Columns on yale’s venture in singapore; on singapore’s regime; and on liberal education in illiberal societies

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Singapore Migrants Riot, Websites Chill, but Yale-in-Singapore Keeps Warm

jim sleeper


Lecturer in Political Science, Yale University

Yesterday a South China Morning Post account of a riot by Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore noted that "Singapore is persisting with a four-year campaign to reduce its reliance on foreign workers, after years of open immigration policy led to voter discontent over increased competition for housing, jobs and education. The move has led to a labour shortage and pushed up wages, prompting some companies to seek cheaper locations."

A video of the riot posted by the government-controlled Straits Times predictably emphasized lawlessness and re-establishing control, but not the riot's likely causes, other than to vow that the government will "investigate" them.

But last summer the Wall Street Journal ran a 5-part series on a strike by migrant Chinese bus drivers in Singapore who felt they'd been cheated in wages and forced to live in miserable conditions. More than 25 of them were promptly deported.

Also last summer, workers building the Yale-National University of Singapore College's new campus were kept on the job even as air pollution rose beyond acceptable safety standards, again focusing attention on working conditions in Singapore.

You might think that someone in the government would have learned something by now without requiring a new commission to "investigate" the causes.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary-general of the tiny opposition Reform Party, tells me that although government-controlled media and spokesmen blame the riot "on the availability of alcohol and racial stereotyping of Indians as peculiarly susceptible to alcohol,... the real reason is that the PAP's growth strategy is bound up with the exploitation of cheap labour rather than raising wages of SIngaporeans. These workers apparently earn as little as US$14 per day which is not much more than they were getting thirty years ago! Plus they are exploited by middlemen and deeply in debt. ...No wonder they feel they have nothing to lose."

And no wonder the riot has produced the frantic yet already-stale government response, including using Gurkhas, who are basically foreign mercenaries, to quell this disturbance by other foreigners. Inevitably, we'll also hear renewed calls for "Singapore for Singaporeans."

The pattern in Singapore isn't as egregious as in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, more than 60 percent of whose populations are migrant workers living in virtual indentured servitude. But Singapore's ruling party will be increasingly hard put to keep the lid on this discontent, and while that explains recent efforts to reduce the proportion of migrant laborers in the population, it also suggests how difficult it will be to reduce income inequality without turning the new world order's go-go investors into "Going, going, gone" ones.

Not only isn't the government saying much about these dimensions of the Little India riot. It's also warning internet sites not to spread rumors about the riots, and it has been intensifying its crackdown on internet sites, notes Cherian George the distinguished Singaporean scholar of press freedom whose rejection for tenure at Nanyang Technical University was protested internationally.

"After trying to impose unnecessarily onerous registration requirements on two sites, one of them,, has decided not to comply," George writes. "The [Singapore government's] Media Development Authority's response: 'Since Breakfast Network has decided not to submit the registration form, and will therefore not be complying with the registration notification, MDA will require that Breakfast Network cease its online service.'"

George judges that the government's self-described "light touch" regulation of the internet has now been superseded by a heavier hand.

The fallout from these abuses of labor and freedom of speech casts a long shadow on Yale-NUS' hopes to become an international hub for liberal education. Nearly 70 percent of the new college's students may be Singaporeans, if you include permanent residents of Singapore who aren't citizens (the official figure is that 62 percent of Yale-NUS students are Singaporeans). People keep asking why Yale has lent its name and energy to this venture.

Why did Yale even inflate the numbers of Yale-NUS applicants from around the world last year by enabling all applicants to Yale College in New Haven to apply simultaneously to Yale-NUS by doing nothing more than checking a box? The answers to such questions are still secret, in that Yale and NUS keep secret the terms of their agreement, signed and sealed before Yale's faculty had any say in it.

The Yale College Faculty in New Haven voted this week to establish an elected faculty Senate for the first time in the institution's 312-year history. At the meeting, the distinguished Southeast Asian Studies scholar James Scott rose to remind resistant, prevaricating administrators that establishing a Senate must entail a power shift, not least because Yale-NUS was created without faculty deliberation or decision-making.

Yale's new president, Peter Salovey, should not appoint a faculty committee to scope out the new senate's powers. The faculty should elect colleagues who indicate their philosophical and policy inclinations. Yes, dear professorial moderates: The governance of universities involves differences between faculty and administration about who should have power to decide certain questions, as retired Harvard President Derek Bok has made amply clear in his new Higher Education in America and as he told me in an interview that I reported here in Huffington Post.

The question of who deliberates and decides is important, as Singaporeans themselves know well. Americans shouldn't be learning and copying from Singapore in this matter. Yet they are, and this is what Salovey must prove Yale will not do.

Singapore has its own history and challenges. In facing them it has made itself an attractive "port of call" and entrepot for ships coming from and going to other places. But Singapore's own problems are going to get bigger. Even its successes owe much to its geopolitical situation and its tiny size, which make it too politically anomalous to be a model for large liberal-democratic republics.

In other words, we critics of Yale's venture in this increasingly troubled island aren't preoccupied with Singapore's sins but with Yale's misjudgments in accommodating itself so readily to them in a joint venture bearing its name. As we challenge those accommodations, we are not being moralistic and passing judgment on Singapore, as its defensive apologists often accuse us critics of doing. We are criticizing the judgment of Levin and four current or recent Yale trustees -- Charles Goodyear IV, Charles Ellis, G. Leonard Baker, who have been longtime investors and advisers in Singapore, and Fareed Zakaria, the former Yale trustee who has touted Singapore as a model for economic liberalization that produces political liberalization.

We want to know what these leaders thought they were doing. We sense that they launched Yale on a grand misadventure that -- like the repeal of American laws that had prevented bankers from behaving like casino operators, or like the launching of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - seemed noble and even triumphant at first but looked myopic and worse before long.

Recall the original enthusiasm for the Iraq venture as a leader in democracy promotion and nation-building. So swept up in the nobility of that venture was the columnist David Brooks that he promoted it while teaching at Yale in the fall semester of 2002, in an article for the Yale Herald, and that he kept his son Joshua up late to watch the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down by U.S. troops in Baghdad in March of 2003. In 2004, Brooks, supporting George W. Bush, announced on PBS that Bush's opponent John Kerry hadn't been able to pass "the Joshua test" because he'd been introduced to Joshua but hadn't connected with him, "and anyone who can't connect with at 10-year-old boy can't connect with the American electorate."

How wonderful the Iraq War and Bush's re-election seemed to Brooks and many others teaching at Yale back then! How mercilessly they tweaked feckless liberals who wrote angry columns denouncing both ventures! But Brooks may have gotten a bit more than he'd wished for when Joshua graduated high school and joined the Marines and soon afterward entered the University of Indiana, Class of 2014. Brooks reports that Joshua has loved Indiana, but the father, whose love-hate obsession with the Ivy League is well-known, was back at Yale last year teaching a course on "Humility."

Far be it from me and other critics of Yale's venture in Singapore to predict consequences similar to those of American elites' other recent misadventures. I have not predicted explosive scandals, strikes, or other conflicts at Yale-NUS. What I do fear is that, at the same time that disturbances like the Chinese bus drivers' strike and the Little India riot unfold, we're witnessing an increasingly seductive, tight convergence of state-capitalist modes of social control in the lives of more privileged residents of both the U.S. and Singapore.

I mean the kind of social control described in William Dobson's The Dictator's Learning Curve, which shows how self-censorship spreads when "fear leaves no fingerprints." I also mean the softer control symbolized in a recent decision by The Brookings Institution, a once-noble Washington think tank headed by a Yale graduate and former deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, to accept hundreds of millions of dollars from Singaporean sources eager to burnish the cloudy reputation of the country's founder, Lee Kuan Yew, by naming a chair in Southeast Asian Studies for Lee - the first time Brookings has named a chair for a political leader rather than simply for a donor.

Normally I'd favor naming academic posts and buildings for public figures, rather than donors whose only distinction is their largesse. But the public leaders should represent the values of the institution that's honoring them. The elder Lee has quite a few smooth, even slick, neoliberal American apologists these days, and his role in Singapore's founding and development is well known. But he hasn't enough democratic nerve ends in his body - he doesn't even believe in "one man, one vote" - to be honored even by the cash-hungry Brookings.(I'll find another occasion to unpack Lee's record (and his apologists' rationalizations) as well as the Brookings money.)

Harvard's Bok isn't one of Lee's apologists. "I had my own run-in with Lee kuan Yew some years ago when the government in Singapore jailed the young head of the Harvard Club for consorting with the wrong people. I wrote in protest to Lee and was surprised to receive a letter of several typewritten pages from him trying to persuade me that Asian values are different from those in the United States" -- a notion so discredited in contexts like this, as I've explained here, that Lee himself has since backed off of it. "Nothing in that experience would tempt me to try to establish a Harvard College in Singapore," Bok wrote me.

I sketched my worries about the all-too-smooth convergences between Singapore and the U.S. in a column that ran both here and in the independent Singapore website Tremeritus three months ago, so I won't repeat the rest of those worries here.

I and most critics of Yale-NUS hope that its hand-picked, inaugural class of 157 students and its equally smart, idealistic faculty will have experiences as rewarding as those that Yale journalists visiting Yale-NUS in its first month of classes described in celebratory reports here and here.

But I urge every Yale-NUS student to read about Mae Holland, the bright, wide-eyed protagonist of Dave Eggers' new, 1984'ish novel The Circle, (here's an excerpt that ran in the New York Times.) And I hope that they'll do something that neither she nor anyone else in the novel was able to do: use liberal education to ensure that they aren't skipping too lightly up a garden path, as she did, into an enticing but soulless Orwellian circle of neoliberal enslavement that the columnist Joe Nocera captured so acutely in a short piece on Eggers' dystopia.

Singapore's Little India riot and other disturbances may fire the imaginations and deliberations of Yale-NUS students and faculty. So should the Yale-in-New Haven faculty's decision to establish a Senate whose actual power and freedom they'll have to secure with energetic participation, not with the mere appearances of the rule of law that Singapore's government presents to the world. Yet the Yale administration sometimes seems to be trying to learn from Singapore how to do the same thing in its own university's governance in America.

Americans who haven't given up on liberal democracy -- as I suspect increasingly that the more pathological of our leaders secretly have -- should pay close attention to what's going on behind Singapore's glittering facade before they praise Yale's role in plunging Yale-NUS' idealistic young students and faculty into a reinvention of liberal education there. Why not join in a struggle to reinvent it right here, in an ailing American republic and amid global riptides that are turning liberal education into a commodity and management skill?


December 11, 2013

U.S. Colleges Finding Ideals Tested Abroad


WELLESLEY, Mass. — Members of the Wellesley College faculty reacted strongly when word spread that Peking University might fire Prof. Xia Yeliang, a critic of the Chinese government. Professor Xia, an economist, had visited Wellesley over the summer after the college signed a partnership agreement with Peking University.


In September, 130 Wellesley faculty members sent an open letter to Peking University’s president, warning that if Professor Xia was dismissed for his political views, they would seek reconsideration of the partnership. The next month, Professor Xia was fired. Peking University said it was because of his teaching, not his politics, but many at Wellesley doubted that. Still, after much debate, the faculty voted to keep the partnership, as the college president preferred.


Like American corporations, American colleges and universities have been extending their brands overseas, building campuses, study centers and partnerships, often in countries with autocratic governments. Unlike corporations, universities claim to place ideals and principles, especially academic freedom, over income. But as professors abroad face consequences for what they say, most universities are doing little more than wringing their hands. Unlike foreign programs that used to be faculty-driven, most of the newer ones are driven by administrations and money.


“Globalization raises all kinds of issues that didn’t come up when it was just kids spending junior year in France,” said Susan Reverby, one of the Wellesley professors supporting Professor Xia. “What does it mean to let our name be used? Where do we draw a line in the sand? Does a partnership with another university make their faculty our colleagues, obliging us to stand up for them? Do we wait for another Tiananmen Square?”


Wellesley is hardly alone in wrestling with these issues. Many American universities have partnerships with Peking University, but few reacted to Professor Xia’s dismissal.


“We went into our relationship with Peking University with the knowledge that American standards of academic freedom are the product of 100 years of evolution,” said Richard Saller, dean of the school of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, which opened a $7 million center at Peking University last year. “We think engagement is a better strategy than taking such moral high ground that we can’t engage with some of these universities.”


This week, another prominent professor, Zhang Xuezhong, who teaches at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, lost his job after refusing to apologize for writing that the Communist Party was hostile to the rule of law. That university has many partnerships with foreign institutions, including an exchange program with the law school at Willamette University in Oregon and an executive M.B.A. program offered with the University of Wisconsin law school.


With so many universities seeking a foothold in China — New York University opened a Shanghai campus this year and Duke will open one in Kunshan next year — concern is growing over China’s record of censorship. Earlier this year, the Chinese government banned classroom discussion of seven topics, including human rights and the past mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party.


Of course, similar issues arise elsewhere. Last year, just as Yale was starting a liberal arts college in partnership with the National University of Singapore, the Yale faculty, despite the university president’s objections, passed a resolution expressing concern about Singapore’s “recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights.”


“There’s a million unanswered questions about Yale and Singapore,” Christopher Miller, a Yale professor, said. “We don’t know how much of the Singapore specialty of self-censorship has taken place. I continue to think the whole setup is inappropriate, and deeply regret that this was set up where it was and the way it was.”


Last month, Frederick M. Lawrence, the president of Brandeis University, suspended a 15-year partnership with Al Quds University, a Palestinian university in Jerusalem, after campus demonstrators in black military garb raised a Nazi-like salute, and the president of Al Quds, asked to condemn the demonstration, responded with a letter that Mr. Lawrence deemed “unacceptable and inflammatory.” Syracuse University followed suit. But Bard College, which offers dual degrees with Al Quds, is staying.


Many American colleges argue that their presence abroad helps to spread liberal values and push other societies toward openness, whereas leaving would accomplish little.


“I think engagement is more important than rules right now,” said Allan Goodman, the president of the Institute of International Education. “It’s in our institute’s DNA to advocate engagement, because that process is what brings change.”


Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, cautioned that universities must be prepared to revoke partnerships that violate basic principles of freedom. “I do see value in liberal education, but you have to ask on what terms,” he said. “If a country like China wants to legitimize a cramped version of liberal education by attracting prestigious Western universities, there’s a real possibility of those universities compromising the values on which they were built because they’re so eager to get into China.”


Some universities, including Columbia, have created study centers rather than branch campuses, in part to avoid commitments that would be hard to break.


At Wellesley, the faculty protest did have some effect: Wellesley’s president announced that a faculty group would develop recommendations “for the parameters and elements of the partnership” to be approved by the full faculty. And Professor Xia is being invited to spend two years as a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project, a program at the college.


But given that Chinese universities have many Communist Party representatives in their administration, Thomas Cushman, the sociology professor who leads that project, is still deeply concerned. “We’re not telling them to adopt the Bill of Rights,” he said. “We’re asking what it means for Wellesley to work with a regime that instills fear in people. I’m concerned that a formal relationship could affect how we work here — that maybe in our exchange program, we’d only send people who talk about safe subjects.” '


When American universities establish campuses abroad, they usually have explicit agreements guaranteeing free speech for faculty and students within the cloister of the campus — but implicitly accepting local limits on off-campus expression. “As I believe would be true in any country,” Duke’s provost, Peter Lange, said, “your behavior there is governed by the laws of that country.”


That understanding also holds at New York University’s campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, both paid for by those governments. While John Sexton, the university’s president, sees it as the first global university, that vision has many critics. The faculty has voted no confidence in Dr. Sexton partly over this issue.


In 2011, after the arrest of three dissidents in the United Arab Emirates, Human Rights Watch called on N.Y.U. to protest: “Is N.Y.U. going to advertise the magnificence of studying in Abu Dhabi while the government persecutes an academic for his political beliefs?” Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director, said then.


The university responded that in Abu Dhabi or elsewhere, it did not get involved in matters outside its academic mission.


In September, the N.Y.U. chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote to the trustees, describing their concerns about the overseas campuses. “Accepting vast sums of money from foreign governments puts N.Y.U. and every scholar affiliated with the university in a morally compromising situation,” it said. “In such situations, academic freedom is usually the first casualty.”


While working inside a bubble in a country hostile to free speech, the letter said, faculty’s important public role is stifled.


The trustees did not respond, said Andrew Ross, the head of the university’s A.A.U.P. chapter.
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