Special Topics: a new series

Editorials / Friday, September 18th, 2020

Academics often bear bad tidings. Our critical analyses focus on the problematic. Yet we are often deeply idealistic about the potential for ameliorative change offered up by the systematic and sustained pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge can improve lives, enhance wellbeing and expand freedoms.

The standard model requires those who want to learn to come to us, in our universities and academic publications. But academics increasingly realise that this is not enough. We need to reach out and meet people where they are, if we want to live up to our ideals. AcademiaSG has been trying to serve as a space for such public engagement. Below, we describe our latest initiative: a Special Topics series, dedicated to major issues, such as a minimum wage. 

This is one response to the great challenge societies face, in connecting their best available knowledge with their most profound problems. 

The extraordinary volume of information and misinformation circulating makes it increasingly difficult to do the work of distinguishing and discerning between competing claims about reality. The monopolisation of some data by powerful actors such as state agencies complicates the work of weighing evidence. The erosion of trust of elites as a social class—in which academics are fairly and unfairly included—can mean a rejection of our ideas and arguments. In other words, we face immense challenges in doing the work of knowing and considerable challenges in helping that knowledge travel into the spheres where they may affect practices and improve lives.  

GE2020: The Morning After is one of several webinars we have organised to promote informed and analytical conversation.

These challenges cannot be addressed by individual academics working in isolated and atomised ways. It is not only an individual researcher’s work that requires bolstering, but the ecosystem of knowledge production and exchange that needs nurturing and building. If accumulated knowledge can change the world for the better, then our task as academics is partly to contribute to an environment where scholars can build on one another’s work, and where a general public too can access information, deepen understanding of issues, hone critical thinking skills on uncomfortable topics, and expand our shared public discourse. 

AcademiaSG has tried to contribute to this process. Over the past months, we have gradually expanded its reach, both in the range of issues our commentaries and webinars cover, and in terms of our audience. Colleagues from a range of humanities and social science disciplines, for example, have contributed their expertise to shed light on the recent national elections—going beyond commenting on wins and losses, to more nuanced discussions about the meanings of race, the competing views of representation, and the current shortcomings and future possibilities of democratic state-society relations. Post-election, we continue to invite colleagues to comment on these themes—sometimes anchored around long-standing subjects (e.g. Shannon Ang on data and power) and in other instances on urgent and topical issues (e.g. Donald Low on the Parti Liyani-Liew Mun Leong case). 

As the fallout from the pandemic continues, persistent problems at once social, economic, and political are high on our minds. As a society, we clearly still have a lot to resolve on issues such as transparency and democratic accountability, poverty and inequality, migrant workers’ rights and wellbeing. 

Many of these issues deserve citizens’ close attention. Probably many thinking Singaporeans sense this too, but are not sure how to go about informing and educating themselves. A newspaper article yields too little; a Google Search offers too much. We hope to help. Starting with our package, Special Topics: A minimum wage, this website will carry occasional modules, containing carefully curated readings that our editors and consultants think will help you bone up on key issues.

Each module in our Special Topics series will include primers as well as in-depth scholarly articles, available for free download. Many have been previously published; some will be specially commissioned by AcademiaSG. We hope this will help the policy community, relevant professionals, journalists, activists and other concerned citizens develop a richer understanding of the available evidence, and the questions that still await answers.

In these times, idealism is tough to hold on to, but more important than ever to nurture. We hope readers will find our efforts useful, and join us in extending, cultivating and protecting this space of possibility. 

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