Cherian George used to be an academic at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
The former journalist is a political liberal and a prominent critic of the Singapore government, and he has been publicly rebuked by the state in response. But during his time at NTU he rose to take charge of its journalism programme, the nation’s only such university programme and the biggest source of young journalists for the Singapore press.
In 2014, Dr George joined Hong Kong Baptist University, after what he describes as a “forced exit” from NTU, and after having twice been denied tenure.
Now the case – which was big news in Singapore and Hong Kong – is back in the headlines and being widely discussed on social media after comments made about his exit by Bertil Andersson, NTU’s president, in a recent interview with Times Higher Education.
Singapore’s universities are rising powers in the world of higher education thanks to massive government investment in research. Links between its universities and leading Western institutions are growing: Imperial College London and NTU recently committed to opening a medical school on the island in a joint venture.
But the case of Dr George raises a big question about Singapore – a state in which male same-sex sexual activity is illegal and rights to free speech are limited – and its status as a burgeoning higher education power. Does the Singaporean state limit academic freedom by intervening in the nation’s universities to suppress its critics?
In 2005, Dr George became involved in a public dispute with the government of Singapore. The nation, which achieved independence in 1965, has been ruled by the People’s Action Party since 1959.
“Controls are so seamlessly integrated into the system and coercion is so well calibrated that the average Singaporean can go through much of life without bumping into the hard edges of PAP authoritarianism,” he wrote in The Straits Times, Singapore’s highest-circulation newspaper, in October 2005.
Chen Hwai Liang, press secretary to the prime minister, responded via a letter to the paper, noting that the prime minister had “explained why he does not believe that liberal democracy as practised in the West will work here”.
He also wrote: “It is no surprise that critics of the government, especially those who are academics, will want to portray themselves as being dispassionate observers who are above the fray. However, the government’s response will depend on the substance of what they say, rather than the pose they strike.”
Dr George, who took his undergraduate degree in social and political sciences at the University of Cambridge, is the author of three books, including Singapore: the Air-Conditioned Nation (2000) and Freedom from the Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore (2012).
In 2009, Dr George was refused tenure by NTU, even though he was given a promotion and the university’s promotion and tenure committee judged that he deserved tenure, according to his account.
NTU recommended that he apply again for tenure at a later stage, which he did – only to be refused again in 2013. In 2010, he had been awarded the Nanyang Award for Teaching Excellence, the university’s highest teaching honour.
Andersson ‘clarifies’ comments
THE asked Professor Andersson about the matter in an interview published in December. He said that “one can have different opinions if that academic decision [by] our tenure committee was right or not. That is an academic decision. But the decision was not political.”
Professor Andersson then issued a “clarification” stating that “there was no intention to lower the reputation or standing of Dr George in his field of work”.
But that was not good enough for Dr George, who countered on his blog: “The issue [here] does not boil down to ‘different opinions’, as [Professor Andersson] suggests, but the following objective facts that contradict his quotes.
“First, I was assessed to have met the university’s academic criteria for promotion and tenure in 2009. Second, NTU withheld tenure nonetheless. And third, it gave only political and not academic reasons for its decision.”
Dr George continued of the 2009 decision: “I was told of a ‘perception’ that my critical writing could pose a ‘reputational risk’ to the university in future.” He added: “My subsequent annual performance reviews from 2009 to 2012 never highlighted any deficiency in research, teaching or service that I was required to address in order to secure tenure.”
In his blog post, Dr George challenged Professor Andersson to release all documents relating to his tenure case, including the “handwritten notes from the meeting of 2010 at which the reasons for withholding tenure were explained to me by the then [university] president [Su Guaning] and provost [Professor Andersson], watched over by the then permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education in her capacity as a member of the board of trustees”.
THE tried to verify Dr George’s account of these events by seeking comment from NTU on the blog post, and asking whether it would release the documents in question.
However, an NTU spokesman said that the university “will not be making any further comments”. A spokesman for the Ministry of Education said: “Tenure decisions are made by autonomous universities.”