Letter addressed to Yale president in defense of playwright Alfian Sa'at

By Jee Leong Koh

Dear Yale President Peter Salovey:

I hope it has come to your attention that the narrative and analysis of the Yale report on the cancellation of the Yale-NUS learning module “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore” has been refuted by the instructor concerned, playwright Alfian Sa’at.

According to the administrative leadership of Yale-NUS, the learning module was cancelled because of (1) insufficient academic rigor and (2) the legal risks posed to international student participants. In a series of Facebook posts, compiled into one page by Academia.SG, Alfian has provided proof that (1) he was never informed throughout the four-month discussion of the learning module that the proposed module lacked academic rigor. In formulating his proposal he had, after all, taken guidance from a sample module sent to him. In fact, the feedback from the college staff consistently revolved around the “politically sensitive” aspects of the module, feedback to which Alfian responded by making changes to the module willingly; and (2) he was acutely aware of the potential legal risks posed to students. In fact, he raised the issue first with the staff and then changed the order of activities so that the sign-making workshop would come after, not before, the walking tour of Hong Lim Park. There was no attempt whatsoever with regards to "simulating" a protest at Singapore’s only legal venue for protests. Having worked in Singapore’s arts scene for many years, Alfian is well aware of Singapore’s political and legal boundaries.

Alfian accepts that it is Yale-NUS college’s prerogative to cancel the learning module, but rightly defends his character, motives, and competence against the impugnment of the Yale and media reports. His version of events is too different from that told to your representative for there not to be a further inquiry to be made by an unbiased reporter. For the purpose of full disclosure, Alfian is an honorary advisor of Singapore Unbound, the NYC-based literary non-profit that I founded and still head. I have seen screenshots of the WhatsApp and email messages between Alfian and Yale-NUS, which all support his version of events. Alfian did not share these messages with your representative at his interview because he did not expect that the Yale-NUS leaders would proffer a narrative so different from his. If the Yale report is wrong, the very least Yale-NUS could do to repair the reputational harm done to Alfian Sa’at is to issue a public apology. If the Yale-NUS leadership misled your representative, they should be removed from their positions of public trust.

I will be sending copies of this letter to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Yale Daily News.

Jee Leong Koh

Founder and organizer, Singapore Unbound

This first appeared as a post on the Facebook wall of Jee Leong Koh on 7 October 2019. Do join in the discussion over there if you have thoughts to share.


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