THE BLOG
09/30/2014 08:40 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Dear Jim Sleeper, Not Everything Is About Yale

Jim Sleeper has been a fairly prolific HuffPost writer on Singapore, mostly because of the Yale-NUS College that appears to have caused him no small amount of personal grief.

He has written about Singapore's repressive online website licensing regime and the Little India riot. In 2012, he wrote about the Israel-Arab war, using it as an opportunity to highlight Singaporean militarism and oppression. His latest offering touches on the ban of Tan Pin Pin's film To Singapore, With Love. In all of these articles he draws the connection to Yale-NUS, lambasting Yale's willingness to establish connections with authoritarian regimes.

A friend cracked Sleeper's formula. It is as follows:

1) An event happens. It doesn't necessarily have to be local to Singapore.

2) Blame Singapore. Revise stock quotes about Singapore being "oppressive" and "illiberal" or "brainwashed".

3) Question Yale-NUS and its legitimacy.

There are many problems related to human rights, politics and democracy in Singapore. The government is paternalistic and has no qualms about bulldozing democratic principles to get things done. The Media Development Authority's licensing regime for online websites was both poorly thought-out and repressive. The treatment of migrant workers is absolutely appalling. The militarism of Singapore does sometimes bear a worrying resemblance to Israeli militarism. The ban of To Singapore, With Love is yet another example of a government seeking to assert their official narrative over the right of its citizens to make up their own minds.

Sleeper is right to point all these things out. I've written about most of them myself. But then it goes terribly, terribly wrong.

Although he has spent many, many words on Singapore, Jim Sleeper doesn't appear to care a fig about the country and its residents. He isn't upset about oppression in Singapore because oppression is bad in and of itself. He's upset about oppression in Singapore because it makes the institution at which he teaches look bad.

If Sleeper really cared about civil liberties and freedom, he wouldn't be painting Singapore with such broad strokes. He wouldn't completely ignore the fact that just last week Yale-NUS played host to Apa Itu Activist, a conference organized by members of Singaporean civil society (yours truly included), where activists gathered to discuss tactics and strategies to push for more freedoms and rights. He wouldn't discount all the people in Singapore who are fighting oppression in their own ways.

No, these people don't exist for Sleeper. It is far, far easier to describe Singaporeans as hapless "tigers who are pacing in a gilded cage" and get outraged at Yale for sullying its great name by association than to stand in true solidarity. Because standing in solidarity requires seeing Singaporeans as real people with agency, rather than tokens to be trotted out in his arguments against Yale's overseas affiliations.

Sleeper will perhaps write this critique off as yet another Singaporean directing her "displaced fury" at him because of her helplessness in the face of a looming, illiberal government. I will perhaps be characterised as yet another oppressed Singaporean "towing the line" (it's "toe" not "tow", by the way).

But I sincerely hope he won't, because there are many things happening in Singapore that should interest a political scientist. And none of them are actually about Yale.