THE BLOG
09/26/2014 09:37 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

For Yale in Singapore, It's Deja-vu All Over Again

Once again, the liberal-arts college in Singapore to which Yale has given its name, prestige, energy, and talent finds itself dancing awkwardly with the government over a right that liberal education depends on and should foster: the right to show Tan Pin Pin's documentary film, "To Singapore With Love," which criticizes Singapore's way of turning political and artistic citizens into exiles.

Early this month, Pericles Lewis, president of the so-called Yale-National University of Singapore College, announced that a class in the college would exercise that right by showing the film. But last week Yale-NUS announced that it wouldn't, supposedly because Tan Pin Pin had withheld "permission."

Journalists at the Yale Daily News, an independent student newspaper in New Haven, are making clear that that's not the whole story. To understand why, first take a look at its context.

On April 6, 2012, over Yale University President Richard Levin's opposition, the faculty of Yale College in New Haven passed a resolution expressing concern about "the... lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore" and urging Yale -- which had undertaken a joint venture with that country to establish a college bearing Yale's name and that of the National University of Singapore -- to "respect, protect, and further those rights," which "lie at the heart of liberal arts education as well as of our civic sense as citizens, and... ought not to be compromised in any dealings...with the Singaporean authorities."

Yale faculty had good reason to be concerned. The American Association of University Professors sent a public letter to the Yale community and 500,000 American professors expressing "AAUP's growing concern about the character and impact of the university's collaboration with the Singaporean government... 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."

Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 149th out of 179 in press freedoms in 2013 -- down from 135th in 2012, owing partly to new restrictions on websites. The prime minister and his long-ruling People's Action Party have a long, well-documented record of using meticulous, Kafkaesque legalism to block freedoms of expression they want to block and to permit whatever they decide to permit in this rich little city-state of 5.6 million, 30 percent of them migrant workers with few rights.

Yet Levin objected that the Yale faculty resolution expressing concern about all this "carried a sense of [Western] moral superiority," and other Yale-NUS champions insisted Yale must "respect the laws" and "cultural differences" of a country where it's a guest. Ivory Tower liberals and libertarians shouldn't condemn Singapore: "What we [Americans] think of as freedom, they think of as an affront to public order," explained Yale-NUS's inaugural dean Charles Bailyn.

Singapore wants western tourists, investors, and contractors to enjoy superb seaside dinners and clean, efficient public services and private markets. It doesn't want them to notice, behind the façade, a tight-fisted governance that generates a subtle but pandemic self-censorship among its citizens that's even tighter than the self-censorship that some American business corporations generate among their employees. Is American higher education really going to liberalize Singapore, or is it becoming more like it?

A sad precedent for the current dance around the film "To Singapore With Love" took place two years ago. In 2012 Chee Soon Juan, a principled Singaporean opposition-party leader, faced a government ban on leaving the country. Chee, who holds a PhD from the University of Georgia, had been fired from his lectureship in neuropsychology by NUS in 1993 after joining the "wrong" political party. For protesting this, he was railroaded by Singapore's scandalous judiciary into a "defamation" conviction and fined into bankruptcy. Unable to pay, he was barred from leaving Singapore to accept a human-rights award in Oslo.

But then the Yale International Relations Association and the faculty Southeast Asia Studies Council invited Chee to New Haven. Worried about jeopardizing its grip on Yale's lucrative name -- which helps it stem its brain drain of students who go to universities in the United States and the United Kingdom and don't return -- Singapore suddenly reduced Chee's debts enough for him to pay them and leave.

And now Singapore's Orwellian Media Development Authority has decided that "media or related courses... may require access to... films that are classified R21 or NAR," so it has approved "some leeway" to these institutions to screen films for educational purposes on condition that... prior approval has been sought from the MDA before the films are acquired."

The film remains otherwise banned in Singapore, and the filmmaker, who's negotiating with the MDA to "edit" it to be "suitable" for Singaporeans who aren't taking special courses, has asked Yale-NUS not to show the film she actually made.

Certainly the film needs to reach a wide Singaporean audience. But should it be watered down, under bureaucrats' direction, to please the government that it's criticizing? And should an institution bearing Yale's name accustom itself to bowing and scraping to accommodate this, or should it stand up and pressure Singapore, as a lone filmmaker cannot?

Those of us who consider Yale-NUS a grand misadventure warned not that conflicts would erupt between American and Singaporean values but that both sides would grow all-too accustomed to a genteel, MDA-like convergence between Singapore's authoritarian state corporatism and America's increasingly corporatist surveillance and purchased politics. (Since this column is adapted from one in The Yale Daily News, check that site to see if responses suggest anything but a smooth convergence.)

A few liberal "permissions," "exceptions," and libertarian grace notes won't do. "One should not compromise with an authoritarian state on the grounds that towing the line is better for the locals," says Kenneth Jeyaretnam, another brave Singapore opposition party leader who spoke at Yale with Chee. "This should not be a debate for Singaporeans only. Without outside pressure, there will be little pressure to change, and some Singaporeans will continue to believe that the government has the right to shield them for their own good."

No government has that right, and certainly not with Yale's blessing.