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The Thio Li-Ann debate

Updated On: Aug 19, 2009

No need to blindly accept US political correctness ... but be ready to be challenged
05:55 AM Aug 15, 2009 by Simon Tay

Another column about Professor Thio Li-Ann and gay sex runs the risk of either being ignored or attracting a law suit.

Much has been written since her parliamentary speech on the issue, and resurfaced when she declined to teach at New York University (NYU) in the aftermath of student objections.

Opposing and strident camps stand on different sides of this debate while, in between, there is a broad gap of indifference. But beyond the personality involved or the specific issue, at stake is how we talk and share viewpoints in and across societies - central issues for the idea of a "global citizen".

Does political correctness censor ideas in the United States? How do we discuss issues in society and in classrooms when strong differences exist? Is it possible that Singapore is freer than the US?

On this last question, Prof Thio herself rebutted student-critics by pointing to NYU professors who teach in Singapore. She suggested visitors are free to make their views known in Singapore and do so without disagreement because, to her, Asians are more "polite".

Free speech and politeness do not always come together. It requires great effort to keep the discussion rational and civil. A culture to respect differences needs to be cultivated.

But too often instead, by "politeness", we mean silence. That kind of "polite" silence is anathema to healthy debate. The challenge is to state the different positions and then to understand the reasons and extent of the disagreement. Maybe consensus can then be achieved, or the range of differences limited. But even without consensus, the ideal is to disagree without being disagreeable.

Some societies are not ready for this, at least on some issues. But a university classroom should expect to be more open to discussion.

This connects to one key difference between teaching in Singapore and the US. Singaporean students often ask the teacher for the answer. For most, the expectation is that, after all the discussion, there is a single, definitive solution.

American classrooms I have experienced teaching at Harvard, Yale and the Fletcher School, are different. There is more willingness to leave the discussion open-ended. Far fewer students focus on "the" answer. Learning is instead in the process of discussion.

Students have views and reasons for their views. Sometimes sparks fly, and both student and professor can learn.

From this perspective, Prof Thio always had a choice. And to its credit, NYU never withdrew the offer.

If she had accepted, there is no clear basis to believe her safety would be at risk. In New York last year, there were some 348 reported hate crimes targeting lesbians and gays. But I can find no reports of violence by gays against professors or Christians.

Would Prof Thio have been free to teach what she wanted? Yes. Political correctness would not have been forced on her but she would have to prepare for counter-arguments. After all, her classes were to have been on human rights and Asian constitutions.

On these issues, equality and freedom are key concerns. Within this rubric, debates about gay rights (and their limitations) would be germane in a way they would not be in a class, say, on finance law. She would not be able to insist what she has said are purely personal views. Nor could she threaten to sue under American law.

Is there more academic freedom in Singapore? Some years back, one foreign university reneged on plans to establish a Singaporean campus because of fears that such freedom was not guaranteed. To justify this decision, they cited comments made by Prof Thio that Singapore imposed limits on free speech for academics. This now seems ironic.

The National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, where both Prof Thio and I teach, tags itself as Asia's Global Law School. This is consistent with the country's effort to position itself in a world where education is more global and the numbers of universities, students and professors who cross borders is increasing.

In our efforts to be global, we will have to learn to engage other views. This does not mean blind acceptance of American political correctness. But neither can it mean that we may say all we want without challenge.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York and an Associate Professor with NUS.

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