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[OP-ED] Singapore Doesn't Always Need Internet Censorship to Silence Critics

BY Phil Howard | Tuesday, March 5 2013

Singapore likes to promote itself as a business-friendly country where the government has a soft touch. But by firing a professor known for criticizing the government's censorship strategies, ruling elites have demonstrated that they still have a firm hand in controlling political conversation. It should make U.S. universities rethink their research partnerships with universities in Singapore, because such relationships actually help launder the regime's reputation.

As one of Singapore's most high profile censorship critics, Cherian George is guilty of several things. In his teaching, he is guilty of corrupting several cohorts of young journalism students with ideas about press freedoms. In his role as a public intellectual, he is guilty of helping to organize and inform the country's growing community of independent bloggers and citizen journalists.

Through his research, Cherian George has long demonstrated how subtle and sophisticated censorship strategies by Lee Kwan Yew, the 89-year-old father of modern Singapore who ruled for 30 years and still holds considerable influence, allowed the country become "sustainably authoritarian." Singapore's elites, journalists, and democracy advocates have long known about these tricks. But George documented and demonstrated it, with good research and poignant comparisons to Malaysia and other neighbors. And he updated his findings as other figures moved into power within the ruling People's Action Party. Alas, his home base, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), just decided not to give George the protections of tenure. This means his contract will not be renewed, and he will lose the support that comes with his institutional affiliation.

This is actually the second time there has been high level interference with his career trajectory. In 2008, he helped lead a coalition of democracy advocates to lobby for more internet freedoms in Singapore, and helped lead a workshop to teach bloggers about their (lack of) rights. The regime ordered NTU to have nothing to do with the efforts, though that did not stop George from moving ahead on his own energy. The National University of Singapore's Law School had originally offered to host the blogger workshop, but they too were instructed to stay clear. But George helped pull the event off anyway. The next year, his case for promotion moved smoothly up the ranks within the University, but was quashed with little explanation by the University's President.

George is known for a string of investigative books and articles on how politicians in Singapore and Malaysia use the media as a tool for social control. He is Singaporean, has (had) a job in the Communication Studies department at NTU, and his career track has been derailed by the political elites he has disparaged. In 2009 he was promoted to associate professor without tenure, meaning he could have a bump in pay but not the support of a permanent job at the university.

It is difficult to dismiss George on the basis of academic merit. With degrees from Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford, his pedigree is admirable. He has three books under his belt: the eviscerating "Air Conditioned Nation", the evocative "Freedom From the Press" and a scholarly tome comparing independent online journalism in Singapore and Malaysia that was actually published at home by Singapore University Press. George has been equally critical of the government and the press, so it is not surprising that the country's journalists have not rushed to his defense. He's had positive teaching evaluations. It is unlikely that he does not meet the academic standards of the university.

Such protections are important in every country, and a good measure of how open and democratic political life is. In the United States, for example, it was with the protection of tenure that prominent media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan was able to call out the misguided maneuverings of the University of Virginia's trustees. Indeed, through tenacity and eloquence he demonstrated to the entire country that business leaders could make surprisingly bad management decisions for public universities.

Singapore has clearly failed a test. But what should such a failure mean for all the Western universities looking to build research partnerships there? The number of partnerships between universities in North America, Europe, and universities in authoritarian countries are growing. And the internet makes this all the more complex, because universities increasingly form virtual relationships that allow for the exchange of content without requiring investment in physical campuses. But not all universities are created equal, and many universities in authoritarian countries are tasked with serving the government rather than advancing knowledge. Singapore's universities—including NTU—invest big money research partnerships and in importing foreign academics. Such co-branding might reassure some that the government respects academic freedoms and values ideas and debate. But perhaps we need a kind of international "fair trade" program for academics. No universities with reasonable promotion and labor practices should make deals with universities that don't have reasonable promotion and labor practices.

George's treatment should raise serious questions for the future of Singapore's research partnerships. Yale now has a significant project in Singapore. NTU alone claims it has over a dozen partnerships with universities like MIT, Caltech, and the University of Washington. Local academics suspect that both the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technical University have personnel decisions informally vetted by the government. Will the government have veto power over Yale's hiring decisions as well? Since most Western universities—including Yale—have committed to respecting Singapore's laws, will Yale's personnel decisions involve the same informal approval process?

Global partnerships can be great things for universities. Researchers learn to approach problems in new ways, and students are presented with ever more opportunities to learn about the world. But it can be tough for academic in one country to understand the rules, norms, and patterns of behavior for academic in other countries. And for even mildly authoritarian regimes, collaborating with Universities in the West can be a way of laundering their reputation.

In not giving George tenure, Singapore has demonstrated the obvious—that its universities are not like our universities. When an authoritarian government punishes its critics we need to take note. And when an authoritarian government punishes its scholars at home, Western universities have an opportunity to weigh in. Oddly, the Communication Studies undergraduate program at NTU is now entirely led by non-Singaporeans. We should not assume that Western academics can help erode authoritarian tendencies when they build research partnerships with universities in tough regimes. Instead, bringing in Western scholars and firing any local trouble makers may be the safe bet for tough regimes.

Philip N. Howard is professor of communication, information and international studies at the University of Washington. Currently, he is a fellow at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy. His writings appear at http://philhoward.org and tweets from @pnhoward.

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