Next year, if we are lucky, there will be a university founded by Yale and the National University of Singapore right on our doorstep. It is to be a liberal arts university. This means that students would be exposed to a broad education in the arts and sciences as opposed to narrower professional, vocational, or technical subjects. For instance, a biology degree with coursework in languages and history is in the liberal arts, whereas medicine would be a professional degree.
The college will be set up by Yale University and funded by Singapore. Crucially, it is to be governed by both NUS and Yale (though the degree will be conferred by NUS only). The idea of a liberal arts education is to encourage Singaporeans and others in Asia to both think broadly and analyze deeply — what the college calls the “zoom-in-zoom-out ability.”
As Singapore becomes richer it requires more innovators to propel its “knowledge economy,” and the college is part of that effort. The Yale-NUS venture is also of great interest to her neighbors for both the educational advantages as well as the intangible ones of having a first-rate college in the region.
In the West, Singapore is not particularly fashionable — frequent anecdotes about gum-chewing restrictions come to mind. Perhaps the Yale-NUS College will begin to counter those perceptions. It may even become Singapore’s retort to Steve Wozniak, the Apple co-founder who said that Apple could not have been created in Singapore. (“Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great singers? Where are the great writers?”) The challenge is for Singapore to fix that reputation.
However, the plan has been controversial in America. More or less from the beginning, many academics, students, and alumni at Yale have expressed skepticism and sometimes hostility toward the project. Singapore, in one typical description, is an “autocracy that does not guarantee free speech, [and] is known for its harsh treatment of political dissenters, who are often sued for libel and bankrupted, imprisoned, or exiled,” stated Professor James Scott to the Yale Daily News in September 2010.
In April the Yale faculty voted, 100-69, to express “concern” about the “lack of respect for civil and political rights in the State of Singapore.” Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on who you are — the Yale-NUS venture did not require faculty “approval.”
More recently, the simmering squabble between the Yale community and the NUS venture boiled up again. News that Yale planned to respect Singaporean law requiring police permission for outdoor gatherings of five or more people led the Huffington Post to warn against “an authoritarian abyss.”
The Daily Beast, another liberal news website, says the Yale-NUS will “muzzle students.”
Many want Yale to abandon the project, but this seems to be the wrong way to defend liberalism. Singapore and Asia are in the middle of great transitions, and Yale has an opportunity to shape that process and put its stamp on a rising continent. In fact, Yale would be doing the cause of liberty a disservice by dropping the project.
Take the long view. Anyone can see that Singapore has changed and will continue to change. Twenty years ago, many Singaporeans may have felt uncomfortable discussing politics in public or voting for an opposition party. Today, this has changed. The 2011 elections featured vibrant and broad public debate, and led to the smallest majority for the ruling party yet.
A torrent of grassroots activism around the Bukit Brown cemetery and the Internal Security Act suggest the government is tolerating more dissenting views. Greater social spending, the recent tightening of immigration laws, and a reduction in cabinet ministers’ pay also suggest a leadership actively responding to popular concerns.
Not just politics, but society too has been changing. In the 2000s, social mores began to relax; for instance, bar-top dancing was permitted and the television series Sex and the City was allowed to be shown. Later, gambling was legalized. Chewing gum, long totally banned, is now sold with some restrictions.
These are individually small changes but the cumulative view is of a society undergoing rapid reform. The impetus for change has partly been international competition for talent — low fertility rates meant that Singapore was competing for immigrants against cities like London, New York or Hong Kong.
But technological change also decisively altered the situation — the government realized that controlling the Internet was an ultimately futile effort — to their credit. The Singapore of 2012 is not perfect, but neither is it the Singapore of yore that critics vilified.
It is worth noting that not all of Singapore’s laws are actually enforced. This is important because harsh laws have been cited as a reason against Yale’s involvement. The issue of homosexuality has been brought up by Yale faculty.
“I can’t imagine going to a place where it’s illegal to be me,” said one professor.
The laws convey a misleading impression about what happens in practice. To counter the above example, Singapore is incredibly open about homosexuality, with plenty of bars and activism. In 2011, a “Pink Dot” rally had 10,000 attendees. Perhaps the government just uses law differently than it is used in America.
In America, the law often leads society, pushing views it believes are just. In Singapore, public norms are expected to push the law. Sometimes the government can even be too forward, as for instance, when it attempted to liberalize film censorship in 1991 and public pressure forced a U-turn. These different legal philosophies should not be a reason to abandon the Yale-NUS venture.
Finally, a plea for broadness. There are varieties of liberalism and America’s is just one type. To my count, there have been three shooting incidents in America in recent weeks. Singaporeans might gladly trade the American “freedom” to bear arms with the Singaporean freedom to walk around safely. These choices do not make either society less free.
Freedom is complicated. Britain bans parliamentary footage shown in a satirical context, yet Americans see that country as free. Some cantons in Switzerland ban car-washing and use of laundry machines on Sunday because they disturb the peace, something Americans would find authoritarian. Singapore is today mostly a free country.
If the Yale community cannot make its peace with Singapore, it will probably struggle to do so with the rest of Asia.
I am not callous to concerns about political freedom. As a professor of law and editor of a newspaper in Indonesia, much of what I do would not have been possible before the 1998 reforms. Freedom of the press, of speech and of association are my bread and butter.
In my view, the Yale-NUS venture is precisely an opportunity to defend these freedoms. It would introduce a new kind of elite in Asia, one that is not just technically proficient, but also in possession of broad minds. Any student brought up in this environment is likely to be a formidable advocate for an open society.
John Riady is an Associate Professor of Law at the Pelita Harapan University in Indonesia. He is also Editor at Large for the Jakarta Globe.