Making space for community

Editorials / Friday, December 11th, 2020

Academics are repeatedly encouraged to contribute to the scholarship and to make a wider social impact. Most of AcademiaSG’s efforts so far have focused on the latter, defending and growing the space for academics to play a more public role (see our year-end report card below). But interlocutors within the academy are important, too. The research process begins and ends with others’ work: diligent reading, interrogation, addition and revision. Scholarly work, often experienced as deeply, sometimes painfully, solitary, is in fact profoundly collective and social. 

For scholars of Singapore, some aspects of this are easy. One can  “engage with the literature” through reading, and most of us are embedded in well-resourced institutions with access to journals and books. But that is just the start. Trying to make a meaningful contribution to a field is like understanding the dynamics of a party you arrive in the middle of. There is tacit knowledge of as-yet-unpublished evidence, intellectual fashions so fresh they haven’t been articulated, and accumulated experience about opportunities and roadblocks. In countries with a larger critical mass of scholars, this type of wisdom is routinely shared through professional networks and regular exchange across institutions. 

Scholars studying Singapore, though, lack such sustenance. They are plugged into global conversations centred on their disciplines — but in practically all these networks Singapore is, at best, of peripheral interest. Singapore’s own universities have the resources to correct this state of affairs, by nurturing the community building necessary for Singapore as a topic of study to coalesce, grow, and spread, both among peers and across generations.

But they have other priorities. With the strong and growing obsession with global rankings, it is each institution and individual for themselves. In the logic of this schema, activities that do not translate into measurable outputs or might benefit competing institutions are undervalued. For the individual scholar as well, there are disincentives to conducting research on Singapore, since highly-ranked outlets favour topics and places that are of greater interest to the centres of global power. Therefore, Singapore’s dramatic development as a global higher education hub has not resulted in commensurate growth in interest in Singapore as a subject of research. 

The resulting isolation of Singapore scholars exacts a price. When individual academics cannot locate what was there before we arrived — whether ideas, people, biases and interests, conflicts and contradictions small and large — the task of finding one’s place, of identifying one’s real potential contributions, is that much harder. We walk in circles misrecognizing blindspots for originality, amnesia for insight. 

Worst of all, we deny junior scholars the kind of mentorship they deserve. In the course of developing AcademiaSG, we have come to know of many brilliant young and/or aspiring scholars who, we sense, would benefit from deeper connections with others around the globe who are also studying Singapore. There is not much our collective can do to address the larger structural impediments referred to above. But what we can do is to grow the space for engagements across disciplines and generations. We need spaces to come together to demystify the process of knowledge production, to shatter in particular its pretense as an individual feat, and to shape collective understandings about Singapore society in ways that tap on experiences, tacit knowledge, and articulations not just of individual research but the research enterprise itself. 

This is why we’ve decided to embark on one modest new project for 2021. We are launching a Singapore Studies seminar series for social science and humanities scholars who are completing or have just completed their doctorates. We will also be reaching out to senior scholars to serve as respondents. We hope such connections — across institutional, disciplinary, generational and geographic boundaries — will seed the kind of community-building that we want to see more of.

‘Community’ is an easy word to invoke but incredibly difficult to actually build and sustain, particularly in conditions where individualism and competition are names of the game. There is no perfect place to begin except exactly where we are standing.

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

A year-end report card

In February 2020, AcademiaSG decided to venture into publishing commentaries by academics. We felt there was research done on Singapore worth sharing with a broader public. Over the next few surreal months of the COVID-19 pandemic and a General Election, one thing led to another. Without a grand premeditated scheme, we ended up running four webinars, three ‘Special Topics’ reading lists, and 55 commentaries by scholars across myriad disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Since its February expansion, the website has averaged 2,000 visits per day. 

We’ve made encouraging connections with like-minded groups. AcademiaSG now collaborates with New Mandala, an online journal on Southeast Asian politics and society hosted at the Australian National University, to co-publish selected articles. Our pre-election webinar was jointly organised with McMaster University in Canada and the Yale-NUS College student organisation CAPE (Community for Advocacy & Political Education).

There are promising signs that we’re reaching beyond the academic community. Our Facebook page has 3,500 followers, while our opt-in mailing list exceeds 2,500. Our articles, which are released on the Creative Commons, have been republished in the South China Morning Post, Yahoo! News, Rice Media and other news outlets. Four articles received SOAP (Stories of a Pandemic) Awards – a civil society initiative to “honour individuals in Singapore who… recorded significant events in a compelling way, helped readers understand important aspects of the crisis, or raised awareness of important issues as the pandemic unfolded”. A writing collaboration born at AcademiaSG developed into a book, PAP v. PAP: The Party’s Struggle to Adapt to a Changing Singapore, which is currently a national non-fiction bestseller. The volume carries the AcademiaSG imprint in solidarity with our mission. 

Looking back on this unexpectedly productive year, we realise that all we’ve really done is to release a pent-up demand — among Singapore academics to share their knowledge, and among the wider public to engage with ideas. We started with the hunch that Singaporeans have great, but overlooked, potential to grapple with serious issues confronting our society – a potential often denied by those who mistake critical writing as unconstructive. In this light, AcademiaSG seeks to nurture an environment more hospitable to an exchange of ideas befitting Singapore’s level of development. We are deeply grateful to the many writers and collaborators who have entrusted us with their valuable work, and readers and viewers who have given us their time and attention. With your continued support, we’re happy to press on.