Hiring international academics serves to reinforce conservatism in Singapore, says scholar

The hiring of international academics at universities in Singapore could reinforce the country’s lack of academic freedom and “make the academy more conservative, said a scholar to Times higher Education (THE).

While internationalisation has been hailed by some as a way for the West to contribute a positive influence on academia in authoritarian countries by improving teaching and research practices and increasing academic freedom, others say it does exactly the opposite.

In an article by THE, Singaporean emeritus professor at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Linda Lim said that young scholars are leaving the country to work in the US and UK where the higher education systems are more open.

She said that while foreign scholars are attracted to work in Singapore partly because of the attractively high salaries, they may also feel ‘much more constrained’ in expressing themselves as a result of their visa status. This then leads to a more conservative academy than it would otherwise be which unwittingly reinforces the loss or lack of academic freedom.

According to THE, about 61% of the academic staff at the National University of Singapore (NUS) is international, up from 57% in 2016. More than half the academic staff at Nanyang Technological University are also made up of foreign scholars.

In Singapore there are known but not well-defined markers of what topics and views are permissible for public discussions. These ‘out-of-bounds marker’ or OB for short shift over time, says Prof Lim and while everyone knows they exist, no one can tell what exactly they are at any given time.

Without a clear delineation of these so-called OB markers, academics and even civil societies tend to be more conservative than necessary.

Just last month, Prof Lim and several other scholars who used to teach at NUS and Nanyang voiced their concern over the level of freedom of expression in Singapore after an online article was removed following a legal challenge. The article included critical comments from academics about the country’s two leading universities.

In the article, academics were quoted saying that the so-called Key Performance Index (KPI) imposed on the faculty are constantly changing at local universities, resulting in haphazard execution of tenure and promotions. TodayOnline is now facing a legal challenge for publishing the article.

This lack of freedom of expression isn’t limited to just educational institutions. It’s part of the fabric of Singapore society. Back in October 2018, activist and artist Seelan Palay was arrested and subsequently charged under the Public Order Act for holding an ‘unlawful protest’ outside the Parliament House. Mr Palay was in fact presenting an performance art piece in tribute to long-time political detainee Chia Thye Poh.

As Prof Lim said in the article by THE, “the role of the academic under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes is actually more important” than it is in democratic countries.

“The fewer other people there are who can speak up, the more important it is for those who still have some protection from their professional status…to continue doing so,” she said.