The Singapore We Refuse To Acknowledge

An account of the human rights violations behind one of the most successful nations in the world, and how Yale and Yale-NUS are defined by them.


(Traffic on a busy street on a rainy day in Singapore. “Singapore”, by Nicholas Cole. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

The city-state of Singapore is one of the most developed, economically powerful, and safest places in the world. But beneath these layers lies a government that viciously restricts the human rights of its people: speech is highly regulated and censored, with incredibly strict punishments for protesting and assembly; the criminal justice system actively utilizes corporal punishment, the death penalty, and extended periods of detention without trial; residents aren’t protected from government surveillance; migrant workers are denied certain rights and protections; and sexual acts between men are criminalized.

However, Singapore’s authoritarian practices are largely ignored in conversations about oppressive regimes and human rights. How has Singapore managed to stay outside the public’s critical eye? Why does the international community refuse to act or engage with the nation about its violations? And what does the island nation’s incredible success say about the value (or lack thereof) of human rights themselves and of the validity of human rights activism?

To understand the current human rights landscape in Singapore, it’s vital to look into the island nation’s history since its independence from Britain in 1965. In the 1970s, the Singaporean government, controlled by the People’s Action Party (the only political party to ever hold power in Singapore), began a period of aggressive economic growth, focusing on expanding its export potential, and creating strong financial and manufacturing sectors. This continued and accelerated into the 21st century, where growth has slowed down but has left Singapore with one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world. But how does this picturesque economic image of the country coincide with its gross human rights violations?

(Lion statue with Singaporean skyline in background. Public domain.)

Currently, Singapore is ranked 151st out of 178 countries in freedom of the press by Reporters Without Borders. For context, Russia, the UAE, and South Sudan are all ranked higher than Singapore. It is one of the most hostile environments on the planet for the press: the government frequently sues and even deports journalists who speak out and many journalists are threatened with lengthy prison sentences if they do not self-censor certain “offensive” articles and stories. 

A law recently put into effect on October 2nd, 2019, nicknamed the “fake news law,” has further restricted the freedoms of the press in Singapore. The law allows for the government to require disclaimers on news articles they deem inaccurate, or to require that the articles be taken down entirely. Linda Lakhdhir, a legal advisor in the Asian division of the Human Rights Watch, explained her concerns about the possible implications, stating that “Given the Singapore government’s historic intolerance of speech critical of the government or its policies, the law is a powerful tool to silence critical voices, and will have a significant chilling effect on those speaking about issues of public interest online.”

Furthermore, freedom of assembly in Singapore is essentially nonexistent. Protests without police permits are limited to a 6,000 square meter space in Hong Lim park dubbed the Speaker’s Corner, and even there the government imposes strict regulations: “organizers are required to register their names, identification card numbers, and contact details with the National Parks.” Some demonstrations also have specific restrictions. During the Pink Dot annual protest, where the LGBTQ+ community is celebrated, permanent residents and non-citizens are blocked off from joining the festivities. 

(Rallyers celebrate the LGBTQ+ community as part of the annual Pink Dot demonstration. “Cheering III”, by Tamara Craiu. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

In spite of these extreme regulations and violations of the freedom of the press, public perception of Singapore has continued to be predominantly positive overseas and in popular culture. One needs only to look to the commercial success of the novel and film “Crazy Rich Asians” to see how Singapore’s wealth and luxury are central to its image, and how the nation’s frequent disregard for basic human rights is not. The movie, set in Singapore, drew attention to the island’s extravagance and wealth without even alluding to its human rights violations or other socio-economic issues, such as wealth inequality, racism, and gentrification. As evidence of how the film boosted Singapore’s overwhelmingly positive reputation, trip-booking sites Kayak and Orbitz saw a 41% and 110% increase, respectively, in searches for flights to Singapore after the movie’s 2018 release. 

(“Crazy Rich Asians” promotional poster, property of Warner Bros. Studios.)

Somewhat ironically in the context of its limited freedom of expression, Singapore also happens to have the 2nd freest economy in the world. Singapore’s economy has seen exponential growth and success: its GDP growth since independence has averaged a whopping 7.7%. The country’s rapid economic growth has been accredited to its neoliberalist economic structure, which helps make it appealing to foreign businesses. The Singaporean government derives legitimacy and support for fostering the strong economy from its citizens⁠—and from other nations, whose businesses are hungry to trade and establish themselves on the island. Other countries and institutions are thus incentivized to keep silent about Singapore’s human rights abuses. But what are the implications of Singapore’s simultaneous booming economic growth and systemic human rights violations? Can the benefits of a strong economy ever outweigh the denial of human rights? 

Madeline Batt (Yale College ‘19), Community Human Rights Fellow at the Yale Law School’s Schell Center for International Human Rights, shared her thoughts on the issue. She acknowledged the complexity of the tradeoffs between economic growth and the protection of human rights, stating that “it is often irresponsible and impractical to consider one without the other.” She explains that “human rights abuses that intersect with economic concerns (which, one could argue, is basically any abuse to greater or lesser degrees) need to be solved creatively. It is usually not enough to simply prohibit something we find abhorrent from a human rights perspective…Understanding the economics of human rights is essential to successfully defending them.”

For the most part, however, the media and human rights groups seem to have done relatively less work than they have in other countries to defend Singaporeans’ human rights. “Media coverage of Singapore’s human rights violations tends to be more restrained and limited than coverage of rights violations elsewhere in the region,” Lakhdhir explained. “In part, this is due to Singapore’s reputation as [an] economic success story, which has led media to focus their attention elsewhere, but in my view it is also due to Singapore’s history of using both civil and criminal laws against critical media [sic].”

(The Singapore “Supertree Grove”, lit up in purple at night. “Singapore” by Yen(yenlife007). Licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

One institution in particular that has not exerted a significant pressure on the Singaporean government is Yale. Specifically, the creation of the Yale-NUS (National University of Singapore) partnership was a profoundly controversial decision because it involved the establishment of a branch of Yale in a country that actively partakes in censorship and restricts the freedoms of assembly and expression of its people—ideas that are thought to be out of place in a learning environment of such high caliber and prestige as Yale. 

The Yale-NUS collaboration was created as part of a “mission to redefine liberal arts and science education for a complex, interconnected world.” Technically, the school is being paid for by the Singaporean government, and Yale only contributes some faculty, its name and its “intellectual capital”. Yale-NUS students do not receive Yale diplomas. But when the college’s creation was announced, Yale students, faculty, and alumni expressed anger and confusion. Mimi Yiengpruksawan, a Yale art history professor, stated, “I was stunned by the announcement that we’d hooked up with this university…My first question was, ‘Who’s “we”—and why are “we” involved in developing a campus paid for by a national government that is not the United States?”

(Yale-NUS College classroom. Image credit to Yale-NUS official online images/materials.)

A recent Yale-NUS decision to cancel a one-week course titled “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore” about protests and riots in the country sparked outrage among students in Singapore and New Haven. The course would have been taught by Singaporean writer Alfian Sa’at and Yale-NUS college program manager Tan Yock Theng. The cancellation prompted backlash and discussion about how a liberal arts college can function in an authoritarian state, and whether the college was caving to the Singaporean government’s censoring demands.

However, some Singaporeans believed the cancellation was a good idea. Facebook commenter Kilyn Liong stated, “Please…we want to foster peace and prosperity in Singapore. We have seen how protests can tear a country apart and ruin economy [sic]”. Yale President Peter Salovey also believed the cancellation was the correct move, expressing that he has “confidence in [Yale-NUS’] faculty and leadership” when referring to their decisions. President Salovey stated that the decision was made without pressure from the Singaporean government, although one must question whether the course would have been cancelled had it not been proposed in a nation as restrictive and punitive to protesters as Singapore is.

In a Yale Daily News report on the cancellation by Alayna Lee and Kelly Wei, Mark Oppenheimer ‘96 GRD ‘03, a Yale English Professor and former student, said that “the fact that Yale has to worry about some of its affiliated students being deported (or worse) should they have fulfilled the requirements of this class, proves yet again why Yale-NUS was a bad idea from the start.” 

(Shoppers browse wares at street store. “Singapore”, credit to Luca Sartoni, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Another Yale professor, Michael Fischer, also voiced his thoughts on the issue. “Yale’s motto is ‘Lux et veritas,’ or ‘Light and truth,’” said Fischer. “We’re going into a place with severe curbs on light and truth…We’re redefining the brand in a way that’s contrary to Yale’s values.”

What are the implications of Singapore’s success and clout in spite of its consistent human rights violations? What does it mean for the Yale community as a whole that the administration set aside Singapore’s violations to build Yale-NUS? And has Yale chosen to sell the very principles of scholastic achievement and inquiry that it claims to be guided by? 

To find answers to these questions, it’s imperative for the Yale and Yale-NUS communities to continue to  reflect on Yale’s involvement in a country that systematically violates human rights, and on what the institution’s priorities and ambitions have become. Perhaps it’s time we choose to acknowledge the pieces of Yale and Singapore that aren’t in the limelight.

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