actorartathleteauthorbizcrimecrosspostcustomerservicedirectoredufoodgaminghealthjournalistmedicalmilmodpostmunimusicnewsworthynonprofitotherphilpolretailscispecialisedspecializedtechtourismtravelunique

AcademicI'm Cherian George, and I wrote a book of essays about why Singapore needs to grow up.

Jan 31st 2018 by cheriangeorge • 14 Questions • 4081 Points

UPDATE: Thanks to those who posed questions, and everyone who visited tonight. Have to take a break now but I will be back tomorrow (1 Feb) at 4pm UTC+8 to answer more questions.

About me: I am a Singaporean professor of media studies based at a university in Hong Kong. I’ve been writing about politics and media for 30 years, first as a Straits Times journalist and then as an academic. I wrote my latest book, ‘Singapore, Incomplete’, because I feel something's missing in our national development.

We are a middle-aged country with a mature economy – but the political system still treats us like children. As the government prepares to transition to a fourth-generation leadership, my essays look at the unfinished business of political liberalisation and multicultural integration. I cover topics like censorship and fear, race and religion, elections and voting, and prospects for political reform. Whether you’ve already read the book or you’re waiting for the movie, I welcome you to ask me anything.

My Proof

Also Proof

Get your copy of the book here

Q:
  1. What are the differences between working in HK and SG as an academic? I'm Singaporean and I understand that you've faced political pressures here. What about in HK where the government is under influence by Beijing?

  2. Would you consider coming back to Singapore as an academic if you are given the opportunity?

  3. What advice would you give to Singaporeans to make the country better?

A:
  1. Everyone expects Hong Kong universities to come under increasing pressure from Beijing. There are already some signs. Professors who have had leading roles in the democracy movement have been penalised. However, Hong Kong is still one of the freest academic settings in Asia. That freedom is expected to gradually decline, but even then it will probably remain very free by Asian standards.
  2. I've really not needed to think about moving from Hong Kong, which has been good to me.

Q:

Do you think that there is some reluctance by Singapore universities to hire Singaporean faculty and/or give them tenure, especially in the social sciences and humanities, because the latter potentially have more 'skin in the game' and are more likely to challenge received wisdom of the government?

A:

To save time, I am going to cheat here and refer you to a chapter in my book that addresses this. It was also published in Times Higher Education, so you can read it online here: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/singapores-powerhouses-neglect-local-intellectual-life


Q:

What would your quick response be to this argument: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/singapores-scholars-havent-retreated-public-sphere-they-were-never-there. Are you being too harsh and ignoring the nascent discourse that is perhaps outside of your specialty?

A:

I found it difficult to follow a lot of the arguments in this rejoinder. As a fellow academic commented on Facebook, his observation about the critical discourse of artists and activists was especially odd. Yes, it's absolutely true that many artists and activists are pushing the boundaries. But I'm not sure what this has to do with academics, unless he is saying that since artists and activists are doing it, academics don't need to; or if that academics can somehow take credit for all these other goings-on.

To answer your question, was I being too harsh? I don't think so. (I would say that, wouldn't I?) My essay didn't just germinate in splendid isolation in my own head. It's the result of conversations with other (mainly Singaporean) academics who feel the same way, across many disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.

It's not an across-the-board problem. In my original essay, as published in my book, I point out that the problem is less serious in sociology, for example. Geography is another relatively bright spot.

As for history, it may seem from this NTU historian's reply that my essay beat up his department. In fact, I wrote exactly one (accurate) sentence about NTU history in a 2,200-word essay. Perhaps part of the reason why he got so worked up was that he misread what I wrote (or maybe he misread it because he was already worked up): he claimed that I made an unfair comment about NTU historians' publications about Singapore pre-independence history. In fact, I made this (accurate) observation about NUS's history department, not NTU's. THE's editors later deleted this paragraph of his because it was so obviously inaccurate, so you won't find it in that linked article anymore.

I am glad, though, that my essay gave him the opening to advertise the good work being done by his department to engage with the public. While I believe most of our academic departments don't do enough, I also think what they actually do isn't given enough credit or publicity, partly because our broader national culture is somewhat anti-intellectual.


Q:

Thanks for the insightful reply. I also feel that Singaporean students are sometimes pressured by their educators and expectations to play it safe when it comes to assignments and research. For example, to replicate a study just to get good grades instead of venturing to research less-studied fields. The unfortunate fact is many of us want security and certainty. Could it be that we've been too "well-taken care" of that we would rather not rock the boat so long as our rice bowls can be kept intact?

A:

You raise important points, but I wouldn't want to over-generalise. The truth is that there are many educators in Singapore who work very hard at encouraging students to be more creative and well-rounded. And I regularly meet young Singaporeans who are everything one hopes they would be.

But, yes, there is certainly something about our culture that isn't conducive to innovative thinking and entrepreneurship. Many others have commented on this and studied the problem for years, and there clearly aren't any quick fixes.


Q:

To add on, I'd like to know OP's thoughts on the Causeway Bay Books disappearances.

A:

What can I say – not a happy situation, is it? We need Beijing to accept (even if not publicly) that this is totally unacceptable; but the Hong Kong government is pretty powerless to press the point.

What I am less clear about is what this means for Hong Kong's autonomy. Should the abductions be interpreted as a specific assault on Hong Kong's SAR status? Or is it really just a symptom of the attitude among some of China's state actors that they are not bound by any rules, anywhere in the world? In other words, how personally should Hong Kong take this? I'm not sure.


Q:

They only feel as if they're not bound by any rules because it's Hong Kong.

The signs that point to Hong Kong's autonomy being over are plenty and most people in Hong Kong know it.

Edit: I would also like to point out that saying the Hong Kong government is powerless implies that there are threads of resistance. As most know, the Chief Executive is directly appointed by the Beijing inner circle.

A:

The reason I'm prepared to entertain the "don't take it personally" theory is that the Chinese also abducted one of the booksellers from Thailand, remember? So maybe this sort of behaviour needs to be classified together with Russia's poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in the UK in 2006, as examples of regimes prepared to violate human rights even across borders.


Q:

Hi Cherian, you've been teaching for many years so...what is the meanest student evaluation you've ever gotten? :p

A:

Ouch! In around 15 years of teaching, there may have been three classes that massacred me in their evaluations. Sometimes, the chemistry is wrong; you say or do something that puts off students, and things decline from there. It's rough when students don't tell you on the spot, and instead save their hostility for their written evaluations, when it's too late to do anything about it.


Q:

"Unfortunately, many Singaporeans have decided not to care because they think they can get enough information and ideas elsewhere."

In that sense maybe the "alternative" media like the TOC hasn't really been doing us a favour at all. I appreciate the alternative coverage and the existence of such channels is a counterpoint to the MSM. But to many, the fact that the alternative media exists is enough already. It is not! We're still seeing crap on MSM and we expect alternative media to provide another view point while we sit back passively and "see show". Sorry for the rant but I feel that the quality of our Straits Times is really quite shameful. I'm not even sure who's responsible for this!

A:

On the long list of people to blame, alternative media are probably near the bottom. And in fact MSM would probably be even worse if not for the competition from alternative media. But you do raise an interesting point. It's probably fair to say that in the course of their self-promotion, alternative media may have been too effective in convincing people that they could do without big media, because these little blogs could supposedly fill the gap. In that sense, the mutual animosity between MSM and alternative media was never healthy. The truth is that they were always symbiotic. A healthy media ecosystem requires strong MSM as well as strong alternative media. But that's not how either side behaved. They each trash-talked the other.


Q:

Thank you. Can you give examples of how the absence of a FOI act diminishes public accountability in Singapore?

A:

Good question. It's not something I have directly studied, so I struggle to come up with examples here. But, OK, here's one. We know that the public sector does some mysterious form of security vetting before people are given jobs. There are Singaporeans who have been offered jobs by statutory boards and universities, and then suddenly they are told that they can't be hired. And it's hinted to them that they haven't been security cleared, though there's nothing in writing. So you have this situation where a citizen finds himself locked out of a job (by the country's largest employer) and he has no clue why. In a country with a freedom of information act, he would have the right to see the information that the government holds about him. This is important, because it could well be the case that his file contains outdated or misleading information, and it's on that basis that he's been blacklisted. But in Singapore, he's helpless. He can try his luck and ask, but you can bet he'll get no satisfaction.

I give this example because many Singaporeans buy the false line that freedom of information is some weird idealistic right that will result in military secrets being leaked and so on. No. There are very good reasons why ordinary citizens would benefit from this right.

OK, here is another example. There are many concerned Singaporeans who believe that some deeper inquiry is needed into SMRT mismanagement. In most such cases, public appeals for independent commissions of inquiry are brushed aside. With a freedom of information law in place, citizens would be able to get some of that information whether or not an official inquiry is launched.


Q:

Hi Cherian

A wise person once told me that the biggest achievement of LKY was to turn the world’s most risk-taking people (who came in boats all the way from faraway countries) to the world’s most risk-adverse.

As a millennial, I think that that adversity to risk and the sheer momentum of the treadmill designed by the government is now holding us back from adapting to the new world.

I think for Singapore to grow up it needs to get Singaporeans to get off the treadmill and face the new world post-MNC. The government is not designed to, nor is it capable of, seducing people off that treadmill. Shouldn’t the spotlight therefore be on the private sector?

A:

Many private sector industries, especially those that are more globally exposed, are good at pulling Singaporean employees out of their shells and cultivating more enterprising and innovative attitudes in them. This is why I am alarmed at the lack of Singaporeans from a such a background in Cabinet.


Q:

Are you...Malayalee?

A:

Absolutely.


Q:

In the case of courts and rulings in cases of human rights, would logic-trees/logic-gating, being transcribed publicly in rulings, help? I always found it interesting that philosophy students of logic have this system to break down and analyse arguments, yet this is hardly ever disseminated to the public. It could, idealistically I admit, serve to break down the legalese that keeps the general population down.

A:

Or, read books like "Living with Myths", which have done the work for us – helping us see through ideology. (https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/products/living-with-myths-in-singapore)


Q:

I've heard that the Malay minority is behind other groups in terms of income, education, and other markers of success. If true, what needs to be done in order for this situation to be addressed?

A:

This isn't something my book (or any of my research or writing) has looked at. It's outside my specialisation. But from my general reading I think there are two broad responses that Singaporeans need to consider. The first is to address class inequality more seriously. Most of the "Malay" problems can be ameliorated without focusing on race, but just class. Read Teo You Yenn's new book, "This is what Inequality looks like". Second, we do need to address racial prejudice and discrimination. Our minorities don't complain much about it, because most just accept that that's how things go in a majority Chinese country. Just because people accept it doesn't make it right.


Q:

What would the core elements of such civic education be? I have noticed that any talk of human rights is frowned upon. The education ministry also talks about civic virtues like responsibility, without the mirror aspect of rights. Other mature democracies always mention "rights & responsibilities" together, but not in sunny singapore.

A:

Yes, education about rights is crucial. Democracies are founded on two main principles: majority rule and equal rights. Without the latter, democracies are prone to the "tyranny of the majority", including intolerance and violence against vulnerable minorities. Some of the dark stuff going on in the US, Europe and elsewhere is happening precisely because majority communities have been convinced by populist politicians that democracy is simply a numbers game.