Cherian George: Heat on Air-conditioned Nation

Air-conditioned Nation author Cherian George is now in the news in India and Indonesia. I saw an Associated Press (AP) report on him published online by the Jakarta Post and the Hindustan Times.

According to the AP report, even one of the experts who reviewed his case is surprised that the associate journalism professor was denied tenure by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

AP reports:

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, a professor from Wales’ Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, said she was one of the outside experts who reviewed George’s case for tenure. She called him one of the “foremost public intellectuals in Singapore,” and called the rejection “incomprehensible and plainly absurd.”

“I can only speculate about the reasons for this decision not to grant tenure to someone known for being critical of the government but it does not make NTU or Singapore look good in the eyes of the international academic community, and raises serious questions about academic freedom,” Wahl-Jorgensen said in an email to The Associated Press.

Her comments go against the line taken by an NTU spokesperson, who  told Channel NewsAsia that “the tenure review process is purely a peer-driven academic exercise”.

Cherian George is one of the best writers and commentators with a newspaper background in Singapore.

Nevertheless, I did not want to comment on this matter when I first read about it a few days ago. After all, a university has the right to make its own decisions.

However, the AP report casts an unflattering light on Singapore.

“Professor critical of Singapore denied tenure,” says the Hindustan Times headline, reporting the AP story which begins: “A Singapore journalism professor who has written extensively about the lack of media freedom in the city-state has been denied tenure a second time. Hundreds of his supporters at home and abroad are demanding to know why.”

Reading this, one might think Singapore has zero tolerance for freedom of expression, which is patently not the case, if one looks at all the blogs and tweets coming out of Singapore. The government is listening to the people and adopting new policies to appease voters unhappy about the rising cost of living, growing economic disparity and the influx of foreigners

One would expect a commentator like Cherian George to flourish amid this openness. People read him, listen to him. How can he be penalized for speaking now when the government is listening to the people?

The Hindustan Times headline described him as a “critic of Singapore”. But that’s too simplistic.

Yes, Cherian George spoke about “Singapore’s unfinished democratic project” following the 2011 general election and concluded that “we should not be surprised if things get ugly” after the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) lost the Punggol East by-election.

He also said in a talk at the Singapore Management University (SMU) law school on September 3: “Singaporeans who care about our democratic development still need to be concerned about restrictions that handicap traditional news organisations in fulfilling their professional roles.” The online alternative media, which enjoys more freedom, is no substitute for the mainstream media, he said.

So, yes, he has written about media restrictions and other sensitive issues But  he tends to be nuanced in his commentary.

“Media freedom is not absolute anywhere in the world, either in practice or in principle. So the problem is not that Singapore’s media are regulated as such, but that the manner of regulation is not in keeping with what is currently regarded as international best practice,” he said in his talk at SMU.

“For example, the preservation of multi-racial, multi-religious peace is the most commonly cited reason why our press needs close supervision — but it has never been adequately explained why, in order to achieve this, it has been necessary for the chairmen of Singapore Press Holdings to be former Cabinet ministers, as if other able Singaporeans lack the instincts to protect national interests.”

I am quoting this as an example of his style, He does not rail against media restrictions in Singapore but finds fault with the mechanisms.

He has weighed in against critics of Singapore, too.

He criticized the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders in October 2009 when Singapore was ranked 133rd out of 175 countries. (This year, in 2009, Singapore is ranked 149th out of 179 countries.)

The World Press Freedom index is flawed, Cherian George wrote in October 2009, adding:

Instead of using a common pool of rigorously trained assessors, it asks respondents within each country or region to rate the country on various indicators. Their responses help determine where the country ranks.

That’s like deciding the Miss World beauty pageant by comparing the scores given by the judges in each national competition.

Nanyang Technological University did not say exactly why Cherian George was denied tenure. It could not comment on specific cases because all employment matters are confidential, a university spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia.

But this is a controversy Singapore could have done without. When the government is listening to the people, the last thing it needed was allegations that a journalism professor’s career had been hurt by his critical commentary. There is expected to be a difference between journalists and publicists.