Friday, March 8, 2013

Tenure in Singapore and West-centric discourse

The hegemony of West-centrism and the question of academic freedom:
From a half-baked lens in my short time in Singapore

Recently, a colleague at Nanyang Technological University, an associate professor of communication Dr. Cherian George was denied tenure (
Dr. Cherian is considered a leading public intellectual in Singapore, one who has opened up the discursive space to conversations about Singapore and its politics (
This instance of Dr. Cherian’s denial of tenure has become the subject of widespread political participation, letter writing, and conversations across Singapore. The social media is rife with multiple conversation threads that have questioned the tenure and promotion process at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) as well as the fairness of the outcome (
Outpouring support from students and colleagues have documented the quality of Dr. Cherian’s research, as well as the strength of his teaching (
The question under consideration in public conversations then is: Why was Dr. Cherian denied tenure?
Speculations in the blogosphere allude to the denial of tenure because of the political climate in Singapore. They describe an authoritarian culture in Singapore politics that is the underlying reason for the denial of tenure. These arguments made in the blogosphere fail to consider the inherently contingent and political nature of promotion and tenure processes, instead alluding to some broader political involvement in the tenure decision.
The arguments pointing to the politics of Singapore as the source of the denial of Dr. Cherian’s tenure seem oblivious to the socially constructed nature of promotion and tenure processes.
Tenure and promotion processes are inherently political because they are tied to disciplinary expectations of standards and to the implementation of these standards in various evaluative settings throughout the University. Even as Universities in the US and in other parts of the globe work on making these standards transparent, the objectivity of the standards themselves are contingent and constituted amid existing normative ideals of standards. These norms, in turn, are shaped by the values and beliefs of the broader culture.
In this sense then, the question of academic freedom as tied to the issue of promotion and tenure is almost always framed in the interests of the status quo, in the disciplinary ideals of an invisible mainstream that determines the key journals of the discipline, the editorial policies of these journals, the editorial boards on the journals, as well as the discursive limits to what would be considered acceptable scholarship within the field.  This is especially the case in the social sciences, where the key assumptions in disciplines are guided by the acceptable values in the mainstream and the broader societal standards.
For example, in my own experience of trying to publish critical pieces that interrogate the lack of objective standards in US mainstream media reporting of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I found the US-based mainstream journals to be unreceptive to the arguments in spite of the empirically grounded nature of my research. The arguments for denying my work often pointed to the political nature of the argument I was making. Similarly, I have witnessed journal reviewers and editors respond angrily (who I assume were American, given that I was mostly submitting my work to US-centric journals), referring to my work as inherently political, when I have questioned the imperial undertones of US democracy promotion initiatives in the Philippines, Chile, and Nicaragua. In these instances, labelling of scholarship as political works to undermine the value of the scholarship, oblivious to the political frame within which such acts of labelling take place.
Beyond the publishing process, tenure and promotion review processes too then are constituted amid mainstream political standards. Whatever is the dominant coalition in a discipline often dictates the reviewers that would be invited to review a case, the weight that would be given to those reviewers, and the standards that would be utilized. In the US for instance, academics of colour who articulate progressive visions of social and political organizing are often silenced through the lack of “fit” in mainstream journals, through the evaluation of their work as “edgy,” or through the framing of the work as political, unaware of the political nature of the act of evaluation. As a result, faculty of colour who work and study difference are often denied tenure in many US institutions. In those instances, the reason given for denial of tenure is often the lack of quality research, erasing the political nature of the very ideas of quality and what constitutes quality.
Beyond the letters writers that evaluate the case, various university level committees are put into place to evaluate the merit of the case. At these various levels too, the expectations of the mainstream often shape the values and criteria that are attached to how cases are evaluated. A body of work that challenges the status quo can easily be cast off as being unempirical or not being academic enough. In other instances, descriptions of the work being politically shaped can quickly work toward devaluing the work and the scholar.
Even after tenure is granted, an academic is not safe. Consider for instance the story of Professor Ward Churchill, a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was fired from the University in the wake of his article titled On the justice of roosting chickens claiming that the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center were a natural and unavoidable consequence of US imperial policy, and comparing the “technological corps” working in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns.” Although the charges that were ultimately used to dismiss Professor Churchill were framed under research misconduct, it is worth noting that the investigation was catalyzed in response to his September 11 comments and in the backdrop of powerful politicians in Colorado pressuring the University to fire him. It is also worth noting that in a court trial, a jury found the grounds of academic misconduct to not be adequate to warrantee dismissal ( Would these US-based academics who use the example of Cherian George to suggest that Singapore is an authoritarian culture then point to the US to imply that the firing of Professor Churchill was a product of authoritarianism of US culture?
Various forms of academic marginalization continue to take place in academe in its everyday politics. Faculty of colour in the US who work through politics of difference often articulate the struggles, silences and negotiations they experience in working from the fringes. In the experiences of these academics then, the US academic climate has a chilling effect.
What then is unique about this instance of Dr. Cherian’s tenure and promotion?
What I find particularly informative about this instance is the active public participation that it has catalyzed. The ivory tower and its hitherto invisible tenure and promotion processes have become the subject of public talk and deliberation. I am struck by the confluence between the various acts of public participation and Dr. Cherian’s imaginations of possibilities of participation.
That there are so many students across Singapore who read the work of Dr. Cherian and find inspiration from him speaks to their active negotiation of agency. That many of these students are actively engaged in discussing the promotion and tenure decisions in public forums is yet another example of how questions of academic freedom are being discursively negotiated in broader public spaces. Through these examples, we witness the various forms of activating effect that are inspired by Cherian.
And yet why is it that in Western depictions of the case these stories of localized agency are erased? Why is it that we continue to witness the depiction of an authoritarian Singapore that fits into the Western narrative of democracy propaganda?
Take for instance the response of Western academics and bloggers in the discursive space. In the blog Multicast, the American academic Christian Sandvig portrays the tenure and promotion decision as a product of authoritarian politics of the Singapore state. He concludes his article urging American academics to boycott Singapore by stating:
“As an American academic, I think the best way to support Singaporeans now is to withdraw from any research collaboration involving the Singaporean government. We should not host international research conferences in Singapore. Stay out of Singapore until it is clear that quoting Arendt won’t get you fired (or jailed). Let’s hope that day will come soon.”
Much like many other forms of American exceptionalism that boils down to propaganda for how the US system is the signpost for democracy and global governance, Sandvig’s argument rings hollow in its claims, bereft of in-depth consideration of the contingencies, politics, and interplay of power that shape the research process. Throughout his blog post, Sandvig demonstrates the lack of argumentation skills, making logic leaps without the need to offer evidence. He urges the reader of the post to stay out of Singapore because otherwise, quoting Arendt could get you fired or jailed. And yet, he does not care to offer a speck of evidence as to how this would be the case. His article also leaves me wondering whether he would make the same accusations about the US when an African American academic writing about the paradoxes of liberal discourse is denied tenure. Would he then go on to decry the US as an authoritarian state?
I read the response of Dr. Sandvig and other academics like him as inherently racist. The portrayal of Singapore is derived from stereotypes rather than being informed by critically derived information. Such stereotypical portrayals of a Singapore or a China uplift the image of the West as the harbinger of freedom but paradoxically do little to open up the spaces for dialogue and productive conversations. Most ironically, writings such as this do little to acknowledge the active negotiations of everyday politics and notions of freedom that are inspired by the works of scholars such as Dr. Cherian.
Also, what strikes me as ironic about such baseless arguments about academic freedom is the framing of freedom in absolute standards, oblivious to the negotiations of various forms of freedoms within any form of governance and politics, including within the US. It also strikes me as an irony that such notions of freedom have historically formed the cornerstone of US-led imperial missions globally even as the US has struggled in multiple instances to respect the freedom of its citizens. For instance, one might argue that the most recent drone attacks on US citizens abroad violate the fundamental freedom to life of US citizens. Are we then to read that the US is an authoritarian state that murders its citizens?
On another instance, a thoughtful consideration of the US funding system would draw attention to the military-imperial agendas within which the landscape of research in the US has been shaped. How then are we to ethically evaluate the grounds that form the basis of US research? Are we to discount all US research as bogus as the broad frame shaping the research space is dictated by a military agenda?
Having moved to Singapore from the US, I am learning everyday from the active participation of everyday Singaporeans in their political culture, and from the cultural scripts and codes that are negotiated through their everyday conduct. The recent public engagement with the population white paper depict the active frames of engagement through which policies are being actively negotiated by citizens in Singapore. I have been thoroughly impressed by the nature of the debates here, depicting the many layers in which conversations are being co-constructed in imagining the future of Singapore.
That students, activists, authors, artists and public intellectuals are actively articulating their support for Dr. Cherian George speaks to the climate of participation and engagement in Singapore, hardly a sign of an authoritarian state that suppresses dissent. That Dr. Cherian has continued writing critical pieces that raise the question of freedom and intellectually grapple with it are signs of a Singapore that is negotiating everyday with the textures of expression and participation.
Stepping out of the West-centric jingoism that has long shadowed discourses of free speech and democracy promotion, I am learning everyday from my experiences in Singapore as a professor of communication and social change. I encourage my American colleagues to do the same.

For US academe to continue aspiring toward the high standards it has embodied, the question of continuing to be relevant is tied to the acknowledgment of difference. That other ways of knowing and participating in the co-constructions of knowledge are starting to gain momentum in other parts of the world speaks to a shifting global landscape that US academics need to be attentive to. Simply desiring to withdraw research collaborations with other parts of the world is likely to devolve into parochialism rather than expanding the possibilities of knowledge creation through collaboration and partnership.
As an academic trained in the US and with great value for the US academe, I invite my American colleagues and colleagues from across the globe to come witness the negotiations of communication in the everyday lived experiences and political participation of everyday Singaporeans. In my short time here, I have been surprised, impressed, and continually educated by the many serendipitous moments that point toward negotiations, co-constructions, meaning making, and participation.
Listening to the voice of Dr. Cherian teaches us that what we need are more conversations about the possibilities of broader participation in discussions of what constitutes freedom and not discursive closures that foreclose the possibilities of conversation and listening.

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