Principled But Unrealistic

Let’s call a spade a spade.

To the extent that Prof Cherian George was denied tenure at NTU due to non-academic grounds, lets just accept that it is so, unless the university takes the traditional (Singaporean govt) route of calling in Ms Sue to persuade the good professor to retract his statements and publish an apology.

So what?

Does anyone think that tenure should be awarded purely on job performance?

In the real world, people can be fired from their jobs for reasons other than job performance. Remember a guy who complained about how filthy Singaporean public transport was when his Porsche was in the workshop? What happened to him and his wife? Not only did he lose his job, they had to flee the country, right?

Remember another woman who made some remarks about Malay weddings? She lost her job at NTUC too right? Where is she now?

Remember some Speaker of Parliament who had an affair and had to quit his post and his party, prompting a by-election?

And so on.

In other words, job performance is not the only factor in a company deciding to retain the employment of any employee. What the employee does outside of work matters too, if it embarrasses a company or creates a liability for the company by their continued association.

No company wants to be seen as ‘condoning’ unacceptable non-work behaviour of an employee, even though technically it has no right to interfere in a person’s private affairs outside of work. They do not want to offend their stakeholders (customers and the public in general). This is what the public expects, more so in a social media age.

And so it applies in Prof George’s case.

He is a veteran journalist. He knew the political players. He knew the system. He knew the boundaries.

Yet he chose to take the PAP on.

Did he really expect NTU to stand on his side? Offer him tenure, despite his criticisms of the PAP govt? How could NTU do so, as a public university that looks to the very same PAP govt for funding? How can NTU offend its major stakeholder? In the same way that companies fire undesirable staff to avoid stakeholder backlash (or worse, a public boycott of their products), so too NTU cannot afford to offer Prof George tenure if it wants to maintain good relations with the PAP Govt.

Is this fair?

That depends on whether one has double standards. One can take the view that ntu should not do so, despite real-world examples which show companies can and do fire employees who embarrass them. One can claim that educational funding is public money, not PAP money, and thus should not be affected by political criticism.

However, if one is realistic and accepts that no Govt willingly funds its critics, the PAP least of all, then one will see that the NTU’s actions are no different from those of real-world companies and organisations.

A similar practice is seen in the case of the National Arts Council, which does not fund PAP critics, and in fact, occasionally even requires arts productions to be toned down before funding is given. Of course, those denied funding complain big time. But realistically, it is how the world operates. You want freedom of speech—no issue, but don’t expect the PAP to pay for it.

Prof George knew all this, yet he chose to continue his stand in an institution that could not support him. He chose to gamble his career in Singapore on it, believing that he would be awarded tenure despite his strong criticisms of the PAP.

Principled, I’m sure, but highly unrealistic.


About politicalwritings

Someone who sees beyond PAP and "opposition" in Singapore politics. To understand more please see the Top 10 link below.
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30 Responses to Principled But Unrealistic

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 7 Jan 2015 | The Singapore Daily

  2. Sgcynic says:

    Pragmatic, I’m sure, but highly unethical.

  3. bimbotic_observer says:

    You’re quite a cynic, aren’t you? I think what you’re really trying to say, is that change will be difficult. But you have to distinguish between a difficult yet achievable goal (not getting fired for making mild criticisms agnst the govt) vs an unrealistic fantasy (PAP expecting that people will continue to cheer them on despite our living standard going down). It is true that the reality in Sg at the moment is that we have a govt that does not tolerate criticisms from within the establishment, but this is NOT the reality in other democratic countries. In many ctries, people don’t get fired for criticizing the govt of the day. Going by your logic, it’s pointless to speak up agnst wrongdoings because we can’t expect changes to take place in Sg. However, I beg to differ. I can see the warped reality in Singapore changing very soon.

    • It is not pointless to speak against pap. Just don’t expect your employer to support you. Particularly if they depend on govt funds. That’s one reason why a lot of ‘opposition’ politicians are ‘businessmen’.

      Ntu was just acting in its self interest, that’s all.

  4. henry says:

    In other words, political writings has the view that people, organisations will act for their own self interests only?

    That includes the judiciary, education, and religious bodies… hmmm… and you too, I presume?

    Indeed, we have no leaders. Only survivalists.

  5. dotseng says:

    ‘He is a veteran journalist. He knew the political players. He knew the system. He knew the boundaries.

    Yet he chose to take the PAP on.’

    Yes…you are correct. The good Prof choose to use his brain instead of behaving like a pickled cucumber.

    FYI Prof Cherian George has done more than anyone to further the civil discourse in the Singapore blogosphere.

    I know that he will find peace, health and happiness elsewhere besides Singapore….as over there….he can continue to use his brain. As for the rest….what kinda of conversation do you hope to get out from a pickled cucumber?

    Wonder no more why no one with half a brain cares to hear what they have to say.

    I rest my case.

    Darkness 2015

  6. Andrew Chen says:

    An unfortunately bigoted and myopic perspective masquerading as pragmatism.

  7. ardeedee1 says:


    My take on your comments is that “non-academic ” grounds is a nomenclature that does not exist with legal clarity. It has to be defined what it means. It can mean anything and nothing.
    At the moment it means nothing that legally can prevent NTU from being sued for wrongful dismissal.

    NTU as an entity which is public sponsored for the public good should not dwell on ambiguity but come clean and tell the world why they denied him tenure.

    The PAP is a political party that must stand the test of public scrutiny and not hide under skirts of nanny legislation that does not exist for protection.

    Criticising a government or a political party is not a cause for disturbing the peace of political atmosphere.It can be for good of the party and the country.

    Obviously the PAP has reverted to the dark ages where freedom to speak comes at a price.


    Date: Tue, 6 Jan 2015 23:00:23 +0000

    • That’s pap for you.

      As for wrongful dismissal, I doubt it. First, he was not dismissed. He was not granted tenure. Big difference.

      Second, I doubt there are set critieria for tenure. It is just like any other job application. You may be qualified, but no company is obliged to offer you a permanent job just because you meet the critieria. There is discretion given to employers, to choose which of many qualified candidates they may wish to offer a position to, or even none at all.

      One must appreciate the difference between entitled and eligible. Many years ago, there was a famous legal case where the judge ruled that there is a difference between eligible and entitled. The former means one qualifies for consideration, ie meets the criteria. The latter means that another party has made a commitment to which an eligible person can make a claim. Eg if the govt says all seniors can get pioneer benefits, then one is entitled to it and can sue the govt if one is eligible but denied the benefits. I see no written promise of tenureship from ntu, thus I doubt he can sue.

      Last, there’s a hundred shoulds and should nots that can be uttered. Ntu should do this, pap should not, eto. Well, they’re not gonna do anything anybody says unless it is in their interest. That’s how the cookie crumbles.

  8. Caleb Liu says:

    First of all Universities and Polytechnics are independent institutions even if they receive public funding. The Singapore government should not have a say in tenure appointments and if they did it would set a rather dangerous precedent and seriously impact the reputation of our universities internationally. So even taking a pragmatic viewpoint like you purport to do, it would be better for the government not to interfere in our universities. Particularly if we want to attract world class academics and continue to have joint partnerships such as with Yale.

    Secondly, the examples you cite are spurious. The last I checked, Cherian George was an academic working in the Wee Kim Wee school of communications, teaching journalism. He wasn’t making some throwaway remark insulting poor people or denigrating race, he was making informed scholarly analysis that was accepted for publication in peer reviewed journals. It is well outside of the job scope for a banker to insult poor people which would harm the reputation of his employers. NTU paid him to write academic papers on issues pertaining to the media, and to get them published. This seems to be what he did.

    I won’t even go into the importance of the Press as a watchdog (I wonder how Singaporeans found out about a whole slew of corruption cases that have happened recently, some involving senior government officials) or the role it plays in helping to bring forward different opinions on policies. I don’t advocate them attacking the government the way some Western media publications, but certainly even a pragmatist should be able to see the dangers of an unchecked government – unless he is brainwashed into thinking that government can do no wrong.

    • Too many shoulds and should nots in your comment. You seriously think the pap, as the party in power, cares? You seriously think ntu, as a recipient of funds from a pap govt, wants to assert its academic freedom and risk losing its funding? You seriously think it is in the interest of the pap govt to freely fund anyone who criticizes it? What is the upside? Will that get them more votes from bleeding heart liberals? Or will it lose them more votes as they get more criticism from critics they fund indirectly?

      These are the realities that drive the actions of the players.

      I deal in realities, not abstract ideals and wish lists of what Singapore should be. If the populace is not prepared to vote out the pap, they have to live with its quirks, warts and all. To ask the pap to change is asking the sea to stop its wave motion. Impossible if you ask me, especially if pap perceives no upside to changing.

      This govt will work with westerners on its own terms. Not on theirs. If Yale wants to come, it’ll have to follow the rules. Same thing with China. They make the rules now. Westerners dance to their tune now.

      Don’t for a moment think that politicians do something because they should. They do it only if it benefits them. Do you think Najib promised to repeal isa because he respects human rights? Najib didn’t want to repeal isa, it was necessary for him to promise to do so to win the election. And when it became a liability for him, he broke his promise. That’s how the cookie crumbles.

      Ps This piece has nothing to do with the pros or cons of a free press.

  9. wanderinglucius says:

    In your pragmatism you’re restating a very popular and very obvious viewpoint. ‘So what’ is the mentality that underpins these situations and informs everyone who accepts and participates. It boils down to – PAP can do what it wants in and through the institutions it funds, without concern for ethics or promises made (e.g. the promises of academic freedom made to Yale, the representations of transparent employment practices made by the institutions to their employees).

    You’re just missing where the actual debate is. This is not about whether the PAP *can* do this. Of course it can. It’s about whether all participants and onlookers know that the system is deliberately deceitful. Many do not. That is the point of the deceit. If the real mechanism of the Singapore academy is public knowledge (‘the knowledge we produce can not be based on independent thought, research and debate, but only on what is politically endorsable’) , then those in the global academic communities can assess the value of Singapore’s academic work accordingly, and choose to participate in its activities accordingly. Academic independence does actually mean something still in the international community. It is the difference between real research and propaganda, and there is still plenty of reputational penalty attached to the latter. So the PAP does not actually hold all the cards here. If it did, then Bertil Andersson would not bother making out to the international community that the Cherian George decision was academic, despite the lack of evidence.

    • Thanks for your comments. Not sure what you think I’m missing. I’m making no assertions about whether what ntu or pap does is good or bad, fair or unfair, whether we need or don’t need freedom, etc etc. Those issues may be important, but I do not wish to focus on them.

      I merely make a simple point in this piece: That ntu did not give tenure to Prof George, likely to avoid antagonizing its major stakeholder. And that in general, everyone has to please their stakeholders, whether it is a private hedge fund, the ntuc or even the Parliament of Singapore. Indeed, even the pap had to bow to the demands of its stakeholders and cut minister salaries after the drubbing they received in 2011.

      So ntu is not alone in this.

      I reiterate, I make no judgement on whether ntu’s actions are good or bad, right or wrong, correct or incorrect. I do not make any commentary whether this is a step forward or backward for academia or for Singapore.

      In this post, I only wish to point out the realistic situation in Singapore that drives the motivations of its players.

      • wanderinglucius says:

        What you’re missing is that this ‘realistic’ situation depends on misrepresentations to another couple major stakeholders: the international academic community which Singapore’s institutions are clambering over themselves to achieve within, and the employees who take the employment practices as presented on good faith. It’s a major conflict of interest, and an untenable situation once everyone understands the double-speak that you think is so obvious. You may think ‘so what’ about academic freedom and employment ethics, but those who work in this area actually understand that their work means nothing at all without those principles.

      • Thanks for your response. Such issues are not the focus of this piece.

        However, I would like to point out that just because someone didn’t bring up something does not mean he ‘missed’ it. There’s a lot of angles from which one can view any issue. But there’s limited time to write and limited attention span on the part of the audience.

  10. Goit nuts says:

    A spade is only called a spade if only they state that the reason of NOT renewing the tenure is because of they do not want to embarrass their stakeholder. In this case, one of their professor openly criticize the lack of freedom of speech. To say otherwise is plain lying.

    • Ntu stated clearly that they have nothing further to add after Cherian George’s post. As you’re aware, in Singapore govt and quasi govt organizations have a policy of vigorous rebuttal of any assertions made against them. This is because their longstanding policy belief is that anything left unchallenged will be taken as correct. Since they do no wish to challenge Cherian George in this case, to me it is enough spade calling.

      • wanderinglucius says:

        And yet they still try to maintain their claims of academic freedom internationally (Andersson in the THE), make agreements with overseas institutions on those claims, employ people on the basis of misrepresented employment practices. That’s not a spade.

      • No comment is also a form of comment, if you understand how these things work.

  11. wanderinglucius says:

    Is it supposed to be clever, to understand that the institution says one thing in an international forum but the opposite is true, and this is implied by the fact that they don’t pursue it? Who exactly is supposed to feel satisfied by this state of affairs? Someone who lost his job? Someone who might lose their job? Someone whose work is compromised or suspected of compromise? Someone who can’t work with others in their field because those others may become compromised?

    • Er… Your point is?

      Do you think that if you shout from the top of mt faber, ntu would notice and actually confirm Prof George’s version of events?

      If not, then why not just let it rest? As long as this party is in charge, that’s how things will be in this country.

      A lot of people think that if they give enough feedback, pap will change. I disagree.

      I believe that if we want change, the party must be replaced.

      People must have the conviction that enough is enough, and have the courage to make that change.

      • wanderinglucius says:

        How does anyone get from ‘don’t shout, just let it rest’ to ‘people must have the conviction that enough is enough, and have the courage to make that change’? Where does courage, conviction or the interest in change come from? ‘So what’, ‘who cares’, the mentality that this is all perfectly realistic and no one should expect any different? You are the one making the argument here, and all you are arguing for is that people should accept all this and more of the same. Black is white, everyone knows it but don’t complain. Fine, but don’t pretend that you are calling a spade a spade or have any interest in courage.

      • I see the apparent contradiction but I would urge that you read other pieces on this site to understand what my approach is. You’ll find that unlike others, who basically want the pap to change, I don’t. I want the pap out.


  12. wanderinglucius says:

    I think anyone who wants a change of government is wise to participate in and encourage open discussion of the principles, issues and events that matter, rather than dismissing or minimising them and encouraging silence and disengagement. Otherwise any change you end up with will be uninformed kneejerk business, instead of carefully considered ethical alternatives.

  13. Sin Pariah says:

    Under extreme circumstances in war, people with the character traits akin to the author of this article will be the first, eg, to trade info for food and be the first in line to serve the conqueror. Unprincipled, I’m sure, but highly realistic.

  14. Anime Daisuki says:

    I’ve spent 6 years in the US and have friends in academia over there. From what I know, it is as what the author said— promotion to a tenure position depends on whether other people like you, as much as one’s ability. In other words, it is not sufficient to be good at the job, the person must also be well-liked by colleagues and the Dean. To be well-liked, it is necessary to conform and play some “office-politics”. I can’t commend on Cherian George’s case since I don’t know the specifics, only that in academia, as in elsewhere, the same rules apply as far as promotion is concerned.

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