Updated: Yale and censorship

9 04 2012

Readers will likely know Michael Montesano as a historian and frequent commentator on Thailand’s politics. PPT’s attention was recently drawn to another debate Montesano is engaged in, related to the establishment of a Yale University campus in partnership with the National University of Singapore.

The debate taking place seems long and convoluted for outsiders, but in making the point that Yale’s management has been compromised and in pointing to censorship and self-censorship on Singapore’s politics and how Yale will slot into that, what caught PPT’s eye was that a part of Montesano’s argument drew attention to the Yale administration’s role in the publication of The King Never Smiles. This is what he says:

… chillingly, in early 2006 Yale’s current president caved in to pressure from the government of Thailand to allow representatives of the Thai monarchy, whose supporters would just months later mount a coup d’état in Bangkok, pre-publication review (just “for accuracy,” but they always say that, don’t they?) of a biography of the Thai king already in the process of publication by Yale University Press… [by Paul Handley]. While the late Yale law professor Alexander Bickel turned over in his grave, publication of the book was thus delayed long enough so that the world’s media had no access to it as they reported on the gala celebrations marking sixty years of the king’s reign in June 2006. This episode leaves little doubt about the impact, on Yale itself, of the current Yale president’s weak commitment to academic freedom where Southeast Asia is concerned. Its implications for Yale scholarship relating to Singapore are clear and ominous. After all, Yale was not even employed by the government of Thailand when the episode occurred.

That this Thai episode elicited so little protest from Yale faculty was hard to understand. Nonetheless, it was in itself a one-time event. Should such episodes, or even the suspicion of them, become routine in matters concerning Singapore, however, the resultant regime of self-censorship in New Haven would surely prove unsustainable. It would poison both the relations of many of Yale’s humanists and social scientists with Yale’s leadership and the intellectual climate at the university. It would thus also undercut the ability of Yale, especially under the leadership of future Yale presidents, to serve as an effective partner of the PAP government and NUS.

For those who have forgotten the details of the pre-publication efforts by the Thaksin Shinawatra government and the palace to stop the book, and the U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce’s role, there is a useful summary in the first few pages of this article (a PDF).

Update: A reader tells us that Montesano’s claim that it was “a one-time event” is not accurate. Yale has a longer record of freedom of speech challenges than indicated just by the events over The King Never Smiles. The reader points to cases here, here, here and here.

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