Scholar of Internet Freedom Denied Tenure for Human Rights Advocacy

February 26th, 2013 by Christian

(Or: Yale will be next.)

Noted freedom of expression scholar Cherian George has been denied tenure by the Singaporean government against the wishes of his faculty. His error was explaining basic tenets of political philosophy in an editorial.  I’m writing about it because this is an American problem.

Like Prof. George, I am also a professor working in the area of Internet policy. I first encountered George’s work on the subject in 2003 as guest editor for The Communication Review, where I published his research on Singaporean and Malaysian approaches to Internet censorship. I was fascinated by his comments about what happens in Singaporean Internet forums when the government is criticized. He is well-known in my circles for his 2006 book Contentious Journalism and the Internet.

Unlike Prof. George, I am an American academic with no particular connection to Singapore. And yet – strangely, unexpectedly – the Singaporean government routinely appears in my professional life and in American academia. While in Singapore for an international conference, my taxi driver asked me what I did for a living. When I said that I was a professor, he asked when I was relocating. He explained that “Singapore buys the best American professors.” He went on to highlight two specific professors in science and medicine that had been lured to Singapore.  (“What a place!” I thought, “where the average taxi driver cares so much about science!”)

While at my previous position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign the university accepted a $75m grant from the Singaporean government to establish The Advanced Digital Sciences Center at the Fusionopolis Complex, Singapore. An annual group of Singaporean Ph.D. students now visit Illinois for two years and ultimately receive an Illinois Ph.D. As a part of this program, Illinois faculty were offered the opportunity to as much as double their faculty salary and research budgets in exchange for spending a significant amount of time in Singapore and signing the intellectual property they produced over to the Singaporean government. Some faculty who considered participating jokingly called the incentives “danger pay” but that joke doesn’t seem funny to me anymore.

Just last week, while attending the annual conference of information schools in Texas, a colleague stood up and pitched the faculty attendees to consider the possibility of research funding via the Singaporean government instead of through our usual funders. If we went with Singapore, our grant amounts would be 2x to 5x more.

I had little sense that anything was at stake in Singapore’s periodic but insistent appearance in my American professional life until this week’s revelation that Prof. Cherian George was denied tenure there at NTU. Yes, when I visited the country in 2007 all of the Westerners joked about the official ban on chewing gum. Someone nervously pointed out to me that possession of 15 grams of a controlled substance will get you mandatory death by hanging. But research collaboration with Singapore seemed to be a great opportunity.

The case of Prof. Cherian George has made me revise my opinion, and I suggest you do as well. The case poses the question: what does it take for an academic there to incur the wrath of the government? The answer is remarkably little.

In 2005 George published an editorial in the Straits-Times explaining some of the basic political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. When I found out it likely played a role in George’s firing I read it expecting a fiery polemic. It reads… like an editorial explaining some of the basic political philosophy of Hannah Arendt.

Arendt was a genius and yes, she was no friend to oppressive regimes. (She famously wrote: “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished but it is also paid by the victor.”) If this is the kind of writing the rulers of Singapore consider dangerous, a liberal education there is simply impossible, as is a modern university. George’s editorial received a direct rebuke from the Prime Minister’s office.

Prof. George is a distinguished, productive, and well-respected scholar with degrees from Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford who has repeatedly asserted that Singapore should abide by international standards of human rights, and this latter point was his downfall. As a researcher working in the same field I can say that his research record is exemplary. It is beyond question.

In 2009, George was promoted to associate professor, told that he had met all of the academic requirements for tenure, but that his tenure had been blocked by the board of trustees for what the university told him were “non-academic factors.” George reported that in a 2009 meeting the president of the university asked him to explain what reasons the government might have to block his tenure. Last year George was asked to re-apply for tenure. It has just been denied. This is supposedly on the basis of his “research and teaching,” but this is an outrageous falsehood.

In fact, the claim is so outrageous that protests against his firing are being led by his external tenure reviewers. (At least, those based in countries that have protections for the freedom of expression.) George is an academic “superstar” according to external reviewer Prof. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen at Cardiff University in the UK, and the case for tenure was “watertight.” Prof. Philip Howard at the University of Washington, a fellow of the Center for Technology Policy at Princeton and another external reviewer, writes in protest that George’s career is being “derailed by the political elites” in Singapore. I agree.

The George case is important for all American academics. The dire financial situation at the University of Illinois made lucrative research deals with authoritarian governments more attractive, and these sorts of collaborations have already been covered extensively in the Western press. I see now that this coverage has missed the mark. It has emphasized the growing trend of international campuses and the reliance on international money in American higher ed, but the coverage has failed to specify the sophisticated Singaporean higher education strategy of targeted bribery and the Singaporean danger to freedom in the American academy.

For instance, extensive media coverage of controversial Yale-N.U.S., “Singapore’s first liberal arts college” and a project of Yale University, focused on the threat to student freedoms

As a New York Times article puts it, quoting Ravinder Sidhu, “The main issue is whether students at the Yale-N.U.S. College will be able to engage in all of the activities associated with an education in the humanities — freedom of thought, the cultivation of the imagination, the ability to think critically about the arguments offered by those in authority, and the ability to fashion arguments and dissent in a civil manner.”

The important problem above is framed as: When Yale-N.U.S. teaches Arendt, will the students be able to talk about it?  But I predict that the problem may never come up.

Student freedom of expression is indeed foundational but this coverage leaves unmentioned the threat that these institutional arrangements are placing on the freedom of research and teaching. It leaves unmentioned the serious risks that any American academic takes when engaging in a Singaporean venture.

What if you went to Singapore and accidentally let it slip that you thought human rights were a good idea?  It is so clean and nice there, it’s easy not to notice that Singapore’s government is (I’ve just noticed) grouped with comparable Liberia, Palestine, Georgia, and Haiti by The Economist’sDemocracy Index.”

If your money has been doubled presumably that takes the sting off. One defense of Yale-N.U.S. was that engagement with countries like China and Haiti have generally been a good thing for Western institutions and the countries involved. But China and Haiti do not typically pay well

When I mentioned to a colleague that I was writing this, he shared the story of 75-year-old Alan Shadrake, an author and British citizen who wrote a book critical of the Singaporean justice system and its use of the death penalty. When visiting Singapore for a book launch in 2010, Shadrake was arrested for defamation and the offense of “scandalizing the court system” (a Singaporean offense). He was found guilty and jailed, despite the protests of Amnesty International. My colleague mentioned that after I publish this article I should not travel to Singapore again.

Yet I’d like to go back. I found Singapore to be a wonderful place. I’m a fan of international collaboration in higher education and I have many collaborators in Singapore. I want to stand in support of my colleagues – the faculty and students who have been overruled by the government in the case of Prof. Cherian George.

As an American academic, I think the best way to support Singaporeans now is to withdraw from any research collaboration involving the Singaporean government. We should not host international research conferences in Singapore. Stay out of Singapore until it is clear that quoting Arendt won’t get you fired (or jailed). Let’s hope that day will come soon.

(This was cross-posted to The Social Media Collective.)

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13 Responses to “Scholar of Internet Freedom Denied Tenure for Human Rights Advocacy”

  1. DLWJ Says:

    “My colleague mentioned that after I publish this article I should not travel to Singapore again.”

    That’s hilarious, because the last time I checked, the US had a killer drone programme, not Singapore. And a secret drone policy that allows execution of US citizens that US citizens don’t know…

  2. DLWJ Says:

    (Sorry, I didn’t make my point very coherently. Here’s another attempt.)

    The irony of your colleague’s warning not to travel to Singapore again is that you’re at risk from your own government deciding to kill you while
    you’re overseas than you ever will be from the Singapore government.

    But the bigger issue of course, is that American academics want to fight seemingly grand causes overseas, while the real, significant rot is happening at home. Have you written to your own government about their human rights abuses? (Like, Guantanamo Bay is still there? And that the office working to shut it down has itself been closed this year?) From the post alone, there seems to be very little concrete evidence, but a lot of assertions linked together to make a case. The title of the post itself, ‘Scholar of Internet Freedom Denied Tenure for Human Rights Advocacy’, asserts a case that needs to be proven. (Which I don’t think you do.)

  3. Alson Says:

    I have friends who were working in the newsroom there at the Straits Times at the time, and none can remember this happening. I’m curious where this information came from? Besides, 8 years is a long time to hold a grudge and far ‘worse’ things have been said about this government by others – it seems odd that he would be denied tenure just for speaking out. By that argument, Sylvia Lim, the chairperson of the Worker’s Party, should have been fired from her job at the polytechnic she was working at. But she was not.

  4. Christian Says:

    The consensus in my professional community is that he was fired for his advocacy. As an expert in the field, I concur. Specifically, he appears to have been fired for writing of the freedom of expression. That’s because his firing just does not make sense to experts on the basis of his research. The external evaluators are crucial in a tenure decision and they have come forward to speak about the injustice of the situation — they’ve come forward out of incredulity as far as I can tell.

    Note the grounds for tenure are “teaching and research.” If his research is excellent, what about his teaching? I read in the WSJ blog that he received the university’s highest award for teaching excellence in 2009. I noticed that the student petition about his case that I linked to in the blog post gathered 750 signatures in about 48 hours.

    A big clue that something stinks about this is that he was promoted to associate professor in 2009 but tenure was withheld at that time and no reason was given. He was told that the decision came not from the faculty but from some other source. This is a very unusual situation in a tenure proceeding. And it, in itself, should demand an explanation.

    My sources for these things are his external evaluators via mailing lists and e-mail discussions that are now happening among professors in Cherian’s field. It is normal for a candidate for tenure to prepare a statement for the external evaluators explaining their career. This statement has also been circulating, as has his curriculum vita.

    I used the editorial as an example of the kind of writing that provoked a response from the government. It’s a useful example because to a non-Singaporean (my audience) it is simply incredible that this would be the kind of thing you aren’t supposed to say. That said, I do not know what specific political opinion got him fired. I imagine it was all of them, in sum. The tenure process for Prof. George has been highly unusual by both international standards and in comparison to the normal tenure process in Singapore (according to my Singaporean colleagues). So we just don’t know what went on.

    I hope he appeals on procedural grounds because it appears that this procedure was a sham. I am guessing the university’s tenure process is being used as a cover.

  5. Liberal-arts education in the open | Singapore ideas Says:

    [...] For more on curtailment of academic freedom in Singapore: Link1,  Link 2, Link 3] [...]

  6. Proud to be Singaporean Says:

    Comment on Facebook:

    Yet another American whiner taking a potshot at Singapore. Look in the mirror, my mum usually says when she is upset with me.

    a) It is incredibly rich for an American academic to preach to us about freedom in academia when there are limits to that freedom in his own country. Academics who are critical of Israel such as Noam Chomsky have been slandered as anti-semitic. Same with Norman Finkelstein who has also been denied tenure.

    b) Politically-motivated reasons for denial of tenure are also not uncommon in the U.S. Norman Finkelstein is a case in point. The recent denial of tenure to an academic from Georgetown, Samer Shehata has also incited a backlash. No one knows why due to the opacity of the tenure process. Not to mention any of these things is disingenuous on the part of the author. It is as if everything is fine and dandy in the world of American academia.

    c) It amazes me time and again how the human rights argument is used and exaggerated by some Americans such as this author to discredit other countries, and in this case, Singapore. It never seems to occur to them that America is itself a violator of human rights. Spying on its own citizens, engaging in torture, waging an illegal war in Iraq, and using drone strikes are some examples.

    d) The whole Yale-NUS saga is getting tiresome for me. When will these critics understand that a liberal education is so much more than simply about whether you can criticise the govt of a country? If this must be the case, America should cease all academic partnerships with China. Obviously, that won’t happen. So then why make an issue and pick a fight with Singapore?

    e) “As an American academic, I think the best way to support Singaporeans now is to withdraw from any research collaboration involving the Singaporean government. We should not host international research conferences in Singapore. Stay out of Singapore…” – Real classy calling for a boycott. Really this is the best way to support Singaporeans? What this sorry excuse for an academic does not realise is that doing something like this actually harms Singaporeans. Such partnerships and conferences have significantly benefited students and academics over the years, many of whom are Singaporeans, myself included.

    f) “In fact, the claim is so outrageous that protests against his firing are being led by his external tenure reviewers. (At least, those based in countries that have protections for the freedom of expression.)” – Of course there is no mention of the petition started in Singapore in favour of Cherian George because it does not serve the author’s agenda of insinuating limited freedom of expression in Singapore. It is like saying you need us from the outside to speak on your behalf on an issue in the inside.

    g) As for the denial of tenure to Cherian George, I think it was a wrongheaded move and a gross mistake. Cherian is up there with the very best in his field, and wholly deserves tenure based on his teaching and research – the one thing I agree with the author. What is NTU’s loss could be a loss for Singapore if Cherian leaves the country. I hope Cherian stays, and finds a way to contribute to local academia just as he has done for many years.

  7. Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts Says:

    [...] Scholar of Internet Freedom Denied Tenure, Or: Yale Will Be Next. [...]

  8. Chris Says:

    As a Michigan alumni, Singaporean, and having worked at Brookings where I was involved in research on politics and the media, I think I’m qualified to comment, if not because I believe I’m apprised to the nuances of politics in Singapore and in the US, then at least because I’m a Singaporean.

    For the record, I am aware about how an oppressive state apparatus that controls the media has little democratic legitimacy.

    1) As an academic, you know full well that gaining tenure at a respectable university is no small feat and that it’s objectively assessed by a distinguished panel. You reject the claim that George’s scholarship had anything to do with the matter, but all you do is cite a secondary source that one Karin Wahl-Jorgensen opined so. Neither she nor you bring up works of scholarship that are notable or ‘innovative’ enough to be published in the equivalent of the Communications equivalent of the APSR, AJPS etc. To your credit, you gave an instance of one of George’s work in 2003, and tbh, whilst interesting, to me, it doesn’t provide anything innovative. Still that was 10 years ago. Today, it’s a topic that’s cliche and done to death. I attempted to do a search for articles/books he’s published. Having taken a cursory glance through them, I frankly think they almost always revolve around the same few key points and hardly add value or provide any groundbreaking information, nor does he even incorporate the use of new methodologies that would be a refreshing change from mere conjecture (even in the 2003 piece). Understandably, it’s hard to come up with something new, or noteworthy in a topic that’s been done to death, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that, personally, I think that if I were on the panel, I’d be looking for more substantive work before granting tenure.

    2) You spoke about a mandatory death sentence for importing a controlled substance. First, it isn’t any controlled substance, rather, it’s the more heinous of drugs like, say, Heroin. You also fail to note that the SG Govt has reviewed its policy. And, in addition, whilst there is contention that the death penalty is unjust, the capital punishment is still legal in 33 US states. In addition, the US continues to practice detention without trial. Does this mean that scholars should be wary about collaborating with US researchers? If not, then why is there a need to resort to the use of aggressively formatted text to draw one’s attention to a deterrent policy?

    http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1212485/1/.html

    3) I think that you’re been misled by a lot of rumors on the grape vine and the rumor mill and perhaps that is understandable since you’ve not worked/lived there and the dramatic stories are always news, aren’t they. However, I’d like to point out that I’ve critiqued the Govt on numerous occasions and have not had any issues whilst at the Singapore immigrations.

    If Singapore were as oppressive as you made her out to be, I doubt that FB co-founder Saverin, Jim Rogers etc would have taken their chances and immigrated there.

  9. Chris Says:

    Sorry this came truncated.

    We don’t know what transpired, and assuming somebody in the political realm has been pulling strings, by virtue of the fact that Cherian George did not appeal his denial of tenure (though, I’m speculating here, he knows he has the support of his students) would strike me as odd. If he was disgruntled with the reasons that were given, or wanted to score a political touchdown that championed the freedom of speech, he’d have appealed. The fact that he didn’t leaves open the possibility that he might well have accepted the reasons why his tenure was denied.

  10. Chris Says:

    Please scratch/ignore that last truncated comment — got news that George decided to appeal.

  11. Christian Says:

    “Proud to be Singaporean”: Whoa, what a great troll. Really lit up the troll-o-meter. Your writing seems too complicated to be a bot, but too simplistic to be human.

    Cherian George wrote an article a few years ago highlighting the PAP’s use of paid and volunteer commenters who troll around the Internet objecting loudly whenever the party is criticized. Does that sound familiar?

    For fun, let’s see if I can get down to your level conversationally. I’m not going to be able to be as rude as you are, or to post anonymously. But here’s my attempt:

    a) Who cares that there are problems or controversies elsewhere? That’s not what my blog post is about. Did you notice that the post is critical of American universities? tl;dr I guess.

    b) See (a).

    c) Again, see (a). And: Where did I say I am a fan of the American government? And, and: to reiterate, I’m have no idea how my position on drone strikes is relevant. In case it helps you understand this post, I’m against them.

    d) Again, see (a). If I arrest a murderer, your logic seems to be I’m “picking on” him because there are other people who murder. Get a clue.

    e) I feel like I’m stating the obvious here but apparently that’s necessary. There are differences of opinion about the right strategy to fight this problem. There are Singaporeans who agree with a boycott strategy, you just aren’t one of them. Your being Singaporean doesn’t give your argument any more force than the other Singaporeans.

    f) Not only did I mention the petition I provided a link to it. Did you read the post? Oh, right, maybe you’re a troll bot.

    g) I hate to think we agree about anything. Must be some sort of reverse-psychology move to make this post seem authentic.

  12. Christian Says:

    Chris, I’m sorry that I did not go through my comment queue faster on this one. Sadly events that have transpired since your comment was posted have proven you wrong, at least on your first point.

    Regarding point (1), I may value your opinion as a colleague or friend or an interesting Internet interlocutor, but frankly in terms of this specific case the point of the post is that the process appears to be illegitimate. Who cares what you think of Prof. George’s tenure file? The point is that the experts in the area were ignored for political reasons.

    Since this post went up an international group of faculty with expertise in the area circulated a public statement (http://cheriangeorgestatement.tumblr.com/) which I signed. They wrote that “factors external to the peer evaluation of research and teaching may have improperly influenced the tenure decision.”

    The smoking gun, however, is that NTU’s former Dean of Science and member of the university’s promotion and tenure committee then released a statement that responds to this claim (http://consideritopinion.blogspot.sg/2013/05/a-disgraceful-chapter-in-book-of-ntu.html). Coming from an insider, it flatly states that NTU’s position (“the tenure review process is purely a peer-driven academic exercise”) is, as we suspected, a simple lie.

    A group of NTU senior faculty in Prof. George’s department also released a letter (http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/ntu-rejects-appeal-professor-against-decision-not-grant-tenure-2013050) and in my favorite passage it says (paraphrasing) — if Cherian George didn’t qualify for tenure with this academic record, what does qualify for tenure? Because we can’t figure it out!

    So the petitioners and this blog post was correct to question this tenure process as a violation of academic freedom, and we were right that it was likely motivated by Prof. Cherian George’s writings protesting government censorship of the Internet. A sad victory.

    Regarding point (2) my writing speaks to my subjective experience as a potential collaborator with and visitor to Singapore. I think it speaks to that pretty well. When I read that foreigners who visit Singapore and overstay their visa by more than 90 days are subject to caning, I think. Hey. That’s serious man. That’s a repressive regime. I’m also against capital punishment in the US, but I’m just not sure how injustice elsewhere prohibits me from commenting on Singapore.

    I think point (3) is the meaty part of your comment. Indeed I think that Cherian George’s status as a Singaporean is one of the things that put him in danger. Foreigners can immigrate to Singapore and retain their freedom to speak out because they can always be branded as illegitimate speakers as foreigners. (“Who cares what they think?”) But critics with an internal legitimacy are much more dangerous.

    When this story hit Slashdot my favorite comment was from fuzzyfuzzyfungus, who wrote (http://yro.slashdot.org/story/13/03/09/0213215/singaporean-university-snubs-lauded-but-anti-censorship-professor):

    “If the GDP per-capita is high enough and most of the violence is reserved for locals who get mouthy, rather than expats who don’t give a f*** because they can always just fly home, you can have pretty much any western investors, corporate branch offices, or prestige institutions you are willing to buy. If you have the sort of unfreedom that is bad for property values (like Nigeria), then you can still get extraction industries and CIA agents; but probably not a Yale branch campus.”

  13. Christian Says:

    DLWJ, see my other comments above. I guess I just don’t get it. This is the third comment that says I have no right to object to a violation of academic freedom at NTU because I’m an American and the US uses illegal drone strikes.

    Strangely, your comment seems to suggest that if I prefaced my objections to Singapore with a list of what I’ve done to fight injustice in the US that would give me a pass and I *could* then go on to criticize Singapore.

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