Singapore—Alfian Sa’at, the playwright who has found himself in the spotlight for several weeks now since his planned Yale-NUS module on dissent was canceled, has asked for a ‘favour’ from his supporters—specifically for them to not make ‘derogatory comments’ about Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.
Mr Ong made a speech in Parliament on Monday, October 7, wherein he discussed the issue of the cancellation of Mr Alfian’s module, saying that academic freedom also needs limits.
“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”, the Minister said.
The main issue, he said, was that the module “may be used to conduct partisan political activities to sow dissent against the government is not unfounded. MOE (the Ministry of Education) had that concern too when we saw the itinerary of the ‘Dissent and resistance’ project.”
The Education Minister also read an excerpt from Mr Alfian’s poem, Singapore You Are Not My Country. Mr Ong commented that despite allowing for “some artistic licence”, the playwright “continues this attitude consistently in his activism,” giving such examples as when Mr Alfian said of the defeat of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in the May 2018 elections, that “juxtaposed…favourably against Singapore, and dismissed the fear of ‘chaos in the streets, clashes with riot police, traffic at a standstill’”.
Many of Mr Alfian’s supporters took to social media to defend him, with several posting the poem Mr Ong had quoted in full, to show its context.
Mr Alfian also took to Facebook to air his side, writing out the full line that the Education Minister quoted in his speech.
A reporter asks for my response to this segment of Mr Ong’s speech:“And as for Mr Alfian Sa’at himself, in 1998 he…
“Do not raise your voice against me,
I am not afraid of your anthem
although the lyrics are still bleeding from
the bark of my sapless heart.”
And, while he said he “generally” didn’t “like explaining my own poems,” he wrote,
Just stopping on the word ‘anthem’ might suggest that I am somehow rejecting symbols of the state.
But the whole line makes clear that I have grown up with the anthem as a Singaporean, that it bleeds from my heart, and that in spite of saying ‘I am not afraid of your anthem’ (bravado) I am actually afraid of hearing it and having it rouse patriotic feelings in me. And I am afraid of this patriotic love because it is so involuntarily, it comes from a primordial and irresistible place from deep inside.
I am afraid of these volcanic feelings because I want to protect myself from loving something too much.”
He ended his post by asking, “The honourable Minister talks about the importance of academic freedom on campus in Singapore. Now one asks, what about freedom of expression in the arts?”
The following morning, however, writing from Finland, the playwright has requested that his supporters refrain from badmouthing Mr Ong.
Good morning Finland! And thank you everyone for all your messages. Some of you who are feeling angry or upset, can…
“Some of you who are feeling angry or upset, can I ask for a favour? Please do not make derogatory comments about the Education Minister….
At the end of the Minister’s speech, he mentions ‘In some societies, individuals are more concerned about how far they can extend their fists; but Singaporeans worry about when our fists will reach other people’s noses.’ I believe this is an adaptation of the aphorism: ‘your right to swing your fists ends where my nose begin.’
I completely agree that whatever we do, we should not hit other people’s noses. And I take this to mean that the exercise of our rights, including our rights to criticism, should not cause harm—bodily or otherwise—to another individual.
So I’d like to make an appeal here for commenters to avoid making their criticisms personal. You can direct your criticisms instead at policies, programs, agendas, ideologies. You can question how the government has chosen to define ‘academic freedom’. Those things don’t have noses.”
Read related: Alfian Sa’at tells his side of the story on the Yale-NUS module cancellation