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Local, foreign academics

face pressure on

‘politically sensitive’ topics

While Singapore’s publicly funded universities are described as autonomous, a just-released survey of some 200 academics and researchers at Singaporean universities found that political pressure exists but is indirect, often invisible and confined to a few ‘sensitive’ areas. More concerning, pressure is institutionalised in a way that undermines university autonomy.

More than three-quarters or 77.5% of respondents believed Singapore’s universities at most only exercise “some” institutional autonomy, said the wide-ranging survey report into academic freedom by an informal group of Singaporean academics known as Academia | SG.

More than 2,000 academics were sent the survey at Singapore’s five main publicly funded universities – National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University, Singapore University of Technology and Design, and Singapore University of Social Sciences.

While the response rate was around 10%, the report is being seen as ground-breaking, particularly given Singapore’s importance as a knowledge hub in Asia.

“Questions about academic freedom have been avoided for too long in Singapore,” the report noted.

Political or ideological sensitivity

The survey conducted in April and May this year found that a “significant minority” of faculty who say they work on “politically sensitive” topics are 1.5 to 3.5 times more likely to feel constrained in their ability to research or engage with the public compared with those whose work is not politically sensitive.

Even among those who do not feel personally constrained in their research, 64% acknowledged that scholars in Singapore are subject to interference or “incentivised to self-censor” at least occasionally.

For those who do feel personally constrained, 93% reported interference and self-censorship.

About a third of respondents reported having been told or knew others who were told to modify or withdraw research findings “for administrative reasons”. A large majority of these respondents (88.7%) were not convinced that the administrative reason given was valid, with more than 90% of them attributing it to political or ideological sensitivity.

“The need to secure tenure keeps untenured faculty focused on achieving numerical performance benchmarks while avoiding types of research, teaching and engagement for which they may be penalised for crossing political lines,” the report said.

Academics’ sense of risk or constraint differed depending not just on the perceived political sensitivity of their research, but also their gender and citizenship status.

More than twice as many women (28%) as men (11%) do not feel free to pursue specific projects. While 55% of female academics do not feel free to engage the public in non-academic venues, the figure for men is 29%.

Among academics who feel constrained in their research or teaching, 60% and 50% respectively said they received explicit signals from their supervisors that certain topics would not be politically welcome.

More than half of these respondents also believed the decision was made at the level of university management (60.0%) and-or the Ministry of Education or beyond (53.3%).

Institutionalised constraints

The report noted that political constraints are institutionalised and are most apparent in the way faculty need to get permission from their supervisors before engaging with civil society or the press, and for inviting controversial speakers.

Around 31% of the responding academics, both local and foreign, said non-academic actors “interfere extensively” with or are in control of university decision-making, according to the survey. Foreign academics at Singaporean universities made up 45% of all respondents.

“While departmental or university administrators may exercise the most immediate and direct controls, academics affected believe that the ultimate source of pressure is the state,” the report said.

The majority of academics “cite the wider political environment as a key inhibitor”, it added.

While Singapore’s education ministry is believed to contribute to censorship, in additional remarks cited in the report many respondents anonymously pointed to political controls internalised through faculty appraisals and even ethics review procedures, “making it hard to distinguish professional peer appraisals from political supervision”.

According to one respondent: “Academics whose research fits very well into the state’s narratives have a very high degree of academic freedom. In fact, they are rewarded constantly with government research grants; they get promoted faster.”

The same respondent added: “Rewards and potential rewards are often powerful drivers of compliance, coupled with the fact that non-compliance will lead to very serious consequences. The state often works hand-in-hand with the university admin to do this – academics have been warned by their deans, heads of department, etc, and their jobs, research grants are always on the line.”

“Leadership appointments are made on political grounds. None of these is explicit but it is understood that dissenters don’t stay in the job,” said another respondent.

Foreign academics in Singapore

Singaporean economist Linda Lim, professor emerita at the University of Michigan in the United States and co-founder of Academia | SG, said during an online panel discussion launching the report on 18 August that she had been surprised there was no significant difference between Singaporean and overseas citizens with respect to academic freedom.

She had maintained in the past that “if you are not Singaporean and you don’t study Singapore, you’re fine with respect to academic freedom”.

“But more recently one has heard cases of foreign faculty in Singapore who do not study in Singapore who have been having difficulty with their visas, and so on.” She referred to one case she knew of a foreign national who was offered a full tenured professorship by a Singaporean university, which was rescinded “when it went above the university president”.

“I do concur that what you study matters,” she said, noting the survey’s responses on sensitive topics.

One respondent, a foreign national, was cited by the report as saying: “Ultimately, I stopped my research on migration-related issues in Singapore due to clear signals that I was both putting my job at risk and in danger of running afoul of the government which perceived similar work [by other colleagues] to be ‘inappropriate political activity by foreigners’.”

According to another foreign scholar quoted in the report: “As long as I do research relating to my own country, I will survive working in Singapore. Anything to do with Singapore is sensitive, red tape, highly surveilled etc. Self-censorship becomes a norm for some of us.”

International importance of academic freedom in Singapore

Academic freedom in Singapore matters to people around the world, said Kristopher Olds, professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, who has also taught in Singapore. He was speaking during the online panel discussion.

Singapore “is a key producer of knowledge, both independently and via co-authorship, which is rising around the world,” he said. “So what happens in Singapore matters with respect to the production of knowledge. It’s important to have a very vibrant and vigorous higher education system in Singapore.”

Singapore is also a major higher education and research hub with many partnerships and collaborations with universities in Asia and the West. While it is a national system, “it is globalised by design”, said Olds.

“With Singaporeans firmly in charge of guiding these relationships, sometimes bankrolling and funding them for good and for bad, it matters.”

French business school INSEAD, which has a branch campus in Singapore, “had made it clear – and they allowed me to say this – that they’ll get in trouble if they get involved in local politics, issues related to race, ethnicity, and the relationship between Singapore and its neighbours in Southeast Asia,” Olds said.

Public engagement constraints

Of the activities associated with academic life, engagement with wider society is the most constrained: 38% of academics say they do not feel free to engage the wider public in non-academic venues such as news media and civil society events.

The proportion is 49% among those whose work is “sensitive”, according to the survey. Among those who do not feel free to engage, 23% say their institutions require them to obtain permission.

Scholars engaged in politically sensitive areas of research were also more inhibited in the public engagements than other scholars. Only around half of academics who did politically sensitive research felt free to engage the wider public in non-academic venues, compared with just over two-thirds of those who did not consider their work to be politically sensitive.

Some 55.4% of respondents reported the need to obtain permission as a constraint on inviting guest speakers. Female academics felt more constrained about external engagement compared with their male counterparts.

“It is likely to have led to a systemic under-capacity in Singapore academia’s ability to contribute to society in precisely those national debates that need to be more plural and better informed. Any such under-contribution is not likely to be detected in global university rankings, but its social impact may be long-term and profound,” the report said.

Teaching constraints

Around a third of respondents did feel free to talk about sensitive or controversial issues in class.

“Especially for junior colleagues (but not only), the university environment and society as a whole is not conducive to robust, open and polemical debate. The total opacity and unpredictability of decision-making, sanctions/rewards, and promotion does not help either,” according to one respondent.

A minority of respondents (14.1%) did not feel free to shape their syllabi and reading lists, with half saying they received explicit signals from superiors that shaping their syllabi a certain way would not be politically welcome, while two-thirds cited their own reading of the political environment as a key restraint on their freedom to teach.

In one incident cited by a respondent, “university management strongly cautioned against a guest speaker” who was a Singaporean critical of the government. “Due to university reluctance to allow the guest speaker, I eventually gave up on the effort. In the second case, the library was instructed by university management not to subscribe to a service that provided access to readings due to its association with critics of the government.”