Keeping academic freedom on the agenda

Academic Views, Editorials / Wednesday, January 26th, 2022


Despite government statements in Parliament, key questions remain unanswered.

Our Academic Freedom in Singapore Survey Report was briefly discussed in Parliament this month, when MP Leon Perera (Workers’ Party) raised it in a question for oral answer. Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman replied, “Our Autonomous Universities (AUs) are committed to safeguarding academic freedom for their faculty and students.” The minister also advised “some caution in generalising the findings from the Survey as representative of how all academics in Singapore feel”.

We should reiterate that our report was never proffered as the final word about the constraints faced by academics in Singapore, but as a conversation starter. We are glad that it was raised in Parliament. Unfortunately, Perera was not given the opportunity to ask follow-up questions after the government’s brief response. We hope that MPs use the upcoming Budget Debate to keep academic freedom on the agenda. 

We have been transparent about our survey’s limitations — which are no more serious than those of surveys commonly cited by the government, and hardly warrant outright dismissal of our key findings. As we pointed out in the methodological appendix, a 10% response rate when reaching out to virtually the whole population of 2,000 academics in the humanities and social sciences is quite respectable. Most government and commercial surveys target only a small sample of the people they are studying, such that populations of millions are routinely characterised through the responses of a thousand. What’s more, our survey data are reinforced by respondents’ answers to qualitative open-ended questions. 

Selected highlights

The study reveals that many academics are pressured — not only by the wider political culture but also through direct signals by leaders and managers within universities — to avoid politically sensitive topics, to water down controversial findings, to avoid speaking to the press, and to avoid civil society engagement.

Exactly how many academics are affected in this way is hard to state with precision. It is possible, as the government implies, that our survey overstates the problem. Our invitation to participate may have attracted a disproportionate number of academics who are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. On the other hand, it is clear from the comments we garnered that the exercise also attracted respondents who felt the need to defend Singapore from criticism they viewed as unfair. 

It is also possible that our findings under-report the true situation. First, because we reached out only to current employees of Singapore universities. This means the survey excludes the perspectives of academics who have left for reasons associated with academic freedom, while over-representing academics who have made peace with the status quo. Second, because academics who feel politically constrained are more likely to fear completing such a survey than those who do not. The team received queries about whether it was “safe” to participate in the survey; despite reassurances about confidentiality, some said that their colleagues were declining to take part due to concerns about surveillance.

In any case, these quantitative uncertainties are ultimately a distraction. When examining institutional governance, quantifying whether reported incidents represent 5% or 25% of the overall picture may be less important than establishing whether they are random aberrations or systemic — whether they are occurring in spite of how the organisation is run, or because of it. This is true of corruption in a bureaucracy, accidents at the workplace — and infringements on academic freedom. Regardless of how many individuals experience a particular problem, the details they provide about how the system works can be highly illuminating. 

Therefore, as worrying as some of our reported numbers are, what demands even more attention is the ample evidence pointing to the existence of multifaceted constraints on academic work in Singapore. Contrary to the government’s response that universities are “committed to safeguarding academic freedom”, our study shows that political constraints are institutionalised rather than incidental. They cannot be dismissed as the result of a few misguided department heads, or brushed aside as affecting only irresponsible academics who abuse their position. They are the result of policy, deliberate or unintentional.

If indeed a university is “committed to safeguarding academic freedom”, a reasonable response to such doubts would be to set up an independent oversight mechanism, including safe avenues for faculty to report infringements, and to publish periodic reports. 

In addition to more answers from the ground, we need more clarity from the top. The Second Minister’s response to Leon Perera — like Minister Chan Chun Sing’s statement last year addressing concerns about academic freedom in the wake of the Yale-NUS College closure announcement — was perfunctory. A number of key questions remain unanswered. We hope these will be pursued both within universities and in public debates. Our report highlighted the following.

1. Impact on Singapore studies

We’ve argued that constraints on academic freedom have hurt Singapore academia’s ability to contribute to society in precisely those national debates that need to be more plural and better informed. The government replied in Parliament that “NUS’ Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences has a public listing of more than 8,000 Singapore-related publications”, and that MOE has “funded projects on topics that may be considered sensitive, under its competitive grants”. These data, of course, reveal nothing about which lines of inquiry were never pursued or funded, and why. Additional data would clarify the situation.

For example, how does Singapore compare with other small (and therefore equally globalised) countries and territories with highly ranked universities (such as Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), in fields such as politics, economics, and history? We could compare (a) the proportion of academics specialising in their own societies, and (b) the share of recent publications about their society authored by locally-based academics versus by overseas-based academics. Such comparisons would provide a better indicator of the extent to which our universities are living up to their potential as generators of knowledge about their own locales — something that much-cited ranking agencies do not measure.

2. Internal procedures

We also need to know what internal rules and guidelines operate at various levels (from university-wide down to individual departments) that go beyond conventional procedures for academic peer review and financial oversight. In particular, which units ask faculty to obtain heads’ permission before engaging in public outreach or to invite guest speakers, and what non-academic criteria are applied in such decisions? We also need more clarity about universities that have instituted a process for political sensitivity checks when research proposals are submitted for ethics clearance.

3. External vetting

Relevant government departments should pull back the curtain on the practice of political vetting in hiring and tenure decisions. As we pointed out in our report, “Academics’ awareness of this opaque vetting system — which apparently extends to work permit and residency applications for foreign faculty — is probably the main inhibitor of their exercise of free inquiry and communication.” This goes beyond an academic freedom issue. It is also about fair employment practices. The Ministry of Education and university administrators need to explain all screening criteria that go beyond the standard research, teaching and service performance indicators contained in internal staff guidelines. “Such transparency will allow individuals to make informed decisions about whether and how to work as academics in Singapore. It will also allow Singaporeans to assess if such restrictions on academic freedom are in the public interest,” our report noted.

To get answers to such questions, we do not need a high survey response rate from rank-and-file academics. We just need a handful of university administrators, bureaucrats, and political leaders to open up. If there is no gap between stated policy and actual practice, we would expect them to be fully and enthusiastically forthcoming in responding to the points that academics have raised through our study.

Linda Lim, Cherian George, Teo You Yenn, Chong Ja Ian