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Open letter re: “Singapore Uncensored and Censorship”

In response to the discussion of Yale-NUS College, Singaporean students at Yale organised a question-and-answer session called “Singapore Uncensored” on 19 April. A few days later, two Yale faculty members two Yale faculty members wrote articles which pointed to the Yale students’ engagement with the media and their policy regarding recording of the session as causes for concern. Professor Jill Campbell’s letter was sent to interested members of the Yale community at the “Yale and Singapore” website on Yale’s coursework server. Professor Jim Sleeper’s article appeared on the Huffington Post.

The following is a Yale student’s (Rayner Teo’s) response to their letter and article respectively. It can also be found on his personal webspace. Thanks to the Yale Singaporean students for contacting us and providing us with this letter, as well as their efforts in tirelessly engaging the issue.

By Rayner Teo

11 May 2012

Open letter re: “Singapore Uncensored and Censorship”

Dear Professor Campbell,

I was a panelist at “Singapore Uncensored” three weeks ago, and I appreciated the thoughtful analysis you posted on the “Yale and Singapore” classesv2 server last week, which in many respects hit the nail on the head with respect to our attempt to steer a middle ground between saying ‘too little’ and ‘too much’, however defined. I’ve also read Professor Sleeper’s piece on HuffPost which takes a rather different angle. I’m writing to offer a response that might answer some of the points that these two articles have raised, that might hopefully be of some use. I’ve attached a PDF copy of this letter for your convenience if you think this might be of interest to others on the Yale and Singapore list. Of course, I can’t speak for the other panelists at Singapore Uncensored—this letter only contains information in the public domain and my personal views.

I also wrote to Professor Christopher Miller the day after Singapore Uncensored, and part of the reason why I’m writing now is that he found it a useful addition to what had already been shared at the forum, and requested that I follow up with a document to be published for the readership of the Yale and Singapore classesv2 server.

Professor Miller posed this question to panelists: “Who in this room [at Singapore Uncensored] is connected to the government of Singapore and in what way?” I have no government affiliations, and neither does my immediate family. I applied for scholarships from the Public Service Commission (PSC) and government agencies before coming to Yale, as did many of my peers, and was offered two, both of which I rejected in favor of Yale’s generous financial aid offer. There were students currently on PSC scholarships in the audience at the event, but they weren’t on the panel.

It might seem like an inexplicably large number of Singaporeans have government connections through civil service scholarships, but the reality is that till recently they were the only way for many families to finance a university education in the US, until financial aid became more widely available to international applicants. The long-suffering scholar is a meme in Singapore because the PSC is known for demanding high GPA standards, and scholars have to serve out a 6-year employment contract with the civil service. However, the prestige and guaranteed employment is undeniably attractive, especially for an 18-year-old fresh out of high school.

It was noted at the event that the dialogue was recorded, and that the PSC would be receiving a report on the event. That is emphatically not the same as saying, as some commentators have alleged, that we recorded the session for the Singapore government. We recorded the dialogue for the sole use and the protection of the panelists in the event of misquotes or quotes taken out of context (as has indeed happened). The recording has not been made available to the Singapore government, to media representatives, or indeed to anyone outside of the panel. Professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan says that “recording an event is tantamount to verbatim reportage”—but even accepting her definition of the verb ‘to report’, we have only reported it to ourselves. Neither did we take it upon ourselves to report to the PSC what had transpired; this report was produced by students in the audience who were on PSC scholarships. I am not in a position to comment on why the PSC requested such a report, in the same way that I am not in a position to comment on why the Yale administration wants to go to Singapore: I am simply not privy to their decisions taken internally. My personal guess—and this is just a hunch—is that they wanted to be sure that no PSC scholarship holders made comments at the session that might be seen as representing an official government stand. I am not writing to be a government apologist, but it is amusing to read the far-flung conclusions that some commentators have leapt to, without considering more plausible ones. In any case, the report was compiled by students on civil service scholarships here at Yale, the very same students who belong to our generation and are very much in tune with our zeitgeist—a profound skepticism about the doings of the government.

You have drawn your conclusions from the event, most of which are well-founded. In particular you correctly saw that academic freedom and freedom of expression outside the classroom are two separate things in Singapore. None of us want to whitewash this issue. I continue to believe that there remains a lack of space for intellectual expression in public because the leadership has tended to try and direct discourse through lawyer’s letters, the Sedition Act or the Undesirable Publications Act, rather than to let it run its course in the public domain. Let me make it clear that I believe that free speech has to be sensitive to what I see as Singapore’s one national value, its rich and affirming multiculturalism. On the other hand, I’m afraid that being overly sensitive to this national value is infantilizing our public discourse—that the first thing some Singaporeans do when they see a comment they don’t like is call the police. That’s not what the powers of the state are for. I think Singapore’s political and public life could be enriched and people will get more responsible about what they say if there is a more open atmosphere for rich intellectual debate. It might be a risk and in the short run it might be inefficient, but for the sake of the nation I hope it’s a risk the political leadership takes.

As I stressed in the panel, Singapore is a changing society. In particular, we’ve experienced a heartening proliferation of civil society activism over the last few years, which has seen results. Take for instance Pink Dot SG, the closest we have to a pride parade in Singapore, which last year saw 10,000 people assembled in the heart of the city for LGBT rights (I was there—the subways were packed with people wearing pink!), or the group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) whose work is starting to bear fruit in the form of tighter regulation on foreign worker dormitories and better protections for maids. Yale-NUS can contribute to this growing political awareness and responsibility by broadening students’ minds and giving them space to develop—as is indeed the mission of any educational institution—but the direction of change must remain a choice for the people of Singapore to make on our own, through the channels we have for engaging with our government and if necessary at our elections. This is no one’s burden but our own, and progressive Singaporean voices have pressed and will continue to press the government and widen the space for civic discourse—at our own pace, and in a manner that makes sense to Singaporean stakeholders and will hence bear real results.

And the ‘risk’ that you sensed when we discussed the issues you enumerated (“government censorship and defamation laws in Singapore, potential reprisals for the exercise of free speech beyond the classroom, and fears of legal or professional punishment of homosexuals”) might not quite be what you think. I’m not sure what this ‘risk’ you refer to is, because other than a couple of personal anecdotes, nearly all the information we brought up at the session was publicly available. Rather, we wanted to create space for audience members who might have wanted to contribute, as was pointed out at the start of the session. So if you’re thinking about the risk of extrajudicial punishment, we do appreciate your (happily misplaced) concern, but were thinking more of everyone’s privacy (more on that later) rather than worrying about being ‘disappeared’ in the night.

What we should have done better was to convey why we requested that no recording be made, and that panelists should be consulted if they were quoted. This was not borne out of a fear of Chen Guangcheng or Ai Weiwei-style “repression” (that’s China, not Singapore)—it was simply our attempt at being judicious about and sensitive to the privacy of those who graciously consented to sharing personal experiences through us. We wanted to share those personal experiences in as free a way as we could, without dragging our friends into debates not of their choosing (whether at Yale or in Singapore). Besides, ‘Singapore Uncensored’ was born out of an email thread the week that the faculty resolution on Yale-NUS was passed—that is, we planned and organized the event in 14 crazy days, while we were working on term papers and preparing for finals. From the start we were concerned to get our voices heard before the end of term, and while the debate was still fresh. And of course, this was the first time any of us had ever organized an event resembling this. Because of our complete inexperience in dealing with media from both Singapore and the US, we were absolutely overwhelmed by the unexpected amount of media attention we had attracted, the number of constituencies we were speaking to, and the number of different audiences we would be heard by. Perhaps this request was a misjudgment on our part; the reasons behind it were certainly poorly communicated.

I must also offer my apologies for the failure of the conference call system. As has been pointed out, the session came together in just two weeks. Those of you who were present saw the results of such a rushed execution, in particular Yale’s conference call system which we and a Yale ITS technician on-site were unable to work, despite assurances from the tech people the day before. As a last-minute stopgap measure I paid for a Skype-to-landline connection to the conference call system on my Skype account, which some faculty members and a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education then attempted to call in to. I am deeply sorry that this failed to produce a satisfactory connection; we did all we could given the time we had. Again, it has been alleged that we wanted it to be this way. I have nothing to say to that, other than that if sincerity is consistently mistaken for dissimulation, and good faith for bad, then even the most sympathetic voices will eventually get disheartened and there is no basis for a conversation, no point in even having one.

And such a conversation remains important. If anything, this debate has exposed the deep anxieties of Yale College faculty (such as yourself) about operating in an unfamiliar environment. I don’t want to convince you that all your anxieties are unfounded. Rather, I see our role here as trying to contextualize these anxieties, addressing them where they are unfounded, and reinforcing those which resonate with us as Singaporeans.

I hope this has been of use to you.

Sincerely yours,
Rayner Teo

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  1. Kenneth K says

    I don’t get the rationale of your closed door policy, you stated that the main reason is to encourage people to speak up without fear of reprisal. However, it is apparent that the panellists have a recording of the session. On top of that, there will be a report submitted to the PSC. Does it mean there is some OB marker that can’t be crossed? Does it mean I would need to apply self-censorship? I don’t know about you, but if it were me, I would be wary of the reasons for such request and this certainly will not encourage me to speak freely.

    You mentioned that there is the fear that the participants and panellists might be quoted out of context and be involved into unnecessary debates which they don’t want. If that is the reason, then wouldn’t it be better to allow the audience to record instead so everyone will know what is really going on.

    • Rayner says

      Thanks for your questions, Kenneth. First of all, I think the recording issue has simply taken over the debate, which really should be about the many substantive issues arising from Yale-NUS operating in Singapore.

      Simply not having a recording policy might well have been the better option; I can’t tease out all the possibilities and iterations myself. However, one reason against it was that any of us might have misspoke in dealing with the complex issues under discussion. We had hoped that people would come to us, challenge us one on one on what we had said and in doing so, develop a conversation, rather than go straight out to the public domain – after all, our overriding concern was to engage the Yale community, not to talk to HuffPost, ST, or PSC. Specifically, we had hoped that, should anyone want to quote us in a report, they would speak to us first as a matter of good journalism.

      Back to your first point: fear of reprisal did not come up in organising the session, though in the letter I do indeed quote Professor Jill Campbell, who raised the spectre of “potential reprisals” – that’s her own speculation. When we found out that the PSC had requested for a report, it did not change our commitment to speak out one bit. As I pointed out in the letter, there are many innocent reasons why PSC might have wanted a report. We might have become more careful about making sure that our arguments were well-supported by hard facts, but that was something we would have done anyway.

  2. Raymond C says

    I am wondering why Chatham House Rule was not simply invoked?

    There are internationally accepted standards for off the record meetings. This would have simplifies quite a bit of the rules articulation.

  3. Rayner says

    Thanks for your comment, Raymond. In the course of organising the panel, the Chatham House Rule was indeed suggested, but in the course of our discussions was forgotten as we tried to figure out how best to engage the media while not diluting the message to our core audience: the Yale community. This was an oversight. We did not think so many steps ahead in the game, and had little idea how our policy would be interpreted should anyone choose to read between the lines.

  4. Raymond C: I guess Rayner has forgotten this, but another reason we didn’t use Chatham House rules was that we didn’t need or want to remain anonymous.

    Kenneth K: That’s a good point about recording (I think, can’t speak for the others here). I live, I learn.

  5. As the author of the Huffington Post account of the “Singapore UnCensored” panel to which Raynor Teo refers and which he kindly links above, I should say first that I never thought he’d been lying in bed all night worrying about how the panelists’ words would be interpreted in the media! Nor have I sought to “get into an eternal loop arguing over this,” as he puts it aptly, apropos the question of who did or did not report the session’s contents to whom. I can only encourage people to read the post, to which I made a few changes in response to criticisms from the panel’s moderator, Tse Yang Lim.

    I do insist that the “Singapore UnCensored” session’s ground rules were not appropriate, legitimate, or even necessary. But I should add that the Yale Daily News’ failure to present even a decently balanced account of the session — a failure I describe at length in my post — only deepened my own and others’ doubts about the intent behind the ground rules.

    It’s very understandable that panelists wanted to avoid being quoted out of
    context, but that’s a risk one takes in convening and speaking at a public meeting in a relatively open society. Let me explain what I mean.

    In America’s “open society,” the risks of being quoted out of context have
    both increased and decreased. They have increased because, owing both to new media and to new concentrations of wealth that give some people huge megaphones and others laryngitis as they strain to be heard, it is more likely that unscrupulous and/or desperate adversaries will pounce on a phrase or sentence and use it to advance a caricature. This has always been true in the United States to some extent: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton (who was killed in a duel over a matter of “honor” that involved public insults) were the subjects of relentless, scurrilous attacks in the press, not only upon their policies but upon their personal lives.

    The risks have decreased because, with so much fragmentation and cacaphony, it’s not very often that many people care enough to track down and establish the truth. The greatest danger to free speech in the “context” of an anarchically open society is not retribution but indifference.

    I do not defend such verbal and moral anarchy, although, as Yale’s
    Statement on Freedom of Expression (described in my post) makes clear, that anarchy is often a necessary and bearable price to pay for being able to discredit premises and assertions that would otherwise go unquestioned, especially if backed by great wealth and all it can buy.

    Although Americans’ legally equal and untrammeled right to free speech means little if my adversary has a megaphone while I have only laryngitis, there’s a more encouraging side to the matter: As George Orwell wrote, “Thought is not, like physical strength, dependent on the number of its agents… The words of one strong-minded man, addressed to the passions of a listening assembly, have more power than the vociferations of a thousand orators…Thought is an invisible and subtle power, that mocks all efforts of tyranny.”

    This has so often proved true — in colonial India, in South Africa, in Eastern Europe, and even, perhaps soon, in the U.S. A decade ago I tried to explore Orwell’s counter-intuitive insights in an essay about him and the perils of the liberal public sphere in America, of which I was despairing at the time. There’s still ample reason to be worried, but also ample reason to work as hard and as wisely as Gandhi, Mandela, Havel, and others sometimes did to keep channels and criticisms open against the pressures of wealth and political power.,%20and%20Ours,%20%28book%20chapter%202004%29.pdf

    • Raymond C says

      I can’t speak for the organisers of “Singapore Uncensored” but I believe the intent of the session was to assemble the stake holders of the Yale-NUS College to air their outstanding disagreements without attribution and try to address them. The desired outcome of the process would be some substantive resolution of these issues. I see no wrong in process. Recording the session sounds like a regrettable implementation mistake but just an aside with respects to the underlying intent.

      I believe the efforts of the Gang of Six to draft the debt reduction plan as well as that of the Gang of Sixteen used similar closed door process. This approach was taken because, to put it bluntly, open society as found in the US is unable to get any thing done. In fact, the 112th Congress elected by the People has been unable to get anything substantive bills passed as it is stuck in partisan grid lock. That not to say that the closed door process works all the time, the Gang of Sixteen being a case in point. The odds of successful resolution on the other hand is higher. The Gang of Six being of a positive outcome.

      To paraphrase your Orwell quote, the words of one strong-minded black President addressed to the passions of a listening assembly, have far less power than the vociferations of Fox News and a thousand superPACs. The era of FDR’s, a contemporary of Orwell, free society vs. fascist tyranny is very different one from today’s tea party vs. OWS in terms of getting important problems fixed in a timely fashion. The president’s bully pit isn’t what it use to be.

      Once again, I see the committees wisdom of holding a close door stake holder session considering the effects of current and future (at least for the current election cycle) media landscape in the US. A full open session would most like have lead to much acrimonious talking past each other leading no where.

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