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On Yale-NUS course cancellation: “We are committed to operating within Singapore laws” – Tan Tai Yong

While Prof Tan noted that dissent and protest are "legitimate objects of study and investigation" in any country, he said the course did not adequately cover a range of perspectives.

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A course which is part of a week-long programme and part of the curriculum for first-year students at the liberal arts college at Yale-NUS was cancelled Friday, two weeks prior to its actual commencement.

Titled Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore, it was supposed to be led by Singapore playwright Alfian Sa’at.

President of the college Prof Tan Tai Yong said on Tuesday (Sep 17) that while Yale-NUS College “remains fully committed to academic freedom, it is also committed to operating within Singapore laws.”

The cancellation was due mainly to the school’s discovery and realisation that the proposed activities were not in line with the concept and learning objectives earlier approved by the curriculum committee.

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Prof Tan said that planned activities in the course schedule would have placed students at risk for breaking the law, and for “incurring legal liabilities.” This included a workshop on designing protest signs followed by “an external tour on topography of protest.”

“This is not acceptable to the college as we are committed to operating within Singapore laws – a position set out by our founding President back in 2012,” Prof Tan said.

“The college continues to be fully committed to academic freedom – the freedom to open inquiry, discussion and study. This is distinct from undertaking activities that may cross the line of what is legally allowed in Singapore,” he added.

“All institutions have to operate within boundaries of legally permissible activity, and that is true in all countries.”

Nevertheless, Prof Tan noted that dissent and protest are “legitimate objects of study and investigation” in any country.

“The project was meant to be an examination or study of protest that would expose students to the wide range of perspectives in Singapore, something essential for an academic consideration of the topic,” he said.

“However, the project in question did not adequately cover the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent.”

According to the Senior Administration officer of the Yale-NUS student-run publication The Octant, the programme “risked exposing students to legal liabilities, advanced partisan political interests, and lacked critical engagement.”

“The fundamental reason why we took the decision we did was risk mitigation, particularly for international students, who could lose their student pass for engaging in political activity,” Prof Tan told The Octant.

NUS and the Ministry of Education (MOE) supported Yale-NUS’s decision to cancel the course. However, the president of Yale University, Peter Salovey, had earlier expressed his concerns following the course cancellation.

“In founding and working with our Singaporean colleagues on Yale-NUS, Yale has insisted on the values of academic freedom and open inquiry, which have been central to the college and have inspired outstanding work by faculty, students, and staff: Yale-NUS has become a model of innovation in liberal arts education in Asia,” Prof Salovey said in a statement.

“Any action that might threaten these values is of serious concern, and we at Yale need to gain a better understanding of this decision.”

The 16 students who were affected by the cancellation were asked to take other programmes.

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