Safeguarding the spirit of academic freedom and open inquiry in Singapore

By Harpreet Singh Nehal, Senior Counsel

Download the full PDF here.


Yale-NUS gave three justifications for the cancellation of the module on “Dialogue And Dissent In Singapore” proposed by Singaporean playwright, Alfian Sa’at: i) the module lacked “academic rigor”; (ii) aspects of the program posed “legal risks to students”; and (iii) the “political balance of the syllabus”.

A review of the publicly available evidence, including matters set out in Yale University’s fact-finding report on the cancellation, raises justifiable doubts as to the correctness of the report’s conclusion that Yale-NUS had “legitimate academic and legal reasons to cancel the module”.

While couched in terms of lack of “academic rigor”, a closer analysis of the reasons given reveals the substantive concerns centred around the perceived “political nature of the program”. The fact that Yale-NUS did not once, over several months clearly articulate to Alfian Sa’at precisely how the module lacked “academic rigor”, or what practically he needed to do to shore up the “academic” component of the program also adds to justifiable doubts whether lack of “academic rigor” was a sufficiently strong reason to cancel the entire program.

Additionally, given important revisions which had been made to the module by Alfian Sa’at, the “legal risks” appear to have been substantively and practically addressed well before the module was cancelled on September 13. Under the changes, there would be no “protest” by the students, actual or simulated, at Hong Lim Park; the visit to Hong Lim Park would take the form of a “walking tour”; no placards or signs would be transported to Hong Lim Park.

This leaves the third justification, i.e. concerns over the perceived “political nature of the program”, as the likely dominant factor behind the cancellation. It is also the one which seems most consistent with the objective evidence.

The Yale report correctly concluded that the third justification (i.e the “the political nature of the program”) was an “unconvincing reason in itself” to cancel the module. However, the conclusion by Yale that “the evidence does not suggest any violations of academic freedom or open inquiry” is questionable: the evidence raises, at a minimum, justifiable doubts whether there were sufficiently strong academic or legal reasons to cancel the program; the evidence shows that the likely dominant factor behind the cancellation was the “political nature of the program”; Yale’s own report dismissed this justification as “unconvincing”. These circumstances merit a reconsideration of the conclusion that there was no violation of academic freedom or open inquiry in this case. In fact, it would entirely defensible, on the publicly available evidence, to take the view that the cancellation violated academic freedom and open inquiry.

The recent public disclosures by Alfian Sa’at also raise valid grounds for concern that aspects of the Yale fact-finding report may have cast an unwarranted slur on him. As at the time of this publication, nether Yale nor Yale-NUS appears to have disputed Mr Sa’at’s account. Yale University should carefully review its records and, if they support Mr Sa’at’s account, Yale should take appropriate steps remove any taint to Mr Sa’at’s personal standing. Good leadership calls for nothing less.

This episode raises an important issue of public policy in Singapore – the proper scope of academic freedom and open inquiry at our universities. There is no question that there are limits. The real question is where should those limits be drawn?

We must as a society begin to dissociate the word “activism” from all its negative connotations and embrace its positive aspects. History offers us a long tradition of positive, peaceful, non-violent activism. A properly calibrated policy, while being fully cognizant of any law and order concerns, ought to permit critical engagement with this important tradition by our tertiary students.

While one may legitimately debate the precise limits of academic freedom and open inquiry at our universities, a program of the type proposed by Alfian Sa’at ought to fall within the permissible boundaries: it neither advocated violence nor involved any breach of the law. Absent any breach of the law (actual or threatened) or clear harm to the public reasonably likely to be caused by a proposed academic or clinical program, one ought not to shut down a module simply because of disagreement with the worldviews, including contrarian political views, being advanced.

The spirit of open inquiry is essential to the broadest kind of human learning and the flourishing of the human spirit. We jettison this principle to our peril.

What follows is a detailed, 21-page analysis in support of the views expressed above.

Download the full paper here.

October 13, 2019

Cite as:
Nehal, Harpreet Singh. “Safeguarding the spirit of academic freedom and open inquiry in Singapore: Concerns raised by Yale-NUS’ cancellation of the module on ‘Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore’ proposed by Mr Alfian Sa’at”. Academia.SG. October 13, 2019.