Student Activism in Singapore: The Role Yale-NUS College Plays in the Framework of Calibrated Coercion

I. Student activism in illiberal democracy

In 2018, the Economist Intelligence Unit rated Singapore as a flawed democracy.[1] Though the government claims itself to be a functioning representative democracy, the fact that the government imposes significant limitations on civil liberties and suppresses its outspoken critics in the name of the national interest and public order suggests that it rather falls somewhere between authoritarian and democratic regimes. Fared Zakaria labels such a regime as illiberal democracy—a regime in which the constitutional system of checks and balances becomes ineffective despite there supposedly being free and fair elections.[2] In fact, Amnesty International reports that the laws in Singapore including but not limited to the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, and the Public Order Act limit freedom of expression and assembly; these laws are used to “intimidate and punish increasingly outspoken critics and opposition activists.”[3] For instance, under the Public Order Act, outdoor gatherings of five or more people for any “cause-related activity” require a police permit; promoting “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes” is punishable under the Sedition Act.[4]The government often uses these laws to file lawsuits against its opposition politicians, journalists, and bloggers so as to disqualify them from continuing their work. In its early days, the government used physical force to remove the opposition; however, this tactic has been changing in recent days.

In Freedom from the Press, Cherian George observes that the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), is moving away from exercising physical means of coercion and instead transitioning into more targeted and behind-the-scenes controls of their critics.[5] What is unique about this strategy, which he calls calibrated coercion, is that after the government neutralizes dissenters by force and introduces legislation to prevent further occurrence of dissent, it “co-opts and rewards those who are prepared to partner the PAP”, which promotes self-censorship and compliance at the same time.[6] The PAP government has applied the strategy to student activism in Singapore, which has been a threat to their rule. In its earlier days, the government has carried out multiple crackdowns on student movements to round up student activists as well as those with “radical” views.[7] The government then introduced the University of Singapore Amendment Bill in 1976 to limit the number of political associations to just one per university. At the same time, the government has built “a highly competitive exam meritocracy and an attractive overseas scholarship system, encouraging high-flying students to embrace more careerist definitions of a good education.”[8]  In this piece, I argue that the establishment of Yale-NUS College can be understood as another subtle strategic attempt by the repressive PAP government to thoroughly co-opt and reward some of the brightest “radical” student activists whose beliefs are not respected by the current laws so as to ensure their compliance and contribution to the consolidation of the future PAP rule. I argue that it does so in four steps: first, the college attracts those “radical” student activists, which allows the government to contain and monitor them in one place. Second, it allows them to sharpen their ideas and abilities through critical discourse. Third, it shapes them to become highly conscious of the bounds of the law and operate within them by allowing them to explore and actively discuss the “gray space”. Fourth, the government co-opts and rewards those who contribute their sharpened ideas and talent to the PAP rule by offering scholarships and job positions.

Though this calibrated coercion of student activism seems illiberal and manipulative, the establishment of Yale-NUS College still signals a slight move towards more democracy. Beng-Huat Chua, a Singaporean sociologist, argues that democracy in Singapore operates under communitarian ideology. That is, in comparison to the liberal democracies in the West, which centers around individualism, communitarian democracy prioritizes the pursuit of the national interest, not necessary the individual liberties.[9] The government currently assumes the role of defining the national interest; however, Chua states that for a communitarian democracy to work, a democratic consensus-making mechanism needs to be institutionalized when defining the national interest.[10] Chua points out to the declining electoral support for the PAP in recent years, which he argues is indicative of the lack of consensus around the national interest defined by the PAP.[11]The PAP may loose support if it does not respond effectively to the diverse opinions and interests of the population—this is where Yale-NUS College comes into the picture. Though the college can be seen as part of the PAP’s strategy to suppress “radical” student activists, it can also be seen as an informal channel through which the students can provide critical opinions to the PAP government in a constructive, cooperative manner. In other words, the establishment of Yale-NUS College can be seen as the government’s move to better reflect the diversity of opinions in the population so as to ensure consolidation of the PAP rule in the future. More specifically, it is to incorporate liberal or/and progressive views increasingly being shared by the younger generation so that the PAP government can adapt gradually, smoothly and flexibly to the rapidly changing societal norms in the globalizing world.

II. The College: how it all started

The PAP government first proposed the idea of establishing a liberal arts college with a foreign educational institution in Singapore when it started the review of Singapore’s university sector in 2007.[12] The Committee on the Expansion of the University Sector states that some of the major aims of establishing a liberal arts college in Singapore are 1) to provide diverse educational paths so as to retain talent in Singapore, which was in response to the increasing interest in liberal arts education among the brightest students and 2) to “offer an intellectually invigorating environment and an additional avenue to develop independent and critical thinkers who can go on to become leaders in the economic, social and political fields” since they believe that liberal arts’ emphasis on effective communication and critical thinking will enable students to think innovatively and thrive in the rapidly changing world.[13] When the partnership between NUS and Yale was announced in 2011, however, there were strong pushbacks from both overseas and home. Many of the Yale faculty expressed concerns over the fact that a college that carries Yale’s name would be established in a place with the history of the lack of respect for civil and political rights and over their belief that the restrictions on freedom would detract from students’ learning.[14][15][16] Some Singaporeans also recognized the tension and criticized the venture from the opposite angle. For instance, the MOE report notes that Michael Palmer, a former Member of Parliament for the PAP “expressed the view that Singapore was not politically mature enough to accommodate the viewpoints of LAC faculty and students, which might sometimes be radical.”[17][18] Despite such an apparent conflict of values and expected controversies in the future, the new liberal arts college was founded in 2013.

III. The role of the College in the framework of calibrated coercion: attraction, containment, and monitoring of the “radical” elites

The first aim stated in the MOE report—the aim of providing diverse education pathways so as to retain talent—reveals the PAP government’s keen awareness of the growing young population who subscribe to values that are not respected in the existing law; they are those students whom the PAP may describe as having “radical” views—for instance, the advocates for LGBTQ rights. If they are left to themselves, the PAP will not only lose its electoral support, but the sense of resentment may also grow and create social unrest, posing serious threats to the stability of the PAP rule. By establishing Yale-NUS College, it enables the government to attract some of the best students who would normally seek university education in the West. Among those are the “radical” elites whose values are not respected by the current Singapore law. Jiang Haolie ’21, coordinator of the Community for Advocacy and Political Education at Yale-NUS College, states, “It is a reality that Yale-NUS attracts a certain Western-style, progressive slant to things.”[19] In fact, LGBTG activism as well as environmental activism at Yale-US College have become very visible in and outside of the college, assuming the leading role for the greater Singapore community. Apart from gathering certain types of students, the College also plays a role in containing them, which can be observed from the sense of containment widely shared by the students and expressed by multiple entries on the school newspaper, the Octant. Terrence Anthony Wang ’20 likens the so-called “Yale-NUS Bubble” to a gated community[20]; Yip Jia Qi ’20 humorously describes it as “an invisible wall” that “imprisons us both physically and culturally, yet most of the time we aren’t even aware of it.”[21] He attributes the existence of the bubble to “Yale-NUS’s awesomeness” or the fact that students have everything they need at the college.[22] Finally, the presence of the voice of the government in many of the controversial events held at the college demonstrates the close monitoring of the students’ activities by the government. The incident of the cancellation of the Week 7 LAB, “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore” shows that the government will intervene whenever they believe the college truly crossed the boundary.[23]

IV. The role of the College in the framework of calibrated coercion: tempering and sharpening of “radical” voices

The second aim of establishing a liberal arts college stated in the MOE report highlights that the PAP government strongly associates liberal arts education with leadership. “Becoming leaders in the political field”[24] does not mean any political party; the PAP is looking to nurture future political leaders who know how to operate within the current political sensitibities and at the same time are able to respond flexibly to the chaging societal norms and diverse opinions of Singaporeans. Considering this aim, the response given by the Minister of State, Lui Tuck Yew, to the worry above posed by Michael Palmer that the students’ views may become too radical for Singapore is revealing and intriguing. Yew says, “One of the purposes of establishing a liberal arts college is to develop future leaders who are thoughtful, with independent ideas and robust views sharpened through the cut and thrust of daily intellectual discourse. Tempered by the experience and mentorship of their professors, these students will be well placed to become leaders working for the betterment of society.”[25] Apparent in this comment is the idea that students at this college will go through some form of transformation, or more specifically that radical views will be “tempered” and “sharpened” to become views that are deradicalized. As Elizabeth Koh’23 writes that at Yale-NUS College, students openly and critically discuss “topics like climate change, the LGBTQI+ community, and consent culture,”[26] issues deemed as taboo or too “radical” in Singapore are actively discussed at the college. Through intensive critical discourse, some students may come to reazlie that their stance was indeed too radical and unreasonable; others may be able to deepen their understanding of the issue as well as what is actually at stake. Critical discourse at Yale-NUS College transofrms what might have been blatant “radical” views into something more defensible and complex in nature, equipting future political leaders with a valuable tool to navigate effectively the political sensibilities and the rapidly changing world.

V. The role of the College in the framework of calibrated coercion: navigating the “gray space”

In addition to having opportunities to sharpen their views through critical discourse, the college offers student activists a testing ground in which they can explore and learn by themselves how to operate effectively and pragmatically within the constraints of the law and still make their voices heard. When it comes to political freedom in relation to academic freedom, there is a popular narrative to depict Yale-NUS College as a “gray space” operating between the pressure from both the liberal and progressive Yale University and the repressive Singapore authority.[27] It is indeed a unique space in which students are given a more blurred boundary of freedom than that of their fellow Singaporeans in other educational institutions. Since the establishment of the college, students at Yale-NUS College have held multiple politically controversial events on campus, testing and negotiating this boundary of freedom.[28][29] It has become increasingly obvious that the occurrences of those constant attempts and the recurring discussions about academic freedom themselves serve as an educational experience for student activists. Daryl Yang’19 illustrates this point well in an Octant article. He writes,

For those of us who are interested to utilise this gray space to advocate and agitate for social change, the burden then is upon us to tread carefully and thoughtfully. It is up to us to push those boundaries to expand the gray space, and I think Shawn Hoo ’20 was right when he said that “we can push boundaries, even if it just to find out where the borders of acceptability and unacceptability are drawn…This can be both frustrating and exciting for those of us involved in this project of (re)building the vibrant student activism culture that Singapore had in the 1960s and 1970s. One wrong move, and the lines can be very quickly redrawn and the gray space significantly shriveled to our own detriment. However, given our “social and political responsibilities,” as Hoo puts it, we should continue to carefully navigate the shifting lines of academic freedom to pursue whatever social causes that we believe in.[30]

Through his engagement with politically controversial activities, he has learned the pragmatic ways to fight for the causes he believes in. This may be described as the tactic known as pragmatic resistance, which is the concept developed by NUS Law Professor Lynette Chua in the context of the Singaporean gay rights movement. He writes, “Activists adjust their tactics according to changes in formal law and cultural norms, and push the limits of those norms while simultaneously adhering to them. Although they aspire toward legal reform, they refrain from tactics that directly confront the state, such as street protests, and avoid being seen as a threat to existing formal arrangements of power.”[31] The discussions surrounding academic freedom and Yale-NUS being the “gray space” seem to provide students a lesson on the value of this pragmatic resistance.

VI. The role of the College in the framework of calibrated coercion: co-optation and rewarding of tempered “radical” voices.

The three roles of Yale-NUS College described above—the existence of an attractive place with “awesome” facilities and culture in which controversial topics are freely discussed, tempering and sharping of student activists’ voices, and teaching of pragmatic resistance—all serve to soften their critical stance against the government. In addition to the three roles of the college described above, generous scholarships and job offerings ensure that student activists will be co-opted to provide valuable and constructive insights to the PAP rule. It is important to point out the existence of many government scholars at Yale-NUS College who would go on to become civil servants after graduation. Many of them receive a very generous amount, some of them receiving monthly stipends in addition to their full tuition fees. A few of the college’s alumni who were known to be critical of the government have accepted attractive job offerings by the government or organizations that are strongly associated with it. As manipulative as these may sound, the college can be understood as an enabling channel offered by the PAP government to allow student activists to polish their ideas and talents and to slowly incorporate their views that are considered “radical” now from inside, provided that student activists acts accordingly.

VII. Work from within: beyond compliance 

I have tried to show that Yale-NUS College may facilitate is the compliance on the part of the “radical” elites, yet at the same time it offers a channel through which their views can be constructively incorporated into the governance of Singapore to reflect the voices of the younger generation. However, this would only be true so far as their voices ultimately contribute to the stable governance of Singapore by the PAP. That is, the incorporation of their voices allows the PAP to maintain the support from its electorate and respond to the rapid societal changes without having student activists violently revolting against the government and destroying their status quo. When describing the opposition politicians in Singapore, the activist blogger Roy Ngerng writes that the critics who comply are those who “need to preserve themselves for Singaporeans…And they know that they needed to play the game.”[32] For those who fail to do so, there still awaits a series of defamation lawsuits and bankruptcy. Singapore Democratic Party’s leader Chee Soon Juan advocates that whenever civil liberties are severely violated, the expression of pain is necessary for a healthy functioning democracy.[33] Even if one chooses to be inside, the weight of his words must not be forgotten or neglected.

[1] The Economist Intelligence Unit (8 January 2019). “Democracy Index 2018: Me Too?”. Retrieved from http://www.eiu.com/public/thankyou_download.aspx?activity=download&campaignid=democracy2018.

[2] Fareed Zakaria (November–December 1997). “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”. Foreign Affairs.

[3] “Amnesty International Report 2010”, 2010, 286, Retrieved from https://wayback.archive-it.org/all/20140329014910/http://report2010.amnesty.org/sites/default/files/AIR2010_AZ_EN.pdf#page=233

[4] Ibid, 286

[5] Cherian George (2012) Freedom from the press, Singapore: NUS Press, 94.

[6] Ibid., 99.

[7] Ibid., 100.

[8] Ibid., 101.

[9] Beng-Huat Chua (1995) Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore, London: Routledge, 184-202 (Chapter 9).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ministry of Education Singapore, “Report of the Committee on the Expansion of the University Sector: Greater Choice, More Room to Excel, Final Report,” 2008.

[13] Ibid., 3.

[14] Seyla Benhabib, “Why I oppose Yale in Singapore”, Yale Daily News, May 18, 2011.

[15] Human Rights Watch, “Singapore: Yale to Curtail Rights on New Campus”, July 19, 2012.

[16] Gavan Gideon & Tapley Stephenson, “Unease grows over freedoms at Yale-NUS”, Yale Daily News, July 20, 2012.

[17] “Report of the Committee on the Expansion of the University Sector: Greater Choice, More Room to Excel, Final Report,” Ministry of Education Singapore, 2008, 41.

[18] “FY 2008 Committee of Supply Debate 2nd Reply by Minister of State RAdm Lui Tuck Yew on University Education,” National Archives of Singapore, 2008, 16-17.

[19] Elizabeth Koh, “Spilling The (Bubble) Tea,” The Octant, Oct 5, 2019.

[20] Terence Anthony Wang, “Revisiting The Yale-NUS Bubble,” The Octant, Feb 10, 2017.

[21] Yip Jia Qi, “Bursting Out of The Yale-NUS Bubble,” The Octant, Sept 16, 2016.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Parliamentary Replies: Yale-NUS College’s withdrawal of a project”, Ministry of Education Singapore, Oct 7, 2019.

[24] Ministry of Education Singapore, “Report of the Committee on the Expansion of the University Sector: Greater Choice, More Room to Excel, Final Report,” 2008, 3.

[25]  “FY 2008 Committee of Supply Debate 2nd Reply by Minister of State RAdm Lui Tuck Yew on University Education,” National Archives of Singapore, 2008, 16-17.

[26] Elizabeth Koh, “Spilling The (Bubble) Tea,” The Octant, Oct 5, 2019.

[27] Amanda Leong, “The Yale-NUS Gray Space,” The Octant, Dec 15, 2017.

[28] Shawn Hoo, “Designated Parks: Notes On Academic Freedom,” The Octant, Feb 19, 2017.

[29] Minsoo Bae, “Behind The Scenes: Organizing Controversial Events at Yale-NUS,” The Octant, Mar 14, 2017.

[30] Daryl Yang, “The Promise of Academic Freedom at Yale-NUS,” The Octant, Mar 23, 2018.

[31] “What should student activism look like in a liberal arts college in Singapore?,” CAPE, Aug 11, 2018.

[32] Roy Ngerng, “I am Tired. I Do Not Know if I Can Still Carry On the Fight, If It’s Just Me.,” The Heart Truths, Nov 10, 2014.

[33] Chee Soon Juan, Democratically Speaking, Singapore: Chee Soon Juan, 2012, 103.

Works Cited

Amanda Leong, “The Yale-NUS Gray Space,” The Octant, Dec 15, 2017.

“Amnesty International Report 2010”, 2010, 286, Retrieved from https://wayback.archive-it.org/all/20140329014910/http://report2010.amnesty.org/sites/default/files/AIR2010_AZ_EN.pdf#page=233

Beng-Huat Chua (1995) Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore, London: Routledge, 184-202 (Chapter 9).

Cherian George (2012) Freedom from the press, Singapore: NUS Press, 94.

Chee Soon Juan, Democratically Speaking, Singapore: Chee Soon Juan, 2012, 103.

Daryl Yang, “The Promise of Academic Freedom at Yale-NUS,” The Octant, Mar 23, 2018.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (8 January 2019). “Democracy Index 2018: Me Too?”. Retrieved from http://www.eiu.com/public/thankyou_download.aspx?activity=download&campaignid=democracy2018.

Elizabeth Koh, “Spilling The (Bubble) Tea,” The Octant, Oct 5, 2019.

Fareed Zakaria (November–December 1997). “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”. Foreign Affairs

“FY 2008 Committee of Supply Debate 2nd Reply by Minister of State RAdm Lui Tuck Yew  on University Education,” National Archives of Singapore, 2008, 16-17.

Gavan Gideon & Tapley Stephenson, “Unease grows over freedoms at Yale-NUS”, Yale  Daily News, July 20, 2012.

Human Rights Watch, “Singapore: Yale to Curtail Rights on New Campus”, July 19, 2012.

Terence Anthony Wang, “Revisiting The Yale-NUS Bubble,” The Octant, Feb 10, 2017.

“Report of the Committee on the Expansion of the University Sector: Greater Choice, More Room to Excel, Final Report,” Ministry of Education Singapore, 2008, 41.

Ministry of Education Singapore, “Report of the Committee on the Expansion of the

University Sector: Greater Choice, More Room to Excel, Final Report,” 2008.

Minsoo Bae, “Behind The Scenes: Organizing Controversial Events at Yale-NUS,” The

Octant, Mar 14, 2017.

“Parliamentary Replies: Yale-NUS College’s withdrawal of a project”, Ministry of Education

Singapore, Oct 7, 2019.

Seyla Benhabib, “Why I oppose Yale in Singapore”, Yale Daily News, May 18, 2011.

Shawn Hoo, “Designated Parks: Notes On Academic Freedom,” The Octant, Feb 19, 2017.

“What should student activism look like in a liberal arts college in Singapore?,” CAPE, Aug  11, 2018.

Yip Jia Qi, “Bursting Out of The Yale-NUS Bubble,” The Octant, Sept 16, 2016.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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