THE BLOG
12/06/2012 04:41 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2013

Singaporeans Speak Freely at Yale -- and Against It

Is the Tide Running Out on Liberal Democracy?

In his immodestly titled and even more immodestly influential book of 2007, The Future of Freedom, the journalist and Yale trustee Fareed Zakaria advanced the belief of Margaret Thatcher and the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's U.N. ambassador, that illiberal, authoritarian capitalist regimes like Augusto Pinochet's in Chile and Lee Kuan Yew's in the little corporate city-state of Singapore build the strongest foundations for liberal democracy because they stabilize the national wealth-production upon which a democracy ultimately depends.

But while entrepreneurial capitalism was indeed a progenitor of liberal democracy in the 18th century, where the mind of Margaret Thatcher resides, today's corporate capital, especially in its most recent, casino-finance iterations, has become subversive of democracy. It is undermining the sovereignty and the morals of democratic polities without generating any new frame or faith strong enough to sustain them.

Not surprisingly, democratic movements -- Occupy Wall Street, public-sector union uprisings in Wisconsin -- have returned the favor by becoming equally subversive of finance capital's agendas, and they'll become increasingly so in the years ahead.

Sure, they'll sometimes be desperate and irresponsible. And that will prompt people like Zakaria to interview people like Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and his son Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, at the World Economic Forum, helping them to hint to receptive audiences that most people must be ruled because they really can't govern themselves.

In such hands as these, disparagement of democracy is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that sometimes summons an iron fist against national' working classes and migrants, as Singapore did so decisively this week.

This doesn't seem to discomfit Zakaria, who savors a lively and imaginative contempt for left-of-center movements that, in his telling, always turn their promises of democracy into engines of oppression more draconian than any dreamed of by stern paternalists like Pinochet and Lee.

Never mind that Chile had democratic and republican roots as deep as Wisconsin's before General Pinochet led a coup that murdered his more intelligent and effective predecessor Salvadore Allende and thousands of supporters; Zakaria's high-capitalist, militaristic music in The Future of Freedom suited Davos' orchestra of high-minded opinion well enough, and the book became a best-seller.

No surprise, then, that last spring Zakaria joined three fellow Yale trustees, long-time investment advisers to Singapore's government, to tout Yale's collaboration with that country's ruling party in establishing an undergraduate liberal-arts college to boost Singapore as the center of what its ambassador to the U.S. called "the education industry" in Southeast Asia.

Zakaria soon had to resign from Yale's governing corporation for committing plagiarism in an article for TIME magazine, but by then his neoliberal symphony had already skipped a few bars on its score by mistaking the hubbub of capitalist market dynamism for the conversations of citizens deliberating democratically about big decisions shaping their lives.

Zakaria missed or downplayed a reality that's harsher than any he's had to face: It's that the true framers of constitutional democracies can't just stride onto foundations prepared by illiberal regimes like Singapore's.

As Jonathan Schell shows unforgettably in The Unconquerable World, democrats such as Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, and Martin Luther King, Jr., have to be willing to survive years of nearly paralyzing fear, public smearing, prosecution for "defamation" of the authorities, bankruptcy, imprisonment, and more, in their struggle to displace power-wielders and their crony capitalist collaborators. (That may sound archaic. But look around.)

Most such efforts are suppressed energetically by the powers they challenge, and when they seem irrepressible, they may be crushed violently. "Repression is like making love; it's always easier the second time around," explained Singapore's British-educated, eloquent ruthlessly energetic autocrat Lee while refining this "love" into an art form.

Under Lee Kuan Yew's son Lee Hsien Loong, the country is still deep into an energetic, fine-spun suppression of democracy. And world history lately hasn't exactly been smoothing Zakaria's much-heralded neo-liberal paths to democratic reform.

At Last, Singapore's Brave Democrats Speak to Yale

Against this dark background, two brave framers of democracy in Singapore -- Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, and Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary-general of the Reform Party -- created a sensation last week, thrilling many who'd been smothering under Yale's institutional happy talk about Singapore and inciting denial and consternation among the regime's and the Yale administration's operatives.

Chee and Jeyaretnam flew many thousands of miles to New Haven to speak out at the invitation of some independent students at the Yale International Relations Association and faculty at the Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies. The third panelist was the political scientist Meredith Weiss, a Yale PhD who teaches at the State University of New York in Albany and presented richly researched, nuanced information that tended to reinforce the opposition leaders' credibility, not because she cast it that way but because of what the reality is:

"The crux of my argument," Weiss said, "is that the Singapore polity offers more space than voice: non-institutional engagement is possible and increasingly common, but institutional channels to express those preferences or perspectives remain absent or curtailed..... The structure of 'civic society' that Singapore's ruling People's Action Party has crafted allows for a degree of feedback and responsiveness, so at least some demands have been subtly met, but in a way that gives no credit to those generating the ideas the PAP chooses to embrace."

The panel organizers had also invited three representatives of the Singapore government, including its recent ambassador to the U.S., Chan Heng Chee. But, perhaps wary of according opposition leaders any recognition beyond what the government has given them in smearing and prosecuting them, the officials declined.

These officials' absence only reinforced Weiss' description of their modus operandi and prompted the organizers to change its title from "Singapore: The Democratic Divide" to "Singapore Today: Opposition Perspectives."

Brief but solid accounts of the two-hour session in the New Haven Register and the Yale Daily News, and even in a short report in the Singapore government-controlled Today, have prompted thousands of Singaporeans to clamor for the video that has just been posted by Yale's Council on Southeast Asia Studies.

The video is really worth watching, even if you're more interested in academic freedom and human rights generally than in Singapore per se, because Singapore thwarts academic freedom and human rights in ways both sinuous and intimidating.

The panel gave Chee and Jeyaretnam an opportunity to speak to more than 100 Yale faculty and students in person, including many Singaporeans studying in the U.S -- an audience more open and public than any these men have been able to address in Singapore.

Their account of harsh and often insidious realities hidden by a deluge of Yale-NUS promotional happy talk was as wrenching for Singaporean students who've been apologists for their regime, as it was liberating for others who've come to the U.S. partly to escape the stifling self-censorship and conformity that make Singapore seem clean and safe to outsiders.

Some Singaporeans listened with their heads down, as if ducking Jeyaretnam and Chee, whom they'd never heard before. The most assiduous and crafty apologist among them, E Ching Ng, sat silently, and "a young woman sitting with her kept running her hands through her hair, braiding and un-braiding, arranging, separating, smoothing, all so anxiously and compulsively throughout the talks that one of us finally had to tap her arm and ask her to put her elbows down so that we could see the speakers," a Yale faculty member told some of us later.

What You Hadn't Been Told About Singapore and its Democrats

Chee and Jeyaretnam are seldom seen or heard even on television or radio in Singapore and are slighted or ignored in the print press. The news media are controlled through Government Linked Corporations, or GLCs, that run much else in this country of approximately 6 million, a little over half of them citizens, the rest "permanent residents" and non-resident migrants whose rights are minimal.

The government controls 50% of the economy and owns 80% of the land, in a nation smaller in area than New York City, and it subsidizes 90% of the housing, so it has wields lots of carrots and sticks to silence the independent-minded.

Websites are more open and invigorating to Singaporean twentysomethings, a majority of whom identify them as their first or second sources of information. Whenever my columns are posted on www.tremeritus.com, readers' comments are numerous, feisty, and enlightening.

But the government still licenses websites and can pull the plug on them legally for any number of infractions, and Weiss reports that while "Online campaigning was legalized in 2011, with limits, and clearly helped opposition parties to get their messages out,... only 25% of all voters.... said that the internet was their first or second source of information in the 2011 general election."

Singapore's labyrinthine, omniscient governance comes from the eternal (and eternally-rigged) People's Action Party, which has a lot more than websites: The PAP took 60% of the vote in the 2011 elections but 93% of the seats in Parliament, the rest going to one "opposition" party whose deputies always vote with the government.

Neither Chee's nor Jeyaretnam's party has a deputy in Parliament, and they can explain the reasons why, including some you'd never think of: Anyone contributing more than a certain amount to an opposition party must register his or her name, income and many other details -- with the Prime Minister's office, via the election commission that his PAP alone controls.

Weiss notes that the PAP reacts to every democratic stirring but without any true accountability. Few Americans can imagine what this means: In a micro-state with a ruling party that has held power for 50 years, the universities, press, courts, and even civic associations are wired top to bottom with government operatives who dispense punishments from the draconian and punctiliously legal penalties to unofficial and undocumented reprisals.

All these have been visited upon Dr. Chee, who holds a PhD from the University of Georgia, was fired from his professorship at the National University of Singapore in 1993 after joining the Singapore Democratic Party that he now leads. To appreciate the significance of his speaking at Yale, it helps to know that earlier this year he was barred by the regime from leaving Singapore to give a speech of at the Oslo Freedom Forum.

"In the last 20 years he has been jailed for more than 130 days on charges including contempt of Parliament, speaking in public without a permit, selling books improperly, and attempting to leave the country without a permit," wrote Thor Halvorssen, President of the Human Rights Foundation, in an open letter, published here in the Huffington Post, to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. "It is our considered judgment that having already persecuted, prosecuted, bankrupted, and silenced Dr. Chee inside Singapore, you now wish to render him silent beyond your own borders."

It may have taken Singapore's heightened sensitivity to well-publicized criticisms of its collaboration with Yale, such as mine here, to loosen such restrictions on Chee, who is selling his book, Democratically Speaking, to help defray the bankruptcy charges and penalties that the government imposed, although it has recently reduced those penalties, as well.

Jeyaretnam, who holds a Double First Class Honours degree in Economics from Cambridge University, is the son of J.B. Jeyaretnam, the first prominent opposition member of Singapore's Parliament, who was evicted from that body in 1986 after being convicted by the ruling-party-controlled courts on criminal charges of misusing his own Worker's Party finances.

When the British Commonwealth's Privy Council declared the case a "miscarriage of justice," Singapore abolished its ties to the Privy Council, refused to reinstate Jeyaretnam, and sued him for libel years later, bankrupting him and leaving him to walk through transit stations wearing a sandwich board, an aging barrister trying to sell copies of his book, Make It Right For Singapore.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam's Reform Party has a platform somewhat more centrist than his father's and than Chee's SDP, which emphasizes growing disparities in income that can't be discussed in Singapore as openly as in the U.S. Noting that because the government owns so much of the housing and land, Jeyaretnam observes that it has many ways to silence residents -- including NUS students, most of whom live in such housing and, despite Yale-NUS' assurances of freedom of expression, would jeopardize their families' access to patronage jobs, services and transit, as others have done in the recent past, if they opposed the ruling party with public statements or gatherings that could be closely monitored on campus. The Reform Party wants to loosen those strings by privatizing housing ownership more explicitly.

A relatively small recent incident tells quite a lot about what Chee and Jeyaretnam have been up against. Two weeks before they spoke at Yale, Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs barred Australian clergyman James Blundell Minchin from entering the country because, on a previous visit, he'd participated in a "talk show" hosted by Chee's Singapore Democratic Party.

Minchin had "abused the social visit pass privileges previously extended to him while he was in Singapore by interfering in our domestic politics and mixing religion with politics," according to the MHA.

The ministry explained sanctimoniously that "The separation of religion and politics is a long established principle in Singapore, to safeguard the inter-religious and social harmony in our multi-religious society." But the harmony is Orwellian: Singapore's regulations require all foreigners involved in activities directly related to "any seminar, conference, workshop, gathering or talk concerning any religion, race or community, cause or political end" to hold a Miscellaneous Work Pass.

Minchin's "real" affront was that he had written disparagingly about the nation's founder, Lee Kuan Yew, and, in August of 2011 had "alleged that the rule of law was bypassed and corrupted in Singapore, and questioned the independence and integrity of the judiciary."

The week of the panel, a strike by 100 angry migrant Chinese bus drivers exposed not only their employer's broken promises and their substandard wages and living conditions -- Singapore has no minimum wage -- but also how forbidden any labor-union action is in Singapore.

The government boasts to investors that it never has strikes or job actions, and it promptly arrested several of the bus drivers for trial and deported most of the rest, prompting the brave writer Vincent Wijeysingha of the Online Citizen website to pen a long, scathingly satirical account of its lies and brutality. It begins:

"The government has acted in our name as is its duty. It purged an industrial action and returned the nation to business as usual. The bus drivers from SMRT recklessly involved themselves in an illegal strike after refusing to bring their grievances to management or their trade union or seek the assistance of the Manpower Ministry. Twenty-nine have been deported, one hundred and fifty more issued a police warning and the five ringleaders will be tried. Industrial harmony has been restored, the tripartite relationship upheld, and public disorder averted.

"As fortunate citizens of this prosperous and stable nation, we can heave a sigh of relief. Those refractory foreigners got what they deserved. How dare they come to our land - which our government built from a fishing village - and demand such indulgences as suitable accommodation and an equal wage....."

Wijeysingha shows how ephemeral -- virtually non-existent -- the "trade unions" are and how calculatingly feeble and false the Manpower Ministry is. Coming just as American Wal-Mart workers staged a walkout on Black Friday without union or legal protection, Singapore's retaliation with what Chee called "zero tolerance for industrial action" reminded me that Asian state capitalism and Western state capital are converging to subvert democracy, not enable it.

Do Zakaria and the liberal arts teachers at Yale-NUS mean to help workers of the world to converge, as well? Chee noted that when he arrived at NUS in response to student invitations to speak about civil liberties, he was turned back by police on one occasion and by university officials on another.

"I am not asking Yale to change the country, but do not be complicit in helping the PAP to oppress Singaporeans, and do not seek to advance your interests at the expense of ours," Chee said in New Haven. "I fear that despite all assurances, making money is the be-all and end-all. I have never yearned so much to be proven wrong." His fear is that Yale's claim to defer to the government and laws of Singapore out of respect for supposed "'Asian values' has been used" in ways that will prove him right.

While Singapore boasts a per-capita income of $57,000 compared to the U.S.'s $46,000, Chee noted that that's only because the tiny city-state has seen a 67% increase in centi-millionaires -- residents worth at least $100 million. Meanwhile, 5% of Singaporeans earn less than $5000 a year -- less than $100 a week -- in a city that is 42% more expensive than New York City. Chee then showed slides of people subsisting in miserable living conditions and reminded us of the tiny island's millions of rights-less migrant workers like the Chinese bus drivers.

"You Americans have just been through an election where income disparity was debated. It is not up for debate in Singapore," whose famously "disciplined workforce" works longer hours than those of Sao Paulo, Johannesburg and Moscow. "More than half say they'd emigrate if they could, and 10% do leave."

A More Skeptical, Combative View

Jeyaretnam was more sardonic than Chee, comparing Yale president Richard Levin's "naivete" about Singapore to that of Sidney and Beatrice Webb's about the Ukraine, whose wonders they touted rapturously upon returning to America, all to the great benefit and probable amusement of the Soviets in the 1930s. "Levin lets us know that Yale has done its homework about Singapore," Jeyaretnam mocked, adding that if Levin's delegation ever tried to talk with any opposition leaders, "We must all have been out that when they came calling."

Growing more serious, Jeyaretman told the Yale audience ruefully that, when he landed at Kennedy Airport in New York, the official checking his passport remarked that "The U.S. has a lot to learn from Singapore." Chee told us, "There is a lot to learn from Singapore about controlling your own people," but obviously the officer believed in Singapore's false front as a "rich, clean nation renowned for its disciplined workforce and its no-nonsense government" -- an image that Jeyaretnam, like Chee, unpacked with some facts.

Growing more serious, Jeyaretman worried that "the authoritarian model" is gaining ground worldwide as people "give away their freedom in exchange for security and prosperity. But Singapore was one of the richest cities in Asia before Lee Kuan Yew arrived.

"There has been no economic 'miracle,' it's been only a deliberate policy to open the floodgates to immigrant labor, producing a disastrous fall in real income for the bottom quarter. You Americans are losing jobs by outsourcing them; Singapore keeps jobs by bringing in cheap labor and increasing its repression."

Jeyaretnam's criticisms of universities in Singapore and of Yale's feeble accommodations to them were substantially the same as Chee's. "What Singapore does best is not anything that a liberal college such as Yale should want to learn. I can only hope that they'll fulfill their commitments to foster open debate at Yale NUS."

He also noted that while the internet has had positive impacts, "any blog can be required to gain government approval and a license" -- I wondered how long Online Citizen can expect to survive -- and he made scathing fun of the government's regulation of campaigns, noting that he was given television time on only a Mandarin-language channel even though, as he noted drily, "English is the national language."

Few of the Singaporean Yale students in the audience, most of them from elite high schools in Singapore, seemed to have heard of or witnessed anything like this before. The more defensive among them disparaged Jeyaretnam afterward, but they couldn't help but notice that his and Chee's presentations received long, vigorous applause from an audience deeply moved, even impassioned, by their example.

By far the most defensive, churlish, amazingly naive comments came from two Yale-NUS faculty members. I'm almost too embarrassed even to quote them here, but you can watch them on the video.

These teachers of political science actually believed that because Yale is a non-profit institution and because they and other new faculty had sat together on a hilltop in New Haven for two weeks this past summer and then again in Singapore designing a new liberal arts curriculum in perfect freedom, no business or government interests will control them.


The American Professoriate Weighs In

But the pervasive monitoring and repression that Chee and Jeyaretnam described are so ubiquitous and generate such pervasive, unthinking self-censorship and fear that, the week that they spoke at Yale, the American Association of University Professors sent a public letter to the Yale community and to 500,000 American professors expressing "the AAUP's growing concern about the character and impact of the university's collaboration with the Singaporean government."

The letter poses 16 questions to Yale that the university has yet to answer convincingly because it has refused repeatedly to make public its contract with Singapore in establishing Yale-NUS. "We believe that a healthy atmosphere for shared governance at Yale can only be restored if the Yale Corporation begins by releasing all documents and agreements related to the plan to establish the Yale-National University of Singapore campus," the AAUP writes, after exhaustive reading and research on every document on the collaboration that has been made public.

"In a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed, faculty will censor themselves, and the cause of authentic liberal education, to the extent it can exist in such situations, will suffer."

This reinforces the political scientist Weiss' observation on the panel that "Arguably central to efforts to channel and control participation in Singapore has been depoliticizing students and the university since the late 1960s and early 1970s, through measures ranging from restructuring faculty governance at NUS to eliminating the more radicalized Nanyang U to building a new campus at Kent Ridge without a clear central meeting point to prohibition or restructuring of a host of student activities and organizations to a retreat from (then cautious, instrumental return to) the teaching of 'critical thinking,'"

The AAUP letter discredits claims by Yale-NUS administrators and faculty (and by Zakaria last spring) that their university critics are ivory tower moralists, provincials fearful of engaging cultural differences and respecting so called "Asian" values:

"At stake are not simply 'cultural differences' but whether Yale recognizes universal human rights and the protections for academic staff enunciated in the UNESCO Recommendation. Singapore is a modern, industrialized city whose leaders and citizens fully understand these values."

Some Singaporean Professors Weigh Out

So one might hope. But two weeks before the AAUP released its letter, the Singapore Management University cancelled the opening of a research center on human rights just days before its launch, without giving reason why.

The center, which had been planned for two years, "was meant to have been funded by a large donation of between $1 million to $3 million from the Japanese philanthropist Dr Haruhisa Handa, who had flown into Singapore last week specially for the launch," according to the website Singapolitics.

The brilliantly dissident The Online Citizen, speculated that the Government had a hand in the closure of the center. "Asked by Singapolitics "to respond to this allegation, a Ministry of Education spokesman only said: 'We were informed by the SMU that it had decided not to go ahead with the launch of the centre.'"

Recall here how small and tightly run Singapore is. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's wife heads the country's Temasek sovereign wealth fund, whose CEO-designate in 2009 was the current Yale trustee Charles Waterhouse Goodyear IV, a progenitor and proponent of Yale-NUS. Charles Ellis, another Yale trustee at the time when Yale-NUS arrangements were being negotiated, was also an adviser to Singapore's Government Investment Corporation and is married to Yale vice president Linda Koch Lorimer, who is a member of the new, fig-leaf governing board of the Yale-NUS, which will be held to Singapore's corporate laws, which none of Yale-NUS' boosters seems to have examined carefully.

In the past year 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 faculty at the Claremont Colleges rebuffed overtures to establish an undergraduate liberal-arts college in Singapore after Britain's Warwick University cancelled its own effort there.

Business Unusual?

Yet Yale's trustees and president have rushed in where these institutions declined to tread, without giving Yale's faculty a truly deliberative role like that assumed by the faculties at Claremont and Warwick.

What were they thinking? Or, as Evan Thomas kept asking in his book The Very Best Men, about the supposedly worldly, smart Yale men in national intelligence who fomented a hapless coup in Guatemala, installed the Shah in Iran, and staged the Bay of Pigs: "How could they be so dumb?"

I've never charged that Yale's trustees were furthering their own business interests directly by pushing Yale-NUS, nor even that Yale as an institution is "lining its pockets" from the Singapore venture. I've reported that someone with pretty good credibility predicts they'll do so.

What I do charge is that the "business" mindset of Yale trustees who've meant to do some good in the world while doing well for themselves has driven this project despite many good reasons for doubting its wisdom pedagogically as well as politically.

I've also speculated about likely reasons why the Yale Corporation went this far. A possible line of inquiry for an investigative reporter or dispassionate historian and perhaps a prosecutor would require learning how business is done in Singapore, not to mention in America these days, where "payments" to institutions can be made, and individuals rewarded, without leaving contractual fingerprints.

Imagine that a Yale trustee who had left the Yale Corporation by the time the Corporation approved Yale-NUS had also been intimately and enthusiastically involved with Singapore for many years before then, and imagine that he is married to Yale's vice president, who has become a member of the new, Potemkin Yale-NUS governing board, an unmarked subsidiary of the National University and hence of the People's Action Party.

Imagine further that the Yale University endowment's investment portfolio just happens to be let in on restricted, lucrative investment opportunities that controlled in some measure by Singapore's government investment and sovereign wealth funds, including Temasek (whose CEO-designate in 2009, Charles Waterhouse Goodyear IV, is currently a Yale trustee).

As one Yale faculty member put it, a lot of business and public financing in Singapore "has been perfected by money launderers and high rollers in ways that make every lead that might throw light on the wheeling and dealing disappear into a Gordian knot."

Shouldn't we begin by insisting that Yale make public its contract with Singapore for Yale NUS? Why has it refused to do so despite repeated requests from many quarters? Shouldn't we make it impossible for Yale-NUS to enjoy credibility or dignity until that has been done?

There's no need to presume that the Yale Corporation members who were most active in conceiving and supporting Yale-NUS were mercenary about it, let alone corrupt. Assume that they're all good guys, hale fellows well met, knights-errant of a commodious American capitalism, and that they get almost weepily sentimental about their Yale undergraduate encounters with the liberal arts, which they remember fondly and dimly enough to think that by exporting them to Singapore in this fashion they'll be repaying Singapore and the whole world, by whose gilded graces they have done so well for themselves.

I think that we can doubt the soundness of their judgment, which has been clouded by the "doing well" side of their equation. They should have sat awhile with Jeyaretnam and Chee. And Yale-NUS' maestros and musicians should have looked more intently at Fareed Zakaria's symphony before hiring themselves out the play it for the People's Action Party.