A US academic has claimed that an institute at a Singaporean university where he used to work is a “veneer” for government and industry research.
Robert Bianchi, who until April was a visiting research professor at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, said he was dismissed after speaking out about problems at the institute.
The university denied the allegations, adding that Professor Bianchi’s contract was terminated after “numerous serious complaints” about inappropriate conduct.
Professor Bianchi took up a two-year renewable contract at the MEI in August 2011. “There is some confusion and misrepresentation of its relationship with the Singapore government, its degree of academic autonomy and the duties of the senior faculty,” he told Times Higher Education.
Three of the institute’s nine board members are representatives of the Singaporean government, three hold directorships of companies, and the chairman of the board is also the chairman of Shell Companies in Singapore, according to the MEI website. Professor Bianchi said that people who spoke at the institute during his time there appeared to be “guests of the Foreign Ministry and government”. “It became more and more apparent that the so-called independent research institute with a scholarly veneer was an arm of the Singapore Foreign Ministry,” he said.
He added that over time research focused on countries in the Persian Gulf and energy. “[The institute was] increasingly focused on cultivating business and personal relationships with the new government of Iraq,” Professor Bianchi said.
A university spokesman said that “the director of MEI reports to the board of directors but the board does not try to impose its will on the institute”. Referring to the chairman’s background, he added that while it was true that some of the institute’s researchers were studying Iraq and various Gulf states, “these research activities are independent of, and in no way related to, Shell’s activities”.
Professor Bianchi claimed that the early termination of his contract followed “repeated retaliation” for highlighting problems and expressing professional opinions that differed from the institute’s director at the time, Michael Hudson.
In March 2013, after raising issues during a meeting of the institute’s international advisory council, he received a letter from Professor Hudson reprimanding him for an “angry and erratic tirade” and for “insulting” the institute and its visitors. It listed a further nine alleged incidents of professional misconduct dating back to October 2011. Professor Bianchi said that the letter was “filled with distortions and absurd allegations that were completely unfounded” and that he was previously unaware of most of the incidents listed.
In February 2014, Professor Bianchi wrote to members of the NUS’ senior management and MEI board members expressing concerns about the choice of a successor for Professor Hudson. He also met with the provost to discuss the matter a few weeks later. By the end of March, he had received a letter terminating his contract.
The spokesman for the university said there was “no truth” in the claim that Professor Bianchi had been dismissed for expressing professional opinions differing from those of Professor Hudson.
“Professor Bianchi was released from the MEI…following numerous serious complaints from colleagues as well as the leadership of MEI about his inappropriate conduct,” he said.