Sunday, April 15, 2012

Yale-NUS College

A few people have asked me what I think about the controversy surrounding Yale-NUS college, so it's probably worth blogging about.

The resolution seems to be based on an outdated impression of Singapore, as things are moving in a pretty good direction here. New readers may be interested in taking a look at my liveblog of Singapore election results last year. As far as I can tell, the election revealed that the civil liberties situation is moving forward pretty well here -- lots of my students were forcefully criticizing the ruling party on Facebook under their real names, and I don't think any of them got any grief about it. The opposition did better than they ever had before -- admittedly, winning 6 out of 87 seats in Parliament isn't much, but it's an outcome that they were quite pleased with, and it says good things about the future viability of opposition politics. I was especially happy that the district (Aljunied GRC) where Lee Kuan Yew tried to intimidate the voters into voting for the PAP turned against them. "If you try to win elections by threatening the voters, you will lose" is a good precedent to set in a new democracy.

It's partly because my teaching and research concerns fairly abstract issues, but I've never had any personal academic freedom worries here in Singapore. There might be problems if you were working on something where you were directly evaluating Singapore policymakers, and I don't blame people at Yale for worrying about that. But I haven't ever heard any of my colleagues worry about whether the things they're teaching in political philosophy will rub university bureaucrats or the government the wrong way.

I don't blame the Yale faculty for being unhappy about the LGBT rights situation -- male same-sex activity is officially illegal, though the laws are hardly ever enforced. I hope the Yale resolution strengthens the hand of local activists and helps Singapore move in the right direction on this issue. But here it's important to remember that lots of states were in the same position 10 years ago.

I guess the big source of annoyance I have about the resolution is that Singapore is doing better than America on a variety of left-wing issues. Singapore's public transit system is a lot better for the environment than what you'd expect in an American city. Singapore provides good housing to its citizens -- 80% of them live in government-owned housing, and it's generally pretty high quality. Singapore pursues a sensible and restrained foreign policy, and didn't start anything like the Iraq War. Really, I'd be more worried about Arizona, where a state legislator is bragging about how he's going to end ethnic studies programs at universities, than Singapore. At least here, things are going in the right direction.

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