Yale, Singapore and Free Speech

July 26, 2012 Topic: Globalization Region: Singapore Blog Brand: The Buzz

Yale, Singapore and Free Speech

Next fall, Yale University is slated to open a college in Singapore in collaboration with the National University of Singapore (NUS). The joint venture has generated controversy since it was announced, but gained additional scrutiny after the Wall Street Journal reported recently that political protests and parties would not be permitted at Yale-NUS.

Pericles Lewis, the president of Yale-NUS, later claimed that he had been incorrectly paraphrased and that Yale-NUS students will be guaranteed “all forms of political expression consistent with Singaporean law.” Still, neither he nor Yale’s president would address the issue of speech going beyond that law, including whether the college would allow Singaporean authorities to break up political protests, or would be obligated to report unregistered parties or protests.

Lewis has said that policies will be developed “to handle conflicts between student political activity and Singaporean law,” and that those policies will be made public before Yale-NUS opens.

Leaving aside the larger question of the wisdom of the Yale-NUS venture, the critics are right that serious issues are at stake. But it’s not just about “academic freedom” in the narrow sense of being able to write or speak as you wish in a seminar or academic journal. At Yale and elsewhere, students also learn, grow and refine their own views by speaking openly outside the classroom, engaging with their classmates and the broader polity. And yes, at times that will involve overt political activity of the kind that is at issue here. For Yale-NUS students not to have this ability would represent both a lesser education for them in practice as well as a retreat from the liberal values that Yale professes to champion.

As Samuel Goldman noted at The American Conservative, the Singaporean government’s reasons for enacting the ban may be perfectly understandable. What is less clear is why Yale has so far appeared to give them tacit sanction. In Goldman’s words, it shows a certain indifference to the “principle that the freedom of expression is meaningless without the freedom to associate and demonstrate in ways consistent with public safety.” Hopefully, when Yale-NUS’s policies are made public, they will not show the same indifference.