A slice of 80s history: Academic Freedom in Singapore

19 Jan

This post, following from the last, focuses on academic freedom in the late 80s and is a reproduction of pages 52 – 55 from the same report, ‘Silencing All Critics, Human Rights Violations in Singapore’.


That academic censorship is a topic less discussed/ touched upon in Singapore might be a glaring inconsistency since it contradicts the exemplary worldwide ranking of the country’s premier tertiary institution, the National University of Singapore. In this excerpt, Asia Watch researchers documented the various insidious ways that scholars were being prevented from critical appraisal of government policies. In fact, the fear was so ingrained that lecturers steered away from potentially controversial subjects such as constitutional law.

While the Singapore government continues to promote the city state as a regional education hub with measures including inviting overseas Universities to set up local campuses, the issue of academic freedom is likely to rear its ugly head. To date, the failed ventures with other top educational institutions such as the University of Warwick and University of New South Wales has inferred that academic freedom is a pain in the neck for the Singapore authorities that cannot be easily wished away.

Excerpt from ‘Silencing All Critics, Human Rights Violations in Singapore’.

Pages 52- 55

Academic Freedom p 52 – 55

Though a detailed discussion of academic freedom is outside the scope of this report, it is important to note that such freedom is limited, and that scholars in particular those in the social sciences – feel restricted in the extent to which they may publish information critical of government policy.

Despite a system of tenure for most local academics, a large percentage of the faculty at the National University of Singapore, the country’s premier institution of higher learning, are expatriate staff serving renewable term appointments. Some expatriate academics who have published articles deemed critical of the government have not had their contracts renewed; local staff whose writings have been deemed inappropriate have occasionally been criticized by their superiors or even government officials. According to one analyst, college faculty members in Singapore “are warned that if they have something negative to say, they should do so privately in a memo to the appropriate authority rather the public print or in a scholarly article”. Most local scholars seem to comply, and self-censorship is a potent force in Singapore.

The two recent cases that we describe below involve expatriates. In one, two expatriate lecturers in the National University’s School of Management published an article in 1985 in Euro-Asia Business Review, a publication affiliated with the European Institute of Business Administration. The article argued that in Singapore, “both human relations in general and industrial relations in particular are being remolded to achieve a co-operative and production- oriented population and work-force.” Member of Parliament and Assistant Secretary General of the National Union Trade Congress, Lim Boon Heng criticized the article for presenting “half-truths, distortions and outright inaccuracies about Singapore”.

When the controversy arose, the university issued a statement that its policy precluded “staff of the university, especially non-Singaporean staff… [from] … comment[ing] on sensitive local issues without seeking guidance from their respective heads and deans.” The lecturers responded that the heads of their department should have known about the article as all papers written by lecturers are discussed during staff performance appraisals.

Both lecturers were nearing the end of their employment contracts when the incident occurred. One resigned, apparently because of the attacks against him; the other apparently wished to continue at the University, but as his term neared its end, he was not informed whether his contract was to be renewed. As a result, he apparently made a formal application for renewal which was denied.

In another case a law faculty member at the National University of Singapore wrote an article on the 1986 amendments to the Newspaper Printing Presses Act and submitted it to the locally-published Malaya Law Review in 1987. The author was told by the faculty editors that the article was too controversial to be published by the Law Faculty and that the only statutory analysis that would be acceptable for publication would be one that conformed with the government’s views.

The author then submitted the article that same month to the student-run Singapore Law Review. Staff members of the student publication, fully aware of the reasons that the article was refused by the Malaya Law Review, initially accepted the article and requested certain editorial changes, some of which were aimed at toning down the article. The article was not published, however. It appears this was due to pressure to prevent its publication from either University or Government officials. The author was informed by a student involved in the publication that difficulties began when a representative of the publication went to the Ministry of Communications and Information for an annual permit in 1987. The student said that the publication was required to submit a list of articles it planned to publish in the next issue. According to the student, when a government official saw that an article on the press amendments was to be included, he said that this could prevent the publication from receiving a permit and suggested that one way to avoid this might be to submit the article for prior review by officials or person designated by them. The author was also informed that the students had approached an administrative official at the Law Faculty for support, but were informed that the faculty would not stand behind their decision to publish the article and that it would be best to request that the author withdraw the article. It was withdrawn, and is now scheduled for publication in Lawasia, an Australian-based legal journal.

This was not the first time that such an incident had occurred on the Law Faculty and, as illustrated by the earlier School of Management incident, similar incidents have occurred on other faculties. Unfortunately, the same fear, whether self-created or not, appears to affect teaching in higher education. For example, Law Faculty members noted to Asia Watch representatives in December 1987 that they had not sponsored any public discussion on the obvious constitutional issues raised by the May and June 1987 ISA detentions. One Singaporean Law Faculty member, noting that it was “more [a case of] self-censorship than anything else,” indicated that local faculty members would be reluctant to teach constitutional law. Expatriate academics point out that this is due to the potential controversy that might result from dealing with politically sensitive constitutional issues.

Students and faculty alike learn either to remain entirely passive or to concentrate on areas where they feel they can avoid controversy. Self-regulation has become a self-perpetuating phenomenon in Singapore.

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