On Friday, 11th February 2011, Yale Daily News published an article entitled “News’ View: Keep Yale out of Singapore – Our free-speech values – and our brand – will suffer“. The article begins with a lament that ‘the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rated Yale one of the worst colleges for free speech’.
How did it get there? Yale Press’ decision to censor cartoons of Muhammad, as well as the administration’s ‘mystifing decision’ to remove the word ‘sissies’ from a Harvard-Yale T-shirt, have apparently earned Yale this dubious honour. The writer of this article disagreed with both these decisions, because freedom of speech is exactly what it entails – sanctioning the publication of cartoons of Muhammad and the word ‘sissies’.
To this, pinkaboon commented, “I’m appalled at the fact that the writer suggested that Yale ought to allow cartoons of Mohammad. What you call free speech is slander. You are not respectful of the students here who don’t come from the same background as you. And if you can’t even do that, I don’t think you deserve a place in this institution.”
To which, SY10 responded, “In what world is a cartoon of Mohammad slander? Do you even know what slander is? Cartoons of Mohammad may be a violation of Islamic religious law, but last I checked, those of us who aren’t Muslims and are lucky enough to live in a country that doesn’t enforce Islamic law, have no obligation to abide by it.”
SY10’s response I think, captures the quintessence of a prevalent attitude one observes in the white, white West. In what world indeed, is a cartoon of Mohammad slander? SY10’s references to ‘law’ and ‘Islamic religious law’ are factually correct, I believe, but fail to take into account the discrepancy between the evolution of a nation-state’s legal system and the evolution of a nation-state’s society, given recent immigration trends.
I had mentioned about the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons Controversy in an earlier article, Much Ado about Freedom of Speech. In the case of Europe, I pointed out a hypocrisy, a double-standard, because on the one hand you have Holocaust Denial Laws which clearly indicate that an absolute ‘freedom of speech’ does not exist (not all, but in parts of Europe), yet the publication of the Muhammad Cartoons was justified on that same basis. Either stick to the principle of freedom of speech to its logical end, abolish laws like Holocaust Denial Laws and print both cartoons of Mohammad and anti-Semitic ones thereafter, (and put up with possible social fractures and tensions that result from it) or admit honestly that there are limits to the ‘freedom of speech’, and that with recent immigration patterns society, whether in Europe or in the US (the developed ‘West’) legal systems may not have caught up with societal changes.
In the case of the US, where there are no such Holocaust Denial Laws, it seems that from a purely legal perspective SY10 is right. Nevertheless, the dark history of African-Americans in the United States is a rather well-known fact, and contextualizes the kind of attitude we observe in SY10’s reaction. My philosophy professor at NUS once quipped, “One of my friends was telling me, people think that just because Barack Obama got elected president, they now have equality between the whites and blacks in the States. My friend then said, there will only be equality between both races when a black president as stupid as Bush gets elected into office.” George W. Bush, by the way, is a Yale alumni.
The writer carries on to argue the case against a Yale-Singapore tie-up:
“Even if local laws do not explicitly limit campus scholarship, self-censorship by students and faculty certainly will. Who would publish a fiery doctoral thesis in a country that metes out caning for minor offenses? A country that slanders and jails academics and authors for running foul of its government? Colonizing a Singaporean campus will not carve out a Western bubble — in the trials of British author Alan Shadrake and American spray-painter Michael Fay, the government has shown it will happily punish foreigners. And it will not create an Asian Ivy, nor somehow convince the Singaporean regime to change its ways. It will foster self-suppressing fear — or it will make martyrs.”
To this, Rayner Teo, a Singaporean Yalie, pointed out in his comment, “Doctoral theses, fiery or otherwise, will not be a feature of the proposed Yale-NUS college, which will be an undergraduate institution. Nor will faculty or students have any caning to fear, if they don’t engage in “minor offences” like gang robbery, rape, drug running or extortion. (This is a point of opinion, but I am unsure as to what the YDN considers a “minor offence”.)”
In addition, the writer of this YDN article seems to be slightly horrified that “the [Singaporean] government has shown it will happily punish foreigners”, but each sovereign nation-state has the right to punish foreigners if they have broken the law on their land. It is interesting too that the writer chose to use the word ‘colonizing’, as in ‘colonizing a Singapore campus’. Perhaps all American faculty should be above Singaporean law within the compounds of the ‘colonized’ campus.
Rayner Teo further comments, “I fully agree that you don’t have to have lived in a society to be able to criticize it; despite our cultural differences we have common standards of human decency, reasoning and respect. But at the same time, there is a real sense that Singapore and Singaporeans emphasize different values, and that this whole Yale-NUS proposal has shown up the gulf that exists between our conceptions of the good.
And beyond that, there has often been substantial misinformation on the part of YDN writers (aside from matters of opinion pertaining to what constitutes an “autocracy”, “regime” or “minor offences”, I’ve pointed out two purely factual errors in the article). This can only be attributed to dogged, persistent ignorance, or at best disinterest. What is the YDN serving?”
Indeed, what is YDN serving?
Somebody else in the comment thread likened Singapore to Mubarak’s Egypt, and pointed out that “[a]nother problem with Singapore’s regime is the legalization of marital rape. If a Yale professor went there with her husband, he could legally force her to have sex (as long as it wasn’t oral or anal sex, which is illegal anyway because it’s “sodomy”), and she would have no legal recourse. Yale shouldn’t put its faculty and students in the position of having to go to these kinds of places in order to advance their careers.” Certainly, if the Yale faculty member has broken Singaporean law on Singaporean land, then the legal system will deal with him/her. Similar treatment awaits any foreigner who breaks American law on American soil; or even out of American territory, as in cases of extraordinary rendition. We could go on listing dubious laws in each other’s statutes; but that would be a waste of time.
In conclusion, we know that Yale Daily News does not want Singapore (Singapore and NUS have conveniently become synonymous; not quite for Yale and the US, perks of being a world superpower). Singaporean Yalies like Rayner Teo must find themselves in an unsavoury situation, but I trust that the writers who run YDN are only a minority of the larger Yale community, and that our Singaporeans there are having an academically fruitful time. For me personally, such attitudes as evinced in this YDN article only serve as a reminder of the kind of world we live in, the ‘hard truths’ that face Singapore, if you will.