Having written extensively about the limits on academic freedom in Singapore, I was rather surprised to see that Yale was in talks with the National University of Singapore about setting up a “liberal arts college” in the restrictive city state. Especially as the UK’s Warwick University abandoned an earlier proposal to set up a university in Singapore because of concerns about freedom of speech.
It seems I was not the only one. James C. Scott, one of the leading Southeast Asia-focused academics of the modern era and a professor of political science at Yale, has spoken out against the proposal, according to a story for the Yale Daily News. The college newspaper reported him as saying:
“There’s unlikely to be a cataclysmic moment in which Yale would have to decide instantly whether to leave or stay. It’s more like to be a very gradual diminution of freedom of maneuver in which there’s not obviously some decisive threshold.”
Scott, the story reports, says Yale would be better off setting up a campus in Malaysia, the Philippines or Thailand, which also fall far short of democratic ideals but allow significantly more criticism of the establishment than Singapore.
In his most famous work, Scott argued that popular uprisings in Southeast Asia were driven by “The Moral Economy of the Peasant” – that poor farmers believed they had a right to basic subsistence and would rebel if it was denied them.
Will the Singapore government’s particular view of a moral economy, that education (among other things) should be subservient to the politico-economic goals of the ruling caste, drive an uprising among Yale professors?