THE BLOG
10/03/2014 03:51 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Let Singapore's Apologists Do Their Homework

Most Americans and Singaporeans -- like most Israelis, Palestinians, and other people the world over -- are far more decent, discerning, and trustworthy in daily life than are their leaders and champions in government and media. "States hover like crows over the nests that nations make," the historian Robert Wiebe wrote in trying to rescue actual nations from the blowhards, bounders, and bureaucrats who govern and represent them.

Singaporeans are making the best they can of an authoritarian, state-capitalist regime whose government (along with its many self-appointed, upscale apologists and pundits) have imposed too much state censorship, pandemic self-censorship, cultural sterility, and Kafkaesque legalism, all in the name of sustaining this little city-state a rich, global capitalist entrepot (population 5.6 million) amid powerful riptides set off by China's even-more-authoritarian-capitalist rise and amid the casino-like financing of the world economy.

There's a lot of perversity at the top here, nowhere more than in the contorted apologetics of some of the country's most devoted and fortunate students, pundits, and other defenders of the regime against critics such as... me.

We Americans, too, are making the best we can of the derangement of our civic-republican culture, which I, among others, believe is coming apart, unwinding, unraveling, under riptides not so different from those buffeting Singapore.

The two countries' political cultures and dominant ethno-racial traditions differ, but the tides they're riding are bringing their elites and rising middle-classes all-too closely together - nowhere more obviously than in Yale's joint venture with the National University of Singapore to establish Yale-NUS College -- in what only their elites and those who aspire to join those elites celebrate as an harmonic convergence but what some of us old republicans view with great skepticism.

Last week I explained here and in the Yale Daily News what was wrong with Yale-NUS' attempt to get the Singapore government's permission to screen Tan Pin Pin's fine documentary, To Singapore With Love, which the government had banned fatuously for "national security" reasons. Please read my post for that explanation, which appeared also in the independent Singapore website Tremeritus.

Tan has since requested that Yale-NUS not show the film while she appeals the ban, hoping to reverse it. Her sound principle here is that if the film -- which is reaping awards and praise abroad -- can't be shown everywhere in Singapore, it shouldn't be shown anywhere in Singapore: Let the regime face its own isolation and embarrassment, and perhaps it will reconsider. Yale-NUS shouldn't have scurried to give the regime a face-saving out by arranging official permission to show the film in a class for "educational purposes." Yale film-studies Prof. Charles Musser explains this well in a blog post on this still-developing controversy.

Enter Singapore's self-appointed apologists. I'd misspelled Tan Pin Pin's name, an error that was corrected immediately, but the apologists haven't stopped harping on that error as if it discredited my arguments -- their first cheap evasion of the matter at hand.

A second evasion: This controversy is not, as they've charged, about my or anyone's "partisan" quarrel with Yale in New Haven. It's about the chilling effects of Singapore's abysmal lack of basic freedoms upon liberal education, including at Yale in New Haven. Singapore's tactics have prompted several universities to pull out of Singapore after a few years, as reported in my columns on the Yale-Singapore relationship.

The current film controversy was ignited by Yale-NUS' all-too-characteristic tendency to scurry to the government for an exemption from the ban, instead of consulting first with Tan Pin Pin, who holds the rights to her film. It really began with government's all-too-characteristically fatuous ban on To Singapore With Love.

So Singapore's wounded patriots should stop blaming us critics of Yale's long, intensive, embarrassing collaboration with this regime, and they should focus instead, as Tan Pin Pin is doing, on pushing the government to remove its fatuous "national-security" ban of this film.

Yale-NUS does not grant Yale degrees. It's funded wholly by Singapore, not by Yale, which tells you something about what piper ultimately calls what tune. It's not governed by the Yale Corporation or Yale faculty. Yale's name is on this project only to increase Yale's marketability to the burgeoning, young, promising Asian middle classes and to stem Singapore's brain drain to the West by increasing the country's prestige as a hub of what its former ambassador to the U.S. called, infelicitously, "the education industry." The non-Yale-degree-holding graduates of Yale-NUS are immediately admitted to the Yale Alumni network, enabling them to take their business clients to dinner at the elegant Yale Club of New York when they're in Manhattan making money.

Some of us believe that liberal education's mission is to question such "industrial" arrangements more than to facilitate them. That doesn't make us ivory tower moralists. It makes our critics look like dancing drones.

I encapsulated my argument against installing "liberal education in authoritarian places" last year in a New York Times essay and, more thoughtfully, in the fine British website openDemocracy. I hate to disappoint my Singaporean critics, but neither of these widely read essays was primarily about Singapore or Yale. I also published an essay in Dissent magazine called, "With Friends Like These, Who'll Defend Liberal Education?"

Not to be pedantic about it, dear critics, but please do your homework!