February 2020 statement from Alfian Sa’at

This statement was first posted publicly on Facebook on 5 February 2020. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

This took me some months to process, and a recent conversation with a dear friend prodded me to pen this.

I was asked to propose and design a 5-day experiential programme for Yale-NUS. As a cultural worker in Singapore, I have practical knowledge of the ways that various artists and activists navigate through the authoritarian landscape. How have they tried to defend, or expand, the various freedoms: of expression, association and assembly? They don’t always ‘succeed’, but it’s worth listening to their stories and engaging with them.

At no point did I ever think that this was going to be a platform for partisan political indoctrination. It’s actually insulting, in fact, to think that Yale-NUS students would be passively absorbing what they heard without posing some challenging questions of their own. And more crucially, at no point was it ever raised to me that the programme had lacked ‘academic rigour’.

And yet this became the narrative; as if to defend the notion that Yale-NUS was operating in an environment where academic freedom was guaranteed, some other flaw in the programme had to be identified.

This was upsetting. I actually did not mind the course cancellation as much as I did the divergence of our accounts. It felt like Yale-NUS had thrown me under the bus. And then, just when it seemed like the ‘lack of academic rigour’ narrative was about to take hold, the Education Minister spoke in Parliament and communicated that the government did not want schools to fraternise with those whom they disapproved of. Which was surely an undermining of academic freedom and an act of throwing Yale-NUS under the bus.

For me, there were two plausible reasons why the course was cancelled: either by direct government intervention, or an act of self-censorship by Yale-NUS (possibly based on certain signals they received from the top). So much of Singapore operates on vague out-of-bound markers, so that we all end up overcompensating when we self-censor. This is how the system is supposed to work.

The beauty of self-censorship is that one can declare that there is academic freedom, while hiding the fact that the freedom is never fully used. There is no need for external red lines anymore. The plan is for these lines to be internalised, so that the state can show off how clean its hands are.

Thus when I invited some figures the state were not happy with, and when Yale-NUS approved of the programme, the state became anxious that we were not practising the self-censorship that had been expected of us. We were not following the script—which was to isolate, and fear association, with those the state thinks are dissidents.

In the wake of the affair, there were many who stood up for me, or tried to pursue some justice for me. Among them are Prof Tommy Koh, Prof Linda Lim, as well as Koh Jee Leong. I owe them a mountain of gratitude. At the same time, some friends, in a show of solidarity, decided to reject invitations from Yale-NUS to speak or run workshops. I was also heartened by this. It made me feel less alone.

Recently, however, I have come to the realisation that my disappointment with some of the actions taken by Yale-NUS should not put me in a position where I’m pitted against the institution. It should not result in something divisive: those who take my side, and those who take the side of Yale-NUS.

Because I actually have faith, in spite of what happened, that there is more in common between me and Yale-NUS, than there is between Yale-NUS and certain state actors. And there is more difference between me and those state actors, than there is between me and Yale-NUS.

And so, there shouldn’t be awkwardness between me and Yale-NUS students and staff–please don’t feel obliged to apologise on behalf of the senior admin when we bump into one another. Just FYI, over the past few months I’ve written reference letters for a student applying for overseas studies, and was also interviewed by another student–on censorship (my favourite topic, as you can tell.) Both were from Yale-NUS. Don’t be a stranger!

Also, this is a call to my friends: you don’t have to boycott or overly criticise Yale-NUS to demonstrate your friendship with me. We shouldn’t allow this thing to split us up and pit us against one another. Go accept those invites, keep on engaging with the staff and students, go raise the roof and rock the house there.

We are all in this together.