Yale-NUS: How to break the law 101

By September 17, 2019Current

TL;DR – True educators encourage critical thinking in constructive ways. 

“These are the values of democracy” my university professor bellowed as he jumped on the table in the seminar room (YES! JUMPED . ON . THE . TABLE!) while expounding on the foundations of the democratic system of governance.

“That is what Singapore is NOT! rang in my ears as our entire class engaged in debate for another hour, discussing the pros and cons of different political regimes.

It’s really strange how democracy, a term that appeared as early as 5th century BC, means so many different things to different people. In its simplest form, it means government by the people, or even more simply, rule of the majority. So yes, the one man one vote system.

But even that it in itself can be executed in different ways. Heard of direct democracy, indirect democracy and liberal democracy? Yes, it gets murky, and different people from different countries and background can have vastly different interpretation of democracy. Heck, even people from the same country and same background sitting at the same table can argue about what democracy means until veins are throbbing and tempers are flying.

Have you heard the famous quote from Churchill? That “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

Only that it’s actually not from Churchill, he was quoting that from someone else who had said it before. Nope, no idea who said it first.

But what he did say was this, and I personally thought it’s way more interesting than the above. He’d said these utterly beautiful words,

“At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”


But to that, someone else more practical and less lyrical said, “The best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

So you see, Politics 101 would go down as one of my favourite classes back in the day when I was still in university. I got a heady buzz from sparring with my professor and empowerment from being able to synthesize knowledge gleaned from classes into cogent arguments.

And it was through exploring different schools of thoughts, different ways in which different countries and societies carried out their way of governance, reading about history and changes and revolution, and discussing about modern-day democracy and politics, the shifts and the awakening of the people that our minds were open. We were exposed to so much, and our minds were spiralling and challenged with what was and what could have been, and what we want for ourselves, today and tomorrow.

University was a turning point for me, helping to broaden my perspective and mature intellectually.

Thus, it was with great interest that I read about the whole Yale- NUS debacle. My inner idealist’s first reaction was that the cancellation was uncalled for… heavy-handed and unfair even.

After all… isn’t Yale- NUS a liberal arts college? It would be rather ironic for them to go against the very beliefs such as fostering intellectual curiosity and independent thinking that the university was predicated on in the first place.

I then read Yale-NUS’s statement on why there was the cancellation.

Source: Yahoo Singapore

Two points caught my attention.

  • Subject students to risk of breaking the law
  • Advance partisan political interests

Radical strategies of civil disobedience? Breaking the law?

WHAT?!?!? Now, here is where I draw the line.

I’m all for independent thought and freedom of opinion but if the course crosses the line into teaching students how to break the law or engage in activity that could result in criminal repercussions, then the issue on whether or not to cancel the course does not even need to be discussed.

The course would have been led by local playwright Alfian Sa’at and a Facebook post on the course clearly stated that students would be exposed to “radical’ strategies of civil disobedience”. A true educator would nurture critical thinking, and not imbue radical ideologies that could threaten public peace.

I, for one, am not ready for Singapore to be the next Hong Kong.

Partisan political interests

I actually was not sure what Yale-NUS meant by “advancing partisan political interests” until I delved further into the people slated to engage with the students – activists Kristen Han, Jolovan Wham, historian Thum Ping Tjin (or better known as PJ Thum).

A quick Google search for those unfamiliar with the names pulled up glaring results, all of them anti-establishment activists with political anti-government agenda. A course anchored by this group activists who have adopted extreme approaches to get their opinions heard without regard for implications on society is certainly cause for alarm. And the list of names involved in the course also involved activists who had previously knowingly broken the law in their demonstration of “civil disobedience”.

Moving forward…critically

I have benefited much from critical thinking skills honed under academic rigour. I wholeheartedly welcome courses where students are exposed to different perspectives and are challenged to think deeply about political issues.


BUT not when it blatantly disregards the law of the land.

BUT not when it might place students in danger.

BUT not when it is taught in isolation and without context.

BUT not when there is a hidden political agenda.


Knowledge is power indeed but to know how to use that power constructively is more important.


This is a guest post by Justin Chong.

Justin is a gamer geek at heart, loves making friends, discussing politics and watching Netflix.


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