Singapore: Academic Freedom?


* Featured on The Real SG, SG Daily and @KarinWahlJ.

Singapore: Academic Freedom?

(1) Ray Buono
(2) Cherian George
(3) Christopher Lingle
(4) Chee Soon Juan
(5) James Gomez
(6) Tey Tsun Hang


According to AAC&U, academic freedom allows for those working within a scholarly community to “develop the intellectual and personal qualities required of citizens in a vibrant democracy and participants in a vigorous economy.”


Image from Yale-NUS

Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP (2006-2010), wrote that academic freedom means “the political, religious, or philosophical beliefs of politicians, administrators, and members of the public cannot be imposed on students or faculty.”

Students and professors need the freedom to share their ideas publicly and responsibly, so as to develop critical judgement by exploring a wide range of insights and perspectives.

Do academics in Singapore have a safe environment to express their own views?

Here is a brief look at some of the academics who “expressed their views” about the Singapore government.



Rey Buono is a respected theatre director, acting coach, and performing arts educator with over twenty years’ experience in South-East Asia.

Mr. Buono taught in Singapore for nine years between 1987 and 1996. He was hired by the MOE to establish the first Theatre Program in the Singapore educational system. The syllabus is still taught in junior colleges today.

In 1994, he wrote an article criticizing the architecture of the proposed Esplanade building. He said:

“The subtext of the article was the rigidity of the PAP government and the oppression of local artists. This was enough to result in the non-renewal of my contract. When I found employment with Singapore Repertory Theatre, I was not permitted an employment pass. Later, I found out that my phone was tapped, I was followed by police, and the Ministry had in its files detailed information about what went on in my classroom.”

In Mr. Buono’s opinion, the Yale-NUS humanities programme will “exist within the confines and restraints of politics and power.”

He writes more about his experience in an online comment at openDemocracy (when contacted, Mr. Buono confirmed he posted this comment).


Dr. Cherian George, who received his PhD from Stanford University, was a journalist for The Straits Times. Since then, he has been a writer and academic engaged in journalism research, education and advocacy.

An excerpt from his title, The Air-Conditioned Nation (2000):

“In liberal democracies, it is all about freedom of the press from the government; in Singapore, it is about the government’s freedom from the press.”

In September 2012, he delivered a talk at the Singapore Management University law school about the co-existence of independent online journalism and traditional media in Singapore. A full transcript of the talk is available online.

Dr. George said:

(a) “The [Singapore] government has been quite forthright in claiming the authority to set the national agenda and to govern decisively, even if it means restricting the press.”

(b) “The government wants the space to effect unpopular policies that are beneficial for the country in the long term. . .but it may end up protecting itself from the kind of accountability that would keep it honest and responsive to the public.”

In 2013, Dr. George’s second application for tenure at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) was rejected. His contract with NTU expires in 2014. Despite petitions and an international outcry, NTU has maintained the stance to deny him tenure.

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, a Cardiff University professor who was one of the external reviewers of George’s application for tenure, said she was “devastated” to hear the news.

“The real danger,” she said, “of these kinds of decisions is they will have a significant chilling effect. Self-censorship will result from it. Everyone wants to keep their job and it suggests that anyone critical of the government is not going to get a permanent government position.”


Dr. Christopher Lingle began research for his book, Singapore’s Authoritarian Capitalism, during his fellowship at the National University of Singapore.

Work on the book was disrupted when police questioned Dr. Lingle about a newspaper opinion article he had written. Within a week, he resigned his position and returned to the United States, saying he feared arrest.

In an opinion piece published in The International Herald Tribune, Dr. Lingle had written that some East Asian governments relied on a “compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians.”

Although Lingle’s published comments did not name any country or individuals, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew insisted it was clear Dr. Lingle was referring to Singapore, based upon the wording.

The paper agreed to pay $214,285 to Mr. LKY, who asserted that he had been defamed.

Dr. Lingle said:

“I am not surprised by the Singapore judge’s ruling. As far as I can see it, the judgement [supports] the criticism that Singapore’s rulers use a compliant judiciary to bankrupt their critics. . .whether they are the political opposition or news media or foreign nationals.”

The co-chairmen of The International Herald Tribune said their papers repeatedly defended the principle of a free press, and that it would be ludicrous if they set a different standard for newspapers their company owned (NYT).



Dr. Chee Soon Juan is the well-known leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). He is a vocal opponent of the ruling People’s Action Party, which has held power since 1959, and has been routinely persecuted by Singapore’s government.

Before entering politics, Dr. Chee was a psychology lecturer at the National University of Singapore.

A few months after Dr. Chee joined the SDP, he was fired from his position at the National University of Singapore by the head of the psychology department for allegedly using research funds to mail his wife’s doctoral thesis to the United States. Dr. Chee denied misuse of the funds and staged a hunger strike to protest his dismissal.

As discerning readers, we should contrast this “misuse of university funds” with the Nassim Jade Scandal where Mr. LKY, his brother and his son purchased condominium units at substantial discounts from purchases amounting to more than $10 million that were carried out without mortgages and loans (John Harding, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Inland Revenue at Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore).



Dr. James Gomez is a politician and academic from Singapore. He is currently a member of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and was previously a member of the Workers’ Party.

Dr. Gomez has written several books and articles about Singapore, centering on politics, journalism, and civil society activities. He penned his first book in 1999 titled Self-Censorship: Singapore’s Shame.

In 2006, Dr. Gomez wrongly accused a staff at the Election Department for misplacing his minority certificate which he promptly apologized for. However, a police report was made against him and the police acted the very next day to investigate him for “criminal intimidation.”

The incident was played up by ruling party politicians and local media, which rarely deviate from the government line. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew seized the opportunity to call Dr. Gomez “a liar” and a “bad egg.”

So why was Tin Pei Ling — PAP MP for Marine Parade GRC — not harassed by the police in 2011 for flouting election laws on ‘Cooling off’ day? (Singapore Election Watch)



Tey Tsun Hang was an NUS law professor, former district judge, justice law clerk, seat counsel in the Attorney-General’s Chambers as well as a practising lawyer.

Prof. Tey has been critical of Singapore’s legal system, as evident in his academic publications:

(1) Death Penalty Singapore-Style: Clinical and Carefree (Common Law World Review, 2010)
(2) Scandalising the Singapore Judiciary (Australian Journal of Asian Law, 2010)
(3) Contempt of Court Singapore-style: Contemptuous of Critique (Common Law World Review, 2011)
(4) Legal Consensus: Supreme Executive, Supine Jurisprudence, Suppliant Profession of Singapore (Hong Kong University Press, 2011)

The blurb for Legal Consensus states that the book “hints at the power relations and dynamics between the political establishment and the Singapore judiciary.”

In an interview with The Monthly, Prof. Tey said he went ahead with publishing a number of articles highly critical of Singapore’s judiciary because he was “no longer willing to self-censor,” and did not want to go on compromising his intellectual honesty.

The Chief Justice of Singapore, Chan Sek Keong, criticised Prof. Tey’s writing in February 2012. By April 2012, Prof. Tey was arrested by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau for investigation on charges of corruptly gaining favours from students (Malaysiakini).

In May 2013, Prof. Tey was found guilty of six counts of corruptly obtaining gifts and sex from former student Darinne Ko. He was then sentenced to five months’ jail in June.

As NUS law grad “Rumpole” (now living and working abroad) says:

“The headline reads ‘NUS law professor faces corruption charges‘. Sounds reassuring right? Does this latest prosecution not show that even if you are a member of the establishment you are not above the law? Does this not vindicate the view that Singapore has a FIRST WORLD judicial system?

Wrong, wrong and wrong!”

* * *


As Ray Buono wrote: “I am not the only lecturer to have this happen. I can name two of my contemporaries (and there are many more) — Christopher Lingle and William Ray Langenbach — both of whom I was close to; both of whom were expelled for political reasons.”

One has to wonder how “many more” academics have been treated in a similarly sordid manner — and how much of a factor this is in contributing to the steady brain drain whereby many of Singapore’s best and brightest leave for a better life elsewhere.

* * *

More Information:

Defining Academic Freedom (by Cary Nelson)
Please don’t be fooled by the Latest Sex Scandal! (by Singapore Consensus)
Freedom fears after outspoken lecturer’s appeal fails (by University News)
“Myth of the Online Bypass” (by Dr. Cherian George)
Paper to Pay $214,285 in Singapore Libel Case (New York Times)

Nassim Jade Scandal


* Featured on The Real SG.


Asiaweek covered the Nassim Jade Scandal in May 1996, reminding readers in the introduction that the Singapore government “takes pride in its image of incorruptibility.”



Image of Nassim Jade | HPL

Nassim Jade is an exclusive, four-storey condominium located in one of the most prestigious districts in Singapore. It is owned by Hotel Properties Limited (HPL), which owns other upscale condominiums in Singapore such as Four Seasons Park and Scotts 28.

In 1996, the “pre-launch” secret purchases of Nassim Jade units by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, his son, and their family members became publicly known. The Stock Exchange of Singapore said HPL “was not forthcoming in responding to the Exchange’s requests for information.”

The situation became so bad that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong directed these purchases to be investigated by Finance Minister, Richard Hu, and Deputy Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Koh Beng Seng.


In The Business Times, Ong Beng Seng — property tycoon, founder and managing director of Hotel Properties Ltd (HPL) — described the fuss over the purchases of four condominiums by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as being “damn unfair.”


John Harding is the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Inland Revenue at Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.

He lays down the facts in the following blog comment:

When the “Nassim Jade Scandal” broke, involving Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his family, I was working at Singapore’s Inland Revenue, and [knew] the names of the guilty before the “Nassim Jade Scandal” hit Singapore.

Sometime between April and early May of 1995, Hotel Properties Limited (HPL), of which Lee Suan Yew was a director, offered units at Nassim Jade to “close business associates” for sale before its official launch for sale to the public.

The investigation revealed that not only had Lee Kuan Yew, his brother and his son purchased these apartments [at Nassim Jade and Scotts 28], they were offered substantial discounts to boot.

The apartments were due to be put on sale on the open market on April 27 1995. Three days before the official launch, HPL conducted a “soft launch” where a select group of potential customers were invited to have first go at the apartments. This was not exactly an unheard of practice amongst property developers. The problem was that because HPL was a publicly listed company, it had shareholders to account to. Rules under the SES Manual Listing stated that approval had to be sought for transactions involving “connected persons” of the company involved and those persons’ associates. HPL did not seek the permission of its shareholders and Lee Suan Yew, Lee’s brother, was a director of the company.

At the soft launch, Lee Kuan Yew’s wife, Kwa Geok Choo, chose an apartment to buy. She was quoted a price of $3,578,260 (or $1,583 per square foot) for the apartment. This was a seven percent discount on the list price.

Later, Kwa Geok Choo contacted her son, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and told him of the Nassim Jade apartments upon which he called his Aunty Pamelia Lee, wife of Uncle Suan Yew, and said that he and his wife, Ho Ching, wanted to get in on the deal as well. Aunty Pamelia then later came back to her nephew and offered him an apartment for $3,645,100 a discount of 12 per cent or $437,412 on the asking price. The Deputy Prime Minister accepted his Auntie’s offer.

This was not all. On the Scotts 28 condominiums, similar offers and purchases were made. Greedy Lee Kuan Yew and son bought two more units and paid $2,791,500 and $2,776,400 respectively for them, each bagging a five percent discount.

All in all, Lee Kuan Yew received from HPL a total of $416,252 whilst Lee Junior got $643,185 in discounts. All the purchases amounted to more than $10 million and were carried out without mortgages and loans.

It was also found out that Lee Kuan Yew’s entire family was in on the purchases. Daughter Lee Wei Ling, a medical doctor in a government hospital; sister Lee Kim Mon; and his two other brothers Freddy and Dennis; Kwa Kim Li, a niece of Lee; and Gloria Lee, Lee’s sister in law, all bought the condos at hefty discounts. Daughter Wei Ling bought two apartments at Nassim Jade and was reported to have sold one off for a tidy profit. Again, all these transactions were carried out without the approval of the shareholders of HPL.

It must be remembered that all this while, decisions of sales and the discounts were carried out secretly at the directors’ level by Lee Suan Yew. None of the shareholders nor the SES had the slightest idea of what was going on and neither did the Singapore public.

It was a national disgrace for Singapore.


The eloquent speaker Francis T. Seow is a former solicitor general of Singapore.

The first chapter of his riveting book, Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary, is entirely devoted to the Nassim Jade Scandal.

About the scandal, Mr. Seow wrote:

“Singapore’s anxious young upwardly mobile professionals [viewed] with dismay such preferential purchases of properties as virtually closed to them. . .unless they were also numbered among the rich and powerful. Such swelling angry public perception was bad news for a government at the best of times, but with a general election looming over the horizon, it was a prescription for disaster. Unless it was defused quickly, it could turn into a political time bomb.”


Tang Liang Hong was a lawyer and opposition Workers’ Party candidate.

When Mr. Tang was interviewed by the Hong Kong-based magazine, Yazhou Zhoukan, about the Nassim Jade scandal, he questioned:

“Why wasn’t this matter handed over to a professional body like Commercial Affairs Department or Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau? They are government departments. . .well-known for being [firm and impartial]. They would be more detached and their reports would have been more convincing to the people. Koh Beng Seng and Finance Minister Richard Hu are after all not experts in this field.” (Tang Liang Hong, 1996/97)

LKY and his son took offence at those remarks, and commenced a libel action. The presiding judge was Justice Lai Kew Chai, a former partner of the prime minister’s law firm of Lee and Lee.

Tang Liang Hong was bankrupted and had his property seized following the 1997 general election. He entered into self-imposed exile in Australia.


(a) “It saddens and angers me that this ‘Lee’ family think they rule the whole of Singapore and [that] they are above the law.”
(SG Forums)

(b) “Korean President Lee Myung Bak bought an expensive plot of land for his own retirement home using the name of his own son. In suspicious and filthy arrangement the transaction was carried out but exposed. Similar to LHL’s HPL Nassim Jade Corruption Scandal.”

(c) “What is disgusting about the entire Lee family is this. They not only are thieves, they take offense when you call them so.”
(LKY’s Monopoly on Corruption, Gopalan Nair)


As former ISD director, Mr. Yoong Siew Wah, aptly summarizes:

“That the Singapore ministers are filthy rich, especially MM Lee’s family, is obscenely plain for the people to see. In spite of his opulence, MM Lee is drawing a whopping salary and jetting around at taxpayers’ expense to spout poetries to a gullible world audience. As he says when the coffin is closed, you will have the verdict. We all look forward to the day, especially those who survive him.”
(Singapore Recalcitrant, 25 April 2009)