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We need to expand academic freedom in Singapore. Donaldson Tan.

What academic freedom?

Donaldson Tan / Head, TOC International

A curious term appeared on the Straits Times last Thursday – Academic Freedom. Academic Freedom is the belief that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy. Some hail this as a human right; others call it a privilege. In his commentary, Senior Writer Dr Andy Ho of the Straits Times made an interesting remark on Academic Freedom:

“Academic freedom does not confer on academics special speech rights beyond their work. What academic freedom does undoubtedly confer is freedom from reprisals that disable academics  from doing their jobs as academics per se. An academic has the right to allow his data and arguments to lead where they might, regardless of official views.

In practice, this broad theoretical right translates mainly into the right of professors to choose what content to teach and how to teach it in courses they propose or are assigned. Generally, no supervisor can tell a professor, even a freshly minted one, what the content of his course should be or how to teach it. So also with their research agendas. By contrast, almost all other types of employees can be told what they must do and how it must be done.”

In exercising freedom, it is always about mutually pushing boundaries to discern what is acceptable and what isn't. Freedom is a slippery slope. On one hand, we have the Constitution that guarantees the fundamental liberties. On the other hand, Parliament make laws to outlaw specific acts of freedom. Society further limits freedom by establishing Out-of-Boundary (OB) Markers. OB markers evolve with the moral understanding and sensitivity of Society over time.

Opposing Academic Freedom in the Academic's Field

Dr Andy Ho wrote: Academic freedom does not confer on academics special speech rights beyond their work. This statement also implies that academics have special speech rights in their field of specialisation. Let's consider the validity of the aforementioned statement by looking up history. In December 1994, the Jakarta Post published an essay by NUS Political Science Lecturer Dr Bilveer Singh titled “Singapore Faces Challenges of Success”. In his article, Dr Bilveer Singh wrote:

“Many, including the Government, were profiteering as a result of the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax in April. What is now emerging in Singapore is a society that is faced with growing impoverishment even though a fortunate minority is still reaping profits and the queue for a Mercedes 320 is still very long.

What the statistics hide through the law of averages and generalisation, is that the majority of Singaporeans are basically living hand-to-mouth and it is these Singaporeans, who constitute the majority, that have become increasingly alienated with the Government.”

The Singapore Government rebuked Dr Bilveer Singh in a letter to the Jakarta Post through Simon De Cruz, the Charge d'Affaires at the Singapore Embassy in Indonesia. Simon challenged Dr Bilveer Singh to either substantiate his allegations or withdraw them, particularly on the claims that the government is profiteering from the introduction of GST, that Singapore is a society that is faced with growing impoverishment and that "a majority of Singaporeans are basically living hand-to-mouth". De Cruz also said that as an academic, Dr Bilver Singh could not "merely assert the conclusion to be proven and ignore facts to the contrary". Dr Bilveer Singh withdrew his allegations subsequently.

In July 2003, the Minister of Manpower Ng Eng Heng rebuked NTU economists Professor Lim Chong Yah, Dr Chen Kang and Dr Tan Ghee Khiap for contradicting the labour statistics released by the Ministry of Manpower. In particular, Professor Lim Chong Yah had said, “Out of four jobs created, only one job went to a Singapore resident, three jobs went to the intake of foreign workers”. Dr Tan Gee Giap also added, “The number of non-resident workforce is very large, runs over 700,000... the unemployment is only less than 90,000, then something is very wrong." In response, Minister Ng said the academics were “way off the mark” and they should had consulted the Ministry of Manpower or Department of Statistics. In the end, the NTU economists published a public apology to the Minister of Manpower.

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) at NUS invited Law Professor Douglas Sanders from the University of British Columbia to speak on “Society and Sexual Diversity: Human Rights, International Law, Western Patterns, Asian Developments'” in August 2007. He was also scheduled to deliver a talk on 'Sexual orientation in international law, a case for Asia' in a public forum concurrently. However, the police cancelled Professor Sander's professional visit pass and permit to speak in the public forum.

Popular Opinion against Academic Freedom

In November 1996, Professor Chan Kai Lok from the NUS Department of Biological Science was ordered to make a public apology and to accept 6-month pay-cut over remarks he made about Christianity and Islam at the campus event “Creation: Fact or Fiction” organised by the Varsity Christian Fellowship. He was subsequently fired from the university.

In October 2008, John Tan's lectureship at the Singapore Campus of James Cook University was suspended while awaiting trial over the “Kangaroo T-Shirt” Fiasco. John Tan is the Assistant Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party. Dr Dale Anderson, CEO of the Singapore Campus, revealed that a “Collin Lim” had emailed the university administration informing them of Dr John Tan's association to Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party. The same email was copied to the Minister of Education. When John Tan appealed on the basis of academic freedom, Dr Anderson replied that "half of the school is owned by Singapore" and  there was nothing he could do because he was under the employment of Singapore.

Exercising Academic Freedom

Where does academic freedom begin? Where does it end? In Singapore, it goes beyond rebuking academics who disagree with status-quo or publicly confront government policies. Essentially, academics criticising public policies or social development are controlled by the Government's monopoly on statistics and data. Michael Hwang, President of the Law Society, noted in January 2009 Edition of The Law Gazzette:

On a more practical note, Singapore is sadly lacking a principled and transparent penal policy. Our universities barely cover the study of criminology, and even less the more important study of penology.

Possibly, this is because Government has not published detailed statistics of crime and punishment so that social scientists can undertake adequate research on the causes of crime and the effects of current penal policies on prisoners (especially recidivists).

One traditional justification for the lack of such statistics is that these are sensitive figures which could be interpreted as indicating that certain communities might be more prone to commit certain crimes, but we cannot continue to put our heads in the sand and hide important social facts which need serious study by objective scholars in order to improve our society.

Only rigorous research with full access to relevant information can help us determine important penological questions such as:

  • Is the death penalty effective in preventing murder and other capital crimes?
  • Do strict liability offences achieve their object of deterring anti-social behaviour?
  • What kind of punishments best deter what kind of behaviour?
  • Should we follow the UK in adopting indeterminate sentences?
  • Is corporal punishment an effective deterrent against the crimes for which it is imposed as a penalty?

Thio Li-Ann's academic freedom in the USA is only a red-herring to the real issue affecting robust public discourse on government policies in Singapore. Academics are well-informed contributors who can shape public discourse on topics such as CPF adequacy for retirement and HDB affordability . Academics play an important role in informed citizenry for effective use of our civil and political space. We need to expand academic freedom in Singapore in order to promote public dialogue on government policies.
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