On Oct. 7, Minister for Education (MOE) Ong Ye Kung spoke at length on the cancellation of a Yale-NUS module "Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore" and the stance that MOE took on the matter.
In response, playwright Alfian Sa'at, the instructor for the module, disputed parts of Ong's speech that specifically touched on his own background and his planned itinerary for the module in two Facebook posts on the same day.
Background to Ong's speech
Ong's speech came in the wake of an earlier dispute by Alfian over the fact-finding report released by Yale University regarding the incident, on Sep. 28.
The report noted that attempts by the college and Alfian to revise the curriculum to mitigate the legal risk and shore up the module's academic rigour were ultimately deemed unsatisfactory, which led to its eventual cancellation.
This then drew Alfian's reply on Facebook on Oct. 2, in which he criticised the account of his interactions with Yale-NUS College and alleged that he had been made a scapegoat over the matter.
So what did Ong say?
In his speech, Ong said that the withdrawal of the course would not affect academic freedom in Singapore.
However, Ong also singled out the itinerary of the module that Alfian had planned for the course, as well as the attitude that the playwright allegedly held towards activism, and added that Alfian had purportedly conceived of the class as a means of political agitation.
Module allegedly invited speakers with issues
Ong highlighted that apart from designing protest placards and a visit to the Speaker's Corner, the course also included talks with figures such as Jolovan Wham, Seelan Palay, Kirsten Han and P.J. Thum.
- In the case of Wham and Seelan, Ong noted that both individuals had been convicted of public-order related offences.
- As for Thum, Ong noted that he had called for Singaporeans to celebrate Malaysia's independence day, and for the country's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to promote democracy and the freedom of expression across Southeast Asia.
- Ong also added that Thum has voiced his intent to continue his work with Han through New Naratif, a platform that receives significant foreign funding.
Highlighted Alfian's background and attitude that he supposedly held
As for Alfian himself, Ong took to quoting the following lines from the playwright's poem Singapore You Are Not My Country, to showcase the playwright's thinking:
"Singapore, I assert you are not a country at all,
Do not raise your voice against me,
I am not afraid of your anthem.
...how can you call yourself a country, you terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums ten minutes’ drive from the MRT?"
He added that while some artistic licence could be conceded to the poem, it was emblematic of an attitude that Alfian had allegedly held consistently in his activism.
He said that it was evident that Alfian "has a lot of misgivings about Singapore, including our race relations".
Ong then highlighted other controversial events that Alfian was involved in:
- Apologising to Malaysians "on behalf of the Singapore government" after 21 Malaysians were arrested for protesting illegally at Merlion Park.
- Praising the "new Malaysia" after their 2018 general election, juxtaposing it favourably against Singapore, dismissing fears of "chaos in the streets".
- A post by Alfian which mentioned "political conscientisation", which Ong said comes from "radical left wing thought".
On the last point, Ong further added: "It is agitation aimed at making people conscious of the oppression in their lives, so that they will take action against these oppressive elements. This is how Mr Alfian saw his project."
And what did Alfian say in response?
Alfian subsequently replied to Ong's speech by laying out the following points in his first post on Oct. 7:
- That the module's itinerary, after revision, only included Han, but not Thum,
- Evidence is also needed to show that Han could be acting as an agent of the foreign organisation supposedly funding New Natarif, something which he has not picked out from his interactions with her,
- That apart from his poem Singapore You Are Not My Country, he has also written love letters to Singapore such as the play Hotel, Nadirah, Monkey Goes West, the upcoming Merdeka, and the 2009 National Day Parade.
- The term "conscientisation" was not used at all in his description of the module's programme or its summary, and that he did not conceive the module to be as such.
- Alfian added that the only time the term was used was when he observed what he saw as a political awakening among students, three weeks after the module was cancelled.
- That he did not have a hidden agenda behind the module either, and the intent was to simply let students find out more about how artists create and protect spaces for dissent.
In a second post, Alfian tackled Ong’s reference to his 1998 poem.
- He explained the meaning of the lines that Ong had quoted, suggesting that they had been used out of context.
- He posited that by leaving out the rest of the verse, Ong had missed the playwright's intended meaning.
- Instead, the lines were meant to convey Alfian's love for Singapore, a love that the playwright cannot suppress.
- He described the line “I am not afraid of your anthem” as “bravado”, explaining that he was actually afraid of how the anthem rouses "patriotic feelings".
- According to Alfian, this fear comes because "I want to protect myself from loving something too much".
- The playwright also defended Ong’s references to another part of the same poem in which he intimates that Alfian criticises Singapore’s “hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums”.
- He called the lines a "fair critique relentless development and destruction of built heritage".
Alfian added that he did not consider himself to be an activist, but a primarily a writer and a playwright.
He said that the activists that he did know were “motivated by love”.
In a third post, Alfian urged netizens not to make derogatory comments about Ong.
He concluded by making an appeal for netizens to avoid making their criticisms personal, instead directing their criticisms towards "policies, programs, agenda, ideologies".
You can read Alfian's posts in full here:https://www.facebook.com/alfiansaat/posts/10156789769882371
Top image collage screenshots from poetry.sg Youtube and CNA