Yale-NUS course on dissent; carte blanche not the way

You can’t dress a wolf in sheep’s clothing and expect people not to notice. 

The Yale-NUS course on dissent is now being questioned in Parliament and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has responded to the house. In summary, there is no restrain on academic freedom, inquiry and rigour. The issue at hand is with the people who are conducting the course and the agenda that they are trying to advance.

It appears that they are tucking nefarious motives under the blanket called academic freedom.

“Academic freedom cannot be carte blanche for anyone to misuse an academic institution for political advocacy. (Academic institutions) should not work with speakers and instructors who have been convicted of public order-related offences, or who are working with political advocacy group funded by foreigners or who show openly disloyalty to Singapore.”

Ong emphasised that this was not in anyway restraining academic freedom.

“Political dissent is certainly a legitimate topic of academic inquiry…but thinking critically is quite different from unthinkingly critical, and any course offered by our autonomous universities must be up to the mark,” he added.

Nominated MP Associate Professor Walter Theseira noted that Ong had inadvertently outlined criteria that would describe what would make a suitable educator. Theseira asked if this meant that autonomous universities should hold a “blacklist”.

Ong dismissed the idea. “I don’t think it’s practical to have a blacklist. We have to leave room for universities to exercise judgment. Does a person who is an activist therefore (is) not suitable to teach? I think no”, he said.

In his address, the Minister said that the issue here was that the activists had muddled education and political activism. In a classroom environment, the two had to be kept separate. “And so long as this is kept separate, there’s actually no problem”.

However, Ong said that the breed of political activism a person engages in matters. “Remember, in many American universities, if someone on the faculty is sexist, or racist, you will not be engaged, no matter how good your research is, how good your teaching is.”

“In Hollywood, we see the same thing. If you are convicted of a sexual offence, even if you are Oscar, Academy Award winner, the studios won’t engage you. And therefore it’s not just the content of the course, but also what the instructor stands for.”

The program in question is “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”, it is summarised as a how-to-protest course scheduled to run from the 29th of September to the 5th of October. It would have been led by poet/playwright Alfian Sa’at and featured speakers such as activists Kirsten Han, Thum Ping Tjin and Seelan Palay.

All are activists whom have had run-ins with the authorities. Their projects, such as the alternative news blog New Naratiff have been said to have received significant funding from foreign entities. In 2018, Palay was fined for taking part in a public procession without a permit

PJ Thum famously pledged his loyalty to “Malaya”, saying their Independence Day should be Singapore’s also.

Kirsten wants 500,000 people to take to the streets:

And as for Alfian? Look at the poems he writes. Here are two for your consideration. One is titled “Singapore is not my country” and the other “Death of a Tyrant”, quite likely alluding to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew because it is a public fact Alfian does not like Lee Kuan Yew. During a time of national mourning, Alfian posted a satire on his Facebook page condemning what he viewed as exaggerated eulogies that popularise the “fishing village myth” of Singapore, the idea that Mr Lee “conjured gleaming skyscrapers out of a primordial swamp”.

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