Singapore—The cancellation of a module at Yale-NUS was discussed in Parliament on Monday, October 7, with Education Minister Ong Ye Kung asserting that academic freedom must have its limits, and that the concept “cannot be carte blanche for anyone to misuse an academic institution for political advocacy, for this would undermine the institution’s academic standards and public standing.”
One of the ministers who took part in the discussion was Nominated Minister of Parliament (NMP) Walter Theseira, who is an Associate Professor of Economics at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
In his Facebook account the following day, Mr Theseira asserted that a liberal education could be good for the country and addressed the issue that it is “something to be feared.”
In my adjournment motion speech on "A Liberal Education and Corruption of the Youth in Singapore" (guess that…
He made the following points:
First, that liberal education does not corrupt young people “by fomenting subversion or dissent,” on the contrary, he said, “it encourages students to adopt the liberal principles of critical thinking, open-mindedness, and critical inquiry – to examine thoughts and actions, of others and of oneself.”
Secondly, he warned against being close-minded in order to protect students from “bad influences,” ultimately, he encouraged the youth to decide for themselves concerning the artistic work of playwright Alfian Sa’at, who was supposed to have led the cancelled module.
He wrote, “Just because Alfian Sa’at, a playwright, may not have the expertise to curate “Dialogue and Dissent” from an academically rigorous perspective (although administrative issues also intervened), does not mean his creative works have no relevance to Singapore, or that he should be barred from engaging the youth. Some may feel his work is ‘undesirable’, but I urge people to decide for themselves.”
Another point that Mr Theseira made is the necessity for “challenging and critical questions” to be continued to be posed to Singapore’s universities, “and accept that critical work need not be perfect to be useful.”
He added that expecting perfection would only lead to scholarship that would “simply” regurgitate “safe, received wisdom,” which would not be good either for the country or for the students themselves.
Finally, he posited that the value of a liberal education is that it is “it is a foundation for lifelong learning and citizenship,” that should not only be for the elite.
He wrote, “We must accept that there is a right to question ideas, beliefs, and policies, and to have our own questioned, critically and respectfully. Far from corrupting the youth, a liberal education provides strength for the future.”
The full text of his speech can be found here.
NMP Anthea Ong, took part in the discussion as well, asking the government to re-consider its attitude toward youth advocacy.
On her Facebook page, she stood up for the playwright, writing that she “raised her hand yesterday wanting so much to ask the Minister if we will also present Alfian Sa’at’s side of the story to the House, in the name of ‘evenhandedness’. #tobuildademocraticsociety #soastoachieveevenhandedness
Unfortunately, she didn’t catch the Speaker’s eyes for him to call her out because there were quite a number of hand raised. She doesn’t know Alfian personally but thinks well of how he’s able to bring the sentiments of segments of Singapore so artfully into his poems and plays.
Art is, and has always been in the history of mankind, the common space for us to understand how those who are different to us feel, live and love. Whether around us or far from us. Whether ‘Cooling Off Day’ or ‘Hamlet’. Whether ‘Money No Enough’ or ‘Joker’. Whether Kit Chan or Lady Gaga. Because art is heART.”/ TISG