Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leading Yale professor opposes Singapore tie-up

Having written extensively about the limits on academic freedom in Singapore, I was rather surprised to see that Yale was in talks with the National University of Singapore about setting up a "liberal arts college" in the restrictive city state. Especially as the UK's Warwick University abandoned an earlier proposal to set up a university in Singapore because of concerns about freedom of speech.

It seems I was not the only one. James C. Scott, one of the leading Southeast Asia-focused academics of the modern era and a professor of political science at Yale, has spoken out against the proposal, according to a story for the Yale Daily News. The college newspaper reported him as saying:

"There’s unlikely to be a cataclysmic moment in which Yale would have to decide instantly whether to leave or stay. It’s more like to be a very gradual diminution of freedom of maneuver in which there’s not obviously some decisive threshold.”

Scott, the story reports, says Yale would be better off setting up a campus in Malaysia, the Philippines or Thailand, which also fall far short of democratic ideals but allow significantly more criticism of the establishment than Singapore.

In his most famous work, Scott argued that popular uprisings in Southeast Asia were driven by "The Moral Economy of the Peasant" - that poor farmers believed they had a right to basic subsistence and would rebel if it was denied them.

Will the Singapore government's particular view of a moral economy, that education (among other things) should be subservient to the politico-economic goals of the ruling caste, drive an uprising among Yale professors?



  1. James Scott might be famous, but he seems pretty naive of Southeast Asia if he thinks that that Malaysia, Philippines or Thailand are going to be better environments for a university. Thailand, for one, has lèse majesté laws, so any political discussion of the monarchy could get the professor and students arrested. I believe Malaysia is similar to Singapore, in terms of political climate, although its leaders are more tolerant of dissenting views. The Philippines probably has the closest equivalent to an American-style democracy, but does not offer the infrastructure for such a project

  2. [...] speech a concern for Yale-Singapore college - My sketchbook: Yale and NUS tie up - The Asia File: Leading Yale professor opposes Singapore tie-up [Thanks [...]

  3. I am an American academic who has lived and taught in Singapore for well over a decade, in both local universities and in an American college program here that went under about 10 years back. The latter experience left those of us faculty members who taught in the program and had to be let go severely demoralized. I have serious doubts about the Yale initiative in Singapore for four reasons:

    1. An intellectual/psychic time sink: I agree with James Scott that over time, it's likely that the Yale constituency will have to make more and more compromises in order to carry on here. As the situation intensifies, you can bet that at least 50% of the staff/students will spend at least 50% of their time focused on the negativities of this situation, and it will only get worse. The "Yale in NUS" prospect is a potential waste of both faculty and student resources that could better be put towards other kinds of cross-cultural and experiential learning. And if/when Yale pulls out, it will be a very depressing, frustrating experience for all concerned.

    2. An inherently status-limiting pursuit for people who are invested in achieving higher and higher status: both the faculty and students involved in the Yale initiative will no doubt have ambitious plans for achieving all that is embodied in the Yale name. They will find out that in Singapore, the humanities and social sciences simply cannot achieve the kind of social recognition and financial reward associated with the science and business spheres. This may be happening everywhere, but it’s particularly acute in Singapore.

    3. An uncongenial environment for the personal downtime and reflection that go along with a liberal arts education: try to find somewhere peaceful and quiet to ruminate on the big questions in life in Singapore, away from campus. Good luck. Over the decade-and-a-half that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the opportunities to go for long, thoughtful walks diminish as space becomes increasingly chopped up and commercialized, and it’s even hard to find a relatively quiet place just to read or discuss off-campus where you don’t have to pay through the nose. These days I think I'm living in a glitzy-glam corporate park, alternating with feeling like a lab rat in a social engineering experiment (well, Singapore has always had that lab-rat feeling, I must admit).

    4. An unnecessary reduplication of effort: NUS is already doing as good of a job as Yale probably ever could in the social sciences and humanities sphere for this particular setting, and the other major universities here have much to offer as well. Singapore students can go out, and non-Singaporean students can come in. Really, Yale, what’s the point?

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