Singapore migrants riot, websites chill, but Yale-in-Singapore keeps warm

The fallout from these abuses of labor and freedom of speech casts a long shadow on Yale-NUS' hopes to become an international hub for liberal education.

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper
12 December 2013

Yesterday a South China Morning Post account of a riot by Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore noted that "Singapore is persisting with a four-year campaign to reduce its reliance on foreign workers, after years of open immigration policy led to voter discontent over increased competition for housing, jobs and education. The move has led to a labour shortage and pushed up wages, prompting some companies to seek cheaper locations."

A video of the riot posted by the government-controlled Straits Times predictably emphasized lawlessness and re-establishing control, but not the riot's likely causes, other than to vow that the government will "investigate" them.

But last summer the Wall Street Journal ran a 5-part series on a strike by migrant Chinese bus drivers in Singapore who felt they'd been cheated in wages and forced to live in miserable conditions. More than 25 of them were promptly deported.

Also last summer, workers building the Yale-National University of Singapore College's new campus were kept on the job even as air pollution rose beyond acceptable safety standards, again focusing attention on working conditions in Singapore.

You might think that someone in the government would have learned something by now without requiring a new commission to "investigate" the causes.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary-general of the tiny opposition Reform Party, tells me that although government-controlled media and spokesmen blame the riot "on the availability of alcohol and racial stereotyping of Indians as peculiarly susceptible to alcohol,... the real reason is that the PAP's growth strategy is bound up with the exploitation of cheap labour rather than raising wages of SIngaporeans. These workers apparently earn as little as US$14 per day which is not much more than they were getting thirty years ago! Plus they are exploited by middlemen and deeply in debt. ...No wonder they feel they have nothing to lose."

And no wonder the riot has produced the frantic yet already-stale government response, including using Gurkhas, who are basically foreign mercenaries, to quell this disturbance by other foreigners. Inevitably, we'll also hear renewed calls for "Singapore for Singaporeans."

The pattern in Singapore isn't as egregious as in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, more than 60 percent of whose populations are migrant workers living in virtual indentured servitude. But Singapore's ruling party will be increasingly hard put to keep the lid on this discontent, and while that explains recent efforts to reduce the proportion of migrant laborers in the population, it also suggests how difficult it will be to reduce income inequality without turn the new world order's go-go investors into "Going, going, gone" ones.

Not only isn't the government saying much about these dimensions of the Little India riot. It's also warning internet sites not to spread rumors about the riots, and it has been intensifying its crackdown on internet sites, notes Cherian George the distinguished Singaporean scholar of press freedom whose rejection for tenure at Nanyang Technical University was protested internationally.

"After trying to impose unnecessarily onerous registration requirements on two sites, one of them, Breakfastnetwork.sg, has decided not to comply," George writes. "The [Singapore government's] Media Development Authority's response: 'Since Breakfast Network has decided not to submit the registration form, and will therefore not be complying with the registration notification, MDA will require that Breakfast Network cease its online service.'"

George judges that the government's self-described "light touch" regulation of the internet has now been superseded by a heavier hand.

The fallout from these abuses of labor and freedom of speech casts a long shadow on Yale-NUS' hopes to become an international hub for liberal education. Nearly 70 percent of the new college's students may be Singaporeans, if you include permanent residents of Singapore who aren't citizens (the official figure is that 62 percent of Yale-NUS students are Singaporeans). People keep asking why Yale has lent its name and energy to this venture.

Why did Yale even inflate the numbers of Yale-NUS applicants from around the world last year by enabling all applicants to Yale College in New Haven to apply simultaneously to Yale-NUS by doing nothing more than checking a box? The answers to such questions are still secret, in that Yale and NUS keep secret the terms of their agreement, signed and sealed before Yale's faculty had any say in it.

The Yale College Faculty in New Haven voted this week to establish an elected faculty Senate for the first time in the institution's 312-year history. At the meeting, the distinguished Southeast Asian Studies scholar James Scott rose to remind resistant, prevaricating administrators that establishing a Senate must entail a power shift, not least because Yale-NUS was created without faculty deliberation or decision-making.

Yale's new president, Peter Salovey, should not appoint a faculty committee to scope out the new senate's powers. The faculty should elect colleagues who indicate their philosophical and policy inclinations. Yes, dear professorial moderates: The governance of universities involves differences between faculty and administration about who should have power to decide certain questions, as retired Harvard President Derek Bok has made amply clear in his new Higher Education in America and as he told me in an interview that I reported here in Huffington Post.

The question of who deliberates and decides is important, as Singaporeans themselves know well. Americans shouldn't be learning and copying from Singapore in this matter. Yet they are, and this is what Salovey must prove Yale will not do.

Singapore has its own history and challenges. In facing them it has made itself an attractive "port of call" and entrepot for ships coming from and going to other places. But Singapore's own problems are going to get bigger. Even its successes owe much to its geopolitical situation and its tiny size, which make it too politically anomalous to be a model for large liberal-democratic republics.

In other words, we critics of Yale's venture in this increasingly troubled island aren't preoccupied with Singapore's sins but with Yale's misjudgments in accommodating itself so readily to them in a joint venture bearing its name. As we challenge those accommodations, we are not being moralistic and passing judgment on Singapore, as its defensive apologists often accuse us critics of doing. We are criticizing the judgment of Levin and four current or recent Yale trustees - Charles Goodyear IV, Charles Ellis, G. Leonard Baker, who have been longtime investors and advisers in Singapore, and Fareed Zakaria, the former Yale trustee who has touted Singapore as a model for economic liberalization that produces political liberalization.

We want to know what these leaders thought they were doing. We sense that they launched Yale on a grand misadventure that - like the repeal of American laws that had prevented bankers from behaving like casino operators, or like the launching of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - seemed noble and even triumphant at first but looked myopic and worse before long.

Recall the original enthusiasm for the Iraq venture as a leader in democracy promotion and nation-building. So swept up in the nobility of that venture was the columnist David Brooks that he promoted it while teaching at Yale in the fall semester of 2002, in an article for the Yale Herald, and that he kept his son Joshua up late to watch the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down by US troops in Baghdad in March of 2003. In 2004, Brooks, supporting George W. Bush, announced on PBS that Bush's opponent John Kerry hadn't been able to pass "the Joshua test" because he'd been introduced to Joshua but hadn't connected with him, "and anyone who can't connect with at 10-year-old boy can't connect with the American electorate."

How wonderful the Iraq War and Bush's re-election seemed to Brooks and many others teaching at Yale back then! How mercilessly they tweaked feckless liberals who wrote angry columns denouncing both ventures! But Brooks may have gotten a bit more than he'd wished for when Joshua graduated high school and joined the Marines and soon afterward entered the University of Indiana, Class of 2014. Brooks reports that Joshua has loved Indiana, but the father, whose love-hate obsession with the Ivy League is well-known, was back at Yale last year teaching a course on "Humility."

Far be it from me and other critics of Yale's venture in Singapore to predict consequences similar to those of American elites' other recent misadventures. I have not predicted explosive scandals, strikes, or other conflicts at Yale-NUS. What I do fear is that, at the same time that disturbances like the Chinese bus drivers' strike and the Little India riot unfold, we're witnessing an increasingly seductive, tight convergence of state-capitalist modes of social control in the lives of more privileged residents of both the U.S. and Singapore.

I mean the kind of social control described in William Dobson's The Dictator's Learning Curve, which shows how self-censorship spreads when "fear leaves no fingerprints." I also mean the softer control symbolized in a recent decision by The Brookings Institution, a once-noble Washington think tank headed by a Yale graduate and former deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, to accept hundreds of millions of dollars from Singaporean sources eager to burnish the cloudy reputation of the country's founder, Lee Kuan Yew, by naming a chair in Southeast Asian Studies for Lee - the first time Brookings has named a chair for a political leader rather than simply for a donor.

Normally I'd favor naming academic posts and buildings for public figures, rather than donors whose only distinction is their largesse. But the public leaders should represent the values of the institution that's honoring them. The elder Lee has quite a few smooth, even slick, neoliberal American apologists these days, and his role in Singapore's founding and development is well known. But he hasn't enough democratic nerve ends in his body - he doesn't even believe in "one man, one vote" - to be honored even by the cash-hungry Brookings.(I'll find another occasion to unpack Lee's record (and his apologists' rationalizations) as well as the Brookings money.)

Harvard's Bok isn't one of Lee's apologists. "I had my own run-in with Lee kuan Yew some years ago when the government in Singapore jailed the young head of the Harvard Club for consorting with the wrong people. I wrote in protest to Lee and was surprised to receive a letter of several typewritten pages from him trying to persuade me that Asian values are different from those in the United States" -- a notion so discredited in contexts like this, as I've explained here, that Lee himself has since backed off of it. "Nothing in that experience would tempt me to try to establish a Harvard College in Singapore," Bok wrote me.

I sketched my worries about the all-too-smooth convergences between Singapore and the U.S. in a column that ran both here and in the independent Singapore website Tremeritus three months ago, so I won't repeat the rest of those worries here.

I and most critics of Yale-NUS hope that its hand-picked, inaugural class of 157 students and its equally smart, idealistic faculty will have experiences as rewarding as those that Yale journalists visiting Yale-NUS in its first month of classes described in celebratory reports here and here.

But I urge every Yale-NUS student to read about Mae Holland, the bright, wide-eyed protagonist of Dave Eggers' new, 1984'ish novel The Circle, (here's an excerpt that ran in the New York Times.) And I hope that they'll do something that neither she nor anyone else in the novel was able to do: use liberal education to ensure that they aren't skipping too lightly up a garden path, as she did, into an enticing but soulless Orwellian circle of neoliberal enslavement that the columnist Joe Nocera captured so acutely in a short piece on Eggers' dystopia.

Singapore's Little India riot and other disturbances may fire the imaginations and deliberations of Yale-NUS students and faculty. So should the Yale-in-New Haven faculty's decision to establish a Senate whose actual power and freedom they'll have to secure with energetic participation, not with the mere appearances of the rule of law that Singapore's government presents to the world. Yet the Yale administration sometimes seems to be trying to learn from Singapore how to do the same thing in its own university's governance in America.

Americans who haven't given up on liberal democracy - as I suspect increasingly that the more pathological of our leaders secretly have - should pay close attention to what's going on behind Singapore's glittering facade before they praise Yale's role in plunging Yale-NUS' idealistic young students and faculty into a reinvention of liberal education there. Why not join in a struggle to reinvent it right here, in an ailing American republic and amid global riptides that are turning liberal education into a commodity and management skill?


This article was originally published in the Huffington Post on December 12, 2013.

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