Yale-Singapore college criticism reignited by ban of film

The controversy over Yale University’s joint college with the National University of Singapore, in which critics charge that Yale should not be in cooperation with the city-state’s authoritarian regime, was recently reignited over a documentary banned by the government.

By Ed Stannard, New Haven Register Posted: 10/12/14, 6:37 PM EDT | Updated: 16 secs ago

NEW HAVEN >> The controversy over Yale University’s joint college with the National University of Singapore, in which critics charge that Yale should not be in cooperation with the city-state’s authoritarian regime, was recently reignited over a documentary banned by the government.

Yale-NUS had planned to show “To Singapore, with Love,” which features a number of Singaporean exiles, after notifying the Media Development Authority, which had rated the film “Not Allowed for All,” keeping it from public view but allowing its screening on university campuses.

To Yale University faculty, who had voiced their disapproval of the Yale-NUS venture after it was approved by the Yale Corporation, this was another sign that Yale should have stayed out of Singapore in the first place.

“Basically, it’s that Yale has a big emphasis on freedom of expression and it’s a very American freedom, it’s the First Amendment,” said James Sleeper, a lecturer on political science at Yale University and critic of the Yale-NUS project.

The problem, Sleeper said, is that, “Here we have Yale giving its name to a college … that actually subverts freedom of expression.”

A sore point in the dispute over “To Singapore, with Love,” is that Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis notified the MDA of plans to show the documentary.

“He calls up the censorship board and asks, ‘Can I show this on campus?’” said Christopher Miller, a Yale professor of French and African-American studies, who pointed to Lewis’ action as evidence that Yale-NUS does not have the academic freedom it claims.

“As far as I’m concerned, you can describe this as a tempest in a teapot (but) that reveals that the whole thing is not what it’s claimed to be, that it’s built on scare tactics,” Miller said.

Adding to the complexity of the issue, the filmmaker then said she had not agreed to the screening.

Fiona Soh Su-Chien, spokeswoman for Yale-NUS, issued a statement to the Register saying, “Tan Pin Pin (the filmmaker) has indicated she will not be holding any screenings in Singapore at this time. We respect her decision and hope to have the opportunity to share the film with our students when it becomes available for such viewing.”

Then, on Oct. 2, Pin Pin announced on her Facebook page that she had appealed the banning of “To Singapore, With Love” with the MDA, the Yale Daily News reported. The controversy continues over Yale’s involvement with a government many find repressive.

Singapore, a city-state of 5.4 million off the southern tip of Malaysia, purports to allow its citizens wide freedoms, but uses regulatory agencies and other means to limit them, say critics such as Sleeper.

“They have a system that stifles freedom of expression while pretending to honor it,” he said.

In 2012, Human Rights Watch criticized Yale’s willingness to negotiate academic freedom with the government of Singapore, “betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students at its new Singapore campus.”

Yale-NUS, whose first class started studies a year ago, is a joint venture in which graduates receive their degrees from the National University, not Yale. Yale’s faculty didn’t have a say in its formation, and after Yale-NUS was approved by the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing body, the faculty held a meeting about Yale’s cooperating with an authoritarian regime.

Finally, by a 100-69 vote, according to asiancorrespondent.com, the faculty registered “our concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore, host of Yale-National University of Singapore College.” The resolution urged Yale-NUS to uphold principles of nondiscrimination, civil liberty and political freedom on the Yale-NUS campus.

Christopher Miller is another critic of Yale-NUS. He said the faculty vote “expressed reservations and urged caution because of Singapore’s record on human rights.”

“To Singapore, with Love,” a documentary about Singaporean exiles, added fuel to the controversy over Yale-NUS’s presence in Singapore, where human rights, including the status of gays and lesbians, is considered severely restricted by many.

George Chauncey, professor of history and American studies, is chairman of LGBT studies at Yale and is a member of the Yale-NUS faculty advisory committee. He believes criticism of Singapore for its homosexuality policies is a “simplistic and misleading characterization.” While a “gross-indecency law” is a legacy of the British colonial era, said Chauncey, there is “a gay movement in Singapore which opposes it.”

“There’s a very extensive gay scene in Singapore,” said Chauncey. “There are probably more gay bars per capita in Singapore than there are in New York. … Lesbians and gay men are out to their families and co-workers.”

He believes Yale-NUS adds a positive voice to the debate. “I think the change on this issue is fundamentally going to be brought about by gay activists and their supporters in Singapore … but, that said, I do think (Yale-NUS) can play a positive role.”

Miller, however, said the visibility of gays and lesbians should not give the impression that they are not under oppression. “The phrase that I’ve been using, and it’s true, is it’s illegal to be a gay man in Singapore,” Miller said. According to Singapore’s penal code, “homosexual male conduct is illegal,” he said. “If anybody’s going to make a distinction between the conduct and the identity, I would hotly dispute that.”

The Singaporean regime operates subtly, by banning books and films, such as “The Kids are All Right,” which features a lesbian couple.

“It is enforced,” Miller said of the anti-sodomy law. “But the real import of the law has nothing to do with enforcement. It has to do with a climate that is created. It is a climate of intimidation and repression.”

Miller continued, “The situation in Singapore is certainly complex and it all, for me, goes to the fact that Yale should not be in such a place.”

Bryan Garsten, a professor of political science and co-chairman of the Yale-NUS Consultative Group, said of the venture: “The early signs are great. It’s on track to be one of the best liberal arts colleges in the world.”

Garsten said Yale-NUS’s notification to the MDA about “To Singapore, with Love” was simply “the college letting the MDA know that the film might be shown in this class. It’s a new institution and the National University of Singapore is a state university. There are definite contacts between the Education Ministry and the college. … The original agreement had always been that there was intellectual freedom” at Yale-NUS.”

Garsten said that, while so far “the protections for intellectual freedom on campus … have been strong enough,” he too has concerns “about certain freedoms in Singapore,” and voted for the resolution that the faculty should have had more input. But he also pointed out that students study LGBT issues and have access to banned books such as those by Salman Rushdie.

“I think having a space for intellectually serious conversation about these issues in Singapore is a good thing,” Garsten said. “This is a place where students and faculty from Singapore, Asia, the United States and elsewhere can have these conversations across the intellectual divide.”

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