Academia (and knowledge) in the age of pandemic

Editorials / Saturday, April 18th, 2020
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18 April 2020


It’s only April, but 2020 feels like a different universe from 2019. The locking down of the world’s population—unimaginable just months ago—has forged a shared reality and trauma. In this collective trauma, we seem to also witness a moment of heightened consciousness—that we have been living in great injustice, that our ways are unsustainable, that power is too concentrated and our powerful have let us down.

One year since we began the collaboration that launched Academia.SG, we reflect on the responsibilities of citizens and scholars to engage in the public sphere.

At this moment of reckoning, humans must seriously consider who we are and where we are headed. The scale of the moment has brought into view that structures and systems matter, that the good of the individual is unavoidably tethered to the good of society. Rules and laws, habits and preferences, social norms and political cultures, the ties that bind people to one another, the people’s relationship to their political leaders—the quality of these in ‘normal’ times shapes the responses available in times of crises.

Our wellbeing and suffering—today, next week, in ten years, at the next crisis—rests heavily on how we are organized as societies. How societies distribute things, make decisions, and deal with divergent interests and conflicts—we now see more clearly than before that variations across societies are not merely theoretical, but matters of life and death.

This is where knowledge-production about society comes in, and why we are devoting more energy to building up ideas and insights on this crisis and its aftermath, through

As Singaporean scholars and teachers, we have each, in different disciplines, devoted time and energies to identifying and highlighting systemic issues and flaws—through both our academic writing and, importantly, public commentaries and events, and in engagements with students in and outside classrooms.

Yet in Singapore, academics face institutionalized pressures to avoid such labor—keep our heads down, focus on publishing only for other academics, stay in our rarified corners rather than stand with artists, activists, civil society. In pursuing public engagement, we are often outliers. This is not a personal problem; rather, our outlier status indicates that there are not enough hands on deck making links between theory and praxis, a thinness of voices when it comes to creating pressure to be taken seriously when decision-makers evaluate problems and generate solutions.  

In this pandemic, what should academics do? In our view, academics should do what the rest of society is doing—worrying about what next. We should do this in specific ways—draw on our research to think through why things are unfolding the ways they are, and what missing questions need to be asked; use our expertise to provide vocabularies and frameworks to interpret problems; and play our part in generating and supporting conversations about how lives can be improved, how suffering and injustice can be reduced. If you are an academic—a scholar, thinker, researcher, teacher—we hope you share our view that this is exactly the time to try to be useful.

There is a role here too for the general reading public.  For knowledge-production to be fruitful, members of the public must forge a public sphere. Engaging in the public sphere is more than reading a book or attending a play. It is also about engaging with questions and ideas, and taking them into the other realms of life that a citizen inhabits—the family, the neighborhood, the workplace, the school, online.

These engagements are inherently political, with a small rather than a capital p, insofar as all issues that concern our shared wellbeing are political—enmeshed in tensions, competing interests, power relations. In the Singapore context, this needs to be said: we must not turn our faces away from issues simply because they are labeled ‘political.’ There is no change, no progress, no representation, without politics.

Engaging in the public sphere requires audiences to connect with others in society, to think beyond individual interests to the greater good, to speak up to power, and to support those who try to speak. The more people see themselves as part of this public sphere, the more we begin to escape the quandary of knowledge and ideas produced and circulated only among an insulated and privileged few in the universities; and the stronger our base for imagining better futures for our society.

The fallout of COVID-19 looks protracted, and the likelihood of future pandemics and other environmental disasters looks high. Existing inequalities and injustices could be exacerbated. Much is at stake.

While we wait to return to ‘normal,’ we must prepare the field for a different sort of ‘normal,’ one where systemic lacks and weaknesses are exposed, and where we build diverse knowledge and creative and bold viewpoints—not merely critiques of the past but also imaginaries for alternative futures.

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