More than a year ago Yale University announced that it would partner with the National University of Singapore to produce a campus offering Yale’s prestigious liberal-arts tradition to students in one of Southeast Asia’s cultural and economic hubs. While the institution, according to the YaleNUS College website, is “reinventing liberal-arts education from the ground up,” in reality the new campus and its inaugural students will be subject to a vast set of barriers to political and academic freedom.
Though Singapore is most certainly the region’s wealthiest nation per capita (the World Bank stated their PPP at $59,711 in 2011 and the Boston Consulting Group estimated that 17% of households belong to millionaires), the small city-state’s history has been filled with political unrest and a questionable human-rights record.
The quads in New Haven are constantly filled with political debate. In Singapore, however, at the first new venture to use the Yale name in more than 300 years, students will be prohibited from expressing many of the freedoms enjoyed by their Connecticut counterparts. The prohibitions will include creating political parties, joining or forming partisan political societies on campus, and staging protests.
In response to heavy scrutiny, Dr. Pericles Lewis, the initial President of the YaleNUS College, issued a response: “Yale-NUS’s policy specifically protects academic freedom for research, teaching, and discussion on campus and for publication of the resulting scholarship,” he said. “Students at the National University of Singapore already have substantial opportunity for political debate and engagement, and the new College will have opportunities as extensive.”
Nevertheless, in a resolution passed last April by Yale’s faculty, dozens of Yale professors decried Yale’s partnership with a country that possesses a history of “a lack of respect for civil and political rights.” The resolution further emphasized a need for Yale to fight for principles of non-discrimination for all, particularly against “sexual minorities and migrant workers,” two groups against whom Singapore’s government continues to persecute. Kenneth Marcus, President and General Counsel at the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, also suggests that “Yale’s Singapore venture is truly perplexing, not only because of the country’s poor record on freedom of speech, but also because of its abysmal record on political rights and the freedom of gays and lesbians.”
For Dr. Lewis and other proponents of the new partnership, the fact that Singapore has a history of transgression is no reason to avoid it entirely. “In my view, progress depends on continued engagement and dialogue rather than retreat or insularity.” Furthermore, Yale is not by any means the first elite United States university to operate in Singapore; Duke University, the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania University, and John’s Hopkins University all offer degree seeking programs on sister campuses in the state, all of which are forced to abide by the same stringent set of Singaporean restrictions.
Nevertheless, Yale’s campus will be the first American partnership to offer a uniquely western undergraduate program, with all studies and residences located on a central campus, to students of the growing nation. While the venture certainly has the opportunity to create the “community of learning” its proponents desire, Mr. Marcus laments what he sees as a more probable reality: “Yale may think that it will have a positive influence on Singapore’s culture, but the more likely result is that Singapore will have a negative influence on Yale’s reputation for academic freedom.”
For critics, the concern is that by lending its name to the endeavor, Yale will appear to lend legitimacy to oppressive government rule. Marcus concludes: “I would like to be optimistic about the Yale-Singapore partnership, but it is impossible not to be concerned that Yale is becoming complicit in Singapore’s human rights violations. Avoiding that prospect will now have to become a top priority of Yale’s leadership.”
Going forward, it remains to be seen whether Yale can bring change to the Eastern economic giant, or whether YaleNUS College will become a place in which students’ opinions are drowned out and suppressed under Yale’s prestigious banner.
Fix Contributor Alex Jakubowski is a junior at Northwestern.