On Sunday, 15 April 2012, the Sunday Times published Tommy Koh’s defence of the Yale-NUS project. It appears to be a response to the resolution passed by about 200 members of the Yale faculty earlier this month. See this report in Yale Daily News.
In his commentary, Koh argued that the Yale faculty should be “more humble” towards a rising Asia, and that “we are different because of our different histories and circumstances”. In so saying, there is the odour of the old “Asian values are equal to Western” argument.
Another rhetorical device used in his piece was to attack Americans for not having a perfect country themselves, and by implication, they should not reserve to themselves any right to criticise Singapore. In support of this line of attack, Koh wrote: “Singaporeans have enjoyed the right to vote since 1959. When I was a student at Harvard, the black citizens of the American south were still denied their right to vote.” Most Singaporeans would consider our so-called right to vote to be a pale shadow of the term.
Koh’s piece is archived at the bottom.
First, I want to archive Wong Jock Onn’s rebuttal, published a week later in the Sunday Times of 22 April 2012. I think it speaks for itself.
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Non-discrimination in Singapore? Not so, Prof Koh
Professor Tommy Koh stated that Singapore is ‘seriously committed to upholding the principle of non-discrimination’ (‘Yale-NUS a timely, visionary initiative'; last Sunday). I do not fully agree.
Sexual discrimination may be minimal but we have not witnessed a female prime minister, unlike some other countries in the region.
We have, as Prof Koh stated, ‘one of the world’s most diverse populations’, but only compared to developing countries and rural cities.
When I lived in Canberra in 2002, within weeks, I met people from most regions – the Asia-Pacific, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. The presence of white Australians was often overshadowed by other ethnicities.
Here, Chinese, Malays, and Indians constitute over 90 per cent of the population. We are diverse but cannot hold a candle to cosmopolitan cities like London and New York.
As for our attitude towards sexual minorities, we ‘have to progress at a pace acceptable to Singaporeans’, said Prof Koh, but these Singaporeans are specifically those who reject sexual minorities.
Why is Singapore developing at a rate that many have difficulty coping with, but when it comes to sexual minorities, acceptance is slow?
Why do we thrive on how others marvel at our economic progress, but expect them to accept our slow pace in accepting sexual minorities?
Furthermore, there is a difference between not accepting a minority group and having laws against their acts. Homosexual acts are criminalised and same-sex civil union is a fantasy.
What about discrimination against singles? Married couples can buy new Housing Board flats at a subsidised rate and use this as an investment opportunity.
Property agents tell me that many newly married couples buy a brand new HDB flat, sell it after a few years, make money, and move into a condominium. They use taxpayers’ money for investment, while singles are left out of the race.
Wong Jock Onn (Dr)
Wong’s letter was published in the Sunday Times, 22 April 2012.
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Yale-NUS a timely, visionary initiative
Four reasons why resolution adopted by Yale faculty is disappointing
By Tommy Koh
Yale University is a great university. When I was living in New York City, I often commuted to New Haven to teach at Yale. In 1982, I was invited to deliver the Stimson Lectures. In 1984, I was conferred an honorary degree of doctor of laws by Yale. As a graduate of Harvard Law School, I was very pleased to be able to quote President Kennedy and say to my wife that I have the double benefit of a Harvard education and a Yale degree.
I am a proud member of the Yale family. It was with disappointment that I read the text of the resolution adopted by the Yale College faculty on the Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) College, which will be located in Singapore and begin operation next year. Let me explain why I feel disappointed.
- First, the resolution completely ignores the potential benefits of this visionary joint venture, for the two universities, and for Asia and America. The new college will enable the students to read, learn and discuss the great books of the West and the East, the great philosophical traditions of Asia and the West, and the great poets and writers of the two civilisations.
I hope that the college will offer a congenial and inspiring environment for mutual learning. I also hope that the intellectual engagement between American and Asian students and faculty will take place on the basis of equality and mutual respect. The Yale faculty resolution seems to be inconsistent with this spirit and smacks of cultural arrogance and superiority. The message seems to be that the American way is the only way.
- Second, Asia is on the rise. It is the home of the world’s second (China) and third (Japan) largest economies. India will soon catch up. Asia is also the home of some of the world’s most ancient and richest civilisations, such as, the Chinese, Indian and Japanese. Asean is the world’s second most successful regional organisation, after the European Union. South-east Asia is a poster child of successful multiculturalism.
America’s engagement with Asia must reflect this changing reality. It is not a relationship between patron and client, or of a superior and an inferior. It is, with every passing day, becoming a relationship between equals. The Yale faculty should, therefore, be more humble.
After the failure of the attempt to remake Iraq in America’s image, American intellectuals should reflect deeply on that experience. One lesson learnt should be that while America can and should help, it cannot prescribe the future for other countries.
- Third, NUS and Yale share many common values and ambitions. They are both dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. They believe in academic freedom. They subscribe to the internationally recognised human rights, both the civil and political rights as well as the social, economic and cultural rights.
In Singapore, unlike the United States, racial and religious harmony are prized above the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. If there is a contradiction between them, the US would give primacy to the freedom of speech and freedom of the press, whereas Singapore would give primacy to racial and religious harmony.
This does not mean that one side is right and the other side is wrong. What it means is that we are different because of our different histories and circumstances. It is not fair for the Yale faculty to criticise Singapore for its ‘lack of respect for civil and political rights’ without acknowledging that it is only 47 years old and that, in that short time, it has transited from the Third World to the First.
Singapore is certainly not perfect, but, dare I say it, neither is America. Singaporeans have enjoyed the right to vote since 1959. When I was a student at Harvard, the black citizens of the American south were still denied their right to vote. Even now, young black men, such as Trayvon Martin, are viewed with suspicion because of racial prejudice.
- Fourth, Singapore is seriously committed to upholding the principle of non-discrimination. Any form of discrimination based on race, colour, religion, gender is unacceptable to Singapore.
We have one of the world’s most diverse populations. The miracle is that we have learnt to live together in harmony. There are no ethnic or religious conflict in Singapore. Women have gained parity with men.
We are not yet as tolerant as the West towards sexual minorities, but we have to progress at a pace acceptable to Singaporeans. Yale should respect that.
In conclusion, I would say to my friends in New Haven that the Yale-NUS College is a timely and visionary initiative. I am confident that it will be a success and its success will have a strategic significance in the partnership between Asia and America in the 21st century.
The writer, a Singapore diplomat, is Rector of Tembusu College, NUS.
This comment was published in the Sunday Times, 15 April 2012.