After announcing an online public discourse session as part of their Alumni Learning series, the Raffles Hall Association (RHA) appears to have quietly replaced its entire line up of speakers for the event.
The original announcement on the RHA Facebook page on 18 October showed that the two speakers for the event titled ‘Public Discourse: Truth & Trust’ were Professor Cherian George from Hong Jong Baptist University and Professor Donald Low from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The event, scheduled for 1 November, sought to discuss the “integrity of media and freedom of public discourse, with specific reference to their new book PAP v PAP”.
The book is an anthology that draws of both professors’ years of commentary on the government politics, as well as new essays in response to the events of 2020 thus far. PAP v PAP explores one aspect of the inner struggle of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, that is the struggle “between a conservative attachment to what worked in the past, and a boldly progressive vision for the future.”
Both Prof George and Prof Low are vocal and well-known critics of the Singapore government and both have moved to Hong Kong to continue with their respective lecturing careers.
Strangely, just three days before the event, Founding President of the RHA, Mr Sonny Yuen, posted the same event with changes made to the line-up of speakers and a whole new poster.
This is despite the fact that the Facebook page for the event still features the old poster publicising a forum with Prof George and Prof Low as panelists.
According to Mr Yuen’s Facebook post on 27 October, the new speakers are former journalist Al Ramirez Dizon, RH Resident Fellow and Lecturer at National University of Singapore Shoba Avadhani, and Special Research Adviser at the Institute of Policy Studies Arun Mahizhnan.
Profs Cherian George and Donald Low appear to have been removed from the panel entirely.
Not only that, description of the topic for the discourse was also altered slightly. Mr Yuen wrote, “Join in the important conversations on the today’s (social) media world where we apparently can no longer trust what we read, see or hear. We have a panel of distinguished and experienced experts in media and communications -_*Shobha Avadhani, Al Dizon and Arun Mahiznan*_ – to ask the important questions: where and what is the truth in public discourse; and what are the socio-political consequences if truth is compromised or constrained and trust is thus eroded.”
Beer distributor and former chocolatier, Lim Jialiang drew attention to this change in a Facebook post of his own on the same day, noting that he had spoken to Prof Low about this “bait and switch”.
“Since confirming the talk with Raffles Hall Association over a month ago, there hasn’t been any contact from the organisers at least on Donald’s side,” said Mr Lim, adding that the two original speakers have essentially be uninvited from the talk given the new event details which were announced.
He went on to raise several questions, including why the two professors were uninvited in the first place, especially given that their book has sold out its first print run and will surely spark plenty of debate and discussion.
Mr Lim went on to wonder who at NUS made the decision that led to this “bait and switch”, adding “I can’t think that it would be Raffles hall Association that made that decision, having been the ones that decided to invite the two in the first place.”
Next, he asked if the new panelist were even aware of the fact that they were replacing Prof George and Prof Low, and whether RHA would be coming out to confirm that they are indeed replacing their original slate of speakers.
In an update to the post, Mr Lim also included a screenshot of one of the new speakers, Mr Arun, saying in a Facebook comment that he would be pulling out of the event.
In his comment, Mr Arun said, “I wish to let everyone know that the organiser of this forum did not give me a full briefing of what has transpired earlier. I wasn’t even aware that the previous arrangement had be publicised. Cherian gave me a fuller briefing today. I have withdrawn from the forum.”
TOC has reached out to Prof George, Prof Low and Mr Yuen for a response, but have yet to receive a response.
Update on 28.10.2020 at 3pm:
Responding to queries from TOC, Prof George said today (28 October) that he received a call from the organisers last Friday informing him that they were told to cancel the event.
“As they only called me, I asked them to write to Donald as well. We were waiting for their email confirming the cancelation, but that was the last we heard from them. We were left to piece two and two together based on what we saw on social media, so we are unable to shed any more light on the matter,” said the professor of media studies in an email.
He added, “We hope people who signed up for our talk do not think we stood them up. Academia runs on collegiality, not just money or facilities, so we treat such invitations respectfully, even those from student and alumni groups.”