Softly, Softly

by André Dao

This article originally appeared in The Monthly. Subscribe here.

Almost three years ago, Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) approached Tey Tsun Hang, a Malaysian-born law associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), about becoming a “listening-post” –meaning that he would provide information about goings-on in the law faculty. In return, Tey, then 39, would meet the ISD’s boss: someone who could “protect” Tey in the future. Left unsaid was that the ISD, Singapore’s secret police, who hold the power to indefinitely detain without charge or trial those suspected of jeopardising national security or public order, could have easily revoked Tey’s permanent residency status.

“It’s a necessary evil and compromise for me,” Tey wrote to a colleague in September 2010 about the arrangement. “I feel cowardly. Without academic spine.” The colleague counselled a softly, softly approach, to “engage and persuade, not confront and antagonise”. Tey countered the results would be “half-truth scholarship” and that he would be a “collaborator [who] pretends [his work] is not censored when it is”. Still, the next day Tey sent copies of all of his academic work to his ISD contact, asking the officer “to let me know which parts / pages / paragraphs / lines are not allowed and must be taken out”.

Even without direct interference from the ISD, Tey had found it impossible to publish work critical of the Singaporean government in local journals. In July 2010, an article which argued that the country’s strict contempt of court laws were a tool to curtail the constitutional right to freedom of speech, had been accepted for publication in Inter Se, the Singapore Academy of Law’s journal. Just three days later, British author Alan Shadrake was arrested on charges of criminal defamation and contempt following the release of his book, Once a Jolly Hangman, which criticised Singapore’s application of the death penalty. Inter Se got cold feet, and the article was never published.

Unsurprisingly, Tey’s experience is at odds with official reports regarding academic freedom in Singapore. When I spoke to Simon Chesterman, NUS’ affable dean of law (an Australian, Chesterman is married to the daughter of the Singaporean president), he said that many academics publish abroad because Singapore is a very small market. He was quick to point out that both local academics and visiting professors at NUS have been critical of Supreme Court decisions, the use of the Internal Security Act, prohibitions on homosexual conduct and the death penalty. “No one’s ever had to run anything by me prior to publication,” he insists.

According to Chesterman, Singapore’s human rights story is one of incremental improvements, and, echoing the advice given to Tey in 2010, he says “academics who’ve been quietly critical of this process” have played a significant part. “We’re not issuing shout-from-the-rooftops criticisms of the government,” he explains. “I’m not certain that would be the most effective way of bringing about change in Singapore anyway.”

Tey’s experience is a case in point. In 2011, he decided to go ahead with publishing a number of articles highly critical of Singapore’s judiciary without approval from the ISD. “I am no longer willing to self-censor,” he wrote to the same colleague who had advised him. “I certainly do not want any longer to compromise my intellectual honesty.” Perhaps thinking of Alan Shadrake – who received a six-week jail term and S$20,000 (A$17,180) fine, but also significant international support from Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders – Tey prepared to defend himself against charges of criminal defamation or contempt of court. “I make my bed,” he wrote, “and I hope I shall have the courage to lie in it.”

In February 2012, it looked as if Tey was going to get his chance to prove his courage. In a speech, Singapore’s Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong launched an extraordinary attack on critics of Singapore’s legal system. Referring specifically to two of Tey’s articles, Chan made it clear that he had crossed the line.

Despite warnings from several colleagues, Tey stayed in Singapore. Just two months after Chan’s speech, he was hauled in for questioning by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau on charges relating to a relationship with one of his students, 23-year-old Darinne Ko.

Any questions of academic freedom were quickly overshadowed by the unfolding scandal. The local papers came to refer to him as the “sex-for-grades prof”. When I met Tey during his trial last June, he scrolled through the headlines on his phone, complaining to me in his urgent, formal manner. Every article was “downright inaccurate”. Sex scandals are effective ways of destroying reputations in socially conservative Asian countries, Tey explained, pointing to the multiple sodomy trials of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia.

His whole trial, he insisted, was a sideshow. Despite the tabloid epithet, there weren’t actually any allegations of grade tampering. Instead, he stood accused of having obtained sexual favours and gifts (a fountain pen, an iPod, two tailored shirts, dinner) with corrupt intent, in that he had represented that he could boost Ko’s academic grades.

But Ko, the prosecution’s supposed star witness, testified that she had fallen in love with Tey. Later she claimed that she had been coerced into making parts of her statement and had given Tey gifts because they were in a relationship. It appeared that Tey had breached the university’s code of conduct, which would usually be resolved via internal disciplinary proceedings. Instead Tey was convicted on six charges of corruption and sentenced to five months in prison. Hours after the conviction, he was dismissed from NUS. Tey told me Chesterman had called up to apologise a few days later, saying that he had merely been the executor of orders from upstairs.

“I no longer have any faith in the legal system here,” Tey said over the phone, a few days before he commenced his sentence.  His Singaporean colleagues have only been supportive in private. Few made it to his trial, and none spoke to me apart from Chesterman. Instead, Tey hopes his links to the University of Melbourne and Monash University will help draw support in Australia. But Western universities seem loath to meddle in Singaporean affairs: recent concerns about academic freedom at a new Yale–NUS liberal arts college were quietly swept aside by the administrations of both universities.

With nearly ten thousand Singaporean students at Australian universities, and Singaporean government research funding becoming an ever more lucrative source for Western institutions, Australian universities may not regard Tey’s cause as worth the trouble.