THE BLOG
11/29/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

At Last, Singapore Opposition Leaders Can Tell Yale the Truth

Communication among Yale faculty and administrators is so often conducted with arched eyebrows and significant silences that the college, home of Skull and Bones, has been known more for its elite "understandings" than for its freedoms of speech. But that consensus may be disrupted a bit this Friday, November 29, when two brave, whip-smart leaders of Singapore's beleaguered opposition parties will finally get their say in New Haven.

To appreciate how important this can be, you need to know that, four days before the opposition leaders will speak, a panel discussion was hastily scheduled at Yale last Monday at which Pericles Lewis, the former Yale professor and first president of the undergraduate college-cum global career training center in Singapore, which Yale will open in September in collaboration with that tightly-controlled city-state at its National University of Singapore (NUS), assured listeners that students at the Yale-NUS College "can invite whom they want" to speak to their groups on campus.

But Lewis didn't say whether everyone whom Yale-NUS students invite will actually be able to come and speak to them. The answer is infamously murky in law and in practice, as Lewis' Monday session itself unfortunately reminded me: Although it was officially "open to the Yale community," no one at Yale had received notice of it until that very morning, seven hours before the event, and some had received no notice at all.

This characteristic commingling of lofty principle and shady practice yielded a small audience of 30, almost all of it affiliated with Yale-NUS or aspiring to be. But it also yielded a Yale Daily News student reporter who, told of the event 15 minutes before it began, produced an anodyne account that missed much of what happened, but told "the Yale community" all the administration wanted to hear.

The really important thing Lewis didn't say was that two Singapore opposition-party leaders who've been "disinvited" from speaking at the National University of Singapore itself and who've endured years of slick, duplicitous and steely harassment by the country's eternal ruling party -- would speak at Yale four days after his own discussion.

Indeed, they're speaking at Yale only after the university has hosted three Singapore-friendly panel discussions since last spring (one of them called, disingenuously, "Singapore Uncensored") in an effort to "dispel misconceptions about Singapore" supposedly spread by critics of Yale's venture there.

The uniform message: "Singapore isn't perfect, but it's changing" -- a truism that conceals harsh truths that may be "uncensored" on a platform at Yale for the first time on Friday thanks not to Lewis, Yale-NUS, or Yale's administration, but to the undergraduate Yale International Relations Association, which approached some faculty on Yale's Southeast Asia Council last summer. The two organizations are co-sponsoring this unprecedented event.

We may even learn something about why the Johns Hopkins University, Australia's University of New South Wales, and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts have all pulled their programs out of Singapore, and about why faculty at the Claremont Colleges rebuffed overtures to establish an undergraduate liberal-arts college in Singapore after Britain's prestigious Warwick University cancelled its own effort there and before Yale rushed in where they'd declined to tread.

At last, "the Yale community" will hear Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary-general of Singapore's tiny opposition Reform Party, Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the somewhat larger Singapore Democratic Party, and a commenter (and possible critic) of unquestioned integrity, the political scientist Meredith L. Weiss, a Yale Ph.D. now at the State University of New York in Albany who studies comparative politics in Southeast Asia.

Jeyaretnam himself holds a Double First Class Honours degree in Economics from University of Cambridge and has long experience in finance; he's been watch-dogging the Singapore government's investment funds. Partly because his father, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, an early opposition leader in Parliament, was persecuted infamously by Singapore's eternal ruling party, Jeyaretnam hasn't been treated as harshly. But not only was he "disinvited" from speaking at NUS last year after receiving an invitation; his own son was rejected by one of Singapore's elite secondary schools (from which several of Singapore's defenders at Yale have graduated), a characteristic ruling party move "clearly politically motivated to isolate me," he says.

Jeyaretnam's co-panelist on Friday, Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, was fired by the National University of Singapore from his position as a lecturer in neuropsychology in 1993 after he joined the opposition party. In another characteristic ruling party move, Chee, who holds a PhD from the University of Georgia, was sued for defamation, convicted of it, bankrupted for it, and imprisoned when he tried to contest his dismissal.

Although relations among Singapore's opposition parties aren't cordial, Jeyaretnam, with courage and nobility reminiscent of his father, spoke out against the renewed persecution of Chee several months ago, when the latter was barred from leaving Singapore to give a speech to a human rights organization in Oslo -- the same month, ironically, when Yale University President Richard Levin came to Singapore to give a speech celebrating Pericles Lewis' ascent to the Yale-NUS presidency.

Yale, which is quick to put gay rights struggles in Singapore into a perspective that acknowledges the regime's abuses but emphasizes its progress, has had no panel on the miseries of migrant workers such as the 100 bus drivers from China who tried to hold an illegal strike against their bus company just when Walmart workers walked off their jobs on Black Friday.

So, when guests of Jeyaretnam's and Chee's talent and experience do speak to the Yale community on Friday, will the Yale administration welcome and celebrate them? Or will it be too busy promoting, almost luridly now, Yale's marketing bid to rising upper-middle class Asian parents and their children who aspire to international careers after a few years under the Yale imprimatur in Singapore?

The Yale-NUS brochure distributed at Lewis' Monday forum opens with more photos of Yale's New Haven campus in all its glory than of Singapore, and no wonder: "As one of the first Yale-NUS students, you will start your education on the Yale campus in the United States." Yes, in the summer of 2013, all new Yale-NUS students and faculty will live in a Yale residential college in-New Haven for a month-long "immersion" experience.

And what will they be "immersed" in? I'm all for collegial bonding and of dialogue across differences, and I don't begrudge any Singapore-destined freshmen from Southeast Asia a first-class trip to the U.S. that mimics a luxurious Yale Alumni tours of, say, ancient Greece and the old Levant: There will be walking tours of colonial Boston, bus tours through the amazing "diversity of New York City, ecology-sensitive forays to rustic New England sites, a real New England clambake, even a final dinner at the elegant Yale Club of New York, where Yale-NUS grads will later take their business clients to dinner because they'll join the Yale Alumni "community" even though Yale-NUS won't grant bona fide Yale degrees.

The brochure guarantees every Yale-NUS student "an internship in Singapore or abroad. Leading multinational companies such as American Express, Chanel, Google and Singapore Airlines and NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and the UN [mais, bien sur!] are partnering with Yale-NUS to offer top internships."

The brochure then presents a two-page map of the world showing sites of possible overseas internships in "one of 40 global programs exclusive to Yale and Yale-NUS students. Study at Yale in the United States or at one of the NUS Overseas colleges in entrepreneurial hubs like Silicon Valley."

There is also, by the way, a place called Singapore -- "a global center of business and entrepreneurialism, a cross-roads of diverse cultures, one of the safest cities in the world, with a growing art scene and a devotion to excellence that is just as celebrated as its food."

Who wrote such pap? Probably the public-relations maestro who orchestrated the brochure's glowing testimonials from people who never attended Yale-NUS College, because it hasn't opened yet, but assure prospective students and their parents that "The NUS ecosystem is very entrepreneurial. Not only did I gain the knowledge required for staring my tech company but I also met like-minded people to do it with."

"Where will a Yale-NUS Education Take you? Anywhere you want," crows another page of the brochure, listing "notable graduates" of Yale such as "Mr. Fareed Zakaria, Host of CNN's Emmy-nominated Fareed Zakaria GPS, Editor at large of TIME, Washington Post columnist, and New York Times bestselling author."

Oops: Zakaria, with whom I have had my differences, resigned from Yale's governing corporation after committing plagiarism, but that doesn't matter to talented young people desperate to get out of Malaysia or Indonesia or Singapore itself and to join the new global elite after a few years at Yale-NUS before transferring or hiring themselves out to people who they dream will carry them to Davos.

Yale-NUS' repeated hints that its students may get a chance to transfer to Yale itself, coupled with elaborate offerings of global-internships and career-placement services, tell the true story behind this venture, initiated in the first place by three current or recent members of Yale's governing corporation -- G. Leonard Baker, Charles Ellis, and Charles Waterhouse Goodyear IV -- who've also been investment advisers to Singapore's sovereign wealth funds and government investment corporation for more than a decade.

This is no venture to bring liberal education to Asia, but, as its progenitors frankly assert, to re-invent liberal education from the ground up. What this turns out to mean is that liberal education must be fitted out to serve those who are trying to smooth the convergence of Asian state capitalism with American state capitalism.

In other words, Singapore will "loosen up" a little, and a Yale-trained American elite will learn from Singapore how to tighten up a lot: Those striking Chinese migrant bus drivers in Singapore and defiantly absent Wal-Mart workers in the U.S. are part of the same problem for global capital, and you can bet that it isn't workers of the world whom Yale wants to unite, any more than it wanted to bring Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Yuan to New Haven this Friday.

Fortunately, the U.S. isn't yet as tight as Singapore, and Jeyaretnam and Chee may well hope that liberal education at Yale-NUS can loosen things up a little. But the collaboration is already making things harder here, as Yale Prof. Christopher Miller showed recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, where he describes the emergence of a new "Frankenyale," one that I think Singapore's ruling party would probably love to show Americans how to run.

At the hastily announced little Monday session that tried to keep dispelling "misconceptions" about Singapore before Friday's event dispels others, two of the very earnest Singaporean students on a panel did urge Yale administrators to stand up for academic and expressive freedom in their country and to stop sounding so much like Singapore's own bureaucrats.

And Prof. Mira Seo, a classicist who said she'd left the University of Michigan for Yale-NUS because "the humanities are dying" in many American universities but "growing" in Singapore, slipped her new employer's harness a bit by describing herself as one of those "passionate and dorky" humanists who believe that "a liberal education is supposed to make you more free" and that students' "demands on the world around them should be more robust and precise."

This was met with awkward silence, as was her request -- repeated to the audience during the question period by the moderator, Yale Prof. Marvin Chun -- that the Yale students present "reflect with us on what you really love about Yale here and what you'd like to change." That request was met by a long and embarrassing silence because there were only two or three non-Singaporean Yale students in the room.

Perhaps that was because the session had been virtually unannounced. Perhaps it reflected students' wariness of these endless, stagey put-ons. But will more students and faculty, and even a journalist or two, show up to hear two really brave Singaporeans tell more of the truth at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon?

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