Thursday, September 23, 2010

It Will Be Different Teaching The Liberal Arts In Singapore: No Pizza, and The Occasional Caning

I don't know who else cares about the deal to start a new liberal arts college by 2013 that Yale is cutting with the National University of Singapore , but as a loyal Old Blue and a Shoreline neighbor, Tenured Radical is interested.  What is particularly odd is that the Yale faculty couldn't care less.  According to Nora Caplan-Bricker at the Yale Daily News (otherwise known as the Oldest College Daily), when invited to a special meeting to discuss the new venture, "Of the more than 2,000 professors who received an e-mail invitation, roughly 25 attended the event, which was closed to the press, and several of those were on Yale-NUS planning committees. Eleven of the 17 professors contacted about the proposed college said they had not read much of the University’s literature about it, did not know enough to comment or did not have reservations about the plans."

President Richard Levin is a little concerned about academic freedom, "since the Singaporean government does not guarantee free speech for all its citizens."  Well make that any of its citizens, Rick, and according to the State Department, caning is "a routine punishment for numerous offenses." Preventive detention is also routine. For you DKE bros considering a rampage on your semester abroad? That means being jailed indefinitely without being charged.  Just saying.  If you go to prison for any length of time, expect conditions to be "Spartan," although they will "meet international standards." That said, "a member of an opposition party who served a 5-week prison sentence in 2002 said after his release that he and other sick bay inmates had been chained to their beds at night. The Government responded that the inmates were restrained to minimize the risk of hurting themselves, medical staff, or other inmates."

Any more questions from the faculty on this one?  OK, let's move on then.

Item two on the agenda:  should Yale be doing business in, and sending its employees to,  a country where being gay is illegal?  No one seems to be asking this question, but it does seem relevant unless the university simply plans to use NUS as a cash cow and send no Yale students, administrators or faculty there.  Although rarely prosecuted, homosexual acts, otherwise known as "gross indecency," are punishable by two years in prison, and probably a good caning too (the caning for homosexuality wasn't mentioned on the British High Commission website, undoubtedly because it would cause English travelers to go there in droves.)  In 2007, the government considered voiding that law and didn't, despite good advice from the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, that "homosexuals are creative writers, dancers. If we want creative people, then we have to put up with their idiosyncrasies."  I've never heard anal sex described as an idiosyncrasy, but you know what?  I like it!

Freedom of the press?  Not really, so don't expect a branch of the OCD any time soon. The last State Department report noted that "Government pressure to conform resulted in the practice of self-censorship among journalists. Government leaders continued to utilize court proceedings and defamation suits against political opponents and critics. These suits, which have consistently been decided in favor of government plaintiffs, chilled political speech and action and created a perception that the ruling party used the judicial system for political purposes."

Other than that, Singapore is a lovely country, with the fastest growing economy in the world, where everyone can be expected to pay full tuition -- er, I mean, the Yale spirit is sure to thrive.  And don't get me wrong:  I would go there in a shot.  But does anybody but me think it strange that so many universities are starting branches in wealthy, semi-totalitarian countries and nobody is talking about the lack of civil liberties as a real problem?

14 comments:

Belle said...

I've been doing a gig there for a couple of years. It's a weird place. Try teaching politics in a society that discourages thinking political thoughts!

I have had gay students in class - but most students are good little followers. They've changed a lot in the past five years - although MM Lee still runs things. Don't let the Mentor Minister title fool you - he's still very much the boss. The government has convinced the population that high living standards are more important than anything else. So change will be a long time coming. And nobody seems to mind. Rather, many unis from around the world seem delighted to sacrifice on the altar of the almighty Sing dollar.

shaz said...

I think American universities are realizing the huge amounts of cash they are leaving on the table, compared to countries like Australia, where international students paying high tuitions provide an enormous cash influx (supposedly education of international students counts as one of Australia's biggest exports).

Aside from your legitimate concerns about Singapore, I wonder whether the interest in overseas campuses is partly driven by the desire to avoid what has happened in Australia: some Australians are now very concerned over the 'takeover' of Unis by non-Aussies, and (supposed) corresponding drop in quality.

In other words, I wouldn't be surprised if locating marquis Unis overseas isn't a way to avoid anti-immigration, zenophobic concerns while still raking in money.

But hey, maybe I'm having a cynical day.

Ahistoricality said...

TR, I'm surprised that you're surprised by this development: there's a long-standing tradition in higher education of administrative initiatives that create implicit (sometimes explicit) faculty obligations without consultation. It stems from the mobility of administrators: an initiative like this makes a dean a likely candidate for provost or President elsewhere, and they get out before the proverbial bad ending.

munshi said...

I agree with your comments TR.
But, on the other hand, international faculty based in Singapore ARE playing a role in changing certain attitudes. I teach here (in this economy we're all told to take the first job we get, right?) and regularly find opportunities to challenge assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, "truth", official histories etc in my classes. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but it seems that it's better to engage and challenge from within than to disengage totally and remain in my own comfort zone. But thank you for raising the issue on your blog. It's nice to know someone outside this island cares enough to mention it!

justin said...

NYU had to deal with similar issues with the Abu Dhabi location, as well as stuff with gender and religion (some of which was legitimate, some of which seemed a bit racist). I don't think there was ever a productive resolution or even discussion, but am a bit skeptical about the framework of the question. In the US categories of exclusion aren't usually as stark or legally codified, but they're still there, and I'm not sure it's a good path to start down to exceptionalize Singapore (or Abu Dhabi or wherever) like this.

Anonymous said...

While not intending to defend Singapore in the slightest, it is worth saying that there are of course certain policies of the US administration in areas like foreign policy (eg. war in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone hits in Pakistan), justice (eg. Guantanamo Bay), the death penalty (eg. Virginia), immigration (eg Arizona) health care (unequal access, difficulty of obtaining abortions in some states) as well as disturbing societal trends such as increased religious intolerance (eg Texas textbook controversy) that an academic moving to the US might consider. Of course the crucial difference is that US based academics can criticize such policies and trends, even if they can't prevent them.

Tenured Radical said...

I am all for international exchange, and believe strongly in the free exchange of ideas. But that is not the case internally in Singapore or Abu Dhabi and, although the United States is not a beacon of tolerance by any means, the equation of "we have intolerance, they have intolerance, it's all really the same" strikes me as wrong-headed. Radical critiques of human rights and free speech in the United States are crucial at this historical moment, but at no point should they simply void important critiques of other countries -- like censorship, imprisoning people for being gay, and corporal punishment for even minor offenses.

But here's another question? I have several quite brilliant friends/colleagues who have graduated from NUS and gone on to take doctorates at Oxbridge. As far as I can tell, it is a fine university on its own. So what do they need Yale for?

Answer: these projects are not about intellectual exchange or an appreciation of other cultures. They are about money from the US side, and they are about the desire of elites in these countries to integrate fully into a global capitalist elite. Which would, slightly more abstractly, make them about money from the other side as well.

In other words, its a classic colonial project in a neoliberal mode.

I'm not saying the projects should be aborted, but I do think Levin is being highly disingenuous about restrictions on speech being a little bitty problem. It's a huge problem for an academic enterprise.

Dr. Koshary said...

I agree that this is an interesting and thorny problem for academics to consider, should they have an opportunity for such a job. Clearly, as you say, money is driving this particular project. However, I'm less convinced that it's a good idea to say, "Academics ought to shun countries that criminalize homosexuality and free speech." I certainly understand that perspective, and there is certainly a practical element of self-preservation in that for openly gay academics. (I draw the line at applying for jobs that put me in harm's way, and I don't blame anyone else for doing the same.) But just about any country in which I might conduct research has laws against homosexuality, enforced or not. Likewise, almost any country in which I might conduct research is ruled by a corrupt authoritarian regime that doesn't care in the slightest for freedom of speech. If I were offered a job at a university in one of these states, I'd have to weigh the prospects of getting into hot water by doing my job well, but I don't see the benefit in scratching them off the list from the start. I have some pretty outspoken friends and colleagues in such places, and they manage to blow their students' minds on occasion without going to jail. And, I should add, not all of them are heterosexual.

I would actually be more concerned if it were to become clear that the university expected people to pay their big money and then stroll to a degree. If Yale's NUS project were just a way to certify people as 'educated' without actually educating them, I'd probably be fired before the first semester was up.

Tenured Radical said...

Khoshary: agreed on the gay thing - and I don't believe in shunning. But I do think that when these projects are created, the very real challenges ought to be raised and made a matter for pubic debate. EG, Levin might acknowledge that Yale's queer faculty and students will not be able to participate in this venture on an equal basis, and he should not minimize (as he does) the conditions of censorship in Singapore and its consequences for the free exchange of ideas.

Urban Exile said...

Shunning is a poor word choice I think. Shunning is an organized personal act against an individual, meant to isolate and alienate him from the pleasure of social interaction.

I don't think it's possible to shun a country which, after all, has no feelings to speak of.

Just saying.

Dr. Koshary said...

@TR: Readily agreed, the problem in this instance is that Yale is partnering up for apparently mercenary reasons, and therefore isn't being forthright with its own academicians about practical limits to professional and personal civil liberties that they would expect (and demand!) on Yale's home turf. It's an interesting thought experiment to ponder the legal consequences of starting a venture like this and then having to say to queer faculty and students, "Um, sorry, you might not be cut out for this." That might be a worthwhile counter-argument to my earlier point about the existence of good universities and good students in repressive places. Surely this venture would place more legal onus on Yale's shoulders than simply arranging an exchange program...?

Needlelover said...

Nice article, and touche/ on the caning joke, but I had a little problem with this (below) in one of your follow-ups:

"...they are about the desire of elites in these countries to integrate fully into a global capitalist elite"

You say that as if it's fine for Americans to have a capitalist elite, but not for other countries. I presume you actually mean it's preferable if everyone were a little more conscious of how a capitalist elite operates, but it comes across as "well, we screwed up over here, and it's resulted in enormous power being concentrated in the hands of a few, but let's not have others from abroad in on the mistake." Isn't it just as much 'neo-liberal colonialism' to dictate what other countries' citizens can do with their resources, especially when it comes to joining an elite?

Btw, the reason faculty didn't turn up to the meeting, as I'm sure you know, is that they don't really want to go to Singapore. Maybe for one semester when amidst writers' block, two at a pinch, but no one really enjoys these things. It's got nothing to do with free speech, at least on the faculty side. Maybe it should, but that's a different matter.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

It's time we gave up this ridiculous fantasy that universities are any different from corporations. They exist to amass power and money. Period.

You may not like this, but the horse left the barn a longe fucken tyme ago.

Anonymous said...

Actually the most useful thing US academics and especially anyone who has the privilege to be associated with Yale, could do in this case is to kick up an almighty fuss about the lack of equivalent free speech/equal rights in S'pore. Judging by past experience (faculty at a certain British university did so) foreign criticism is the one thing that the govt takes notice of, and in the wake of that last experience, certain laws were relaxed in implementation, if not in the letter.