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Yale-NUS dissent module: Playwright Alfian Sa’at disputes report on cancelled programme

SINGAPORE — The controversy over a cancelled Yale-NUS College module on dissent and protest continued on Friday (Oct 5), with playwright Alfian Sa’at disputing the findings of a Yale University report looking into Yale-NUS' decision.

Yale-NUS dissent module: Playwright Alfian Sa’at disputes report on cancelled programme

In recent weeks, the events leading up to the cancellation of a Yale-NUS College module on Sept 13 — about two weeks before it was due to begin — had made the headlines. The out-of-classroom programme, titled Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore (formerly titled Dissent and Resistance in Singapore), was due to run from Sept 27 to Oct 2 and would have been led by playwright Alfian Sa’at.

SINGAPORE — The controversy over a cancelled Yale-NUS College module on dissent and protest continued on Friday (Oct 4), with playwright Alfian Sa’at disputing the findings of a Yale University report looking into Yale-NUS' decision.

The 11-page report — which was prepared by Yale's vice-president and vice-provost for global strategy Pericles Lewis — had said, among other things, that Mr Alfian had rejected several revisions to the module that were proposed by staff and students.

But Mr Alfian has refuted this, saying that he had tried his best to meet the college’s requirements when curating the programme. In response to TODAY's queries on Mr Alfian's latest comments, Yale-NUS College president Tan Tai Yong said that "while there has been a number of correspondences and meetings" with Mr Alfian to revise the content of his proposal before the module was to be rolled out, "the changes were inadequate, did not meet academic standards, and still included elements that could subject students to the risk of breaking the law".

In a 12-page statement to the media on Friday, excerpts of which were also put up on his Facebook page, Mr Alfian also revealed he was offered S$600 to run the five-day programme. This was, however, disputed by Prof Tan who said the amount was "S$3,300, not S$600 as claimed". Nevertheless, Mr Alfian told TODAY that he had never received any correspondence with the school mentioning the S$3,300 figure.

In recent weeks, the events leading up to the cancellation of the module on Sept 13 — about two weeks before it was due to begin — had made the headlines. Last week, Yale published the report by Prof Lewis — who was also Yale-NUS' founding president — detailing the reasons the module was cancelled, and concluding that the proposed programme, titled Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore, lacked academic rigour and will put students at legal risks.

Prof Lewis also found that “administrative errors” were made in the process of offering the programme. He also suggested that the curriculum committee should have been “involved more continuously” and a legal risk assessment should have taken place sooner for the module.

MR ALFIAN’S VERSION OF EVENTS

In Mr Alfian’s statement to the media, he said that a staff member at the college had approached him on March 15 to submit a proposal for its Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries programme in September and October.

Though he was initially reluctant, he eventually agreed to design the programme “out of a sense of goodwill towards the college”. He named the programme Dissent and Resistance.

Mr Alfian said that on June 26, he received an email from the same staff member, who was not named in his statement, stating his proposal had been approved.

Mr Alfian added that there was no mention of the proposal being “conditionally approved”, as has been suggested by Yale-NUS in Prof Lewis' report.

Subsequently, another staff member initiated a meeting to discuss the Curriculum Committee’s feedback on the proposal. Mr Alfian said there has “never been any attempt on (his) part to be unreachable”, as Yale-NUS had claimed, and he had agreed to meet.

During the meeting, he said that “some concerns” were expressed by the college that the students may stage some form of political action during the exhibition and presentation that they were expected to produce at the end of the programme.

Mr Alfian then said that “possible changes to the programme” were discussed, but nothing was raised in relation to “academic rigour”, “legal risks” or “political sensitivities”, as the Yale report had stated.

He added that later, when he found out that more than half of the students allocated to the programme were foreigners, he expressed concerns that an activity he had proposed — for participants to carry signs at the Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park — would put the foreign students in violation of the law.

To amend this, Mr Alfian suggested for the students to visit Hong Lim Park on the first day of the programme and he will 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,” he said, adding that the staff members present at the meeting were in agreement to the new proposal.

Mr Alfian then submitted the finalised programme to the college on Sept 5. He said that over the next few days, he “did not receive any feedback regarding the new revised programme”.

However, he “continued to have administrative conversations” with the college on the online messaging platform WhatsApp.

These included discussions on changing the title to Dialogue and Dissent, and amending the description of the programme on the college’s website.

Later, Mr Alfian said that a staff member asked for a documentary screening that featured Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong to be removed given the “heightened sensitivities” around the ongoing protests, to which the playwright agreed.

On Sept 13, Mr Alfian said that he received a call from a Yale-NUS staff member informing him that the programme was cancelled.

In the statement, Mr Alfian said that he is not interested in discovering “the reasons for the cancellation of the programme”. He told TODAY that “cancelling the programme is (the college’s) prerogative and I respect that decision”.

However, he believes there have been allegations made about his character which he needs to rebut to “prevent reputational harm”.

“I have always been cooperative with the administration and would always put the students’ safety as a top priority,” he said, adding that the college should “take responsibility for the cancelation, based on their own assessments of its legal risks or academic merit”.

YALE-NUS RESPONDS

In response to TODAY’s queries, Prof Tan also said that as a "general invitation", Mr Alfian was one of the "many faculty members" whom a staff member had spoken to regarding any potential interest to run projects.

On Mr Alfian's latest remarks, Prof Tan noted that while Mr Alfian "showed openness to making additional changes on Sept 11, he was unable to meet with our staff to develop the substantive changes required as he was leaving for an overseas trip”.

Prof Tan added: "As there was insufficient time left, the College decided to withdraw the project."

Still, Prof Tan reiterated that the college “recognises that there were a number of administrative errors that were made in the process of considering this project”, which he added were identified by Prof Lewis’ report. The college is “identifying the necessary process improvements moving forward”, he said. 

However, Prof Tan stressed that “the proposed programme lacks academic rigour, and will put students at legal risks”.

“These remain the key reasons why Yale-NUS College withdrew the programme,” he said.

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Yale-NUS Alfian Sa'at dissent education

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