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Censorship undermines education of students, says NTU undergrad Thaddaeus Wee.

Becoming a world-class university: NTU and campus media freedom

This is the transcript of a speech given by Thaddaeus Wee, a Year 2 student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at a demonstration at the Speaker’s Corner protesting the NTU President’s censorship of student newsletter The Nanyang Chronicle. A full report on the event will be uploaded on TOC soon.

Why we are gathered

First and foremost, let us justify our displeasure and explain why today even transpired. We are concerned. We are concerned because the articles produced that were spiked by the university authorities were painstakingly worked upon. Not just by student editors but also experienced professors of our media school, most of them armed with years of industry experience. Despite the multitude of efforts invested in the news articles to ensure that they would be non-partisan and “sanitized”, the university authority still chose to spike them because it was afraid of giving undue publicity that would be “inadvertently exploited” by Dr Chee.

To axe this article, despite all the efforts of our fellow student editors and professors, we feel, is undermining the education that my peers and I have been through, and by the way, have paid for! I can fondly remember what I learnt in my second week of school when I was still a freshman one year ago: the central purpose of journalism is to inform citizens accurately and reliably, so that they function in a free society. Scaling this down to the level of our university, it should also mean that the central purpose of our campus journalism is to inform students accurately and reliably, so that they function in a free campus.

Freedom and function inseparable in University education

Now, there are two important keywords for the purpose of this topic. The first is “free”, and the second, and more important, is “function”. What exactly do we mean by free? A free society obviously would refer to a democracy, but what about a free campus? A safe interpretation would be that the University is an autonomous institution of higher education. Now comes the word “function”. What then is the function of university students in an autonomous institution, and how can we go about “functioning”?

I have frequently been taught in university that the “growing” of knowledge can only occur when ideas are “build upon ideas”. That is the way knowledge is recognized, theorized, and eventually transformed into workable, practical, solutions. Therefore I believe that the function of students in the university is to learn and apply the critical skills required in “building knowledge”. And that is, in essence, our education. However, we must remember that education in a university goes beyond classroom theory. That is probably one of the most heard anecdotal advices that need little explanation.

University students are often expected to make good leaders and be socially-critical members of society. As with the classroom-theories, when faced with the real world social issues, university students are expected to translate the critical skills they were imparted with in formal education into informed opinions and choices.

By promoting critical thought and intellectual exchange on social issues through the campus media, NTU will be a lot closer to becoming a world-class university that it has set itself off to be. Potential leaders can be groomed and nurtured only when the university environment evolves into one that promotes and encourages students to speak out. The university should be a place that facilitates and stimulates critical, intellectual exchange that extends beyond the confines of academia. But of course, this intellectual free market should also come attached with the clause of responsible freedom of expression as well.

Allowing our campus media to have the freedom to report responsibly can only spell improvement in debate and informed opinions amongst the students, on all relevant social issues. To impede this freedom would also mean to impede the function of education. Now the big question we want to ask ourselves is if the articles were irresponsible in terms of editorial freedom. And the answer, on our side as students, is a big, resounding NO. And that is the crux of our disappointment in the way the school has viewed and handled the issue.

Despite all previous efforts made to ensure that the news stories would fulfill its obligations of promoting function in a free campus, the university has exercised, in its capacity as owner, its judgment that the news article was more harmful than good for the university. We acknowledge that the university media platforms are funded by the university itself. We also recognize the tender balance and relationship between editorial and business ownership. However, we also feel that the university can profit much if it considers our point of view and give greater emphasis to the free exchange of information.

While it is indeed arguable that the university has its ownership rights to not run news articles it deems as detrimental or irresponsible, we are here today to contemplate if the decision made was truly beneficial, especially in relation to the importance of a quality education. The university, as an owner, has to sufficiently consider the feelings and views of a very important stakeholder – us, students.

Trust students and staff

We firmly believe that students are also important stakeholders in NTU. Besides the fact that we pay a rough 20-30 grand school fee to help support the university income and funding, we also create the bulk of the academic population that creates the unique university culture. We also represent the university in all spheres and disciplines, and not just now but also after we graduate. We will eventually bear the mark of the NTU alumni, and whatever we contribute to society will eventually reflect upon our alma mater.

As an autonomous institution, NTU definitely has its rights to act freely, but responsible as well. We understand that NTU axed the article to be responsible to the students and probably society at large, inferred from their official statement that the article was axed due to the potential that the unsolicited visit would be given publicity in furtherance of a political objective. The university does not want to mislead or be made an instrument to Dr Chee’s political objectives.

Even if we were to agree that their reason was largely valid, we wish to point out that the news stories were carefully crafted to prevent undue publicity. It seems to me that there can only be 2 possible conclusions inferred from the university’s decision in this circumstance.

One possible conclusion is that the university simply does not trust the judgment and skills of its own students and professors. That, as stakeholders of the university, is the ultimate insult. Not only are students seen as incompetent, so are the very professors the school has employed to impart us with knowledge and skills. And the greatest irony is that you, me, we, are paying for my education here. Am I then paying for a 2nd-class education? Are you for a 2nd-class education?

The second possibility is that the university recognizes the competence of its students and professors, and believes in their sound advices. Still it chose to do what it has already done. Under such a belief, I can only think that the university is behaving in a paranoid fashion. It is definitely wiser for the university to allow the news stories to surface if it intends to pursue its vision of being a world-class university, and to groom the leaders of tomorrow.

Even if we choose to view the university as being conservative and not paranoid, it is still detrimental to the processes of free intellectual exchange. To be conservative could mean the silencing of certain opinions and ideas, and the quest for knowledge stops abruptly with it.

The contest of ideas

Now, some of you might say that being conservative does not mean a total embargo on certain ideas and opinions, but rather a slow, trickling down process, where exchanges are carefully mediated and managed. Still, even if we were to agree, we must realize that such a pace of growth is irrelevant in light of the fast pace of life and society today, and will not help in achieving the aims of becoming a world-class university.

According to English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, no opinion or idea is ever entirely wrong or right. This freedom of expression can only serve to better our education by allowing us to extract the good and discard the bad from all heard ideas. But first, we need to let these ideas be heard!

We need to let intellectual opinion and ideas flow in order to validate or invalidate them. To deny the possibility of another opinion would mean to assume the infallibility of one’s own opinion. Thus, the reason we are even having this open dialogue here today, to ensure that intellectual exchange can take place between us students, and the university!

I therefore would like to end this speech, with the hopes that the open dialogue has been one that is fruitful for all stakeholders of NTU, and also an insightful one for all concerned members of the public.

Thank you all for coming, because your support and concern by being here today, only tells me that there is great hope for not just our cause, but also for NTU’s aspiration to be a better, world-class university.

Pictures by Kelvin Khoo & Ma Xianrong

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