By Chua Yini and Melissa Aw
Is there a lack of academic freedom in the National University of Singapore? An exchange student who studied at the university for two terms certainly thinks so.In an article posted on Yale Daily News on Thursday, Walker Vincoli, who completed his second semester through a joint program between University of North Carolina and NUS last year, pointed out that the latter is not a “free university” as the students are ruled by self-censorship.
Vincoli commented that the study conducted by Yale University on academic freedom in Singapore was too narrowly focused on the faculty and neglected the student academic culture at NUS.
For Vincoli, the “litmus test for academic freedom” is the ability of students and faculty to be involved in the politics of their own country.
Describing students and teachers here as “self-policing subjects”, he recounted his experience in a political science class where the professor told students to “lower your criticism of the PAP” and “reduce your coverage of opposition parties”.
“Students change arguments, button their lips and absorb opinions from on high. Singapore is not a free country and NUS is not a free university,” Vincoli wrote.
He attributed the phenomenon to the government, saying that it “has succeeded in making self-censorship routine and integrating it into the state-owned media, the state-controlled university and the minds of its citizens”.
While Vincoli’s outspoken views have sparked major debate, classmates of Vincoli Yahoo! Singapore spoke to disagreed with him.
“From experience… there’s no discernible restriction on the state of academic freedom in NUS. In fact, quite the contrary, the professors that I have had the privilege of learning under have encouraged us to form opinions without fear,” said Alvin Tan, a final-year political science student from NUS.
“Honestly speaking… the professors are very professional. They do not use any form of political affiliation or whatsoever,” Tan said in response to Vincoli’s allegations that NUS professors encourage students to tone down on subversive political comments in class.
Vincoli is an opinionated student with strong ideas and his comments may be part of his own personal opinion and are “hardly credible”, the local student said.
Benedict Chen, a final-year political science student from NUS echoed Tan’s views. “There is robust debate over domestic politics and no self-censorship in our academic work,” he said.
When asked whether NUS professors were as pro-PAP as Vincoli had described, the 24-year-old said that the professors are not restrictive of opposition views nor are they pro-PAP as they encourage a “balanced critical discussion”.
Comments posted on Vincoli’s article were mostly negative, although one user, ‘schnickelfritz’ thanked Vincoli as his article created discussion amongst Singaporeans “who have been through the system and have a slightly more nuanced perspective from others who are criticizing it from the outside.”
Meanwhile, user ‘alvinty’ said that Vincoli’s comments are a “gross misrepresentation of how Singapore is like in reality” and that the foreign student had abstracted his negative experiences of Singapore’s education system to “fit his pre-conceived conception of what he thinks Singapore is like”.
A Facebook thread to discuss Vincoli’s article has also been created by NUS political science students who are in their honours year.
UPDATE: Responding to comments from his fellow classmates, Vincoli wrote on the Facebook thread: “I’ve enjoyed reading the feedback, ethnic slurs on Yahoo and accusations of dishonesty aside. It’s good that the column has generated discussion. That said, Ben [Benedict Chen], please don’t take it personally that I’m not responding to comments or engaging in the debate myself.”