Australian university in Singapore suspends John Tan

November 3, 2008
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

James Cook University (JCU) has suspended Mr John Tan from his position as a lecturer. This is because Mr Tan, who is also the assistant secretary-general of the Singapore Democrats, is being charged with contempt of court by Attorney-General Walter Woon.

Mr Tan was informed of the decision on 21 Oct 08 when he was called in to the Dean’s office and abruptly handed the letter informing him that he was suspended with immediate effect.

Mr Tan subsequently went to see Dr Dale Anderson, CEO of JCU. In that meeting, Dr Anderson showed Mr Tan an email that was sent to the university by a “Collin Lim”.

The CEO admitted that he did not know who this Collin Lim was or if he was, in fact, a student at the university. The email noted Mr Tan’s political activities and said that the psychology lecturer was associated with Dr Chee Soon Juan.

Dr Anderson also drew Mr Tan’s attention to the fact that Collin had copied the email to the Minister for Education, Dr Ng Eng Hen.

When Mr Tan appealed to the academic principles of JCU, Dr Anderson replied that “half of the school is owned by Singapore” and implied that there was nothing he could do because he was under the employment of Singapore.

In response, 28 of Mr Tan’s students and former students wrote letters of support of Mr Tan to the university to which Dr Anderson replied: “I cannot enter into a discussion on this matter until it is clear of court action.”

The suspension is completely out of order for the following reasons:

  • Mr Tan has not yet been convicted of the charge. The trial begins only tomorrow, 4 Nov 08. He was suspended on 21 Oct.
  • The action appears to have been triggered by an email complaint that cited Mr Tan’s association with Dr Chee Soon Juan and which was copied to Dr Ng Eng Hen.
  • The suspension stayed despite an appeal by Mr Tan citing testimony from 28 of his students that he had gone about his work in a professional manner.

It is clear from the above that the University acted out of fear of the Singapore Government and suspended Mr John Tan for reasons other than academic considerations.

JCU’s action is disgraceful on several counts. First, it has completely and utterly failed to uphold and protect academic principles and the rights of its employees.

Second, it jumped the gun by suspending Mr Tan before his conviction. The letter of suspension cites the AG taking contempt proceedings and not conviction.

Third, even if Mr Tan is convicted, does the university not have the obligation to protect the free speech of its employees?

Fourth, why was Mr Tan’s attention drawn to the reference to Dr Ng Eng Hen? Is this not an indication that the suspension was politically motivated?

Would JCU have behaved in a similar way towards its academics back home in Australia? If not, how can the university claim to provide quality education to Singaporean students if it is so fearful of the Singapore Government? Is JCU in Singapore just to make money regardless of the type of education it provides or does it value academic freedom?

The university is based in Queensland but has campuses in Brisbane and Singapore.