Aussie uni embroiled in Singapore free speech furore

Sarah Dingle
Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Ashley Hall: When Australian universities set up operations in other countries, do they risk compromising the standards they uphold in Australia, like freedom of speech?

It’s a question that will be tested by a legal case that’s unfolding on the Singapore campus of James Cook University. The university has taken action against one of its employees, apparently for wearing a T-shirt with a slogan which questions the fairness of the country’s legal system.

Sarah Dingle reports here (audio).

Sarah Dingle: John Tan is a Singaporean academic who also happens to be the assistant secretary general of the tiny opposition Democratic Party. Four years ago, he began lecturing in social psychology at the Singapore campus of Australia’s James Cook University.

But several weeks ago the university suspended Mr Tan when he received a court summons for wearing a T-shirt.

John Tan: I arrived just like any other people. The only difference I suppose is the T-shirt I wore, the T-shirt depicted a kangaroo in a judge’s gown.

Sarah Dingle: It happened on the 26th of May this year, at Singapore’s Supreme Court. John Tan was there to support his party leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan. Singapore’s most powerful man, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and his son the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, had both sued Dr Chee for defamation after the Opposition leader questioned the government.

Singapore’s defamation laws are notoriously tough. They’ve been used to bankrupt opposition figures, and Amnesty International has called on the country to stop using libel suits to muzzle political speech.

That day at the court, security didn’t at first notice Mr Tan’s T-shirt, they didn’t know what it meant.

John Tan: Around about 5 o’clock, the court then had a break. The minister, mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew then went to the bathroom.

It was then that somebody shouted ‘this is a kangaroo court’ or something like that, it wasn’t me though, but I pointed my finger towards the T-shirt that I was wearing. I think they started to you notes, take note.

Sarah Dingle: Mr Tan says it was months afterwards that he was called to the police station and questioned. As the Opposition’s second-in command in a state which has never encouraged opposition, Mr Tan says he’s used to police questioning.

But what did surprise him was the response of his employer, James Cook University. Mr Tan says even before he received a summons to court, the university called him into a meeting. It was the 21st of October.

John Tan: Supposedly a student wrote to the school to complain about my political association with Dr Chee Soon Juan and he cc’d a copy of that to Mr Ng Eng Hen who is the minister for education.

During that meeting they served me the suspension letter with immediate effect. On top of that the dean mentioned that they are most concerned about the reputation of the school.

Sarah Dingle: The campus dean is Noel Richards.

Noel Richards: We’re concerned for its reputation which in many respects comes through a successful education for our students.

We thought from the point of view of the students that it would be appropriate if John stepped aside from any engagement in the next semester that would ensure that there was no disruption to their program if John had to spend time preparing his case or being in court.

Sarah Dingle: The student’s complaint was signed by a Colin Lim. John Tan says after talking to the dean, he spoke to the CEO of James Cook University Singapore, Dr Dale Anderson.

John Tan: He showed me the letter that was emailed to him by this one person called Colin Lim. He told me that he’s not even sure if that person is indeed a student of the school and he suggested I should get to the bottom of that myself.

I told him that why should he be worried because he’s running a university that is owned by a free country and he quickly interjected by saying that oh but half of the university is owned by Singapore and that his position is under that half.

Noel Richards: I’m not sure what was said in that private meeting with Dr Anderson and John Tan so I’m not commenting on that.

We have a equity partner here in Singapore and we operate as I said as an Australian university, I think the connection in terms of the Singapore Government in the sense that you might be putting it is overstated.

Sarah Dingle: The man served with the original defamation charges, Dr Chee Soon Juan says Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has used his immense domestic political power to personally target members of the Singapore Democratic Party, like John Tan.

Chee Soon Juan: He’s a victim of the climate of fear that we have in Singapore and you’re talking about even expatriates coming in here to work, look over their shoulders and try to second guess what this government wishes or does not wish.

I think it’s a terrible shame. I mean here you have an institution that should stand for if nothing else academic freedom and yet James Cook University has seen fit to even act unilaterally without John being convicted of anything.

You know it just comes across to us here in Singapore that they’re here for a quick buck.

Sarah Dingle: Noel Richards says James Cook University Singapore operates under the required legislation of the country.

Noel Richards: I think freedom of speech is most important, it’s a desirable principle in any part of the world and we would always adhere to the principle.

Sarah Dingle: Do you think it’s fair for one of your lecturers to be facing contempt of court charges for wearing a T-shirt?

Noel Richards: I’m sure the people that carried out theri action were aware of the circumstance and undoubtedly the consequences at the time.

Ashley Hall: The dean of James Cook University’s Singapore campus, Noel Richards ending Sarah Dingle’s report.

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