An academic freedom deficit comes with a cost to society

Singaporean universities’ lofty positions in global rankings owe much to political leaders who treat the higher education sector as a vital investment for the country’s international competitiveness. That same leadership, however, has rendered universities less welcoming of research, teaching and public engagement that could challenge the political status quo.

In the global Academic Freedom Index (AFI), Singapore rates closer to communist Vietnam than to liberal Taiwan, South Korea or Japan.

AcademiaSG’s groundbreaking 2021 survey of Singapore-based academics’ lived reality was consistent with the AFI assessment. Respondents report restrictions at various levels.

First, there are obstacles placed in the way of politically sensitive research and teaching. For example, one-third of respondents reported having been told (or know others who had been told) to modify or withdraw their research findings for administrative reasons, mostly perceived to have something to do with political or ideological sensitivity.

Second, the state operates an opaque system of political vetting to control access to employment and career progression within the higher education sector. No official reasons are given for blacklisting, but what affected persons have in common is engagement in civil society or political commentary.

That such a system exists is an open secret, because of numerous cases where university officials have verbally informed individuals on the brink of employment that they have failed to receive the government’s security clearance.

Despite this issue having been raised publicly before, ministers have studiously avoided addressing whether, how and why political vetting of university personnel takes place – including when the AcademiaSG study was raised in parliament in January.

Third, the political system circumscribes the role that universities play as spaces for public discourse. Academics can enjoy wide leeway if they limit their activities to the ivory tower and avoid appearing in the media. But restrictions kick in when academics with unsanctioned viewpoints try to influence the wider society.

This desire to quarantine universities politically may have influenced the impending closure of the Yale-NUS College.

Student groups at Yale-NUS are not regulated by the university’s central Office of Student Affairs. They have used their relative autonomy to play nationally prominent roles around #MeToo, the climate crisis and voter education.

NUS College, the successor to Yale-NUS, will operate fully under NUS (the National University of Singapore) and there is no indication that it will continue the Yale-NUS tradition of incubating students’ experiments in active citizenship.

Systemic censorship

Defenders of the status quo in Singapore’s higher education environment argue that even Western campuses have bowed to ‘cancel culture’ and other forms of ideological policing. Such incidents have indeed sparked debate and soul-searching within Western universities, many of which have had to rethink how to balance liberty with diversity, equity and inclusion.

Singapore differs significantly from these trends in liberal societies in that its academic freedom is curtailed to protect the government, not students. Furthermore, censorship is programmed into the Singapore system; it is a feature not a bug.

In more plural societies, restrictions at one institution are usually mitigated by openness at another. An academic who is too right-wing for a liberal university can fit in at a conservative one, for example. In Singapore’s state-dominated university sector, biases and blacklists tend to apply nationally.

Although infringements of academic freedom occasionally result in public controversies, what is more remarkable is the hegemonic quality of the state’s domination. In the first two decades of nation-building, the government intervened forcefully to neuter campuses as potential sources of dissent. Since then, discipline has been internalised, institutionalised and largely taken for granted.

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