large number of finger-pointing, so much so that the labelling of emperor at one side being naked – Singapore’s perceived lack of academic freedom – is responded in kind, albeit with references to Guatanamo Bay, and the gap between US’ lived reality and written laws.
In the flurry of exchanges, there is one recurring theme – that of academic freedom – which is a concern of the Yale faculty and one which is tenuously addressed by both Koh and Montesano.
Koh highlighted instances of students who enjoyed the freedom to publish their views in publications and that of youth leaders who did well academically despite being in opposition ranks. However, academic freedom should ideally be a right accorded to both faculty and students. Illuminating examples have been provided by Koh with regards to students, but how about faculty or academics?
I do not personally believe in the rhetoric of labelling the other side naked when they have pointed out the nudity on our side. I prefer a more introspective and self-reflective approach. Thus, the important question is how do we fare in the area of academic freedom for academics?
The unfortunate reality is that we have a string of cases that reinforced our critics’ views. It is difficult to erase the ghosts of Professor Lim Chong Yah, Dr Chen Kang, Dr Tan Ghee Khiap, Mr John Tan and Professor Douglas Sanders from our memories.
The trio of economists, Lim, Chen and Tan, drew the ire of then-Manpower Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen when Lim claimed that “out of four jobs created, only one job went to a Singapore resident, three jobs went to the intake of foreign workers”. Tan further added that the “number of non-resident workforce is very large, runs over 700,000”. Ng subsequently disputed the economists’ figures and the latter published a public apology to Ng in the end. On hindsight, the Manpower ministry could better handle the issue. It could, for example, issue a rebuttal through the university or journal publication. This is the standard method of academic debate nowadays.
John Tan wore a T-shirt bearing a kangaroo in a judge’s gown in what he described as a criticism of the way a judge had acted in legal proceedings against his fellow party members. John has been serving as the assistant Secretary-General of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). While awaiting trial over his action (wearing of kangaroo T-shirt was deemed to be in contempt of the court), John’s lectureship at the Singapore campus of James Cook University was suspended. Dr Dale Anderson, CEO of the Singapore campus subsequently revealed that a “Collin Lim” emailed the university administration informing them of John’s relationship with SDP’s Secretary-General Dr Chee Soon Juan. The email was also copied to the education minister. Anderson replied that there was nothing he could do about the suspension since half the school was owned by Singapore and that he was under Singapore’s employment. This happened in 2007.
Sanders is an international expert on human-rights and gay-related laws. He was supposed to be in Singapore to deliver a lecture titled “Society and Sexual Diversity: Human Rights, International Law, Western Patterns, Asian Developments” at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and a second talk organised by People Like Us (PLU). The police cancelled Sanders’ professional visit pass and permit, and his lectures had to be canned. This happened in 2007, and PLU is a gay equality lobby group.
Academics or more broadly teachers, have an important part to play in nurturing the intellectual future of every society. They are in a better position to influence worldviews and opinions, more so than do students. Yet, history has shown us the vulnerable position they are in, especially in a dictatorial regime determined to control the minds of its masses. One need not look far beyond the shores of Singapore for an example of this – the Cultural Revolution of China. It is the darkest period of China’s history where teachers are violently prosecuted through torture and assault. With the prosecution of intellectuals, needless to say, China stagnated. Thankfully, the likes of John Tan and Sanders had much more benign treatment in our part of the world than their Chinese counterparts.
Koh brought up a salient point about written laws and their interpretation. Yet, with regards to liberty and especially the topic of freedom of online expression (something which Koh alluded to proudly), the situation is uncertain… uncertain.. in the sense of knowing where the red tapes and boundaries lie. In early 2011, it was announced that the prominent socio-political blog The Online Citizen (TOC) was gazetted as a Political Association.
Exactly how does a blog like TOC resemble a political association seems perplexing to the observer on the street. The official explanation was that TOC has the potential to shape political outcomes in Singapore. The label of Political Association does carry with it a fair share of baggages. For one, TOC has to name four office-holders who are responsible for the preparation and accuracy of its donation reports. TOC is and still currently seeking donations from its Singaporean readers.
TOC is also bound by the Political Donations Act which forbids it to receive donations from foreigners. It also cannot receive more than $5,000 a year from anonymous donors. It must also report to the authorities every time it receives $10,000 from a single donor. Yes, this was the fate of a site that started out as a platform for citizen journalism.
Now, it has the label of “Political Association” thrusted upon it, where writers become “quasi-politicians”. Recently, my colleagues are asking me when will it be New Asia Republic’s turn to be gazetted. I don’t know how to answer that as I do not know the boundaries of the laws and where the red tapes lie, neither can I read the authority’s mind as to what constitutes a political association. However, if on the basis of a website influencing political outcomes, I suspect soon many will fall into that category. Nowadays, sites such as The Online Citizen, Temasek Review Emeritus and Kent Ridge Common not only have a dedicated webpage each but they also have twitter and Facebook interfaces which expand their reach. However, I hope the day will not come when more sites end up getting gazetted.
Revisiting Koh’s arguments, it seems she has come up with a formidable rebuttal of Montesano, citing the existence of academic freedom with good examples, and later adding another counterpoint about the interpretation of written laws which can result in different lived realities, and questioned whether the western interpretation of written law should be emphasised over other interpretations.
However, it seems that the second argument does not strengthen the first about academic freedom, in fact, it raises more questions. Academic freedom is an outcome, a “lived reality” or an outcome of interpretation of written laws by a chief or adjudicator. Now, if the second argument raises the possibility of a reality that has less freedom than that stated in written law, in what Koh highlighted as a hypocritical reality in the US that is far from what the written laws have intended, the same logic can be applied to Singapore. So, in light of how the Singapore authorities interpret written laws, and with the subsequent “lived reality”, is there academic freedom in Singapore? Since written laws can be interpreted in ways that result in incongruent realities, then it will be premature to talk of an outcome (academic freedom) as though it is a guarantee.
The concern of academic freedom to academics is truly understandable. To an academic based in the US, for him to set up shop in Singapore, especially if he has to supervise projects or students both in the US and Singapore, it is a big challenge for one very obvious reason – the difference in time zones. One academic I know goes to his day job at one of the local universities, and Skypes his postgraduate students in the US during the wee hours of the morning Singapore time to catch up with them on their developments.
Making the jump to Singapore, including Yale-NUS requires a huge dose of commitment. Job guarantees and security will obviously be in the minds of academics aspiring to come over. A guarantee that they will not be prosecuted over political views comes with the promise of academic freedom.
Much has been said regarding the fates of academics like Sanders, John Tan and the three economists. We can choose to ignore it, or acknowledge that such instances have happened in our own turf. In fact, one may wager the acid test of Yale-NUS’ commitment to academic freedom is whether the institution is open to hiring academics in the mould of John Tan or even someone like Douglas Sanders to teach there.
However, since the people involved in the setup have guaranteed academic freedom, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. The experiment has not even started as yet, and if it does, hopefully, it can have a happy conclusion.
Right-side of the equation = Domineering spirit of inquiry
An observer once mentioned that the Singapore society and Singaporeans have been ingrained to be deeply pragmatic. It is an apt observation.
This sense of pragmatism for good or bad reasons has permeated much of our educational life. Among Singapore students, the two watershed moments of their educational lives are during the General Certificate of Examination (GCE) “O” levels, which will take them to the next moment, the GCE “A” levels, which is a pre-university examination.
Schools focus on preparing students for these two major examinations two years ahead of time. The preparation phase is …pragmatic, where students are taught topics where they can score easily (read as highly efficient), and practise past year examination questions until they are ready for the big one.
When I was taking my “O” levels, I took a subject known as Additional Mathematics (A-Maths). The A-Maths paper had a section where students have the freedom to choose questions from a variety of topics to answer. I remember one section was Calculus and the other was Particle Mechanics, which is much tougher of the two. My school Math department thought that Calculus is much easier, and chose to focus on that topic. So, all students who took A-Math were taught Calculus, and Particle Mechanics was totally ignored. We were told in no uncertain terms that if we came to this particular section of our GCE examinations, we should be choosing the Calculus option.
One bright chap from my cohort asks what happens if we badly want to do Particle Mechanics. He was told in no uncertain terms that he will be taking a big risk since the school has not devoted any teaching resources to that topic. You see, how our Math department has planned the syllabus is that they rather cover less topics, but sufficient enough for us to negotiate our examinations and leave more time for practice drills, or revision exercises. It was a comfortable arrangement. The more pragmatic students will focus their practice on easier topics to get their As, which in the end was also good for the school’s reputation. Pragmatism wins.
Another instance where pragmatism eventually won was when again some bright chap again asked his teacher if he could used the principles of SN1 or SN2 mechanism to answer questions pertaining to organic chemistry in his GCE “O” level chemistry paper. SN1 and SN2 mechanism in organic chemistry is usually taught in the more advanced “A” levels and in first year university courses in chemistry. The teacher’s reply to the bright chap is not to take the risk, just reproduce what was being taught in our “O” level textbooks, a …..textbook reply indeed.
I have witnessed first-hand how the pragmatic attitude could hinder students from reaping full benefits of a liberal arts education. A friend of mine scored brilliantly in his GCE “A” levels. His transcript rivalled those who made it into Ivy League colleges (we are talking about A grades in “A” level subjects, and distinctions in “S” papers, additional subjects which the bright and select few will take). He was admitted into the University Scholars Programme (USP), of NUS, one of the university’s first experiments with a liberal arts style education.
The USP has a requirement – science students have to take more arts-based modules, and arts students have to take more science-based modules. This mate of mine took an arts module in his first semester. He did very well with a perfect grade point average. In the second semester, he took another arts module, in which he confided to me had a very tough grader. He revealed to me how stunned he was when he got a C+ in an essay that was worth 15% of the final grade. To be fair, all my buddies who took this course attested to the tough grading. For a high achiever, my friend was obviously dejected.
Towards the end of the semester, he was telling me how he wanted to drop out of USP. He revealed fears of his GPA being affected by grades obtained in the USP modules. I concluded that at the end of the day, this friend is not dumb or what, when in fact, he is a brilliant chap. The problem is that his pragmatism out-ruled everything in the end. I told him that he should give USP a chance, and not be too overly concerned about tough grading. However, he was adamant and made up his mind to drop out.
In an earlier article, a fellow writer, Davin Ng, was critical of including a professional degree component in a liberal arts education. It is not surprising to hear of such development. It is mere pragmatism after all. Getting a professional degree is always a pragmatic step in Singapore.
During our school years up to pre-university level, we have been programmed in the pragmatic mode, scoring our As in the most hassle-free and pragmatic manner. For anyone who is interested in a liberal arts education, that pragmatic mentality has to be suppressed. It should be replaced by a domineering spirit of inquiry.
The whole Yale-NUS equation
The contentious issue of academic freedom that has seen arguments emerge from both sides of the Yale and NUS divide of late. Academic freedom is definitely an important part of the equation, and if the ones in charge have promised to deliver on their guarantees, even that alone may not lead to success.
The other important element is that students have to adopt a refreshed outlook towards their education as they emerge from their pre-university years. It is no longer journeying from point A to B in the shortest way possible, achieving the desired results efficiently that typify the cold-hard pragmatic attitude.
Now, they have to make the step up and adopt the outlook of intellectual explorers, going on voyages on the ocean of knowledge and sailing in uncharted waters……
Photo courtesy of slack12, Flickr Commons