The following statements were originally publicly posted by Alfian Sa’at on his Facebook profile. For ease of reading we have compiled them into one page. Separate timestamps and links are provided for each of the original posts.
Post on 3 October 2019
This thing is taking a very long to write but here’s where it all began…
“3) On 22 March, I met with Person A. My first response to the invitation was that I was not academic faculty at the college, so why was I being approached? It was stressed to me that Week 7 was an experiential programme, and as had been stated in the 15 March email, its purpose was to “get students out of the classroom, to learn specifically about the different narratives in Singapore, be able to compare them, and to question/challenge them.”
4) I was reluctant initially to submit a proposal because of a couple of reasons. The first was that the fee offered to me to run a full 5 day programme, including an extra day for a symposium (where students would “share their learning with the wider community” in the form of exhibitions and presentations) was $600.
I did not feel that this was commensurate with the amount of effort I would have to put in to secure speakers, book venues, lead students on excursions and discuss readings with them. (By contrast, the honorarium for each guest speaker in the programme was $200.)
The second was that Week 7 was going to take place around 2 weeks before a play I had co-written, ‘Merdeka’ would open, on the 10th of October. Committing to Week 7 would mean that I would have to sacrifice one week away from watching rehearsals.
Nevertheless, on 14 April, I sent an email agreeing to design a Week 7 programme. I made this decision out of a sense of goodwill towards the college. I had conducted an ‘Introduction to Playwriting Module’ at the college in the past semester and it was an overall pleasant experience.
5) On 15 May, I submitted a proposal titled ‘Dissent and Resistance’. At the core of the programme were panel discussions with various personalities whose work challenged dominant narratives in Singapore. These included filmmakers, visual artists, independent journalists, migrant labour activists as well as theatremakers. I had chosen the topic because it was something I was familiar with, as I have spoken and presented on issues of censorship and freedom of speech in Singapore.
In designing the programme, I took guidance from a sample of a Week 7 programme that had been sent to me. In the sample, some of the activities included: a walking tour of Bukit Brown, screenings of 2 films and 2 documentaries, 3 panel discussions, and visits to the Agora as well as to the AWARE: Sexual Assault Care Centre.
As it was my first time designing a Week 7 programme, I tried to copy the sample provided as much as possible. I included a walking tour of Hong Lim Park, screenings of 2 documentaries and 1 play, 5 panel discussions and dialogue sessions, and visits to an art gallery and a theatre venue.
Believing that the students would also benefit from some hands-on sessions, I also included 2 workshops: 1 on making signs for demonstrations to be conducted by a Singaporean who had studied in the UK, and 1 on Forum Theatre techniques by a Singaporean theatre company. Forum Theatre is a form where audience members intervene to replace actors who are acting out a scene. It allows participants to explore multiple perspectives on an issue as well as various approaches to conflict resolution.”
PS: These are excerpts; points 1 and 2 referred to an ST report and the initial email from Person A.
Post on 4 October 2019, 2.36pm
a) Rejecting Feedback and Revisions?
From ST 30 Sept: “The report said several revisions to the module were proposed by staff and students, including an inter-group dialogue to allow students to exchange views before taking part in an off-campus activity and a visit by a well-known sociologist.
But the instructor “rejected all such revisions, thus contributing to concerns about whether he intended to offer critical engagement in the module”, the report said.”
This is untrue.
On 5 Aug, I received an email from Person C as a follow-up to our meeting on 1 Aug. It was stated that members of CAPE were keen on being part of the programme. It also stated:
“On a related note, I’m wondering if you might be open to including one or two activities around identities and corresponding dynamics in our Week 7? For context, we offer a face-to-face, curriculum-based series involving facilitated conversations for Yale-NUS students called Intergroup Dialogue (IGD)…I can share more details if helpful, and would appreciate your thoughts.”
I did not reply immediately as I wondered whether the programme that we had was already too packed. I wanted to include CAPE because it would be meaningful to have the students interact with a ‘campus-grown’ group. But I would need more details about the IGD programme before considering its inclusion. I thought it would be better to discuss these issues in person when I returned from Taipei.
On 28 Aug, I had a meeting with Persons A, B and C. I asked about the format of the IGD programme and was told that students would reflect on particular aspects of their identity, such as gender, ethnicity or nationality. I agreed to find a suitable slot in the programme where we could include it.
On 11 Sept, I received WhatsApp texts from Person D:
“Person D: Thank you. We really appreciate it. In terms of the week activities, why don’t you come in and let’s talk about it. They are very triggered by Hong Kong so Joshua may be a bridge too far but let’s talk
Me: By the way today the students are visiting the National Gallery to see the Awakenings exhibition, so it’s to set the tone for the programme. Mainly how art can create space for difficult conversations.
Me: I can actually take out that video screening (Ed: of ‘Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower’). It’s available on Netflix btw…
Person D: That is absolutely wonderful
Person D: Netflix, haha.”
I then contacted Person C immediately and had this WhatsApp exchange:
“Me: I’ve had a call from Person D and Person E.
Me: Might have to change Day 1 programme a bit to address some concerns
Me: Because of the heightened sensitivities to HK at the moment, we might have to drop the screening of the Joshua Wong doc.
Me: We can instead have that programme you mentioned about identities
Person C: Appreciate your letting me know. We can definitely rework the programme. 2 students in our group are enrolled in IGD this semester, so we can use an adapted version and perhaps use some additional time for opening and lunch?”
The above exchanges prove that I did not resist the suggested revision to include the IGD programme, and in fact had decided to incorporate it on 11 Sept. I had also volunteered to take out an activity the admin was nervous about (the video screening).
As for the allegation that I resisted the inclusion of a well-known sociologist, here is what actually happened. I had asked Person C if the students had a ‘wishlist’ of speakers they’d like me to try to invite, and I would try to accommodate their requests. On 30 Aug, 2 days after our in-person meeting, I had this WhatsApp exchange:
“Person C: Alfian, I checked with our students regarding a “wishlist” (since the requests we heard at the Week 7 Fair came from students pre-assignment). One responded and suggested inviting Dr T.Y.Y., as well as a rep from the government to provide balance in perspectives
Me: I’ve tried to get reps from government before and it’s often very hard because they either 1) don’t want to be part of a dialogue where they think or might become a debate and 2) feel like they can’t represent a government point of view and can only speak in a personal capacity (which kind of defeats introducing them as a Govt rep)
Person C: Thanks Alfian, I didn’t think it was very feasible given the reasons you shared. I can understand the difficulty and can share that with the student when we meet at Week 7.”
I also wondered, if I wanted to invite Dr T to provide ‘balance’, which speaker would this be a balance to? Also, Dr T’s specialty was in issues such an inequality and I wondered about Dr T’s suitability in a programmme whose focus was on issues of free speech and expression.
Most importantly, this ‘suggestion’ was actually a wishlist that I had actively solicited from the students, rather than a recommendation from the Curriculum Committee. It is extremely unfortunate that it has been twisted in the report to paint me as someone who was defiant and instransigent.
So you can you imagine how I felt when I first saw the news report: that the institution is sick.
Post on 4 October 2019, 5.08pm
b) Unaware of Legal Risks?
From ST 30 Sep: “The report said that Mr Alfian later suggested that these were “simulations” of political protests. In a later version of his proposal, he separated the sign-making workshop from the visit to Hong Lim Park, but the report said that he continued to speak of “simulating” protests at the park.”
“They met him on Aug 1, but remained concerned that he had not made the revisions requested by the Curriculum Committee and that he was not sufficiently aware of the legal issues involved in his module.”
On 21 August, I received an email from Person C which stated:
“Student assignments were finalised earlier this week, and I write to share the list of students who will be joining our Week 7. A total of 16 students (9 International and 7 Singaporeans) will join our project.”
On 28 August, I met Person A, Person B and Person C.
Right at the top of the agenda was the fact that more than half of the students were foreign students. I immediately raised the problems this would pose for one of the proposed activities.
In my original programme, I had planned for the students to participate in a sign-making workshop. I had envisioned them thinking of a cause they felt strongly about, such as climate change, gender parity or animal rights. And then they would make a sign expressing their stand and belief.
After that, we would adjourn to Speaker’s Corner, which we would have applied for beforehand. The students would then take photos of themselves with their signs. As there were legal risks regarding carrying signs in public, I thought that the Speaker’s Corner at Hong Lim Park, a legitimate, designated spot for protests and demonstrations, would be the safest space in Singapore where this activity could be carried out. We would then reflect on our experiences of posing with our signs, a form of ‘phenomenology of protest’.
However, only Singaporeans and Permanent Residents were allowed to participate in any form of political activity at the park. Any foreigner doing the same would be in violation of the law. I was especially mindful of this because I have friends who are involved with organising Pink Dot at Hong Lim Park every year. Paranoid about foreigner participation, they have in recent years erected barriers and zealously checked the ID’s of those who enter the park during Pink Dot.
This would mean that our activity at Hong Lim Park would have to be restricted to the Singaporeans. I suggested that while the whole group participate in the sign-making workshop, only Singaporeans would continue with the second part at Hong Lim Park. I would think of a separate but parallel activity for the non-Singaporeans.
This was thought to be unsatisfactory, because it seemed odd to segregate the class. I then suggested that we visit Hong Lim Park on the first day of the programme, and conduct the sign-making workshop on a later date. This way, there would be no chance of the students taking the signs they had made to Hong Lim Park. There would be no ‘simulation’ at all of a protest at Hong Lim Park; only a walking tour. Everyone agreed to this new scheduling.
To verify the above account, here is an email I received from person B on that day:
“We like your suggestion to visit Speakers’ Corner earlier in the week, in advance of (and separate from) the protest sign making workshop. This will help to alleviate some concerns about the itinerary, and allow all students to attend both activities, which is nice for the group dynamic.“
On 5 September, I submitted a finalised programme, based on the revisions we had discussed and agreed upon. The ‘Visit to Speaker’s Corner’ programme was scheduled for 27 Sep, and the ‘Sign-Making Workshop’ for 30 Sep, a good three days later.
There was absolutely no mention of ‘simulating’ a protest any more after the meeting on 28 Aug.
On 11 Sep, I received a phone call from Person D at 10 am. Person D asked if it was possible for me to change the title of the programme from ‘Dissent and Resistance’ to ‘Dialogue and Dissent’. I agreed immediately. We continued corresponding on WhatsApp:
“Me: As you can see I’ve split speakers corner and sign making, so they will not be taking those signs to the speakers corner
Me: And actually a lot of what they’ll be learning is how to negotiate with boundaries related to filmmaking, visual arts and theatre.
Me: Not really activist strategies like protests and sit ins and occupy”
Contrary to reports, I think the correspondence does reveal that 1) I did not insist on getting the students to ‘simulate’ a protest and 2) I was very aware of the legal issues surrounding foreigner participation in Hong Lim Park.
Ultimately, if the college had felt that the HLP visit was such a legal liability, then it should have simply advised me to excise it from the programme. It was absurd for the Yale-NUS president to consult MOE to ask if the students might be offered some immunity, as this was not something I had ever requested. Why would you go upstream to seek protection when it’s so much easier to go downstream and directly advise a cooperative external instructor how to shape his course?
Post on 4 October 2019, 8.27pm
c) Lacking Academic Rigour?
From ST Sept 30: “Conditional approval was given by the Curriculum Committee on May 31, contingent on substantial revisions to the proposed syllabus.”
“A further revision of the syllabus was submitted on Sept 5, but staff continued to express their concerns about the academic rigour of the module and the risks for international students.”
On 17 May, I received the following feedback from Person A after I had submitted a proposal on 15 May.
“Thank you very much for sending this over – it looks fantastic! I really appreciate the range of experiences students on this project will be exposed to, and the opportunity for them to think critically about this context.”
It should be noted that nothing was mentioned about the academic rigour of the programme, nor about possible legal risks.
On 26 June, I received an email from Person A. It stated:
“I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I’m writing to let you know that your proposal has been approved by the Curriculum Committee, and we are ready to move ahead with planning Dissent and Resistance!”
No mention of the proposal being ‘conditionally approved’.
On 27 June, I received an email from Person B. It stated:
“As Person A mentioned, your proposal has been approved by the Curriculum Committee, so we are ready to move forward with planning! It would be wonderful if we can schedule a time for us all to meet, where we can discuss some feedback from the Curriculum Committee and look at next steps for planning the Week 7.”
Also no mention of the proposal being ‘conditionally approved’.
On 1 August, I had a meeting with Person A, Person B and Person C.
The feedback relayed to me was concern over whether the students might be inspired to stage some kind of political action on campus, such as protesting, picketing, having sit ins or pasting posters without authorisation. I assured everyone this would not happen.
We then discussed some possible changes to the programme, but not in response to anything related to ‘academic rigour’, ‘legal risks’ or ‘political sensitivities’. Some of these changes were:
a) To add a visit to the National Gallery’s exhibition: “Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia: 1960’s-1990’s”, which would have to be done before the exhibition closed on 15 September. (Added to the final programme.)
b) To add a session with Youtube personalities P and S, who had produced a video responding to a racist brownface advertisement. (Not added, but S was included in a panel on film/video)
c) To add a session with CAPE–Community Advocacy and Political Education. CAPE is a student organisation founded by Yale-NUS and NUS Law Faculty students. (Added)
On 28 August, I met Person A, Person B and Person C. As mentioned earlier, a major revision that I myself suggested was:
d) the separation of the Hong Lim Park visit and the sign-making workshop to different days. (Accepted)
Other revisions suggested by them were:
e) for Person D to “join the first session and speak with the group briefly—both about support for this project and about a responsible amount of caution/ awareness of boundaries.” (Accepted)
The above two revisions were, I felt, added in response to ‘legal risks’ and ‘political sensitivities’.
On 11 Sept, I was asked for these additional revisions:
f) to change the title of the programme from ‘Dissent and Resistance’ to ‘Dialogue and Dissent’ (Accepted)
g) to change the original copy of the ‘project summary’ from:
“This program will introduce students to various modes of dissent and resistance in Singapore. From citizen journalism to artistic works, from ‘accommodationist’ tactics such as pragmatic resistance to ‘radical’ strategies of civil disobedience, the progamme will examine the political, social and ethical issues that surround democratic dissent in authoritarian societies.
Through interactions with labour and feminist activists, performance artists, documentary filmmakers, theatremakers and journalists, participants will learn about the ways citizens negotiate with power in Singapore and how they manage to creatively carve out spaces of freedom and autonomy in a tightly-regulated city-state.”
“The project will examine the political, social and ethical issues that surround democratic dissent. Students will examine various repertoires of engagement and dialogue in Singapore in the realm of arts and culture.
Through interactions with, performance artists, documentary filmmakers, theatremakers and journalists, labour leaders and feminists participants will learn about the ways citizens negotiate with power in Singapore and how they manage to creatively and constructively carve out spaces of engagement in the city-state.” (Accepted)
I also volunteered the following revision:
h) to replace the video screening of ‘Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower’ with an intergroup dialogue. (Accepted)
Again, all the three revisions were made to address concerns over ‘political sensitivities’, ‘public consumption’ and ‘optics’ rather than ‘academic rigour’.
To summarise, as the content of the course evolved over the months, around 8 revisions were made. I was never, throughout the course of the discussions, told that revisions had to be made because of ‘academic rigour’. In fact the bulk of the revisions I was asked to make seemed to address the ‘political’ aspects of the programme and how these had to be downplayed.
In conclusion, any statement that the programme was canceled because it did not meet ‘academic standards’ should be investigated. Even if the programme was found not to be academically rigorous, this had never been communicated to me over the course of 4 whole months.
Post on 5 October 2019
1) In spite of recent happenings, I do not harbour animus towards Yale-NUS college. My main contention is with the account given by the staff and admin that was reflected in the report produced by Pericles Lewis. In instances when their account diverged from mine, to the extent of potentially causing reputational damage, it was necessary to provide my side of the story.
2) Throughout this ordeal, there were various students from Yale-NUS who reached out to me and checked to see how I was coping. In my experience, I have encountered various students from Yale-NUS who are bright, sensitive and motivated by a strong sense of moral justice. This I think partly accounts for what appears to be a revival of student activism in Singapore, especially in areas such as political conscientisation, climate change and gender/sexuality rights.
3) There are also amazing lecturers and other staff in the college who are doing exciting stuff and whose modules have provided much inspiration to the students. Some of them have reached out to me. I appreciate how difficult it must be for them to reconcile having to rally behind the school as part of their conditions of employment with their own personal sense of moral outrage.
4) In any criticism of the college, I hope commenters will make the necessary distinctions between the college administration, the students and the lecturers.
5) At the end of the interview with Pericles Lewis (who was himself an ex President of Yale-NUS, which raises questions on whether he was the best person to conduct an ‘independent’ inquiry), I suggested a narrative that he could offer in his report. I said that if he was intent to prove that there was academic freedom on college, then perhaps he could touch on the fact that the Week 7 programme involved students engaging in activities out of the college.
6) As such, would those activities be covered under the protective umbrella of academic freedom? In an interview with Washington Post in 2012, Lewis himself has said, “In terms of organized protests heading off campus, they would have to obey Singaporean laws.” This is not to say that the programme involved getting the students to protest off campus, as the revised itinerary makes clear. But one could perhaps make a public statement that the school had a low threshold for these kinds of risks and therefore decided to pull the plug on the programme.
7) Unfortunately, in their overzealousness to prove that academic freedom existed in Singapore, the admin decided that it was more credible (for them) to roll out a story about a rogue instructor who was uncooperative, made inadequate revisions, could not meet academic standards and who insisted on endangering their students. When Lewis interviewed me, he had already interviewed, I believe, more than 20 Yale-NUS admin and staff members. I was the last person he interviewed and I think by that time a particular narrative had hardened.
8 ) Some people have remarked that I had taken the bullet for Yale-NUS College. If this were so, then I had not done it willingly. What I feel though is that the bullet had come from Yale-NUS itself. And I was of those people outside of the college who have had the misfortune of being in their line of fire.
9) I think artists are often quite vulnerable—many artists work as freelance individuals, and are not part of companies or collectives. (I am fortunate however that I am part of a company that has always trusted and supported me.) And in the artist’s dealings with institutions there will be the risk that the institution will close ranks and vilify the artist. The question is how can we protect ourselves from such an occurrence in the future? Do we insist on contracts? Should there be clauses that will indemnify us when something goes wrong?
10) I have compiled a 12-page chronology, with names redacted, of what happened at Yale-NUS. If anyone is thinking of doing anything with Yale-NUS in the future, I would advise that you ask for this document from me. I hope it might be able to give you ideas on how to respond in the event that the institution decides that not only are you dispensable, but that they can to leverage on certain negative stereotypes of artists to portray you as irresponsible and untrustworthy. (Idea number one: archive all correspondence.)
Or, just don’t do anything with Yale-NUS. Stay far far away. I hope what’s happened to me can serve as a warning to others.