Human rights activists are urging Yale students and faculty to renew pressure on the university over its decision to launch a satellite campus in Singapore.
“Were I a student at Yale, I’d be camped outside the administration office,” said Robert Amsterdam, an international human rights lawyer who represents Singaporean political opposition leader Chee Soon Juan. He spoke by Skype to a group assembled at Yale Law School to discuss human rights abuses in Singapore.
“The Yale campus in Singapore is a serious debasement of educational values,” Amsterdam said. “Any university, including Yale, should stand for free expression if for nothing else.”
Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore drew intense criticism when it was announced several years ago. Faculty and student protesters in New Haven, as well as a host of critics worldwide, contended Yale was tacitly lending legitimacy to a political regime that severely constricts personal freedoms.
For example, Singapore allows political protest only within a designated “Speakers’ Corner.” Homosexuality is against the law and there have been widespread accusations of retribution against anyone who speaks out against the government.
Yale, for its part, has said the new Yale-NUS campus provides a cultural and academic exchange that will be intellectually beneficial for all parties. Yale also said it negotiated guarantees of academic freedom for students and faculty in Singapore.
Classes began at Yale-NUS last fall, and protest has died down since then.
“Sooner or later, someone is going to do something on the Yale-NUS campus that the authorities don’t like,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division for the group Human Rights Watch. Like Amsterdam, Robertson was invited to speak by the Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights.
Robertson said Yale negotiated a “bad deal” with the Singaporean government, not even demanding a space for public protest on campus. “Yale basically folded early, because it saw there was a lot of money to be made there,” Robertson said.
Bryan Garsten, a Yale professor who was chairman of the inaugural Yale-NUS curriculum committee, pointed out that Yale-NUS faculty are free to assign any book for class. He also said every student there has written an essay on gay marriage and faculty in Singapore are allowed to invite any speakers they choose to visit campus.
But Amsterdam said his client, Chee Soon Juan, has been banned from Yale-NUS. He challenged students and professors in New Haven to demand that Chee Soon Juan be invited to speak at Yale-NUS. He also suggested that Yale law students “adopt” Singaporean political prisoners by offering to write court briefs on their behalf.
“There has to be full-on pressure, and it has to come from New Haven,” Amsterdam said.
Robertson agreed. He said Human Rights Watch would be “happy” to work with students on a series of human rights benchmarks for Singapore and present them to Yale’s leadership.
“Basically, restart the push here for Yale to do what it should have done before they went into Singapore,” Robertson said.