Scholar ‘disinvited’ from conference ‘over husband’s activism’

‘As a female scholar, that is doubly insulting to me, to be reduced to being someone’s wife,’ says researcher barred from National University of Singapore

November 17, 2023
A person looks though the gap in the Buddhist temples giant red doors to illustrate Scholar ‘disinvited’ from conference ‘over husband’s activism’
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An academic has claimed that she was disinvited from speaking at a panel event at the National University of Singapore (NUS) because of her husband’s work, a move she described as a violation of her academic freedom.

Sol Iglesias, an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, was due to speak on a panel titled “Public Intellectuals, Populism and Power: Perspectives from Southeast Asia” as part of a broader conference organised by NUS’ Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, scheduled for January 2024. She expected to speak about academic freedom and public engagement in the Philippines, she told Times Higher Education.

Dr Iglesias was first invited to join the panel by an NUS faculty member in March 2023, and had been in touch with NUS administrators to discuss logistics. In early November, however, the faculty member called her to inform her she could no longer take part. “Apparently some ‘higher ups’ had told the dean that I had been rejected, but the dean didn’t know why,” she said. “He told my contact, ‘You’re free to speculate as to why.’”

Although she was never given an official explanation, Dr Iglesias believes she was disinvited because she is married to the Singaporean historian and democracy activist Thum Ping Tjin, also known as PJ Thum.

“It’s particularly insulting to me that I wasn’t repressed because of my work, but because of who I was married to,” Dr Iglesias said. “As a female scholar, that is doubly insulting to me, to be reduced to being someone’s wife.”

Dr Thum, a former Rhodes scholar, published research while at NUS on the former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s use of detention without trial. In 2018, he was questioned on his research for six hours at a sitting of the parliament’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, an incident that prompted hundreds of academics to sign an open letter in his defence.

Following the 2020 general elections in Singapore – which saw the re-election of the People’s Action Party, in power since 1959 – Dr Thum’s media outlet New Naratif was accused of “unauthorised paid internet election advertising”. He was interrogated at a police station for several hours, while the home he shared with Dr Iglesias was raided and his mobile phone and laptop seized.

Dr Iglesias, who is Filipino, said she was told not to speak out about her experience, although her NUS contact subsequently denied ever giving her this instruction. Ultimately, she elected to issue a public statement on the online platform Medium. “I decided that staying silent would only perpetuate this lack of academic freedom at NUS,” she told THE.

“Since I’ve come out with the statement I’ve also been hearing more stories from colleagues. Clearly this is just the tip of the iceberg. That’s why I’m speaking out. I do this in solidarity with my Singaporean colleagues.”

In 2021, the scholars’ collective AcademiaSG, formed in the wake of a controversial “fake news” law passed in 2019, published a survey on academic freedom in Singapore. Although the majority of respondents said they did not experience “restrictions on their own freedom”, 16 per cent said they were “not free to choose their preferred research area and broad agenda”, and 34 per cent said they knew of incidents where academics were instructed to “withdraw or modify research findings for non-academic reasons”.

Of those who said they weren’t personally restricted, 64 per cent acknowledged that scholars were “subject to interference or incentivised to self-censor at least occasionally”.

A spokesperson for NUS’ Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences said: “Dr Sol Iglesias was approached as a possible panel speaker at the Global Research Forum, planned for January 2024. Up to earlier this month, the conference details were still evolving. On 2 November 2023, we reached out to Dr Iglesias to convey that she did not make the final line-up of speakers.”

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