If you haven’t read any of Alfian’s poems or short stories, or seen one of his plays at Wild Rice then you can’t say you know Singapore literature or Singapore.
Yale NUS cancelled a program on dissent and resistance in September 2019 which Alfian was due to run. As a consequence, Alfian’s reputation and integrity have been sullied and he has been treated with dis-respect. The response by some has been sad and disgraceful.
We need more writers like Alfian.
The affair raises important issues regarding academic freedom, the limits of dissent and critique, and the role of the humanities and writers in society. Former Ambassador to the UN and US, Tommy Koh, and NMP and economist, Walter Theseira, have provided a significant defence of Singaporean writers and the humanities.
Here’s Walter summarising his speech in parliament "A Liberal Education and Corruption of the Youth in Singapore":
“1) A liberal education has nothing to with corrupting youth by fomenting subversion or dissent, but instead, encourages students to adopt the liberal principles of critical thinking, open mindedness, and critical inquiry - to examine thoughts and actions, of others and of oneself.
2) While academic freedom does not mean the right to be exposed to unsuitable topics or instructors (too extremist, lacking rigor), we must guard against closing our minds, in the guise of protecting our students from bad influences.
Just because Alfian Sa'at, a playwright, may not have the expertise to curate "Dialogue and Dissent" from an academically rigorous perspective (although administrative issues also intervened), does not mean his creative works have no relevance to Singapore, or that he should be barred from engaging the youth. Some may feel his work is 'undesirable', but I urge people to decide for themselves. (edit: I am heartened that arts observers including Tommy Koh have defended Alfian Sa'at)
3) While academics should be active outside the classroom, and can be activists who impact the world (a point celebrated by Minister Ong), activism should be separated from the classroom. Max Weber agrees with us on this one.
4) We must continue to ask challenging and critical questions at our Universities, and accept that critical work need not be perfect to be useful. If we expect only perfection from our critics, we will bias scholars towards simply regurgitating safe, received wisdom. This is not good for our students or for Singapore.
5) A liberal education should be expanded beyond just the elite; it is a foundation for lifelong learning and citizenship. We must accept that there is a right to question ideas, beliefs, and policies, and to have our own questioned, critically and respectfully. Far from corrupting the youth, a liberal education provides strength for the future.”