NMP Assoc. Prof Walter Theseira urges the formation of a strong and independent core of academics

During the Budget debate in Parliament on Wednesday (27 Feb), Associate Professor Walter Theseira, a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), said that Singapore needs to build a strong core of academics to keep the country in the right path and serve as a check and balance for the integrity and ability of the government.

To do this, Assoc. Prof Theseira says the government needs to be more transparent in sharing official data and be more accepting of research that might go against the official narratives of policies.

He highlighted that while Singapore representation in academic circles are strong but most of them are teaching staff members rather an faculty members and that it’s weaker among younger faculty. This, Assoc. Prof Theseira said, leads to a greater reliance on foreigners critiquing the country.

“Singaporeans must be in charge of asking the critical questions about who we are, what the problems in society are, and how to solve them. We have always said that no one owes us a living. But no one owes us an answer either, about the key questions of our society and economy. We are frankly too small for experts from elsewhere to want to study us thoroughly. And in any case, we should never depend on them,” he added.

Having said that, he said that there are still obstacles that Singaporean academics continue to face when they study issues that affect the country. One of these obstacles is a lack of access to data from the government.

“Academic credibility depends on being able to publish independent research findings based on high quality data or observations. Much of this data is held by Government. Hence, research and publication often depends on Government agreement,” he said.

He then urged the government to be more accepting of research results that may go against the official narratives, adding that the government has to make space for these ‘disagreeable academics’ to present their views on policies unhindered.

Assoc Prof Theseira also urged the country’s autonomous universities to place greater value on local research. He said that focus on boosting rankings through volume of publications or citations that that acedemics receive has result in a lack of attention on Singapore-based research. To be published in a prestigious journal typically means focusing on issues with more international interest.

Many academics who have made ‘quiet contributions’ via research collaborations, consultancy and advisory panels often receive little attention to those with journal publications. So there is less appeal in focusing on local-centric issues.

To mitigate this, Assoc. Prof Theseira urges the government and autonomous institutions to document and acknowledge the contributions made by Singaporean academics to policy and local society.

Another challenge that hinders academics from working with the government is that many Singaporean academics prefer to secure a tenure track in academia, said Assoc. Prof Theseira.

“Work outside (academic institutions) is implicitly or explicitly considered low value and is sometimes a ‘one-way door,’ where if you leave academia, you risk never returning as a faculty,” he said.

As, he suggested that academics be granted more flexibility to work outside academia – in government, civil society, and the private sector – to contribute their expertise and then return back to academic later.

He continued, “One concrete proposal is for the Government to have establishments specifically for rotating academic experts and to reimburse the autonomous universities for their faculty time.”

Assoc. Prof Theseira said he knew he was getting ‘dangerously close into political territory’ but still reminded Parliament that the country’s leaderhisp is not always dependent on the ruling People’s Action Part (PAP).

He said, “Our former prime ministers have stated that there is no guarantee your party will be in power forever. Your party may well be in power, but it may be a different party with less integrity and ability than today. Or it may not be in power at all.

“If and when that happens, to set and keep Singapore on the right path, let us invest today to have institutions in place that allow Singaporeans to speak from a position of strength on the issues of the day and challenge any future government that they feel is not acting in the best interests of Singaporeans.”