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Plan to open Yale campus in Singapore hits controversy

Yale faculty concerned about civil rights in Singapore, where homosexuality is illegal
Harkness Tower, Yale's New Haven campus. The Ivy League university will open its first overseas campus in Singapore in 2013.

An agreement between Yale and the National University of Singapore has hit controversy after a resolution that states ‘concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore’ was passed by the faculty last week.

Yale has already agreed to open its first overseas campus in Singapore, where homosexuality is illegal, so the vote is largely symbolic, but it’s evidence of a fierce debate about whether a liberal arts university should open a campus in a less than liberal location.

Seyla Benhabib, a political science professor at Yale who brought the resolution to the faculty, told the New York Times that ‘the faculty is feeling disempowered, that it has no voice in what is going on’.

The agreement between Yale president Richard C Levin and the National University of Singapore was made a year ago, without the involvement of the faculty and Yale-NUS has already started recruiting staff for a student intake in 2013. Levin said the Yale staff didn’t need to be involved in the decision because the students won't receive Yale degrees, and the institution is being entirely funded by NUS.

Singaporeans responded to the resolution saying that the Yale faculty lack understanding of the political situation in Singapore. ‘Both the tone of the resolution and some contributions to the debate have definitely struck a note of moral superiority,' John Richardson, a director at NUS told Yale Daily News. ‘More generally, both the resolution and certain comments assume that Yale, and the US behind it, should and will enlighten the less fortunate parts of the world.’

But author of Singaporean gay culture and politics blog Yawning Bread, Alex Au, told Yale Daily News he thought the faculty’s resolution was fair, and concerns about ‘moral superiority’ should not prevent discussion about the lack of political freedom in the city-state.

‘I would say this strikes me as being similar to one of the Singapore government's favorite defences whenever their human rights record is called into question,’ Au said. ‘As a Singaporean, I reject such a facile attempt at Singapore- or Asian-particularism. If anything, I think it is demeaning to think that we are incapable of aspiration [for more liberties].’

Singaporean and Yale linguistics graduate student E-Ching Ng wrote a response to the resolution in the Yale Daily News that said: ‘Homosexual intercourse is illegal in Singapore the way underage drinking is illegal at Yale. The police have never bothered my openly gay brother, writer-activist Ng Yi-Sheng, despite his public gender-bending antics and book of coming-out stories with real names and faces, which became a Singaporean bestseller.’

The lively voices heard in this debate suggest Yale is already bringing greater political freedoms to a country ranked 135th (above Honduras and below Tunisia) out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index.  

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