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Show Singaporeans some respect

This article was originally published on the Yale Daily News on the 9th of April 2012. It is published here with the permission of the author, Ng E-Ching, with some minor grammatical changes. It has also been translated into Chinese at the Lianhe Zaobao; a scanned version of the Chinese article is available here.

Last month, the Singaporean student newspaper Kent Ridge Common published an excellent column by Koh Choon Hwee, who confessed herself 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.” She then asked pointedly whether Singapore should reconsider the partnership with Yale, given “the quality of arguments proffered by some of her tenured best.”

I believe Yalies can think, but I can see why my fellow Singaporeans might suspect otherwise. The key problem is that Yalies and Singaporeans have fundamentally different assumptions about political culture.

Americans are outraged at certain Singaporean laws. Singaporeans just break them — and usually get away with it. Homosexual intercourse is illegal in Singapore the way underage drinking is illegal at Yale. The police have never bothered my openly gay brother, writer-activist Ng Yi-Sheng, despite his public gender-bending antics and book of coming-out stories with real names and faces, which became a Singaporean bestseller.

As for censorship, I read Wired’s description of Singapore as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” in a high school class after the magazine was banned, and I later assigned the piece to my own students. There are sure-fire ways to invite trouble in Singapore, at least if you’re not protected by the Yale-NUS guarantee of academic freedom. But usually, 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.

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’. Singaporeans ridicule the ruling party’s self-protective censorship, but when it attempted to liberalize film censorship in 1991, public outcry forced it to backtrack.

It’s hard for Singaporeans to imagine wanting the right to bear arms if it would mean worrying about getting home safely after partying all night. Qur’an-burning is illegal in Singapore, and we like it that way. We prioritize our values differently, and different doesn’t mean wrong. At least, that’s what I learned from a Yale liberal arts education.

Unfortunately, nine years at Yale still leave me trying, in all sincerity, to understand the logic of well-meaning professors who say they support both Yale-NUS and Thursday’s resolution. To a Singaporean, the resolution looks like a request to be kicked out of the country. I see some attempt at tact, but it didn’t translate culturally. 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.

The resolution also annoys the Singaporean in the street, who already thought Yale was getting a sweetheart deal — free campus, free staff, free rein to run pedagogical experiments on free subjects, not even the risk of putting the Yale name on the diploma.

Unlike President Levin and others in the Yale administration, I don’t think it’s imperialistic for Yalies to want to help Singapore change. But given the political and cultural constraints, the best way for Yale to effect change is not by stressing differences, but by showing Singaporeans how much we have in common. Singaporean gay movement Pink Dot has borrowed selectively from the U.S. gay marriage and adoption debates. By stressing family relationships and acceptance of diversity — both values at the core of Singaporean identity — last year’s rally drew over 10,000 people.

If enough Singaporean voters want change, the government will respond. After last year’s election exposed cabinet ministers’ pay as a huge grievance for the 99 percent, pay scales were promptly overhauled. It may seem strange to American observers, but our ruling party does care about popular sentiment, despite holding power for over 50 years.

You don’t have to like the way Singapore works, and I don’t want to trivialize the heroism of political dissidents like J.B. Jeyaretnam, who was sued into bankruptcy by the ruling party, but disliking it doesn’t make our political culture any less real, and to change it, you have to start from that reality.

Singapore is not an isolationist or stagnant society — it’s extremely open to foreign influences, as long as they’re seen as our own choice, not the preoccupations of hecklers. The aims of the faculty resolution can best be achieved by simply having a Yale presence in Singapore, not preaching but demonstrating — with steadfastness but also humility — what is admirable about Yale.

E-Ching Ng is a 2001 graduate of Morse College and a fifth-year graduate student in linguistics.

1 Comment

  1. Law Zhiyang says

    if singaporeans don’t care about academic freedom; since it’s not one of their priorities, why join in a discussion on it? and in a discussion on academic freedom, how can one over look the outrageous case of Alan Shadrake; the british author who was throw in jail just last year for merely writing a book critical of the singapore government. could this not have happened to anyone in singapore who did the same? maybe he should have got some tips from the author of the article above. even more recently, the government have threatened legal actions against the Temasek Review Emeritus for remarks made by its’ users on the website, indicating that, the same kind of tactics against critics is now being carried to the internet. there seems to be impressions that the country is progressing and gaining grounds on the issue of freedom of speech; but such cases show that we are dealing with quite an erratic government, and it’s impossible to predict, who, whether foreign or local, is going to be targeted next. if the freedom of speech is not protected by law (this is curiously implied to be western in style by the article and also the government; translated: it’s not for us), then these incidents will continue to happen, like a sword hanging over the heads of all on this land. i don’t want to believe that such injustices are the will of the people (i am strongly against it). these are certainly committed in the name of singaporeans, but why should we let them? do we think that allowing the government to have their way with these issues is going to guarantee peace and prosperity in the country (i don’t know what convoluted argument could lead to this conclusion)? if it’s not the will of singaporeans to perpetuate such injustices and that the government is abusing our good name, we should make strong comments against it, instead of adopting a lukewarm attitude, or even worse, argued that this is in fact a feature of our culture. but if, like the article said, this is indeed part of the singaporean identity, then we should be condemned by all civil societies; do not even speak of respect.

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