Tan Tarn How Too

The mystery: Are activists and artists being locked out of academia?

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I have a list: a black list, a grey list, a list of ­– if you will – Cherian Georges.

It is a list of 15 artists and activists who say they have been denied jobs in academia or asked to leave their full-time or part-time jobs in our universities, polytechnics and sometimes schools.

  1. WHO

In the list are clear naysayers and critics of the Government. But in it are those who have not been particularly out-spoken or very critical.

Most in this list can guess what they did that could have offended the authorities. But because they were never officially told why, are never absolutely sure. Some have been actively involved at one time or other in advocacy in areas such as human rights, foreign workers issues, animal welfare, homosexuality and the arts. Others were only incidentally involved in advocacy, for instance, being outspoken during certain events, even those as long ago as the 2009 Aware saga. Others have given public talks at alternative events as such the Living with Myths series in 2015. A few cannot even point to anything specific that had done that might have offended the authorities. Others wonder if they can be sure that they are being punished.

The list includes people who were teaching part-time and then suddenly told they were no longer needed. It also includes people who could not – and still cannot – get jobs in academia here. These jobs range from tenure-track positions to temporary research assistantships and writing residencies offered by or affiliated to universities.

Most in the list are Singaporeans. Some of the non-Singaporeans have lived in Singapore for nearly thirty years, and a few have married Singaporeans and have children.

  1. WHEN

Most of the cases happened in the last three to four years. They roughly coincide with the tightening on freedom of expression (see here) that began in 2013 after the brief false spring following General Election 2011.

  1. HOW

Here is normally what happens to the people on the list:

  1. A few of them would be given a flat no for jobs in every academic institution they applied to, jobs that were clearly qualified for.
  2. Some would be told by the educational institutions that they have gotten a job, only to be informed later that the offer had been withdrawn because of a veto by Ministry of Education.
  3. Those who were already teaching would suddenly be told that their services were no longer needed.
  4. The non-Singaporeans would be denied employment passes so they could no longer work here. Others had their formerly unproblematic applications for employment passes suddenly delayed without explanation, and then reduced in the length of validity when approval came.
  1. THE EVIDENCE

Incontrovertible evidence of the crackdown is lacking. This is because no reason is ever given officially for being dropped or blocked. None is ever forthcoming on asking. There is no paper or email record of why they have been rejected. The evidence is purely inferred, circumstantial.

As for the real truth of what happened to these people on the list, there is only their word to go by. In a very few cases they were told unofficially by their contacts that it was because of their art or activism. Even then there is no guarantee that these contacts were not telling them what they wanted to hear as a way to console them. The people on this list exist in the often unsettling, sometimes limbo of ignorance and uncertainty. Is what they imagine is happening real, or are they  paranoid? Hence a few even wonder if they are really being punished.

  1. GOING PUBLIC

About half on the list do not want to have their names publicised, either because they could not provided incontestable evidence or because they were afraid of the consequences. The rest are willing to go public or their cases are already public.

  1. EFFECTS ON INDIVIDUALS

Artists and activists without independent means often depend on teaching or research work to earn enough money so they can continue doing what does not pay or pays very little. One person in the list expressed despair and desperation because he needed the money to support his family. After two years of applying and reapplying, he was recently given a part-time job in one of the educational institutions, to his great relief. During that time his art suffered because he had to concentrate of earning a living and because he had to be careful about the kind of work he does. Others on the list have had to find work overseas.

For foreigners, it means having to uproot their families and abandon the lives they have built over many years. One nearly had a breakdown from the stress; fortunately, he is now doing well in another country. Another is a rare expert in his field who has been permanently barred from entering Singapore even though the institutions here want to hire him.

  1. CAVEAT

The list does not mean that every critic of the government is barred or ousted from academia. Opposition politicians in academia seem to be spared; the days of cases like Chee Soon Juan appear to be over. There are also some dissenting public intellectuals who ­­– still – have their jobs in academia. None on the list are academics who publish critical work exclusively in academic journals; this is probably because few read their work.

  1. SO WHAT

To be sure, some would say that those on the list deserve what they got and that they should not expect to find employment if they want to criticise. That is true, but such as system than cannot claim to be democratic or meritocratic. Others would say 15 is a small number. That may be true, but their stories are a symptom of the wider ills of an intolerant, punitive political system.

There are implications for academic freedom, for civil society and art, and for our public sphere.

First, less diversity of opinion results in poorer decision making. This has implications for governance. Could we say that the failures faced by SMRT, the ding-dong in policy on medical specialists and the struggle the government faces with the economy (see here) are a result of the poverty of public discourse? And what other problems are also not even on public agenda because no one raises them?

Second, although the vast majority of the cases are not widely known, the very public instances such as Cherian George (and some contend Tey Hsun Hang) are enough to have clear chilling effects. There are one or two other less well-known though now public cases, including Lucy Davis (recounted here.) The stories of the others on the list who cases have not been made public would also be known to people in their circle, creating its own ripple of fear.

There are a few reasons why academics mindful of tenure and advancement are not interested in research on Singapore. One is the difficulty of getting Singapore-focused work published in top tier journals and of getting data. However, a few have said privately that they avoided researching on Singapore because they feared reprisal, and because it was better to be safe than honest.

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