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On schools being used for politics: “Thinking critically is different from being unthinkingly critical” – Ong Ye Kung

The minister advocated that "Academic freedom 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"

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Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung maintains that academic institutions are venues for learning and not for anyone to practice one’s political advocacy. It should not be utilised for partisan politics.

This statement was in response to queries from Members of Parliament (MPs) on the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) stand regarding the cancellation of a controversial programme entitled Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore at Yale-NUS College in September.

The minister advocated that “Academic freedom 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.”

On the argument that academic freedom grants universities the licence to run such programmes, and that dissent is good for democracies and “hence so is teaching students to become dissidents,” Mr Ong countered saying, “I much prefer the test of an ordinary Singaporean exercising common sense. He would readily conclude that taking into consideration all the elements and all the personalities involved, this is a programme that was filled with motives and objectives other than learning and education.”

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“And MOE’s stand is that we cannot have such activity in our schools or institutes of higher learning. Political conscientisation is not the taxpayer’s idea of what education means.”

The controversial course

The course was part of the curriculum for first-year students at the liberal arts college and was to have been led by Singapore playwright Alfian Sa’at. The week-long programme, formerly titled Dissent and Resistance in Singapore, was cancelled on Sep 13, two weeks before it was due to begin.

Yale University has released a statement saying that the cancellation of the course was justified due to concerns about the academic rigour, the legal risk to students and the political balance, however, Mr Alfian disputed that statement through a series of Facebook posts.

Activities and speakers

Aside from a placard-making workshop and visit to Speakers’ Corner, the programme included dialogues with Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Seelan Palay, who have both been convicted of public order-related offences, said Mr Ong.

Talks with Ms Kirsten Han and Dr PJ Thum, founders of New Naratif, were also part of the curriculum.

Mr Ong said: “These individuals responsible for the programme are entitled to their views and feelings about Singapore. They can write about them, even vent them on social media, and even gain a following.

“But we have to decide whether we allow such forms of political resistance free rein in our educational institutions, and even taught as compulsory, credit-bearing programmes.”

Mr Ong also said that Mr Alfian wrote a poem in 1998 titled  Singapore You Are Not My Country, and the writer has “a lot of misgivings about Singapore, including our race relations”.

“This is a poem, and we might concede some artistic licence. But Mr Alfian Sa’at continues this attitude consistently in his activism,” said Mr Ong.

Mr Alfian saw his project as “political conscientisation” which is aimed at making people conscious of and take action against the oppression in their lives, he said.

He added that academic institutions should not undertake activities that expose their students to the risk of breaking the law.

“They should not work with speakers and instructors who have been convicted of public order-related offences, or who are working with political advocacy groups funded by foreigners, or who show openly, disloyalty to Singapore.”

Academic freedom and political dissent

Mr Ong also highlighted that MOE and the autonomous universities value academic freedom and that political dissent is a legitimate topic of academic inquiry.

Adding that many students read and assess works by figures like Lenin and Mao Zedong, he said: “It would also be valuable for students in the social sciences to examine critically present day issues, such as the causes and implications of protests against climate change or globalisation, or the demonstrations currently happening in Hong Kong.

“Students can and should also discuss the implications of such political developments for a small country like Singapore.”

A liberal arts school like Yale-NUS has a place in the Singapore education landscape, he stated.

“In fact, in all our autonomous universities, there is an increasing focus on interdisciplinary learning and development of critical thinking skills in students,” he added.

“But thinking critically is quite different from being unthinkingly critical, and any course offered by our autonomous universities must be up to mark. Otherwise it does not deserve to be part of a liberal arts programme.”

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar questioned if MOE will be exercising “greater scrutiny” over Yale-NUS, its programmes and lecturers.

“The withdrawal of this project does not affect the partnership, I think the standard of this project is so far off the mark that both sides agree there’s no implications on academic freedom,” Mr Ong replied. -/TISG

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