SDP discussed academic freedom with Warwick team

17 Oct 05

A team of officials from the UK’s University of Warwick recently visited Singapore to assess the feasibility of setting up a Singapore campus following an invitation by the Singapore Government.

The officials paid a visit to the Singapore Democrats when they came to Singapore in July this year. The team had requested a meeting with leaders of the SDP. At the meeting matters about the state of academic freedom were brought up and the Democrats mentioned the cases of Dr Chee Soon Juan who was dismissed by NUS after he joined the opposition in 1992 and Dr Christopher Lingle who had fled Singapore in the 1990s after the Government charged him with criminal contempt of the court for an article Dr Lingle wrote in the International Herald Tribune.

Other cases of Government action against academics included Dr Bilveer Singh who had published comments in the Jakarta Post about Singaporeans living form hand to mouth. This drew a sharp response from the PAP and Dr Singh was forced to apologise and retract his claim. More recently a team of economists had said that a majority of jobs in Singapore were going to foreigners. Again the Government made threatening counterattacks and again the academics were forced to withdraw their claims.

One professor at the NUS had complained that his head of department had censored his reading list for his students because some of the material had sought to discussion liberalism. He also complained that his students were asked to report to the police (presumably the ISD) on activities and lectures on campus.

Another group of lecturers, this time with one of the polytechnics, had made a film about J B Jeyaretnam and submitted the documentary to the Singapore International Film Festival. The Government threatened the lecturers that it would prosecute them unless they withdrew the film, raided the producers’ department and confiscated their equipment.

University students continue to be watched. Student activities are restricted to organising fund-raising parades for charity, jams and hops, and makan festivals. Political discussion is severely limited and political speakers have to be vetted by the universities’ administration.

The alumni NUS Society was warned about organising forums that invited opposition leaders. One of its publications was ceased after its editors felt that some of the articles were too critical of the Government.

These instances of State action on academia are by no means exhaustive. But it was enough to give thinkers and people who care deeply about academic freedom, including those from the University of Warwick, cause for caution. Kudos to the University of Warwick senate for standing up for academic freedom instead of pandering to economic interests. The PAP must learn that it cannot always dangle the carrot and expect others to do its bidding. There are principles and freedoms that money cannot buy.

Warwick lecturers vote against Singapore campus

John Burton
Financial Times
14 Oct 05

Senior lecturers at Warwick University in the UK have voted against setting up a branch campus in Singapore due to worries about limits on academic freedom, dealing a possible setback to the city-state’s ambitions to become a regional hub for higher education.

Singapore requires international educational institutions operating in the city-state to agree not to conduct activities seen as interference in domestic affairs.

The lopsided 27-13 “no” vote by Warwick’s senate this week is believed to be the first time a foreign university has rejected the conditions set by Singapore. Although the vote is non-binding, it is likely to put pressure on the university council to abandon the Singapore plan when it makes a final decision on October 18.

Warwick and Australia’s University of New South Wales are the only two foreign universities selected by Singapore’s Economic Development Board to set up a full-scale campus.

The city-state has succeeded in attracting smaller schools operated by several top institutions, including Insead and the University of Chicago Graduate Business School, in an effort to triple the number of university students to 150,000 in the next decade.

The Warwick vote came as the outgoing US ambassador to Singapore warned in a farewell speech that Singapore’s limits on expression might cause the government to “pay an increasing price for not allowing full participation of its citizens”.

Faculty and students at Warwick have questioned the costs of the nearly £300m ($525m) project and the university’s ability to attract quality students and staff to the Singapore campus. But much of the criticism has focused on limits on academic freedom and civil liberties, including curbs on gay rights and high execution rates for criminals.

Warwick recently sent a letter to EDB asking that its students in Singapore be exempt from strict laws limiting freedom of assembly, speech and the press, and the removal of bans on homosexuality and certain religious practices on campus.

It also sought guarantees that staff and students would not be punished by the Singapore government for making academic-related comments that might be seen “as being outside the boundaries of political debate”. EDB said it would not comment.

The demand that the Singapore campus enjoy the same degree of academic freedom as in the UK came in response to an advisory report by Thio Li-ann, a law professor at the National University of Singapore, which said freedom of “speech is permissible as long as it does not threaten real political change or to alter the status quo”.

She warned that “the government will intervene if academic reports cast a negative light on their policies” but said the presence of Warwick in Singapore could “serve as an impetus for continued liberalisation”.

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