Professor dropped from panel raises academic freedom fears

A Philippines academic invited to speak on a panel on ‘Public Intellectuals, Populism and Power’ at a conference at the National University of Singapore (NUS) early next year says she has been dropped from the upcoming panel, and has accused the university of undermining academic freedom by uninviting her.

Sol Iglesias, assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines who is also a core member of the Network in Defense of Historical Truth and Academic Freedom in the Philippines, said she had been invited to the conference in Singapore, hosted by NUS, and was listed as one of the speakers. However, she said she was informed this month by the panel’s convener that he had been told to drop her.

The two-day Global Research Forum is organised by NUS faculty of arts and social science research division.

“I was slated to speak on the second day, [on] a panel on ‘Public Intellectuals, Populism and Power: Perspectives from Southeast Asia’. NUS has since disinvited me from the panel without any official explanation,” she said in a statement issued on 11 November.

“Based on what I have been told, I understand that it is because I am married to Dr Thum Ping Tjin (‘PJ’), a Singaporean historian and democracy activist whose work and integrity had been previously viciously attacked by the Singaporean government,” she said.

Thum, a prominent critic of the Singapore government, now based at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, came under attack in 2018 while invited to deliver an expert opinion to a Singaporean parliamentary committee hearing on ‘fake news’, as a bill was being prepared at the time. Instead, he faced bullying, personal attacks and cross-examination about his own historical research by Singaporean politicians.

Thum told University World News at the time that his historical research of Singapore’s colonial period had repercussions on his academic career in Singapore.

“I was told by someone senior at NUS [National University of Singapore] that I would no longer be able to work in Singapore,” he said.

Iglesias now says that possibly by being linked to her husband, her “academic freedom has been violated by the National University of Singapore, part of a persistent failure of the university to protect and uphold academic freedom”.

Iglesias, who received her PhD from NUS, told University World News that, although she and the panel convener could not be certain, they believed it was due to her association with Thum, and the decision to have her dropped from the panel came from higher up in the university.

“This has nothing to do with my work. As a woman, that means that I've been reduced to being someone's wife, regardless of my own achievements,” she said.

Not about ‘content’

Although the topics being discussed at the upcoming panel are sensitive ones, she noted that the topic she was intending to speak on had already been approved and confirmed and that she was already at the stage of talking about flights and logistics.

“So, it is clear it was not the content of what I was going to say – the content is the very reason why I was relevant as a speaker to the conference, and they sought me out for this specifically,” she said.

“I had discussed with my colleagues at NUS that I would probably talk about academic freedom activism here in the Philippines,” she said, pointing to her work analysing the Philippines elections in 2020. Others on the panel would be speaking about Thailand and Indonesia.

“These are potentially very sensitive themes within our own countries. But one of the positives about working in Singapore with Singaporean academic institutions is that it is a regional hub,” she said.

Support from other academics

The wider implications of speaking up on regional topics is also one of the reasons she maintains she has received a lot of support from academics in the region, including at NUS, after she issued her 11 November statement.

“I draw strength from a very strong network, especially here in the Philippines, but also across Southeast Asia, and I feel very supported about speaking out because everyone understands the cost of speaking out against such a powerful and frankly, very well-resourced institution like NUS,” she said.

“The theme of the conference has to do with academics facing the public, meaning highly political issues or highly sensitive issues of politics and policy,” she explained. “The question is, how sensitive does it have to be to cross a line between what is okay to discuss in an international forum in NUS and what becomes too sensitive as far as Singapore authorities that may be monitoring academic activities at NUS are concerned,” she added.

“On its own. This is one incident. But the reason why I am speaking out is because it is a part of a pattern of these kinds of incidents,” she said, referring to some academics at NUS currently being pressured to take a particular stand on the Palestine issue.

She had said in her 11 November statement: “I am unable to stay silent. Neither I, nor he (Thum), should bear the terrible burden of keeping NUS’ secrets so that it can maintain its façade of being a ‘world-class’, ‘global’ university.

“Having been at NUS as an undergrad and graduate student, I have seen first-hand how the university quietly fosters a culture that is willing to sacrifice academic freedom without a fight. I understand that what happened to me is relatively minor. I did not lose my job, nor was I eased out of a promotion; I am physically safe. However, NUS’ rejection is part of a broader pattern of its failure to respect and uphold academic freedom.”

She told University World News that she accepted that speaking out probably means she would “not be able to work with NUS or with Singaporean academic institutions ever again”. Even so, it was still “a very rude shock to experience this”, she said.

On 20 September NUS President Tan Eng Chye wrote to university faculty and staff at the university after a Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (also known as the ‘Fake News’ law) order was issued by the Singapore government to the Australian National University’s East Asia Forum over a commentary written by NUS Professor Chan Ying-Kit.

“NUS is committed to and upholds academic freedom. Faculty members are free to express and share their views and opinions on any subject matter as long as this is carried out in a professional, responsible and accountable manner, without contravening the laws of Singapore,” Tan wrote.

But Iglesias maintains the university president’s message was not simply a reminder to follow the law, but a warning not to criticise the incumbent People’s Action Party government.

On 23 November a spokesperson from the faculty of arts and social sciences at NUS told University World News: “Dr Sol Iglesias was approached as a possible panel speaker at the Global Research Forum, planned for January 2024. Up to earlier this month, the conference details were still evolving. On 2 November 2023, we reached out to Dr Iglesias to convey that she did not make the final line-up of speakers.”

This article was updated on 23 November 2023 to include comment from NUS.