170 academics sign open letter expressing concern about academic freedom in Singapore

Research fellow Thum Ping Tjin speaking at the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods on March 29, 2018. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - At least 170 academics have voiced concern about academic freedom in Singapore, with several saying that diverse views should be encouraged and not quashed.

The academics based in Singapore and abroad have signed an open letter on the issue, in which they also defended historian Thum Ping Tjin, who was questioned for six hours last month by a parliamentary committee looking into the subject of deliberate online falsehoods.

The letter, addressed to the committee's chairman, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong, welcomes public hearings on the dissemination of fake news. It, however, expressed concern over how Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, a committee member, "proceeded to interrogate Dr Thum, treating him and his widely-respected scholarship with disdain".

"This is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore," said the letter posted online last week.

It asks Mr Chong to apologise to Dr Thum "for his unacceptable treatment by your committee", and to ensure the committee is not used to intimidate Singaporeans.

At the hearing in March, Mr Shanmugam grilled Dr Thum on his academic work and his interpretation of historical documents. In particular, he focused on a paper Dr Thum wrote about Operation Coldstore in 1963, when more than 100 leftist unionists and politicians were arrested.

In his written submission to the committee, Dr Thum said there was no evidence the detainees were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the Government, and the Government had been the main source of falsehoods in Singapore.

He eventually conceded there were parts of the paper which he could have worded better.

The academics who signed the letter include specialists in history and politics such as Professor Prasenjit Duara, former director of the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore (NUS), Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim of the University of Sydney, and media studies professor Cherian George of Hong Kong Baptist University.

Professor Mohan Dutta of NUS, and Ms Winnifred Wong, a principal librarian, also put their name on the letter. Prof Dutta said the incident is likely to send the message that "for a scholar to offer ideas that challenge established knowledge claims, there are great personal risks".

Singaporean economist Linda Lim, a professor at the University of Michigan, added that it intimidates and discourages citizens who are not academic experts from voicing their own independent opinions.

Some signatories, like Associate Professor Michael Barr, who has written extensively about Singapore politics, vouched for the credibility of Dr Thum's work.

Professor Garry Rodan, an expert on Singapore's political and economic development, said Dr Thum's submission "warranted serious engagement around the risks and responsibilities of state authorities in defining and regulating 'fake news'".

Several also told The Straits Times that while debates are part and parcel of academic life, they should be done within the conventions of the academic community.

"Our Parliament is not the place to dispute research, especially when conducted as more of an interrogation than a respectful academic debate," said Ms Li Yan McCurdy, a Singaporean PhD candidate at Yale University in the United States (US).

Dr Desiree Lim, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in California, said the truth of Dr Thum's views is besides the point. "Many respected scholars have been wrong, but their work remains important because it leads us to reconsider existing beliefs and entertain new possibilities," she said.

Dr Sikko Visscher, of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, said he signed the letter in support of academic freedom everywhere.

"This is a universal concern in a time of increasing manipulation in, by and through the media, not just by governments but by institutions and individuals as well," he said.

The preamble to the letter says it will be delivered to the committee towards end-April. Mr Chong and committee member Seah Kian Peng did not respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this month, a group of civil society activists also issued a signed statement criticising the way the 10-member committee conducted the hearings, saying they seemed uninterested in soliciting witnesses' views, for instance.

The committee received a total of 170 written submissions and heard oral testimony from 65 people over eight days. It will reconvene in May (2018) to deliberate on a report of its findings to Parliament.

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