Political shadows over academia: The disinvitation of Dr Sol Iglesias from NUS Event

SINGAPORE: Dr Sol Iglesias, an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, has been said to have been disinvited from a panel at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The panel, part of the “Global Research Forum: Towards a Public Asian Studies” scheduled for January 2024, was to address “Public Intellectuals, Populism and Power: Perspectives from Southeast Asia.”

Dr Iglesias’ disinvitation came after initial communications and preparations, including discussions about travel funding and logistics. On November 2, she was abruptly informed by her NUS colleague that the decision to exclude her came from “higher-ups” in the university.

No official explanation was provided, but Dr Iglesias suspects it is linked to her marriage to Dr Thum Ping Tjin, a Singaporean historian, democracy activist, and the managing editor of the independent media outlet, New Naratif.

In her Medium post on Saturday (11 Nov),  Dr Iglesias expressed her disappointment and concern, stating, “My academic freedom has been violated by NUS, part of a persistent failure of the university to protect and uphold academic freedom.”

She further elaborated on the implications of her disinvitation, “This is not just about me being disinvited; it’s a reflection of the broader pattern of NUS’s failure to respect and uphold academic freedom.”

Dr Iglesias’ case is not isolated. She refers to other instances where NUS’s commitment to academic freedom appears to be in question.

She highlighted a recent communication from the NUS president following a government-issued Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) order related to an article on government corruption. The president’s message emphasized adherence to Singapore’s laws, which critics argue could indirectly restrict academic freedom.

Another significant incident involved a 2020 webinar on “Public Discourse, Truth and Trust,” where speakers critical of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) were replaced at the last minute. The incident sparked speculations about the influence of political considerations in academic discourse.

Dr Iglesias further points to the treatment of her husband, Dr Thum, as indicative of the challenges faced by academics in Singapore.

Dr. Thum’s critical research on Singapore’s political history and his advocacy for democracy have met with significant opposition from authorities. This includes a prolonged interrogation by the Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, at the Select Committee, during discussions on the fake news law proposal, and a subsequent police investigation after the 2020 General Elections.

Dr Iglesias noted, “PJ himself has been penalized for his work as a historian of Singapore as well as a democracy activist.”

In her call for action, Dr Iglesias urged, “I stand in solidarity with Singapore’s academics, and scholars of Singapore. I am responding to NUS’s rejection with an encouragement for NUS faculty and staff to push back when you know your freedom to decide on research, publication, and public engagement is being curtailed.”

The recent incident at NUS has once again brought to the forefront questions regarding academic freedom in Singapore, spotlighting concerns at an institution that touts itself as both global and world-class.

Dr Iglesias’ disinvitation and the surrounding circumstances point to a troubling trend where academic discourse may be influenced by non-academic considerations.

Gutzy has written to NUS for its comments and will include them when they respond.

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