By Jess C Scott / Photo: Yale-NUS College
According to AAC&U, academic freedom also allows for those working within a scholarly community to “develop the intellectual and personal qualities required of citizens in a vibrant democracy and participants in a vigorous economy.”
Students and professors need the freedom to share their ideas publicly and responsibly, so as to develop critical judgement by exploring a wide range of insights and perspectives.
Do academics in Singapore have a safe environment to express their own views?
Here is a brief look at some of the academics who “expressed their views” about the Singapore government.
1. Rey Buono
Rey Buono taught in Singapore for nine years between 1987 and 1996. He was hired by the MOE to establish the first Theatre Program in the Singapore educational system.
In 1994, he wrote an article criticizing the architecture of the proposed Esplanade building. He said:
“The subtext of the article was the rigidity of the PAP government and the oppression of local artists. This was enough to result in the non-renewal of my contract. Later, I found out that my phone was tapped, I was followed by police, and the Ministry had in its files detailed information about what went on in my classroom.”
2. Cherian George
Dr. Cherian George is a writer and academic engaged in journalism research, education and advocacy.
In September 2012, he delivered a talk at Singapore Management University about the restriction of the press, government accountability, and the co-existence of online journalism and traditional media in Singapore.
In 2013, Dr. George’s second application for tenure at NTU was rejected. Despite petitions and an international outcry, NTU has maintained the stance to deny him tenure. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, a Cardiff University professor, said the news suggested that anyone “critical of the government” was not going to get a permanent government position.
3. Christopher Lingle
Dr. Christopher Lingle began research for his book, Singapore’s Authoritarian Capitalism, during his fellowship at the National University of Singapore.
Work on the book was disrupted when police questioned Dr. Lingle about an opinion piece published in The International Herald Tribune, where he had written that some East Asian governments relied on a “compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians.”
Although Lingle’s published comments did not name any country or individuals, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew insisted it was clear Dr. Lingle was referring to Singapore.
The paper agreed to pay $214,285 to Mr. LKY, who asserted that he had been defamed.
4. Chee Soon Juan
Dr. Chee Soon Juan is the well-known leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).
In 1993, Dr. Chee was fired from his position at the National University of Singapore for allegedly using research funds to mail his wife’s doctoral thesis to the United States. Dr. Chee denied misuse of the funds and staged a hunger strike in protest.
5. James Gomez
Dr. James Gomez is a politician and academic from Singapore. His first book was written in 1999 and titled, Self-Censorship: Singapore’s Shame.
In 2006, Dr. Gomez wrongly accused a staff at the Election Department for misplacing his minority certificate which he promptly apologized for. However, a police report was made against him and the police acted to investigate him for “criminal intimidation”.
The incident was played up by the local mainstream media. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew seized the opportunity to call Dr. Gomez “a liar” and a “bad egg.”
6. Tey Tsun Hang
Tey Tsun Hang was an NUS law professor, former district judge, and seat counsel in the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
Prof. Tey has been critical of Singapore’s legal system, as evident in his publications such as Death Penalty Singapore-Style: Clinical and Carefree.
In 2011, Hong Kong University Press published his book, Legal Consensus. The blurb states that the book “hints at the power relations and dynamics between the political establishment and the Singapore judiciary.”
In April 2012, Prof. Tey was arrested by the CPIB for investigation on charges of corruptly gaining favours from students. A year later, Prof. Tey was found guilty of corruptly obtaining gifts and sex from former student Darinne Ko, and sentenced to five months’ jail in June.
Darinne Ko said that she had been pressured into agreeing with CPIB on her witness statement after being told by Mr Teng that she could also be charged for corruption.
As Ray Buono wrote:
“I am not the only lecturer to have this happen. I can name two of my contemporaries (and there are many more). . .who were expelled for political reasons.”
One has to wonder how “many more” academics have been treated in a similar manner — and how much of a factor this is in contributing to the steady brain drain whereby many of Singapore’s best and brightest leave for a better life elsewhere.