April 19, 2014

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Singapore Punishes Net Freedom Advocate

Over the last few days my activist self has come out.  I was a tenure reviewer for Dr. Cherian George at Nanyang Technical University, one of Singapore’s most high-profile universities.  His tenure case was overturned at the top, where university administration meets the country’s political elites.

It is difficult to dismiss George on the basis of academic merit. With degrees from Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford, his pedigree is admirable. He has three books under his belt: the eviscerating “Air Conditioned Nation”, the evocative “Freedom From the Press” and a scholarly tome comparing independent online journalism in Singapore and Malaysia that was actually published at home by Singapore University Press. Through a string of academic articles, George has been equally critical of the government and the press, so it is not surprising that the country’s journalists have not rushed to his defense. He has revealed to colleagues that the decision to deny his tenure was solely because of “non-academic factors”—the university administrators told him as much. He’s had positive teaching evaluations. This wasn’t a merit based decision.

The protections of tenure are important in every country. In the United States, for example, it was behind the shield of tenure that prominent media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan  was able to call out the misguided maneuverings of the University of Virginia’s trustees. Indeed, through tenacity and eloquence he demonstrated to the entire country that having public universities overseen by a board of regional business leaders could make for bad management decisions.

As one of Singapore’s most high profile censorship critics, Cherian George is guilty of several things. In his teaching, he is guilty of corrupting several cohorts of young journalism students with ideas about press freedoms. In his role as a public intellectual, he is guilty of helping to organize and inform the country’s growing community of independent bloggers and citizen journalists.

This is actually the second time there has been high level interference with his career trajectory. In 2008, he helped lead a coalition of democracy advocates to lobby for more internet freedoms in Singapore, and helped lead a workshop to teach bloggers about their (lack of) rights. The regime ordered NTU to have nothing to do with the efforts, though that did not stop George from moving ahead on his own energy. The National University of Singapore’s Law School had originally offered to host the blogger workshop, but they too were instructed to stay clear. But George helped pull the event off anyway. The next year, his case for promotion moved smoothly up the ranks within the University, but was quashed with little explanation by the University’s President.

For more on this evolving story, here’s a commentary piece I did for TechPresident.

A statement from the Berkman Center on Tumblr.

The Twitter hashtag:  #georgefortenure

The Online Petition For Tenure.

Article in Singapore Straights Times

Regional WSJ blog post

Comments

  1. Richard Wan says:

    Hi Philip,

    You wrote an interesting piece.
    Can I have your permission to re-post this article on TRE (www.tremeritus.com)?

    Thank you.

  2. Harish Pillay says:

    One typo to fix: it is Straits Times, not “Singapore Straights Times” which will lend greater credibility to your article.