Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Having watched the long six hour exchange that seemed like an interrogation of the scholar PJ Thum, I felt a sense of sadness. Academics are often called upon as experts to offer their knowledge in policy making processes. However, I had not personally witnessed anything like this in any other part of the developed world. Here we had a politician, a representative of the state, performing what appeared to be an interrogation of an academic under the framework of a select committee, carrying out a performance that begun and ended with the scholar's integrity and academic credibility being brought under scrutiny.

The performance, I worry, if not interrogated for its quality and tenor, will send out a chilling message to academics in Singapore and elsewhere working on Singapore-related issues, especially when the findings of their work don't align with or even interrogate the state-sponsored line.

[Now even writing about this, while sitting here in Singapore, I have to overcome my anxieties. I have been told multiple times to toe the line. I have been told that, as a foreigner, I ought not to criticise Singapore society.]

The worth of a scholar and the value of her/his scholarship is not determined by politicians, elected state representatives, or the public. While indeed scholarly work may be engaged with, supported, refuted by politicians, the judgment of the value of that work (based on markers of quality, such as reliability, validity etc.) and the terms of the debate lies precisely within the scholarly community, the community of scholars that participate in the peer review process to evaluate a piece of work, make recommendations to the editor/program planner/program chair, and the editor/program planner/program chair makes decisions after in-depth consideration of the merits of the work.

In other words, the assessment of the quality of a scholar's work, and even more importantly of the scholar (whether one is objective, rigorous etc. etc.) can only take place within the academic community. Academic legitimacy rests on academic freedom, held to account only within a qualified community of expert academics trained in the methods of the community.

Now indeed a scholar's argument may be limited. The evidence considered may need further consideration. Alternative facets of the same body of evidence might need to be considered. The conclusions might not match with the evidence presented. However, for any and all of these questions to be considered, the sphere of engagement lies within academia. Scholars regularly publish refutations and rejoinders to published pieces, often in the same scholarly space where the original work was published. This engagement is typically subjected to peer review before it is published. This healthy climate of debate in academia is critical to the progression and integrity of academic knowledge.

Certainly members of the public (including politicians) are welcome to agree, disagree, partially agree/disagree, with the arguments being made by a scholar, based on their considerations of other evidence. This agreement or disagreement is targeted at the wider public. In democracies, the arguments and counter-arguments are presented in the court of public opinion for the public to consider.

Arguments about the quality of the scholarship and the author's rigor, however, are limited to the scholarly spaces where they can be debated on.

No comments: