04/01/2013 03:24 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

Internet Freedom Prof Denied Tenure for Human Rights Advocacy

Noted freedom of expression scholar Cherian George has been denied tenure by the Singaporean government against the wishes of his faculty. His error was explaining basic tenets of political philosophy in an editorial. I'm writing about it because this is an American problem.

Like Prof. George, I am also a professor working in the area of Internet policy. I first encountered George's work on the subject in 2003 as guest editor for The Communication Review, where I published his research on Singaporean and Malaysian approaches to Internet censorship. I was fascinated by his comments about what happens in Singaporean Internet forums when the government is criticized. He is well-known in my circles for his 2006 book Contentious Journalism and the Internet.

Unlike Prof. George, I am an American academic with no particular connection to Singapore. And yet - strangely, unexpectedly -- the Singaporean government routinely appears in my professional life and in American academia. While in Singapore for an international conference, my taxi driver asked me what I did for a living. When I said that I was a professor, he asked when I was relocating. He explained that "Singapore buys the best American professors." He went on to highlight two specific professors in science and medicine that had been lured to Singapore.  ("What a place!" I thought, "where the average taxi driver cares so much about science!")

While at my previous position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign the university accepted a $75 million grant from the Singaporean government to establish The Advanced Digital Sciences Center at the Fusionopolis Complex, Singapore. An annual group of Singaporean Ph.D. students now visit Illinois for two years and ultimately receive an Illinois Ph.D. As a part of this program, Illinois faculty were offered the opportunity to as much as double their faculty salary and research budgets in exchange for spending a significant amount of time in Singapore and signing the intellectual property they produced over to the Singaporean government. Some faculty who considered participating jokingly called the incentives "danger pay" but that joke doesn't seem funny to me anymore.

Just last week, while attending the annual conference of information schools in Texas, a colleague stood up and pitched the faculty attendees to consider the possibility of research funding via the Singaporean government instead of through our usual funders. If we went with Singapore, our grant amounts would be two to five times more.

I had little sense that anything was at stake in Singapore's periodic but insistent appearance in my American professional life until the revelation that Prof. Cherian George was denied tenure there at NTU. Yes, when I visited the country in 2007, all of the Westerners joked about the official ban on chewing gum. Someone nervously pointed out to me that possession of 15 grams of a controlled substance will get you mandatory death by hanging. But research collaboration with Singapore seemed to be a great opportunity.

The case of Prof. Cherian George has made me revise my opinion, and I suggest you do as well. The case poses the question: what does it take for an academic there to incur the wrath of the government? The answer is remarkably little.

In 2005, George published an editorial in the Straits-Times explaining some of the basic political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. When I found out it likely played a role in George's firing I read it expecting a fiery polemic. It reads... like an editorial explaining some of the basic political philosophy of Hannah Arendt.

Arendt was a genius and yes, she was no friend to oppressive regimes. (She famously wrote: "To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished but it is also paid by the victor.") If this is the kind of writing the rulers of Singapore consider dangerous, a liberal education there is simply impossible, as is a modern university. George's editorial received a direct rebuke from the Prime Minister's office.

Prof. George is a distinguished, productive, and well-respected scholar with degrees from Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford who has repeatedly asserted that Singapore should abide by international standards of human rights, and this latter point was his downfall. As a researcher working in the same field I can say that his research record is exemplary. It is beyond question.

In 2009, George was promoted to associate professor, told that he had met all of the academic requirements for tenure, but that his tenure had been blocked by the board of trustees for what the university told him were "non-academic factors." George reported that in a 2009 meeting the president of the university asked him to explain what reasons the government might have to block his tenure. Last year George was asked to re-apply for tenure. It has just been denied. This is supposedly on the basis of his "research and teaching," but this is an outrageous falsehood.

In fact, the claim is so outrageous that protests against his firing are being led by his external tenure reviewers. (At least, those based in countries that have protections for the freedom of expression.) George is an academic "superstar" according to external reviewer Prof. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen at Cardiff University in the U.K., and the case for tenure was "watertight." Prof. Philip Howard at the University of Washington, a fellow of the Center for Technology Policy at Princeton and another external reviewer, writes in protest that George's career is being "derailed by the political elites" in Singapore. I agree.

The George case is important for all American academics. The dire financial situation at the University of Illinois made lucrative research deals with authoritarian governments more attractive, and these sorts of collaborations have already been covered extensively in the Western press. I see now that this coverage has missed the mark. It has emphasized the growing trend of international campuses and the reliance on international money in American higher ed, but the coverage has failed to specify the sophisticated Singaporean higher education strategy of targeted bribery and the Singaporean danger to freedom in the American academy.

For instance, extensive media coverage of controversial Yale-N.U.S., Singapore's first "liberal arts college" and a project of Yale University, focused on the threat to student freedoms.

As a New York Times article puts it, quoting Ravinder Sidhu:

The main issue is whether students at the Yale-N.U.S. College will be able to engage in all of the activities associated with an education in the humanities -- freedom of thought, the cultivation of the imagination, the ability to think critically about the arguments offered by those in authority, and the ability to fashion arguments and dissent in a civil manner.

The important problem above is framed as: When Yale-N.U.S. teaches Arendt, will the students be able to talk about it? But I predict that the problem may never come up.

Student freedom of expression is indeed foundational but this coverage leaves unmentioned the threat that these institutional arrangements are placing on the freedom of research and teaching. It leaves unmentioned the serious risks that any American academic takes when engaging in a Singaporean venture.

What if you went to Singapore and accidentally let it slip that you thought human rights were a good idea? It is so clean and nice there, it's easy not to notice that Singapore's government is (I've just noticed) grouped with comparable Liberia, Palestine, Georgia, and Haiti by The Economist's "Democracy Index."

If your money has been doubled presumably that takes the sting off. One defense of Yale-N.U.S. was that engagement with countries like China and Haiti have generally been a good thing for Western institutions and the countries involved. But China and Haiti do not typically pay well.

When I mentioned to a colleague that I was writing this, he shared the story of 75-year-old Alan Shadrake, an author and British citizen who wrote a book critical of the Singaporean justice system and its use of the death penalty. When visiting Singapore for a book launch in 2010, Shadrake was arrested for defamation and the offense of "scandalizing the court system" (a Singaporean offense). He was found guilty and jailed, despite the protests of Amnesty International. My colleague mentioned that after I publish this article I should not travel to Singapore again.

Yet, I'd like to go back. I found Singapore to be a wonderful place. I'm a fan of international collaboration in higher education and I have many collaborators in Singapore. I want to stand in support of my colleagues -- the faculty and students who have been overruled by the government in the case of Prof. Cherian George.

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.