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‘Voided’ Invitation to University in Singapore

Amid reports of screening of visiting scholars, university apologizes for “oversight.”

March 16, 2018
 
Cherian George

A well-known journalism scholar reported that a talk he planned to give on state censorship and the media at the National University of Singapore had to be canceled after delays in what he was told was a routine screening process for all visitors to the university’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. It is unclear what the reported screening process entails.

NUS has issued a statement expressing regret for the cancellation, which it described as being the result of an "oversight."

The talk by Cherian George, a Singaporean citizen and professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, has been rescheduled for later this month after the cancellation of the original talk, which was to focus on media policies and authoritarian governments and draw on case studies from Asia, including Singapore. George was, in a famous case, denied tenure at another Singaporean university, Nanyang Technological University, despite rave reviews from his colleagues, leading many to suspect that the sensitive nature of his research on press freedoms and state power in Singapore was the reason for the denial.

Writing on his blog Air-Conditioned Nation, George said that he was asked by the head of a NUS research center to give a talk at NUS and that they agreed to a March 9 date.

“A couple of weeks later,” George wrote, “I got this email: ‘Rest assured that your visit in March is being coordinated.’ My suspicions were aroused by this assurance, since I’d not expressed any impatience. Was there some hitch, I now wondered. Sure enough, in mid-February, I was informed that ‘all visitors to the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences [FASS] are subject to screening.’”

“A few days later, my host apologized for the holdup. I could sense his frustration and helplessness. We agreed to wait and see.”

“A few days ago, he was forced to ask for a rain check, since there was no longer time to make my travel arrangements or publicize the talk even if suddenly we got the green light,” George wrote in the essay, which was dated last Friday, the planned date for the talk.

“This afternoon, approval finally came, like the punch line to a bad joke.”

“No explanation was offered for the nature of the screening or why it had taken so long,” George wrote.

A spokesperson for NUS did not address specific questions from Inside Higher Ed about what screening procedures and protocols are in place for visiting academics such as George, and why there may have been a delay in this particular case. In a written statement, a NUS spokesperson said, “We regret that our internal administrative process took longer than expected due to an oversight, leading to this unfortunate incident. We have invited Dr. Cherian George to give a talk later this month and he has accepted.”

George’s essay does not name the scholar who invited him to NUS, but the rescheduled lecture is part of a series organized by NUS’s Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation. The head of that research center did not respond to emails from Inside Higher Ed.

“In my time as an academic, I have given talks on campuses in around 25 countries,” George wrote. “This is the first time that an invitation to speak has been, in effect, voided. It’s the kind of hitch that I’m mentally prepared for if I need to deal with universities in the People’s Republic of China. I wasn’t expecting it from my own country. I wonder if we’ve hit a new low (and new heights of irony), when the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, in which foreigners occupy half the head-of-department positions, can’t freely decide to have a Singapore citizen visit for a couple of hours to share his research.”

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