Yale's president and trustees think they've found in Singapore a new haven for a liberal arts college and the kind of civil society a liberal education nourishes and needs. Their university sustained such a college for more than 300 years and, through it, the American republic, and for much of the time the republic led and inspired much of the world. But now Yale's captains have bound it contractually to an authoritarian corporate city state in building a "Yale-National University of Singapore" College that, while bearing Yale's name, will be wholly funded, constructed and ultimately controlled by Singapore's omnipresent government from behind the façade of a joint board.
Yale's captains know that they're taking a big gamble. So did Puritans who crossed another stormy sea to found Harvard and Yale on the models of Cambridge and, later, Oxford, to which they remained loyal officially, though not so much in their hearts.
Unlike their predecessors, who built their own City Upon a Hill, today's adventurers aren't so much in control of the venture, and they've kept most of its risks hidden from the crew and passengers and, I think, even from themselves: They can't have anticipated that freedom of expression would be waterlogged so soon at Yale itself. But it has been, and thereby hangs our sorry tale.
To Yale's 21st Century pilgrims, Singapore seemed shimmering proof of the doctrines of Yale Corporation trustee Fareed Zakaria,, whose The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad and The Post-American World prophesied the transubstantiation of untrustworthy democratic distempers into prosperity and ordered liberty through capitalist discipline of the market and the public debt.
But while Singapore, reputedly a sterling example of such order, was celebrated by the BBC in the early 1990s as "The Intelligent Island," it was derided by others as "Disneyland with the Death Penalty," and now it's encountering some knotty problems that it hopes Yale can help solve, defer, or disguise.
Whether that happens will depend on the interests and "values" of Singapore's tight ruling Han Chinese elite, whose future leaders might be invigorated by liberal education if their elders weren't taking such an instrumental, commercial view of it and if their would-be mentors from Yale hadn't sailed into Singapore so clueless about the country and even about what they're bringing to it.
The result could be a collision, not a confluence, of Singapore's increasingly frenetic, hollow ascent in the world and America's heavy, messy descent into the violence and vapidity of its own politics, streets, and gladiatorial entertainments. Seeking a Leviathan, American leaders could even wind up asking Singapore's to come over and show them how to take charge before the Beijing Chinese do.
More likely, though, Yale-NUS will become a laboratory where white-coated scientists and priests try to synthesize Singaporean state capitalism with American state capitalism in a convergence that will seem harmonious only to its architects and apologists.
"Singapore has always regarded as one of its strengths its ability to move fast, adopt policies quickly, implement hard policies which are unpopular but deemed necessary to put the country in a competitive position," explained its ambassador to the United States, Chan Heng Chee, to a Yale Law School audience in March.
In other words, it has been successful partly because it's been a lot less democratic than its ruling People's Action Party likes to pretend. But now, the ambassador explains, "The governing party... has become even more responsive" to a vocal and politicized electorate, mooting the old doctrine that democracy and freedom must wait upon order and prosperity.
There's more than a little ambiguity in the word "responsive" here, for Singapore's government "responds" with alacrity and energy to any hint of public protest. Its deft balancing of surveillance and seduction makes the doughty little city-state look, on the surface, like the United Colors of Benetton bubble that Yale's campus in New Haven would love to be if only the Yale Corporation could grace the surrounding neighborhoods with more work, income, and safety in exchange for more obedience, self-censorship and, failing that, surveillance, and suppression. But we don't do that in America, because too many of us are too libertarian for such governmentality.
Or are we? Perhaps Yale has gone to Singapore partly to figure out how to adapt what they do there to something we might be persuaded or otherwise induced to accept here.
President Richard Levin and the university's governing Yale Corporation didn't give their own collegium, or company of scholars, any deliberative role in this venturing of the institution's hallowed name, culture, and pedagogical mission. One hundred professors asserted their rightful share of responsibility in a vote of no-confidence last month, but the Yale-NUS contract had already been signed and sealed.
And what's in the contract? The administration has kept that sealed, too. It hasn't revealed why it accepted Singapore's refusal to exempt the new campus from state prosecutors' and favored plaintiffs' infamously sinuous enforcements of laws against defaming anyone who governs -- laws that, if applied in the United States, would lead to the expulsion, imprisonment, and/or ostracism of a professor who argues in public that Barack Obama or Antonin Scalia is irresponsible and duplicitous.
Nor has Yale explained why it accepts Singapore's right to expel any professor, without cause, simply by refusing to renew his or her yearly work permit. Are these practices legitimate cultural differences to be respected, or just realities to be accepted?
The Yale-NUS non-binding memorandum and prospectus assure readers that academic freedom is secure because of the prospective faculty's scholarly excellence, as determined by weights and measures that leave too much wiggle room to a regime like Singapore's, and too little wiggle room for a college of Yale's influence and, one might have thought, its dignity. What would the university have to pay to get out of its junior partnership here? Yale isn't saying. One rumor has it at $30 million.
Yale's only substantive response to such questions has been to deflect them by reminding inquirers of its stipulation that Yale-NUS graduates won't actually receive bona fide Yale degrees. But that only raises more questions than it answers: Why will Yale's name and logo still be on the diplomas of an entity it cannot ultimately control, and why has it been announced that "Yale-NUS" alumni will be integrated into the Association of Yale Alumni network, unless as a nifty fundraising gambit that further cheapens the university's name by marking the first time in its history that non-degree holders will become its alumni?
A Standard Is Lowered
The opacity of this strange, new "openness" is the other side of Yale's strange, new closedness to what truly counts: A university isn't a university unless it stands for the openness of inquiry into the unknown through experimentation and free exchange of ideas. During the Cold War, Yale President A. Whitney Griswold, descended from a line of Puritan, colonial Connecticut governors, found the courage to crusade for liberal education nationally against Communism and McCarthyism, both of them imminent and intimate threats to liberal education at the time, on campus and off.
Yale's statement on Freedom of Expression, developed in 1975 by a committee chaired by the distinguished American historian C. Vann Woodward, affirms that if liberal education isn't merely an ornament but a wellspring of human striving, the free exchange of ideas "is necessary not only within [the university's] walls but with the world beyond as well" and that "the university must do everything possible to ensure within it... the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.
"To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom," the statement continues, "for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily deprives another of the right to listen to those views..... Every official of the university, moreover, has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed."
Students and faculty at Yale-NUS will have no such freedom beyond the university's walls, and Singapore refuses to exempt the campus itself from its energetic ban on criticism of government policies and public figures. "Understanding that norms are different is part of the value of this experiment," Levin rationalizes,, adding pointedly that "In Singapore, it is illegal to express racist or intolerant positions publicly. Here in the United States, some of our university peers have speech codes." The implication here is that Singapore's codes shouldn't shock a student at a leafy, liberal arts campus in America that has one of these codes.
But the "hate speech" that's punished by some American colleges is only one variety of what's silenced by Singapore's codes and creative enforcements. Yale's Freedom of Expression statement acknowledges that some speech really does hurt: "Shock, hurt, and anger are serious consequences of untrammeled expression," it cautions, and "No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets...." But the statement insists that "It may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression."
The statement adds that its committee weighed carefully the argument that uncivil and disrespectful behavior "should be made subject to formal sanctions and the argument that such behavior entitles others to prevent speech they might regard as offensive." But it concluded that "Our conviction that the central purpose of the university is to foster the free access of knowledge compels us to reject .... The assumption that speech can be suppressed by anyone who deems it false or offensive."
The perverse irony about Singapore's strict laws against racist speech is that they keep the lid on a hierarchy of color and caste that's presented to Western liberals as "multiculturalism" wrapped in "Confucian" traditions that are also invoked to justify subordinating Malay and Indian minorities to the country's Han Chinese majority.
This cruel duplicity is persistently overlooked by Americans who, because they're penitential about their own country's racism toward Chinese, find it hard to imagine that some of Singapore's Chinese might consider themselves superior to other peoples in the region and deserving of prerogatives like those of the old American WASP establishment (which was dumber and more decadent). Another reason why Americans accept this nonsense is that they wouldn't be able to question it without unsettling the "harmony" its progenitors claim they're ensuring in Singapore no less than Beijing.
And what if we want to examine not Singapore's laws against racist speech but its broader economic and political restraints on two million migrants and other non-citizens who labor without minimum-wage laws or any other public standing, in a country of six million? Don't try it, even online. "When asked whether the government's close surveillance of political blogs was antithetical to Yale's values, President Levin declined to comment," notes Shaun Tan, a Yale graduate student in international relations, in a recent, devastating account of several Western universities' collaborations with authoritarian regimes.
"When debating [the faculty resolution mentioned above] urging the Yale-NUS College to respect civil liberties on campus," Tan notes, "Levin opposed a clause expressing concern at Singapore's 'lack of respect for civil and political rights', objecting that it 'carried a sense of moral superiority.' As the project comes to fruition, the Yale administration has grown increasingly reluctant to make any kind of value judgment with regard to Singapore."
"[Singaporeans] take demonstrations in a kind of different way," explains Yale astronomer Charles Bailyn, the "inaugural dean" of Yale-NUS. "What we think of as freedom, they think of as an affront to public order, and I think the two societies differ in that respect."
They certainly do. Or at least, they once did: Yale's Woodward committee and its statement on Freedom of Expression are now eviscerated by the agreement with Singapore, whose "anti-defamation" laws are enforced without jury trials in courts wholly subservient to the ruling People's Action Party, which has held power uninterruptedly since Singapore gained independence in 1965.
For example, the first opposition politician to win a seat in parliament, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, was soon charged with defamation in a suit that bankrupted him and forced him out of public life. His was only the first prominent case in a relentless tide of prosecutions that shuttle countless dissenters, including NUS faculty, out of their jobs and homes and into unemployment, prison, or exile.
Dr. Chee Soon Juan (PhD, U of Georgia) was fired by NUS from his position as a lecturer in neuropsychology in 1993 after he joined an opposition party; when he attempted to contest his dismissal, he, too, was sued for defamation, imprisoned, bankrupted, barred from leaving the country.
"Supremely confident of the reliability of his judiciary, the prime minister uses the courts ... to intimidate, bankrupt, or cripple the political opposition while ventilating his political agenda. Distinguishing himself in a caseful of legal suits commenced against dissidents and detractors for alleged defamation in Singapore courts, he has won them all," writes Francis T. Seow, a former solicitor general of the country.
"In the past couple of years," wrote a Yale student in a paper for a seminar I teach on Global Journalism, National Identities, "British author Alan Shadrake was sentenced on defamation charges for criticizing the country's use of capital punishment; and the New York Times group was forced to apologize to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew after being threatened with a substantial fine for printing an article about political dynasty of the Singaporean prime minister. These recent cases further substantiate the claim that Singapore's judiciary is simply a political instrument in the hands of the ruling party.
"The government's grip on media is even tighter and more obvious," the paper continues: "Nearly all print and broadcast media outlets, internet service providers, and cable television services are either owned or controlled by the state or by companies with close ties to the PAP. International organizations monitoring human rights and freedom of the press consistently criticize Singapore's harsh crackdowns on journalists, writers, or anyone disagreeing with the government's official standpoint. Reporters without Borders, ranked Singapore 135th out of 179 surveyed countries in terms of freedom of the press in 2011."
The Shame of American Self-Censorship
Even more consequential for freedom than censorship via unjust prosecution has been the self-censorship it generates in Singaporean society. "The defamation law is a line in the sand. Never knowing where it will be drawn, we live in perpetual fear of crossing it," writes Kenneth Jeyaretnam, son of the persecuted parliamentarian, in an essay that WIRED magazine published on April 19, the same day that a strange panel discussion at Yale, organized by Singaporean students under the beguiling title, "Singapore UnCensored," tried to counter what they characterized as false and offensive stereotypes about their country. By implying that irresponsible faculty critics had "censored" fair appraisals of Singapore, the event introduced an Orwellian whiff of self-censorship to Yale itself, as I'll show below.
Levin's and Bailyn's most common response to critics has been that anyone who truly means to "engage the world" - the phrase is a mantra for Yale-NUS apologists - must be willing to bend principles such as those in Yale's Freedom of Expression statement, out of sensitivity to our Singaporean partners' values.
What values? Asian values. Order and harmony. So what if, in Singapore, Asians dare not share their ideas publicly? It's their culture! "Close the door and I'll tell you what I think" is the sentence "Singapore UnCensored" panelists used several times to normalize American listeners' understandings of a "different" culture.
Americans say "Close the door...." in their workplaces all the time, too, of course, but they don't like hearing it said in public arenas. Yale's leaders present their hesitation to open the doors that Singaporeans close as a token of their cosmopolitan way of engaging other societies.
Somewhat ironically, they're also continuing a Yale obsession with China and East Asia that was a lot less humble and that peaked in Protestant missionary work there in the 19th Century and, later, in anti-Communism: Henry R. Luce, Yale Class of 1920, co-founder of TIME and LIFE magazines and author of the 1941 manifesto "The American Century," which declared that the world must and would become more like America, was born in China to Yale Protestant missionaries.
Levin has gone to China often on behalf of Yale, which has many small centers and projects there, but probably the Chinese were less receptive than Singapore has made itself seem to something as grandly ambitious as Yale-NUS.
"I am afraid there is an apparent tendency to believe what one wants to believe," warned William (Bo) Tedards, a 1991 Yale alumnus and the Coordinator of the World Forum for Democratizaton in Asia, in a 2010 letter to Levin that wasn't answered. "[Your] conclusion that faculty and students from overseas will need to 'understand those differences,' i.e. accept that human rights violations are occurring around them, .... offers no hope at all to Singaporean faculty and students, who apparently will feel no more free than they currently do at the National University of Singapore...
"And make no mistake, they do not feel free.... Singapore is governed by a political system that is the antithesis of the ideals of liberal education. Human Rights Watch recently described Singapore as 'a textbook example of a repressive state.'
"One must not fall into the trap of feeling guilty for 'imposing Western values' or 'failing to respect local cultures,'" Tedards added. "The very idea that basic human rights are anything but universal is a racist one (and the fact that it was so eloquently articulated by Lee Kuan Yew indicates the depth of his personal racism.)"
Yet so much "respect" have Yale's planners for the "local culture" of Singapore's Sino-centric rulers that, for now, at least, they've planned no serious work on Japan or Korea in the Yale-NUS curriculum; nor are they hiring faculty for it from Japan or Korea, according to the felicitously named Pericles Lewis, a Yale professor of comparative literature (!) who thinks he's engaging the world and advancing the liberal arts in this way.
In a message he sent on April 10 to an applicant who is a Yale alumnus teaching at a Korean university and is the author of a best-selling book in South Korea, Lewis wrote that while the "application is good, and I am sure you would be a great asset, .... we decided that the fields of Korean and Japanese would not be high priorities in our initial hiring group. (As compared to Chinese, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and European). That may well change in the future, so I hope you will consider re-applying when the college expands in coming years."
Fair enough, perhaps, but every time that Yale has hired a senior professor of Chinese in New Haven in the past ten years, the newcomer has been invited to affiliate with Lewis' Comparative Literature department, while senior faculty in Japanese have never been invited to affiliate with it. As for Korea, Lewis concluded his note by saying, "I am afraid I don't think I should sign on for the interviews regarding Korea, as I would simply be displaying my ignorance!"
Yale's incapacity or reluctance to live up to its own Statement on Freedom of Expression, even when prodded by Tedards and the evidence that supports him, was on sorry display in 2006, when Chinese Premier Hu Jintao spoke at Yale. As Shaun Tan notes, "Hu was not subject to questions from the audience like a normal speaker at Yale. Instead, he was given two softball questions pre-selected by the Yale administration." Hundreds of students protesting the visit "were restricted to the enclosed area of Old Campus, where they could not upset Hu and cause him to rethink his recent decision to allow Yale to be the first foreign university to trade on China's heavily regulated stock market.
In a prophetic irony, the Singapore edition of The Christian Post noted that "A CNN reporter was reportedly thrown out after asking the Chinese president if he saw protestors gathered outside. A Yale spokesperson later said that the man was escorted out because he had been invited to 'cover an event, not hold a press conference.'" Whether or not Singapore's government noticed that Post story, it's unlikely to have punished the paper for doing what the regime itself is always quick to do: point the finger at others' human-rights violations.
Now that the Chinese human rights activist Chen Guancheng, after being forced out of his refuge in the US Embassy, will be allowed to come to the United States "to study," Yale has an opportunity to defend academic freedom and "engage the world" in a way that's "becoming" of a great university. It can do what it did after the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989, when it appointed the heroic dissident Kang Zhengguo a Senior Lector. Will Yale be as brave now, and offer to bring Chen Guancheng to New Haven? Will the Yale Law School, which maintains a China Law Center to advance the rule of law in China and welcomes visiting scholars from all over that country, invite Guancheng, a human-rights lawyer? Singapore, ever eager to point the finger at China, might even give Yale its permission.
When the Yale Alumni Magazine invited comments on the Singapore plan in 2010, Peter Conn, a 1969 Yale graduate who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that "in dealing with the protection of academic freedom, the current Yale administration has quite recently demonstrated neither good judgment nor a deep commitment to fundamental academic values."
Conn recalled that in 2009 Yale University Press, anxious to avoid Muslim rage with a decision that was "surely taken with the assent and presumably under the direction of senior administrators" but that was "appropriately condemned across the scholarly community," removed from Jytte Klausen's The Cartoons That Shook the World the very cartoons, disrespectful of the prophet Muhammed, that were the subject of her scholarly book. Although the cartoons had been published and posted often without incident, Yale chose fear over freedom.
In Conn's judgment "this censorship subordinated the requirements of truth-seeking and truth-telling to the hypothetical behavior of an angry mob. In short, the Press and its overseers chose to abandon the central principles of the university.... It may be that the administrators of some universities possess the stamina and proven moral courage that will be needed to withstand the attacks on freedom of inquiry, speech, and assembly that collaboration with Singapore's government will inevitably provoke. Yale's administrators manifestly do not."
This year Levin did condemn a New York police intelligence unit's spying on Muslim students at Yale as part of the NYPD's over-ambitious (and remarkably stupid) anti-terrorism operations. But his statement risked offending no one besides a municipal bureaucracy that plays no role in Yale's life. In Singapore, on the other hand, Levin has bound himself to a city-state that spies on its Muslim population and may now even keep a wary eye on Yale's.
Maybe Levin's Yale wasn't veering so far off course, then, after all, when it sailed into Singapore and collaborated in the theft of its own identity. It did so partly, I think, because the Levin administration was already re-fashioning Yale's identity without quite knowing what it was doing, and it was bewitched by the mirage of the golden web that Singapore's smiling, cosmopolitan elites are weaving from the iron filings of authoritarian instincts that they insinuate into the whole country's little daily regimens of ingratiation and insinuation.
Superficially pleasant and smooth, these mannered regimens take awhile to decode. Levin and his colleagues have had little reason to try. Step off a plane into Singapore's striking Changi airport, tour the country's clean, state-of-the art public works and transit systems and its city scapes, towers, parks, restaurants, nightclubs, and cultural amenities, and you'll understand why "many international businesses find Singapore a congenial place to establish regional offices or operations, and many expatriates find it a congenial place to reside," as Tedards wrote to Levin. "However, these businesses do not consider freedom of expression or conscience among their concerns; expatriates are not citizens, and they are aware that they must keep their mouths shut about anything they observe in Singaporean public life."
Nor are executives doing business with Singapore likely to credit Kenneth Jeyaretnam's observation in WIRED that "our streets are clean because an army of [sub-minimum-wage, tightly policed] immigrant labor sweeps up behind us" or that "We are mostly law abiding because we are afraid and repressed and we have no choice, not because we are inherently well behaved or 'good.'"
Jeyaretnam acknowledges that Singapore may not be the "Disneyland with a Death Penalty" that William Gibson called it in another WIRED article in 1993, but he thinks "it is probably true to say that if George Orwell and Philip Dick had an illegitimate child of a theme park, then this would be it."
Hail and Farewell
Three current or recent members of Yale's small governing corporation have participated directly in Singapore's golden weaving by managing, advising, and/or investing in its sovereign wealth and investment funds long before the Yale-NUS deal was done. But until a tip-off from a Yale faculty member prompted my report here in the Huffington Post, which in turn prompted The New York Times to ask Levin about it, the university hadn't disclosed its trustees' employment by Singapore's Government Investment Corporation and its Temasek fund.
Yale Vice President Linda Koch Lorimer, Levin's alter ego and top administrator, who fiercely pressed some senior Yale faculty to get on board the S.S. Yale-NUS long before it entered dry dock in Singapore, and who will now sit on the new college's governing board, is married to Charles Ellis, a Yale Corporation member until 2008 and an investment adviser to Singapore's government until June, 2009, when the Yale-NUS deal was under discussion, and Ellis maintains a business in Singapore now.
Also in 2009, Charles Waterhouse Goodyear IV, who would become a Yale trustee in 2011, replaced the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as CEO-designate of Temasek, the sovereign wealth fund, which is wholly owned by the Singapore Minister for Finance. As Yale explored partnership with the National University, Singapore's cabinet discussed the Temasek Board's nomination of Mr. Goodyear and, according to its minutes:
decided that the Government should have no objection to Temasek appointing a foreigner as CEO if he was assessed by the Board to be suitable and the best candidate available. Cabinet, therefore, endorsed Mr Goodyear's nomination, but also reaffirmed the need for the Board of Temasek to remain in the effective control of Singaporeans. [Emphasis added].
Within a few months Goodyear was out of Temasek, reportedly after disagreements on investment strategy. Might that be a sign of things to come? "Foreigners" such as Lorimer and Levin will compose half of Yale-NUS' 10-member board, an entity within the National University, which is "wholly owned" by Singapore's government. For now, the Cabinet has no objection. But as Michael Kinsley said of deals done in Washington, the true scandals don't involve what's illegal as often as they involve what's all too meticulously legal.
The most important reason Yale lost course in Singapore is that Levin & Co. actually think they've found it there. What they've discovered is that they've been trying to weave something very like Singapore's golden web themselves, right at home in America, by transforming their old college from the civic-republican crucible of citizen-leaders it was for three centuries into a career-networking center and cultural galleria for a global elite that will answer to no particular polity or moral code.
Levin has appointed professor-practitioners such as Charles Hill, Stanley McChrystal, John Negroponte, and even Tony Blair to teach American and international students the arts of strategy making and self-censorship in service to swirling new configurations of power that are becoming less democratic and more intolerable to hundreds of millions of people.
Taking Some Bearings
A liberal education should test such configurations rather than contract itself out to them. Yale's abandonment of that principle and of the standards of freedom of expression that sustain it seems almost fantastical until one remembers that Yale was the birthplace of the CIA and its "Good Shepherd and Skull & Bones appurtenances and that the college is named for Elihu Yale, a governor of one of the world's first multinational corporations, the East India Company, which later acquired what was then called Singapura for the British Empire.
Yale does still honor the memory of someone who tried to subvert a state-capitalist regime corrupted by multinational corporations: Nathan Hale of the Class of 1773, was caught spying on British troop movements and was hanged by officers of the empire after saying, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." When he was hanged the Boston Tea Party had already dumped the East India Tea Company's heavily subsidized, government-protected product into the harbor.
It's a sign of the exquisite perversity of Yale's civic-republican patriotism that a replica of Hale's statue on the college's Old Campus stands at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Hale may have been one of the first American intelligent agents, but it's worth remembering that he was spying against an entity very similar to what America itself has become. Levin & Co. may still be trying to reconcile the statue of Hale that stands at the CIA with the one I pondered as a freshman on Old Campus many years ago, but Yale faculty have taken a stand with the Hale who was hanged, not the one who has been spun posthumously by the Office of Public Affairs and Communications. When Levin tried last month to dismiss, as "unbecoming" of Yale, the faculty resolution against Singapore that 100 professors passed over his objection and in his presence, he may have commenced his own "unbecoming" the president of Hale's Yale.
Administration loyalists mutter that critics of Yale-NUS are parochial elitists or leftist ideologues. But actually they include computer scientists, neo-conservatives, and distinguished alumni, so this controversy can't be parsed through the old binary, left-vs.-right lenses. Hale's civic-republican intuitions would serve us better, but Singapore's elite doesn't share them, and some future members of that elite who are studying in New Haven became defensive and prickly this spring when faculty voiced their criticisms of the government that has sent them to Yale on full scholarship to test and build the partnership.
Most of these emissaries are earnest, engaging, impressive. But some use American freedoms of speech to lob red herrings at critics of Singapore. That's fair game, at least in this country but so is my assessment of the gist of their message that Singapore's evident prosperity and apparent harmony reflect emphases in its political culture that are far preferable to the paralysis and hostility that pass for political freedom and democracy in America.
Some young Singaporeans in New Haven are well-practiced at lightening that message with humor even as they lace it with barbs: "The Yale College faculty meant well when they passed Thursday's resolution championing American-style political freedoms in Singapore. But -- I hate to break it to you -- our value systems aren't quite the same as Yalies'. It's hard for Singaporeans to imagine wanting the right to bear arms if it would mean worrying about getting home safely at night," wrote E-Ching Ng, 33, a graduate of Yale 2001, and now a 5th-year graduate student in linguistics whose education has been paid by her government in return for services rendered as a teacher and, perhaps, an operative, in a Yale Daily News column entitled "Show Singaporeans Some Respect."
Actually, it's just as hard for me and most other Americans as it is for E-Ching to imagine "wanting to bear arms in order to get home at night," but I feel that way even without being able to rely on a police force as ubiquitous and "responsive" as Singapore's. It's fine to remind us that this country has ills and sins that are equally grievous, and that Singapore's ethos of "soft" repression and self-censorship are "realities" that won't bend to mere moralism. It's not so fine to suggest that Singaporean disciplines and restraints express genuine cultural differences and that therefore Americans would be insensitive, not to mention imperialistic, to criticize such things. To say that in a debate about Yale-NUS is to duck the truth that Americans who criticize Singapore also criticize their own government and society in ways Singapore's defenders cannot do without great risk.
E-Ching, an energetic, tightly wound woman who readily flashes what I can only describe as an iron grin, parried that truth by lobbing a criticism of Americans when she began her YDN column by citing a young writer in Singapore, Koh Choon Hwee, who's bewildered by the "careless, generalized stereotypes being traded not only by students, but also by Yale faculty members -- which seem to betray the very ethos of good scholarship." Twisting Hwee's puzzlement a bit, E-Ching added, "I believe Yalies can think, but I can see why my fellow Singaporeans might suspect otherwise."
"Criticizing a partner publicly during this crucial trust-building phase is a last-resort negotiating tactic used just prior to walking away from the deal," she added -- while doing precisely that. She's a virtuoso at hoisting Americans on their own petard: "We prioritize our values differently, and different doesn't mean they're right or wrong. At least, that's what I learned from a Yale liberal arts education."
That sounds a lot like Singapore ambassador Chan's comment to the Yale Law School audience in March: "Are some Yale professors saying that unless the countries and societies look like the US or function exactly like the US, they will not have anything to do with them? I would have thought it is important to share teaching skills and values in education."
E-Ching became the star of the April 19 "Singapore UnCensored" panel that brought censorship to Yale with witting and unwitting complicity by some Americans in the audience of 60 students and faculty.
A poster for the meeting in print and online read, "Yale Faculty and Students Welcome," not "Open to the Public," and E-Ching made clear, in response to a faculty member's request to listen in and participate via Skype or conference call, that "we would certainly welcome the virtual presence of faculty at our session, if it is understood that there will be no recording of any kind, and no quoting from what is said during the session. This is because we expect it to be a lively debate and are concerned about quotes out of context."
What "context"? The answer would emerge only slowly, later in the meeting and afterward. Moderator Tse Yang Lim, a 2011 Yale College alum and a graduate student at Yale in Forestry and Environmental Science, opened the meeting with the delicately sardonic observation that as the panelists were preparing "to bring some more lux and veritas" to the debate about Yale-NUS that had erupted in the preceding month and half, they'd been "awed and humbled by your interest and your research into our history and society."
Everyone knew perfectly well that few of us critics who weren't already experts in Asian Studies had done research that was awesome or humbling enough to deflect complaints that we were criticizing a country we'd never visited. (To that incontrovertible truth I responded, here in Huffington Post and in online comments to students in Singapore, that for some of us Yale's Singapore venture matters most for what it has revealed about the Yale administration's strategy and vision for our university and our republic.)
Lim repeated the evening's ground rules: First, reasonably enough, the panelists, who are Yale students or new alumni, not affiliates of the new Yale-NUS project, would not discuss "how Yale University makes its decisions" or the wisdom of the venture itself: "We are not here to debate Yale-NUS." Rather, they would try to clear up misunderstandings about Singapore by presenting "a diversity of views."
Lim then played the "cultural difference" card, explaining that this was a "closed door" meeting because "In Singapore we are always willing to close the door and tell you what we really think." Behind the doors of Yale's Luce auditorium (yes, that Luce), Singaporean Yalies could talk to other Yalies: "To everyone here, including reporters, do not record or quote from the session, it's off the record."
With that, we were off on a crash course in how to appear to criticize your government while minimizing and contextualizing its wrongs, and in how to displace attention from those wrongs onto the flaws of your interlocutors.
Although one panelist told the audience that other Yale professors and some reporters were listening in via hookups, that wasn't quite so. Although the organizers had succeeded in Skying in E-Ching's brother, the gay activist Y-Sheng, all the way from Singapore as a panelist, they couldn't, despite much promising and fussing, secure the promised "virtual presence" of some others who'd asked to listen in and perhaps pose questions from New York and Washington: Karin Fischer of The Chronicle of Higher Education, who is covering the developments in New Haven, told me that after 15 minutes she had "to give up trying" to listen on a connection that was unintelligible. It was hard not to suspect that the organizers wanted it that way. If other reporters were able to listen in, they weren't identified, and I haven't seen their reports.
I think that they were worried not mainly because they feared the authorities in Singapore (the panel's organizers were recording the session, without telling the audience they were doing it) but because, to some extent, they shared the government's worry about losing control of public discourse in Singapore. (Only when I rose toward the end of the session and asked if they were indeed recording the discussion and if the government might receive a report did they acknowledge that they were and that it might.)
Mixed though their feelings were about their athletically repressive state, they had good reason to want to spare it embarrassment. After all, they are highly intelligent, engaging graduates of their country's most exclusive high school. They're secure enough near the top of their society to acknowledge some of its ills and sins, which they felt licensed to air a bit more at the meeting (behind "closed doors," of course) in order to win over a skeptical but polite Yale audience that's highly interested in Singapore's freedoms and that wouldn't be credit anything too sweet. A professional reporter or anyone else at the meeting can quote their public comments without restriction, although he or she ought not to if the speakers are claiming that they'd be endangered if quoted. Obviously these panelists made no such claim.
What I think worried the panelists was that our questions and their answers might "go viral" on websites the government doesn't in some measure control. For all their gripes about the regime's excesses, they have more than a little faith in it, and they contrast its "mentoring" and control with our comparative chaos and decay. In a burst of candor, a recent Yale graduate on the panel lamented that that websites and books are banned but that "we never know which are on the list unless we go to look for them and can't find them." But much of what they'd like to change in Singapore is changing, and they hope that Yale's presence will help.
Skyping from Singapore, Yi Sheng claimed, "You can say anything you want on campus," if only because "the government doesn't care what most academics say," but then he modulated that claim by telling of a gay friend whose teaching contracts were suddenly terminated with no explanation, by administrator who said at one point, "I'm telling you all that I'm not allowed to tell you."
But Yi Sheng also said he wasn't sure his friend's being gay was the main reason for his dismissal; it have been something more political or more strictly academic, because other gay faculty weren't being dismissed. In fact, there's been "a rapid rise in acceptance" of gays in recent years, in part because "the government has realized that the country can make a lot of money from having more gays."
That put a new light on E-Ching's claim in her YDN column that "The police have never bothered my openly gay brother,... despite his public gender-bending antics and book of coming-out stories with real names and faces... [U]sually, where freedom of speech and sexuality are concerned, written laws and enforcement are very different things. It's a bit cognitively complicated, but if we can handle that, so can you.
"E Ching may have been spreading a little cognitive dissonance herself to give the impression that Singapore is becoming as free as America. Singapore's police had stopped bothering gays not because her brother's antics had spurred the political organizing that wins civil-rights victories but because a shrewd ruling party had figured out that gays are good for the economy. She may have hoped to spin Yale critics' concern for gay rights into recognition that Singapore is already changing, without pressure from arrogant American moralists.
Meanwhile, other constraints on other freedoms, prompted more directly by corporate priorities, haven't been changing for the better. E-Ching ignored her brother's warning that academic freedom will be freed from the specters of surveillance and summary dismissal "only if Yale NUS faculty are really willing to exercise their freedom and advocate for it outside of classroom." Here was a genuine plea for help that I don't expect Richard Levin, Charles Bailyn, or Pericles Lewis to answer in ways that will matter.
When a professor asked how Singapore can reconcile a recent announcement that at least half of NUS' seats must go to Singaporeans with Levin's claim that the 80 % of Yale-NUS students will come from all over Asia and the world, Yale's director of admissions for Yale-NUS replied that Singapore's 50% restriction applies to the university as a whole but that the new college will have some wiggle room. But panelists seemed less than enthusiastic about the prospect of more diversity and more understanding of the government's reluctance to open the floodgates to students from abroad.
Panelist Raynor Teo worried that if everyone who wanted to come to Singapore could, its population would triple. Noting the government's "deep support for Yale-NUS at every level,' he tried to temper the questioner's implicit push for a more cosmopolitan admissions process by suggesting that it might pit diversity against democracy: Singaporean voters want their tax dollars to pay for Singaporean students, not foreigners, and as the ruling party struggles "to take better account of public opinion" after experiencing a modest but unprecedented and jarring setback in recent elections., it will have trouble resisting populist demands to curb immigration. To champion diversity, in other words, one would have to stand with the government against too much democracy.
All but unnoticed was the likelihood that almost all the panelists were Han Chinese, members of the socioeconomically elite. Only in a comment posted online after the panel did an audience member note that "we, the 'educated elite' English-educated 'scholar-class' -- I use the term 'scholar' loosely, as opposed our rigid stereotype of near-eternal bondage to the funding agency -- do not represent the country in its entirety....
"[T]he bulk of our country is actually made up of a class of people who think very differently from you and I," the commenter continued. "I'm... referring to ... the non-English-speaking working class guys who just don't make it into university, much less to Yale or Columbia. They have a very different value-system to you and I, and a whole different take on ethics, morality and even pragmatism."
It was the only time in the Yale-Singapore discussion that I heard the working-class part of Singapore's population described. The treatment of migrants and foreigners is a very touchy issue because many Singaporeans are xenophobic. Trying to dispel that unpleasant scent as it rose with the panel's discomfort over the question about diversity at Yale-NUS, E-Ching slipped a bit: "We want foreigners to come here and work for us!" she exclaimed. If "for" had been "with," she might have gotten away with this disclaimer of xenophobia.
Although she'd written in her YDN column that criticism of the Yale-NUS deal "annoys the Singaporean in the street who had already thought Yale was getting a sweetheart deal - free campus, free staff, free rein to run pedagogical experiments on free subjects, even the risk of putting the Yale name on a diploma," E Ching probably knows less about "the Singaporean in the street" than she does about Yale faculty after nine years at the university. Her very deftness (and relentlessness) in filleting American moralism to expose its hypocrisies and insecurities suggested to me that it takes one to know one.
And it was discomfiting to imagine what she actually knows about repression. People who write and talk as she does seem to have anticipated and internalized it even without having been arrested or fired. "I don't want to trivialize the heroism of political dissidents like Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, who was sued into bankruptcy by the ruling party," she wrote somewhat breezily, "but disliking it doesn't make our political culture any less real, and to change it, you have to start from reality." Another obligatory feint toward Singapore's critics in a dance of put-downs.
This reference to Jeyaretnam -- who wasn't Han Chinese, by the way -- trivializes of a truism that is almost a non-sequitur. Jeyaretnam ended up selling his books near subway stations, "a bizarre spectacle, this old gentleman barrister on our uneventful streets, with his sandwich board," as his son put it in WIRED days after E Ching's YDN column appeared. The list of others treated similarly or worse in Singapore has only grown.
Shaun Tan, the author of the essay on Western universities' collaborations with authoritarian regimes and the only young dissident who addressed the panelists that evening, asked what benefits they thought would accrue to Yale from coming to Singapore.
E-Ching answered with a characteristically hard spin: "Yale is replaceable. Singapore wanted a liberal arts college for ten years before talking to Yale," she said, omitting that in 2005 Britain's prestigious Warwick University canceled plans set up campus in Singapore after its faculty assessed the regime's restrictions on academic and other freedoms. If Yale is replaceable, that's only because it has rushed in where Warwick rightly feared to tread.
In Singapore, E-Ching also said, Yale could overcome its elitism. Another benefit! When she'd been accepted to Yale in 1997, she claimed, Singaporeans who'd never heard of Yale assumed it was a second-rate university that she'd have to attend because she didn't get into the National University or Singapore Management University. "Without this deal, Yale would never get to show its merit." That sounded awkward and implausible, a kind of mind-game. She took a different tack: "See, it's great: Yale gets a gigantic pedagogical laboratory to do its experiments."
Zhipeng "Nick" Huang, a recent Yale graduate who'd been a student member of Yale's Course of Study committee, wondered if "Singapore is taking too much of a risk on Yale: If Yale bails, Singapore looks foolish. There has been little effort by Yale NUS to explain the situation. Yale should have been more cautious about affixing its name, but although I have these reservations I want to make sure it succeeds."
Dana Miller, a blonde American woman whose parents are permanent residents of Singapore and raised her there, saw "two benefits to Yale: An opportunity to develop best practices and standards and foster the spirit of what Yale says education is all about. Also it will show that Yale knows about Asia," at least as Asia is known outside China, where Yale has other engagements, none remotely on the scale of Yale-NUS. She didn't note, or perhaps know, that Yale rebuffed its own experts on Southeast Asia, such as James Scott, who opposed the NUS deal.
When William Whobrey, dean of the Yale Summer Session asked, "What do you think of the liberal arts?" answers ranged from noting that the liberal arts are more than just the performing arts to nothing that they're more than just "liberal" politics, as someone said a Chinese paper had asserted by equating "liberal arts" with "freedom."
Dana Miller noted that New York University already has a Tisch School of the Visual Arts in Singapore and that the government has had "very long term policy goal of engaging with performing arts."
What the liberal arts are really about, one panelist opined, is "inter-disciplinarity that helps people to solve real problems." Another said that when he'd arrived at Yale as an undergraduate, the "liberal arts" had impressed him, and still do, as "a vast store of resources full of people who would teach you whatever you were interested in."
Another got closer to a better answer, I think, by announcing that liberal arts "stretch the mind for the sake of stretching the mind" and that "Singapore has a tradition of elites that start from fundamentals and rethink everything."
That edges still closer to recognizing that the liberal arts stand in some in tension with markets and states and with elites who are engaged in commerce and policy-making. The liberal arts may be indispensable to such decision makers, but often by requiring that they step back and take look at their prospects that's long enough and hard enough to help them contemplate a complete change of course. Most of the panelists seemed no more or less close to understanding this than most other students at Yale.
An American who'll teach at Yale-NUS told me that Singapore students "are better educated" and more disciplined than Americans and that they can be evaluated more honestly than at Yale because "there'll be no grade inflation" in Singapore. Besides, this professor opined, teaching the liberal arts there probably won't be any more subversive than it is in America, where "most of it isn't subversive at all."
Unlike the panelist who understood that the liberal arts should help people to "start from fundamentals and rethink everything," most of us accept the misconception of the liberal arts that was expressed in a Yale Alumni Magazine interview, by Kay Kuok, chair of Yale-NUS' governing board and a Singaporean businesswoman whose family runs "one of Asia's most diversified and dynamic multinational conglomerates."
Asked what the liberal arts are, Kuok replied, "We must look at 'liberal' in the sense of broad, rather than free. It's freedom of thought; I'm not necessarily saying freedom of expression." Asked what the difference is between freedom of thought and freedom of expression, she replied, "Well, freedom of expression can be taken in many ways. Everyone has a right to express himself. It's a question of expression in the right way, within certain norms in society, so to speak."
Whose norms? A liberal education helps us to ask that question well. That every society has "certain norms" is a truism, an inevitability, but it also needs more than a few citizens who are wise enough to know when push the envelope, and in what direction - in, or out.
Although I enjoyed listening to the young Singaporeans, from the start of the discussion I'd been feeling uneasy, and when my turn to ask a question came, I said, "Thank you for your presentations. I think that we all understand that Singapore is a country in transition. This has been a very interesting discussion, and I assume that you've made a recording of it?" Two panelists nodded in confirmation.
"But that poses my question, about the ground-rules of this meeting," I said. "The moderator said at the outset that there would be no recordings allowed and no quoting of anyone's comments. Yet you have recorded the session yourselves.
"In discussing academic freedom tonight," I continued, "one of you [it was Yi Sheng, via Skype] said that in Singapore 'You can say anything you want on campus,' partly because the government doesn't even care what most academics say on campus. Well, we are on an American campus, and I'm wondering why you feel that here you must take this 'closed door' approach and, since you are doing that, how you can call this 'Singapore UnCensored.'"
Dark clouds crossed the countenances of some Yale-NUS faculty in the room, but the panelists were energetic in response. The gist of it was what the moderator had said at the outset: They were here to speak with others at Yale about concerns that had been raised about Singapore, and they were concerned that if comments appeared in Singapore they would be misunderstood.
I asked if the recording they were making was basically a report to the government, and one of them acknowledged that the government wanted to be informed. Responding to my query about the session's title, a panelist said, "I think we knew we were gonna get shot in the foot with that title." (She didn't suggest that they'd shot themselves in the foot.). Again we were told that "Singaporeans tend to self-censor" and that the organizers knew that "some members would be more comfortable" with the ground-rules against reporting and quoting.
But another panelist said that in establishing the rules, the organizers had to recognize "the reality of Singapore." That suggested something rather different. "Professor Sleeper, we're not saying that there's no censorship in Singapore!" E-Ching exclaimed, to a big laugh in the audience that was prompted, I think, by her coming right out and saying it.
As the session ended, moderator Lim and other panelists invited the audience to come down front to meet speakers individually and make pose any comments or questions they wished. But I saw only the half-dozen Yale-NUS faculty chat with and congratulate the panelists. Something hadn't "set right" with a lot of people in the audience, as I learned from undergraduates I spoke with the next day.
I would have thought that, when ground-rules were announced in e-mail message days before the meeting, Bailyn, Lewis, and other Yale-NUS personnel would have met their "obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed," as Yale's Freedom of Expression statement puts it by suggesting that the ground-rules be changed.
"To look at it from both sides," a professor who sat near me during the session wrote me later, "this attempt to control reporting might reasonably be taken as an attempt to allow some participants to express more critical and oppositional views than would be possible otherwise--yet this premise, like much else, couldn't be explicitly said. It had instead to be expressed in terms of issues of "being comfortable" and of cultural generalizations--which occurred frequently during the event, despite the objections that panelists had lodged against the supposed "stereotyping" Singaporean"
"According to the organizers," wrote Yale English Prof. Jill Campbell in a striking analysis of the event that's been posted on a campus discussion site,"the contents of the session could be conveyed to the Singaporean government but not, via press reports or citations in opinion pieces, to readers in New Haven or elsewhere." What those attending "learned at the session by hearing students from Singapore speak -- which was considerable -- could be held in their minds, would perhaps alter [their views] of Singapore and of Yale's venture there, but could not be conveyed by them to the public arena of the debate about Yale-NUS By these terms, a new space for 'closed doors' knowledge was formalized in listeners minds; a space for things of public import... not to be referred to publicly without a sense of peril and the violation of trust."
Another professor wrote me that, "At one level, by their choice of what to say and what not to say, they were telling us what is out of bounds and what is not. On another level, they were giving the official party line, including statements about Singapore being 'in transition', and things being different now than they were in the past. I also thought the statement [by E-Ching] about Singapore being committed to a liberal arts college long before Yale came on the scene was a coded warning that they don't really need Yale, so if Yale steps out of bounds, they will simply pull out and Yale will lose whatever it is that Levin negotiated for.
"On yet another level, I think they were trying to tell us that yes, our concerns about censorship and lack of freedom are well founded. They almost seemed to go out of their way to make sure we understood that censorship is real and pervasive. Of course, they were quick to add that it was okay, with the excuses we have heard many times before."
"For me," yet another faculty member wrote, "the event was the most compelling demonstration yet of what self-censorship requires -- and this was palpable at the panel, even as it was tripped over again and again in a discussion that wasn't smooth and successful."
Still another noted that "However eager some of the participants were to serve as apologists for the government, the overall impression given was that the idea of Yale-NUS was pretty ill-considered, and now the best has to be made of it. "
A Telling Default
One of the most dispiriting consequences of the "Singapore UnCensored" discussion was what I can describe only as the sudden, brazen self-censorship of Yale Daily News after two months in which its editors and reporters had published a commendably broad range of news reportage and commentaries by all interested parties.
As the session was adjourning, one of the two YDN reporters who were covering it and had watched me and others pose questions and panelists respond came up to me as the meeting adjourned and, instead of asking me any question, informed me that there were "many precedents at Yale" for the ground rules I'd challenged, including their use at a talk Karl Rove had given to hundreds of undergraduates in the Yale Law School auditorium.
Doubting that Rove, who has defamed many people, deserved ground rules like that, I replied that even if there were such precedents, they weren't right, for there is also a Constitution, and this was a public meeting. I asked if the YDN would report the question I had asked and the responses it had received.
"We're still working out how we're going to deal with the ground rules," the reporter replied unflappably, and that night I received some anodyne questions, such as "Were there issues raised which you think had not been touched on previously?"
I replied by asking again if the YDN would report what had actually happened in the meeting. Receiving no answer, I didn't reply to the questions, and, the next morning the paper ran an account of the session so Orwellian it left many of us who'd been there breathless, and messaging one another in amazement.
The story opened with the organizers' claim that they were bringing "some nuance to the debate" on Yale-NUS in a discussion "exclusively meant for the Yale community," and it quoted not a single criticism of Singapore by any panelist, only what panelists had said in defense of the country.
The story neither named nor quoted any of the five faculty members who'd asked questions, astonishing because if anyone in the room could have been quoted without risk of reprisal from Singapore or the Yale administration, we could have been. Nor did the story ever mention my question about why the organizers had imposed ground rules they hadn't observed. It didn't report their acknowledgement that they were recording the session and that Singapore authorities would get a report.
The story didn't even report the "licensed" criticisms of E-Ching's brother Yi-Sheng. It didn't mention either his descriptions of limits on academic expression outside the classroom or his claim that change would only be brought about if Yale NUS faculty were willing to exercise academic freedom and advocacy.
As one faculty member wrote to several us, the story "confined all its quotations to uncontroversial statements" and, although it listed some of the topics discussed, omitted all reference to any part of the discussion that might be construed as critical of the Singaporean government or of Singapore as a site for the Yale campus." The student journalist bowed to the organizers' "ground rules" against recording or quoting from the discussion, defaulting on their journalistic obligation to report questions asked by some others Yale faculty and answered or dodged in varying ways by the panelists.
E-Ching answering inadvertently acknowledged that the YDN report on "Singapore UnCensored" went so far to accommodate the evening's ground rules that it omitted all of the panelists' own criticisms of Singapore and almost all of the challenging questions from the audience. Eager to rebut a comment posted under the YDN account suggesting that the panelists had censored themselves, E-Ching let slip what the YDN and, a day later, the government controlled Straits Times had omitted:
"One of the panelists gave a long opening statement that was nothing but fundamental criticisms of the Yale-NUS agreement," she wrote in rebuttal. "Two other opening statements brought up our touchiness about the strong foreign presence in Singapore. During Q&A, two panelists told disturbing stories about foreign academics being denied work permits for unknown reasons. Another described how Catherine Lim got told off. We wanted Yale-NUS critics to back up their arguments with accurate facts that matter to Singaporeans."
I suspect that E Ching really wanted the meeting to have presented a simulacrum of robust debate, credible enough to sow doubt about critics' charges that Singapore is repressive. She certainly didn't want the YDN's seemingly contrived portrait of harmony, which would only drive critics' suspicions in directions she and most other panelists didn't want to take.
I got a clearer answer to my questions about the ground-rules the next day, when Singapore's government-controlled Straits Times reported on the meeting as selectively and inadequately as Yale Daily News had done. The Straits Times' omissions are all the more striking now that a panelist has informed me that the paper was indeed able to follow the whole session, from Singapore, via Skype. In fact, sadly, what you're reading here is the only serious posted or published account so far of what actually went on at the meeting. (This section has been updated to reflect new information from a panelist who was present.)
A journalist's foremost obligation is to report what he or she has witnessed that readers relying on that report wouldn't otherwise know. Yet this disinclination to report what everyone in the room had seen and heard reflected constraints far broader than the panel discussion's ground rules.
Two days earlier, in a long, fulsome profile of Yale Vice President Lorimer, the same reporter listed Yale NUS among the projects she works on but not that she will sit on the Yale-NUS board or that her husband had been a member of both the Yale Corporation and Singapore's Government Investment Corporation.
A few days later, a story "Corporation Discusses Budget, Student Life," mentioned half a dozen topics taken up at the Yale Corporation's bi-monthly meeting. Although the reporter was briefed by Lorimer, Yale President Richard Levin, and the Yale College Council president, not once does the story suggest that the Corporation discussed the Yale-NUS controversy, surely one of the most pressing developments since its previous meeting, if only because the New York Times and Yale's faculty had called into question the corporation's own judgment.
At least the reporter should have asked about it and written something like this: "Asked whether the corporation had discussed the Yale-NUS controversy, a spokesman declined comment, noting that some of the body's discussions are private."
But Is It Good for the Jews?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that these Singaporeans' mix of sober realism, prickly humor, spunky defiance reminded me of some people I'd known in another small country. In 2009, when I knew nothing about Yale's planning with Singapore, I remarked to my wife as we watched office parks and eight-lane expressways gliding by my window on a Tel Aviv-to-Haifa train that Israel Singapore of the Middle East.
I didn't know that many others had had the same thought, or that Singapore has long been much closer being the Israel of Southeast Asia than I had ever imagined. This has been true not only economically and geo-politically, as a glance at a couple of maps and statistical tables will make clear, but militarily, and with all intimacy of what the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz called "A Deep, Dark, Secret Love Affair" nearly 50 years old.
The similarities of these two little engines that could (and did) become models of state capitalism with high per capita incomes and growth rates need little elaboration here. Nor need we dwell on the fact that both have been governed and stamped by the British or that both have populations of 5 or 6 million, including 2 or 3 million second-class citizens and non-citizens, some of them migrants, some of them openly despised.
It is worth noting that both are non-Muslim and face much larger, less-than-friendly Muslim neighbors -- in Singapore's case, Indonesia and Malaysia, the latter of which expelled Singapore in 1965 (or lost it, depending on who's telling), amid high racial tensions.
Yet another striking analogy involves the fact that the politically dominant majority of Singapore's population consists not of indigenous natives but of "overseas" Han Chinese," whose literary and commercial strengths long ago earned them the sobriquet "the Jews of Southeast Asia" and the envy and resentment due a wealthy, elitist, and supple minority.
Like Jews who live outside Israel, the Han Chinese are minorities in most countries outside China, but here a real difference dogs the similarity. The similarity is that in Singapore, the Chinese are 75% of the population, and Malays are 15%, Indians 8%' in Israel, Jews are 76%, with the rest mostly Palestinian Arabs, most of them Muslim some of them Christian. In Singapore the Chinese have a status, power, and reputation that will sound familiar to Palestinians and others who regard Israel's Jews as arrogant interlopers.
The difference is that Israel's Jews, unlike Singapore's Chinese, have never been the rooted, dominant majority in any other country besides ancient Israel itself, where Hebrew was spoken 700 years before Arabic. And there are other differences of consequence: Singapore is an island, a micro-state smaller in area and population than New York City's five boroughs. Israel is 30 times larger, geographically, and in some ways more dangerous and endangered.
That said, Singapore's and Israel's situations at international crossroads of trade and power at opposite ends of the Asian continent incline them both to serve as investment and cultural entrepots and as political mediators. Without oil, water, or minerals to speak of, both live mainly by their wits, which is to say by trade. But both are compelled to militarize, and both have formidable armed forces, with defense budgets that consume 5 or 6% of GDP, a proportion much higher than that of all but a few other nations, including even China.
The International Political Review calls Singapore's armed forces "the most technologically advanced military in Southeast Asia" and notes that while everyone in the region fears China and no one could prevail against a Chinese onslaught, China fears that any such onslaught would bring a very painful Singapore Sting.
The punch line to all this, not very funny but very, very true, is that no sooner had Singapore gained its independence in August 1965 than its British-educated founder and first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, now the nation's "Minister Mentor" (his eldest son is the prime minister), invited Israel to organize his armed forces, because he saw all the parallels between the two young nations that I've just noted.
On Christmas Eve, 1965, six Israel Defense Force officers and their families moved to Singapore, followed by waves of consulting teams that established the country's "Total Defense" combat doctrines, its recruitment and training regimens, its intelligence services, and its state-of-art arms procurement.
"We are not going to turn Singapore into an Israeli colony," chief of staff and future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin admonished these teams. He needn't have worried. Singapore's highly intelligent, eloquent, ruthlessly energetic dictator knew how to collaborate without being colonized, something one couldn't say about some of the Americans he's been collaborating with most recently. He was as deft and determined as the Han Chinese in other countries who, even as minorities, dominate major industries, banks, and even English-language media in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
The Israelis militarized Singaporean society, even with Israeli military songs, to which Lee's soldiers marched in one of Singapore's first real Independence Day parades. Less symbolically, they showed Singapore how to establish military conscription in a hitherto un-militaristic populace that, according to at least one survey, ranked the profession of soldier far below that of thief, while placing artists, teachers and merchants on top.
So determined was Lee to adjust this that when Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967, vindicating his decision to work with it and boosting Singaporeans' confidence in their Jewish military mentors, Singapore's UN delegation surprised other Third World nations by abstaining on a resolution condemning Israel.
Israelis persuaded Lee to make conscription universal to tap well-educated, prosperous Han Chinese as well as the Malay, Indian, and other minorities. That produced an intelligent, dynamic army and a disciplined male student population: Singaporean university students receive substantial tuition subsidies after military service but must accept what the National University of Singapore calls "a service bond under the terms of the tuition grant to work for a Singapore-registered company for three years upon completion of their degrees so as to discharge some of their obligations to the Singapore public." In some professions, the mandatory service is to government agencies, for up to six years. The whole regimen, as most Israelis would recognize, produces more than a little griping, but little softness or self-indulgence.
All this has posed an exquisitely discomfiting dilemma for Yale's neoconservatives. They never hesitate to ridicule leftists who've collaborated with authoritarian "Third World" regimes, but now they find themselves looking into a mirror and falling spookily silent about Yale's collaboration with Singapore.
As American nationalists and self-styled champions of academic freedom, neoconservatives would have to condemn the Yale Corporation's arrangement with Singapore, some of it borne of business relationships that, in the neo-cons' perfervid imaginations, resemble certain other Yale investors' extensive relationships with certain regimes the 1930s.
Sure enough, when Shaun Tan published his damning essay about Yale's and other Western universities' collaborations with such regimes, Michael Rubin of the neoconservative flagship Commentary Magazine commented that
"Foreigners flock to American universities because of their freedom and opportunity. How sad it is then, as Tan describes, that so many American university presidents are willing to compromise basic values in order to make a quick buck, often padding endowments which already reach billions of dollars. That will not bring progress; it is simply intellectual prostitution."
On the other hand, Yale is only following in the footsteps of Israel, which has so few friends and whose fate so preoccupies neoconservatives that a few years ago they established a Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, some of whose offerings prompted me to dub it "The Yale Institute for Jewish Nationalism and War With Iran."
The Yale administration abolished the institute and replaced it with a legitimately scholarly entity, but neoconservatives' difficulty in reconciling their American patriotism with their protectiveness toward Israel in this case has kept them silent about the Singapore deal. Which reminds me that one big difference between Yale's gamble in Singapore and Israel's investment there is that Israel, unlike its neo-con cheerleaders, was smart enough to keep its name out of the public eye, eager though it was to advance its national interests and prestige. The Yale Corporation hasn't been that smart, and now it is watching Singaporeans' triumphal display of its own stolen name, in exchange for what?
Some neoconservatives may yet be induced by the Yale administration to utter hollow endorsements of the deal: A regime like Singapore's can't be that bad, they'll rationalize, if it serves American interests in the struggle against Communism or terrorism.
That was the logic of the neoconservative heroine Jeanne Kirkpatrick in "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a Commentary Magazine essay that enchanted Ronald Reagan, who made her his ambassador to the U.N. Kirkpatrick excused even Argentina's murderous junta, at least until the generals tortured the Jewish journalist Jacobo Timmerman - and even then, Commentary leapt to the junta's defense at his expense.
So it's noteworthy that last month the influential Commentary blogger Michael Rubin, who has propagandized for war with Iran, condemned Yale and other universities for accommodating authoritarian regimes, even the one that has worked so closely with Israelis as well as Americans.
At least this should teach other neoconservatives what Yitzhak Rabin and Lee Kuan Yew always understood and what I learned after my epiphany on the road to Haifa: matters like these cannot be viewed clearly through binary, left-vs.-right lenses: Leftists who supported "people's liberation struggles" by helping to harvest sugar cane in Cuba or crops in early Israeli socialist kibbutzim believed that nation-building requires disciplined struggle and sacrifice to lay the groundwork for prosperity and, with it, national pride, often at cost to individual freedom.
But so does Singapore's Ambassador Chan, who cites Fareed Zakaria's arguments for illiberal democracies, observing that "Our first generation political leaders in Singapore began by wanting to construct a political system that would help not hinder economic growth and development of the unlikely nation. It was a matter of survival."
But that was then. Now, she says, the government's new "responsiveness" has mooted Zakaria's doctrine. But even in the 1960's, when Singapore was getting underway, Israel's nation-building was less authoritarian - among Jews themselves, of course, though also among the Arabs who became citizens of Israel -- perhaps because Jews, fleeing recent destruction and facing new/ancient enemies with Western Enlightenment traditions, some of them as socialists, bonded in relatively more democratic, egalitarian ways. The reason I found out about Israel's long-secret collaboration with Singapore is that Israeli journalists have been much freer to report and interpret such developments than their counterparts in Singapore -- and even in the United States, where self-censorship involving Israel and many other subjects has been insinuated into American news organizations, political institutions, and workplaces, even while receding in more personal matters.
Although Singaporean society hasn't had to be on military alert as much as Israel, neither has it become the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, a region that is bristling with huge armies. Singapore does have enough economic and military power to take another bit of advice that the Israelis gave it and should take more seriously themselves: Keep your vast military under the radar, if possible while strengthening and showcasing your diplomatic, cultural, and educational offerings. Singapore is trying to become the education center of Southeast Asia by setting up a liberal arts college that bears Yale's imprimatur, while controlling the showcase as tightly as it does the military. "Increasingly we are noted for taking up the knowledge industries and doing cutting edge stuff," says Ambassador Chan.
Note, though, that, in this official view, education is an "industry," perhaps even a "cutting edge" weapon of sorts. And gay rights is a profit-center. But can liberal education flourish while pacing a gilded cage?
The culture of surveillance and seduction is far more polished in Singapore than it is here. The state-capitalist regime, flush with cash, licenses media corporations that depend on public contracts; it doesn't have to censor them, because they censor themselves. Nor need it enforce its draconian laws against freedom of expression very often, because one or two exemplary punishments and a few subtle warnings to others that their law-breaking has been noted will chill most dissent.
So can the cooptation of dissidents who haven't taken too strong a stand against the regime: "They're really good at telling you that you can do great things and giving you apparent opportunities that leave you in their power," a writer who frequently visits Singapore told me. With some books and internet sites blocked or monitored, and legal associations tamed, everyone is extremely civil. No one has any alternative, if the state is omnipresent, even in private corporations and universities.
Only those familiar locutions - "Close the door, and I'll tell you what I really think" - remind one of the possibility of being brought in after a knock in the night or of the sudden, unexplained termination of a work permit. You thought you were free, but one night you find that you'd been led up a garden path away from your rights and your public voice. What the "Singapore UnCensored" panelists didn't want to admit but couldn't deny is that Singapore is like this. E-Ching was less reluctant to remind her audience that America is becoming like it, too.
It is "tempting to see in this sequence of events a kind of 'Singaporification' of American free speech via linking Yale with NUS," Jill Campbell writes, adding, however, that "The manner of Yale's instituting of Yale-NUS- - the declaration by our President... that Yale College Faculty have no say in its establishment, the failures of consultation with faculty knowledgeable about Southeast Asia, the many forces assembled to discourage real debate about the wisdom of pursuing the venture, the characterization of critics of the venture as outrageous, parochial, and engaging in 'unbecoming' speech -- have dramatized American-style constraints on free inquiry and debate at the native core of Yale itself."
Singapore isn't to blame for this, but "the fit between Singaporean governmental authority and American institutional authority has been all too smooth. What the two kinds of power have in common is a dislike for the counter-force of free inquiry and open debate."
There will always be trade-offs between ordered safety and prosperity, on the one hand, and personal freedom and political democracy, on the other -- between civilization and its discontents. Up to a point, Yale's engagement with Singapore reminds us of that - or teaches it to us. But the actions of America's own increasingly absentee elites remind us that the trade-offs aren't as inevitable, legitimate, or humane as Zakaria claims and as much of Yale therefore believes.
More than decade of embarrassments and outrages perpetrated by American elites have led many of us to a slow and for some of us exceedingly painful realization that many of the people running much this country aren't as different from those running Singapore as some of us have spent a lot our lives trying dearly to believe. Whether foolishly or malevolently, American leaders have been servicing and gilding a global wrecking ball that's dispossessing too many people who are more decent than they are.
And when these leaders begin chanting that there could be a lot less repression and a lot more reward if only the people they've betrayed and degraded would show the discipline, hard work and self-restraint of Yale students climbing the ladder of global meritocracy, it's time to ignore the dithering that passes for commentary in the mouths of Zakaria and David Brooks and to take our recent experiences to touchstone of nature and of reason, by whose lights even nice guys like Levin and certain justices of the Supreme Court seem duplicitous or naïve.
Yale faculty are organizing to win the share in governance that some other university faculties enjoy. The whole Yale community will be better for their having it. We might hope that they'll curb some of the university's official duplicity by demanding full disclosure of the terms of the Yale-NUS contract, a full reaffirmation of the Woodward statement on Freedom of Expression, and a withdrawal of Yale's name from the new college in Singapore.
Toward that last end I commend a column, "Yale-NUS is not Yale," by Yale Computer Science Professor Michael Fischer. He has urged that Yale's name be withdrawn from a college that won't be governed by the Yale Corporation; whose faculty appointments won't be subject to critical examination by Yale faculty; whose students won't have competed with actual Yale students for admission; whose curriculum won't be subject to review by the Yale faculty; and that won't be able to offer a liberal education in an environment of free expression in and out of the classroom, that Yale's own principles so clearly demand. Fischer concludes that since the college meets none of these conditions and was never approved by a vote of Yale's faculty, "the presence of the word 'Yale' in its name is innately deceptive."
A lengthening train of abuses and affronts by American public and private leaders has turned a once-promising (or at least possible) republic into a slippery web of premises and practices that are no longer legitimate or sustainable. At pivotal moments in American history, the civic-republican Yale of Nathan Hale, Dwight Macdonald, John Lindsay, Kingman Brewster, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Cyrus Vance, Garry Trudeau, Howard Dean, and countless others has found enough civic savvy, courage, and grace to correct the Yale that made Levin, Zakaria, and other political nullities the croupiers of our democratic dignity and hope.
Correction: An earlier version of this post quoted an inaccurate report, from The Politic, that Yale Economics Department Chairman Ben Polak opposed a faculty resolution criticizing Singapore. In fact, Polak supported the resolution.
In response to several comments, a few minor corrections and clarifications of the original text were made on May 7.