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Academic freedom not ‘carte blanche’ for anyone to misuse institutions for political advocacy, says Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE — While the Ministry of Education (MOE) values academic freedom, courses offered at autonomous universities here must still abide by the Ministry’s guidelines, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Monday (Oct 7).

Academic freedom not ‘carte blanche’ for anyone to misuse institutions for political advocacy, says Ong Ye Kung

Yale-NUS College's out-of-classroom programme, titled Dialogue and Dissent, was cancelled on Sept 13, about two weeks before it was due to begin.

SINGAPORE — While the Ministry of Education (MOE) values academic freedom, courses offered at autonomous universities here must still abide by the Ministry’s guidelines, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Monday (Oct 7). 

Mr Ong was responding to questions from four Members of Parliament (MPs) regarding a cancelled Yale-NUS College programme on dissent and protest which has made headlines recently.

“Academic freedom cannot be carte blanche for anyone to misuse an academic institution for political advocacy,” Mr Ong said, adding that allowing for this would “undermine the institution’s academic standards and public standing”. 

The Yale-NUS out-of-classroom programme, titled Dialogue and Dissent, was cancelled on Sept 13, about two weeks before it was due to begin. A recent Yale University report looking into the college’s decision concluded, among other things, that the programme was cancelled because it lacked academic rigour and would have put students at legal risk. 

Some MPs, including Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar and Associate Professor Walter Theseira, asked whether the cancellation of the programme suggests that academic freedom will be curtailed in the local universities. 

In response, Mr Ong stated that the withdrawal of the programme does not undermine academic standards or open inquiry. 

“Political dissent is certainly a legitimate topic of inquiry,” he said, adding that it is “valuable” for students to critically examine both present-day issues as well as classic works by revolutionary figures such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Mao Zedong. 

“Such open academic inquiry will continue,” he said.

Meanwhile, in a supplementary question, MP for Aljunied GRC Sylvia Lim asked whether the review of the programme was initiated by MOE or by Yale-NUS College itself. 

Mr Ong replied that the review was conducted by Yale-NUS of its own accord and the Ministry was informed of it thereafter. Subsequently, Yale University conducted its own independent investigation. 

UNIVERSITIES SHOULD ‘EXERCISE GOOD JUDGMENT’

Responding to a question by Mr Seah Kian Peng, MP for Marine Parade GRC, who asked if there are “clear rules” on what activities are permitted in local universities, Mr Ong said that it would not be “practical or wise to be overly prescriptive” when specifying what should or should not be allowed.

Instead, he outlined four guiding principles that he called on educational institutions to “internalise” when deciding what activities should be allowed on campus: 

  • Educational institutions must operate within the laws of Singapore.
  • Educational institutions must not deviate from their mission to advance education and maintain high academic standards.
  • Educational institutions should not be misused as platforms for partisan politics.
  • Educational institutions must recognise Singapore’s cultural and social context.

Institutions should, at the minimum, “not undertake activities that expose their students to the risk of breaking the law”, said Mr Ong. 

“They should not work with speakers and instructors who have been convicted of public order-related offences, or who are working with political advocacy groups funded by foreigners, or who openly show disloyalty to Singapore,” he added.

Mr Ong was referring to some of the proposed speakers who were listed in the Yale-NUS dissent programme.

For instance, Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Seelan Palay are both individuals who have previously been convicted of public order-related offences. 

Other invited speakers include freelance journalist Kirsten Han and historian Thum Ping Tjin. The duo, Mr Ong said, “receive significant foreign funding” for their website, New Naratif, a self-described movement for democracy and freedom of expression in South-east Asia.

“These individuals responsible for the programme are entitled to their views and feelings about Singapore,” Mr Ong said. However, he added that “we have to decide whether we allow such forms of political resistance free rein in our educational institutions, and even taught as compulsory, credit-bearing courses or programmes”. 

ACTIVISTS WILL BE MONITORED IF THEY BECOME SECURITY RISKS: MHA

In a supplementary question to Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, Nominated MP Walter Theseira asked whether certain social and political activists, such as those who have previously been in trouble with the law, pose a security threat to student groups and, if so, should student groups be allowed to engage them for school activities. 

In response, Mr Shanmugam said that whether the student groups can engage with these activists is up to MOE’s discretion and the principles it has outlined.

However, should the activists become security risks, the Ministry of Home Affairs will monitor them, he added.

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Yale-NUS Yale University education dissent Alfian Sa'at Ong Ye Kung Parliament

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