Is Singapore blacklisting its critical academics and writers?

Would any of the Singaporean writers at the Singapore Writers Festival, opening in two days in Singapore, raise questions about this list? Compiled by Singaporean playwright Tan Tarn How, it is a list of 15 artists and activists who say they have been denied jobs in academia or asked to leave their full-time or part-time jobs in our universities, polytechnics and sometimes schools. Tan calls it a list of Cherian Georges, after the academic who was denied tenure a second time in 2013 because of his criticism of the Singapore government.

As Tan points out, most of the cases happened in the last three to four years, roughly coinciding with increased restrictions on freedom of expression starting in 2013. Tan describes what happened to these individuals:

  1. A few of them would be given a flat no for jobs in every academic institution they applied to, jobs that were clearly qualified for.
  2. Some would be told by the educational institutions that they have gotten a job, only to be informed later that the offer had been withdrawn because of a veto by Ministry of Education.
  3. Those who were already teaching would suddenly be told that their services were no longer needed.
  4. The non-Singaporeans would be denied employment passes so they could no longer work here. Others had their formerly unproblematic applications for employment passes suddenly delayed without explanation, and then reduced in the length of validity when approval came.

When contacted via Facebook, regarding raising questions about these cases at the SWF, one writer responded that he'd feel uncomfortable doing so since he does not have firsthand knowledge of these cases and, quoting Tan, "the evidence is purely inferred, circumstantial." But the insidiousness of such a clampdown on free speech and research lies precisely in the obfuscations of the authorities. If accusations cannot, and should not, be made without clear evidence, although many of the writers are personally associated with the affected individuals, why can't questions be raised?

Another writer responded on Facebook that to raise such questions at his SWF event would be "politicizing" it. He also said that the SWF is not the right audience for these questions and that he had previously raised the questions in a forum on a related topic. Such forums, however, attract a small audience of like-minded individuals only, whereas the SWF provides writers with a big, well-publicized platform for raising vital questions related to literary and political expression in the country.

A third writer, also contacted via Facebook, said that he would try and touch on the issue at his event. We hope he will, and many Singaporean writers will do likewise at the festival, for, as Tan explains, not only have the affected individuals suffered injustice and its consequences, Singapore society suffers too from the chilling effects of academic and artistic censorship. Read Tan's full blog-post.

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Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World nation's arrested political development by Cherian George (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2017)

Cherian George: “Ours is a middle-aged country with a maturing economy—but a political system that treats us like children." He calls for more open “rules of engagement” that will protect and celebrate a diversity of ideas and beliefs and critiques Singapore’s culture of fear, lack of political transparency, and governmental groupthink.

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