78% of Singapore academics report at least 'moderate' interference: poll

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SINGAPORE — Some 77.5 per cent of Singapore academics report at least "moderate" interference by non-academic actors in decision making at their respective institutions, with almost 22 per cent claiming "extensive" interference, according to a new survey.

More than a quarter of those polled reported consistent restrictions such as censorship and self-censorship in academic exchange and dissemination in at least some disciplines. The survey results on academic freedom in Singapore were released on Wednesday (18 August).

And more than a third know of cases where colleagues have been told to withdraw or modify research findings for non-academic reasons, with almost 70 per cent believing that the reasons were political or ideological.

"Explicit signals from supervisors and/or peers, as well as their own reading of the political environment, are major reasons why Singapore academics feel inhibited in their activities," said a report on the survey, authored by academics Cherian George of Hong Kong Baptist University and Shannon Ang of Nanyang Technological University.

For example, 71 per cent of respondents reported receiving advice from peers that pursuing a specific research project would not be politically welcome.

"The survey findings suggest that most of the constraints on academic freedom are not felt as direct, external interventions. Political constraints have been institutionalised within universities," concluded the authors. 

Examples include internal rules and guidelines requiring faculty to obtain permission before engaging with the public, as well as adding an avenue for political checks to supplement standard research ethics clearance procedures. In other cases, political checks are not formalised, but take the form of collegial advice from supervisors. 

"While departmental or university administrators may exercise the most immediate and direct controls, academics affected believe that the ultimate source of pressure is the state."

198 responses out of 2,061

INFOGRAPHIC: AcademiaSG
INFOGRAPHIC: AcademiaSG

The anonymous poll was conducted by AcademiaSG, a collective of Singaporean academics, from April to May 2021. It set out to answer, among other queries, how prevalent in Singapore universities is the sense of being constrained, and what are the mechanisms through which academic work is restricted.

A questionnaire was sent to 2,061 academics affiliated with humanities, social science, business, and law schools of five local universities (National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University, Singapore University of Technology and Design, and Singapore University of Social Sciences). 

Of these, 198 unique responses were received. The study did not aim to cover all academics but only those in the humanities, social sciences and certain professional schools.

Acknowledging that the response rate appeared low, the authors stressed that they had contacted virtually the entire population of academics within the target areas/schools. They added that, all things considered, a response rate of 9.6 per cent was "reasonable".

Political pressures are not random

INFOGRAPHIC: Academic SG
INFOGRAPHIC: Academic SG

While political pressures do not affect the majority of academics, it is also clear that the distribution of pressure and punishment is not random, said the authors. "It affects research topics perceived to be politically sensitive, mostly concerning Singapore society; and activities that bridge the gap between the ivory tower and the wider public."

This, said the quartet, is likely to have led to a systemic under-capacity in Singapore academia’s ability to contribute to society in precisely those national debates that need to be more plural and better informed. 

They warned, "Any such under-contribution is not likely to be detected in global university rankings, but its social impact may be long-term and profound."

Several respondents also referred to the "open secret" in higher education in Singapore: the practice of political vetting in hiring and tenure decisions. "Academics’ awareness of this opaque vetting system – which apparently extends to work permit and residency applications for foreign faculty – is probably the main inhibitor of their exercise of free inquiry and communication."

One respondent wrote, "What strikes me most as a relatively new faculty is the power of self-censorship at both the individual and university level. The university is primarily concerned about reputation management, with little incentive to back faculty who engage in more sensitive or controversial research."

Self-censorship is key

Self-censorship was a key theme at a webinar discussing the findings of the survey on Wednesday evening. Panelist Walter Theseira, Associate Professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said the most striking finding of the survey was the low response rate, which suggested that most do not think it worthwhile to engage on academic freedom.

"With apathy, a negotiated community consensus on academic freedom is impossible," said Prof Theseira, who added that such apathy will substantively affect the quality of education and teaching. 

Panelist Linda Lim, Professor Emerita at the University of Michigan, noted that she had been advised by friends to "better be careful" about her involvement in the survey. "Nobody really knows what it refers to but you are expected to internalise it."

Prof Lim noted that one of the key roles of an academic is to challenge the status quo. "If we observe hidden OB markers or red lines…we are all the poorer for it."

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