Freedom of the Media and Expression in Singapore, with Dr James Rowlins

Last week on World Press Freedom Day, we talked about Freedom of the Media in Indonesia. In this episode, PJ Thum speaks about Freedom of Expression, including the Media, in Singapore, in a chat with Dr James Rowlins. James earned a PhD in French Literature and Film at the University of Southern California and was a lecturer in film and media studies at the Singapore University of Technology and Design when the university was in its infancy, from 2012 to 2018. While there, he had the opportunity to witness many interesting incidents in Singapore, including over Amos Yee, The Real Singapore, and The Online Citizen, among others; and also personally had interesting encounters over issues of freedom of expression and freedom of academia. Last year he wrote an article for New Naratif called Out of Bounds: Freedom of Expression in Singapore Revisited.

PJ Thum: So, maybe we’ll just start with your background, your education, and how you ended up in Singapore?

James Rowlins: Okay, well it’s a pleasure to meet, and thanks for the opportunity. I came to Singapore from California where I’d finished a PhD in essentially film studies. Prior to that my background was in French. I studied in France, and segued to film in Los Angeles. The problem in humanities is that jobs are hard to find. It is a universal problem – less and less students are taking our courses. So, I did get a couple of offers within the States, but I happened to attend a jobs talk by the Singapore University of Technology and Design. They were actively recruiting humanities scholars and they put on a great presentation. So, it kind of went from there really. I mean, I was grateful to have a position, it sounded like an exciting new frontier. So, I took the job without even visiting Singapore.

PJ Thum: Wow!

James Rowlins: (laughs) Maybe a bit foolish! So, SUTD was very much in its infancy. The idea was that you would have carte blanche to develop programmes based on your interests. They knew that I worked with film and media. So, I was extremely keen and excited to do that, to forge my own programme. It was a rare opportunity. At that point SUTD was also partnered with MIT who had made it something of a precondition that they have a humanities and arts division, which is unusual for a technical school.

PJ Thum: So, when you got there did you find the rigour of MIT education reflected in what you saw in SUTD?

James Rowlins: Nobody really knew what anyone was doing. There was no one in-charge. Essentially what had happened is that the requirement was headed by human resources, who were absolutely secular with no academic training or insights whatsoever. So, they had assembled the most colourful, eccentric bunch of people – a complete hotchpotch of professors. So, there were lots of battles and conflicts stemming from, essentially, this mismanagement. There were, of course, in the mix some well-meaning people, who wanted to make this into something, but essentially it was a very anarchic approach to forging a new department.

PJ Thum: So, the six years just ended past August, so this is still the current state of affairs?

James Rowlins: Well, no. In recent times there is a new head, Professor Sun Sun Lim. She was previously at NUS. She is a Professor of Communication and Media, and she was essentially hired to bring some order to this fold, and succeeded in doing that. I had cordial relations with Professor Lim. But the idea behind her appointment was to bring in a Singaporean to tame this unruly monster that had been created.

PJ Thum: What you described is kind of very unique, at least the first four years, is a very different experience from the older, more established universities in Singapore.

James Rowlins: Absolutely, and older universities period. Obviously it’s good to innovate. Here we are, speaking in Oxford, a venerable institution, but not without its problems, from being so old – it’s conservative. Academia in every department has infighting and problems. But the specificities of SUTD’s Humanities & Social Sciences department were not improvements, quite the opposite. Before long, the department became an add-on, it was never fully part of the core curriculum and students didn’t understand why they had to take our classes. So, the idea that humanities could exist separately and could be a part of this innovative culture has failed, as far as I can see.

PJ Thum: But it sounds like you had this university which started with a specific agenda in mind of promoting STEM basically, you know, that agenda which is being popular amongst the government universities around the world. And then the university then tries to sort of, accredit itself? To legitimate itself? By partnering MIT which then imposes a very different view on the situation, which then leads to this massive chaos, and then the whole thing over time withers and dies because there is no institutional buy-in within the establishment in Singapore.

James Rowlins: Yes, I think that is perceptive. It was a financial relationship, essentially. A start-up college needs a name. MIT would happily provide that name, for a lot of money. But I think the main problem essentially is that the professors of humanities were never given that kind of forum that truly valued that work, where they could impart it in a meaningful way. And I think this is the wider, more important problem of the outside academic. He wants to share, he wants to have a conversation, but can’t have that conversion. I think the second problem is that it is a very advanced neoliberal model for managing a university, and that is absolutely key. All universities are heading that way. But I think what we see in Singapore very clearly, with this kind of start-up university, is where it is heading. A dystopia. This is only a few years down the road for the West, unfortunately. Universities are increasingly run and managed in this kind of corporate model, and that is a crying shame.

PJ Thum: For the benefit of our audience, can you go into what you mean by neoliberal form of management of a university, which you and I both understand, but for our audience.

James Rowlins: Sure. So it’s essentially an economic model that means that decisions, whether that be hiring or research, are determined by how useful, economically, they are. Everything is a commodity. Essentially it’s a diluted form of pure capitalism. This is a school, knowledge is imparted. The people recruited have spent years of their life studying something of no obvious commercial value. But in a way, that’s irrelevant, in that everyone has a capital based on how economically important they are to the whole. And when this starts determining who gets the research grants, who get the promotions, then essentially the corporate model has taken over and you might as well be in a company. What is the difference ultimately between a corporation offering education and a university? The nuance is lost.

PJ Thum: It becomes more insidious than that doesn’t it? When you need to demonstrate value, economic value, in order to justify your existence, then you start having to invent ways to create, you know, a measure of that value.

James Rowlins: Right.

PJ Thum: And then that leads to this obsession which KPIs, ranking systems, trying to justify ways in which education simply cannot justify. So, this kind of leads us to a recent ongoing, as of this recording, controversy in Singapore about a number of academics, former academics in NUS and NTU, who were very critical of the universities and the academic environment, and in particularly they were very critical of an obsession of rankings, and not even one that was implemented in a very clear way, but in a very haphazard way. the academics who have all left the universities now were very frustrated with this environment and very strongly condemning it. Do you feel that your experience was similar?

James Rowlins: Yes, well I have absolute solidarity with those colleagues, they did the right thing. So, the main problem was enrollment while ranking is pending. Of course university ranking is an issue, they’re trying very hard to speed up the process. But recruitment was hard for them, and the way that they did it essentially was to sell the commercial value of an SUTD degree using job statistics – showing what percentage of SUTD graduates went on to great jobs, how much more they were earning than everyone else, etc. Now I can’t say for certain, but the figures seemed very manicured to me – we all knew behind the scenes that it was proving very tough for our students to get good jobs after graduating.

PJ Thum: So, do you feel they were deliberately misleading, or simply like exaggerating and presenting hypothetical situations which did not reflect reality?

James Rowlins: I think, I can’t make that accusation because I don’t have the statistics, but I would also say I don’t believe the statistics they put out, they didn’t seem true to what I was seeing. Let’s just say, SUTD has a very aggressive marketing operation. So, I mean this ranking problem again is a universal one facing all institutions, but Singapore has a very acute case of it. It’s very upsetting the way that a degree is sold as being simply the ticket to a profitable, lucrative career. But the broader problem is that university is still seen as being for the select few. This is actually similar to England in the 1950s and 60s. Before that time it was very hard to go to university, especially for working class students. I look at Singapore’s attitudes as being of that period, where a degree is seen as the right of the elite and as a purely commercial means to get a career and earn lots of money..

PJ Thum: And I think the Singapore government has paying lip service to that saying “oh you don’t need university degree to lead a good fulfilling life and have a good career”, but then their policies are all pointed towards getting people in university and measuring people’s value through their university education.

James Rowlins: Yes, that doesn’t surprise me.

PJ Thum: We have talked about institutions, right? Did you also find in terms of some sort of a mental attitude that people held in Singapore, especially the establishment, was this also a significant barrier?

James Rowlins: Absolutely. I preface my remarks by acknowledging the problem essentially of being an outsider particularly from UK and British colonial involvements in Singapore. It’s always a delicate thing and I never want to be, and I hope I never will be, the one who says, “oh it’s so great in England, this is how you should be doing it”. We did that and it was wrong. However, having said that, I do feel very strongly that the attitudes Britain had, for instance post-war, still exist in the microcosm of Singapore, and can be legitimately criticised.

Specifically, the relationship with the “Other”, inclusion of the “Other”, by which I mean for example the LGBTQ community, also ethnic minorities and migrant workers. Borderline repression – it’s a strong word and yet I feel justified – of these communities is the single most upsetting thing I witnessed in Singapore.

I saw how prejudices are implicitly endorsed by the government and rubber-stamped by the education system. This of course is very upsetting for a liberal-minded academic, to see any intolerance of the “Other”, any marginalization. And the fact that it is institutionalized is just horrifying.

In the West, of course, we have had these problems, and we continue to. Again, I refrain from saying West is best, it’s not about that. What I would say, on a more positive note, is that Singapore is very close to challenging these ideas. Personally I did my best to challenge them, through teaching film in particular, with fantastic results in a way. Particularly in the initial period, the response was very lively. But unfortunately, you do realise the brick walls you’re facing quite quickly. You realise that the barriers are there, outside of your small lecture hall, what you can’t say to the powers that be, the government or university hierarchy, if you want to keep your job. And that’s not a happy position to be in.

PJ Thum: Can you tell us more about that? How do the powers that be exercise control over academics?

James Rowlins: I’d say the iron fist in the velvet glove. There is a kind of consensus that is adopted, and you quickly realise not to speak out of turn. I can recall faculty meetings where people did voice their opinion, including myself, and the silence is deafening. It is like someone farted in church!

PJ Thum: (laughs)

James Rowlins: Everything is said with a kind of stare. You immediately understand that the consensus is there and is not to be challenged. And then of course you get apocryphal stories of people’s contracts being terminated, for this reason and that. I am sure you can tell anecdotes …

PJ Thum: Yes, including me personally.

James Rowlins: Including you personally. What I saw first-hand was a very gifted scholar and teacher from Harvard who taught on sexuality. Very theoretical researcher, excellent teacher, and she was terminated for not publishing enough. She was only mid-way through her contract, and other colleagues had also not published etc. So, the question is, you know … she was also very forthright. You understand, there is no mystery there. There are very few times where institutions get caught in flagrante, for firing someone because they don’t like their work on sexuality. They’re much more careful than that.

PJ Thum: Yeah. Before we segue though, the observation that I have that this also jives with what you said at the beginning where HR decisions and indeed the whole setup is being made at a level removed from the academics, and there is not a lot of academic input into sort of hiring-firing personnel decisions, but instead it’s made with a larger strategic, or lack thereof, view. But also, one at a level which doesn’t necessarily prioritise academic freedom or the kind of values that we believe in as academics.

James Rowlins: That’s right. And essentially, this is a key point that I want to share. Singapore performs a kind of democracy, so-called democracy, but essentially it’s a charade. This is seen rather clearly at the government level. It is also seen at university level, where decisions are not made by colleagues. Individual members have almost no, or very little say, about who they can hire, or almost anything that governs their academic life. That ability to challenge, that ability to stand up and say “no” without fearing for your job, is so important. It’s primordial for academics to have that, and if you don’t, you can hardly really call it a humanities department.

PJ Thum: So, let’s come to your video then. Can you tell us a bit about how that came to be, was that a workshop or a seminar?

James Rowlins: So we are talking about a video which is available in the Online Citizen and on YouTube. We have about fourteen thousand hits, not so bad. It’s essentially an interview with Mediacorp journalists. It’s a seminar that they did at SUTD. Steven Chia, producer and the Presenter of Talking Points, was the VIP guest and he brought along with him two colleagues. It’s an outreach programme that they do for all schools and universities in Singapore. It’s part of the Mediacorp PR Package. So what happened is I got an email from someone in HR who noted that we have a film and media professor. I was asked to receive Steven Chia to do a Q&A. Now I was intrigued by this proposal. And so they came and gave a very polished, well-prepared presentation, the kind they give to all schools. But what they did not count on was me asking them some real questions or challenging them to talk about freedom of speech. This, even though as Steven Chia had called his talk, “everything you’d ever wanted to know about media and had never asked before.” So, I thought it was fair game to actually ask them some real questions. I asked permission for it to be filmed and we plonked a big camera right in front of them and there was no question they didn’t know it was being filmed. So the first question I sprung on them was; how did they account for Singapore’s terrible ranking in the world press index? And to my surprise they answered very honestly and off the cuff. I think they were taken off guard, and we got these extraordinary revelations whereby they state that they don’t purport to challenge the government in any way or to be members of fourth estate.

Steven Chia says, “we do propaganda” and well, I was just flabbergasted that he would speak so candidly. Why? Not because I didn’t know this to be the case, but because if a journalist, frankly in the West, stood up and said, “my job is not to be a part of the fourth estate or to challenge the government”, there would be an outcry! So this is just extraordinary. What is your job then? And so essentially, they admitted publicly to being propaganda agents, to towing a line. They talked about how that works in some detail, how the government pulls the strings of Mediacorp. And coupled with that, there was another journalist who talked about her experiences of censorship and she had this breakdown on camera, relating that she couldn’t get her stories about migrant workers out, how she felt she’d let them down, how the stories were heavily censored and her countless battles, and she just began crying in front of the audience. At which point Steven Chia realised that this was a PR disaster, and started backtracking as desperately for next half an hour or so.

PJ Thum: This event, when did it take place?

James Rowlins: in 2016. Now, I wanted to release it at that time – I was going to – but I shared it with colleagues who basically said, “book yourself a ticket if you are going to do that.” However, I don’t believe that anything has changed in the past two years and in fact I’d suggest that things have got worse, and this is a consensus among my colleagues. That in the wake of Lee Kuan Yew’s death, the conservative instinct got stronger, and the control and borderline repression of people’s work restarted. The tide was turned back. In the last years of Lee Kuan Yew’s life there was a bit of a liberalisation – I don’t know if you’d agree with that? – but in the wake of his death that was a kind of reinforcement of the status quo.

PJ Thum: So, this testimony actually directly contradicts what Warren Fernandez and others said during select committee – which I was a part of – where Warren Fernandez insisted that the Straits Times was independent, that it does them no good to be voice of the government…Which you know for one was, we doth protest too much, and another is a reversal of what journalists around the world usually say, which is they complain a lot about government interference, whereas he was insisting that there was no government interference, and everything was fine.

James Rowlins: Well I have so much to say about that. What Steven Chia explained in this conference was that the strings are pulled primarily financially – all their funding comes from the government, or essentially a huge huge part of it. There may not be a sinister man in a tower who tells them exactly what to say, but there is certainly a man who tells them what not to say. They know what is to be said. So, therefore they say what they’re meant to say and if they didn’t, which is never been the case, but if that happened, then there would be financial implications and action would be taken. I mean, no one can have any doubt about that and that is Steven Chia’s admission. What I am clear about is that in the wake of any upcoming election, the opposition parties will not have fair coverage. It is simply not possible under this regime, under this level of control, where Mediacorp, The Straits Times plus Mothership, etc, are controlled in this way. Steven Chia admits as much, and Chia is the journalist in the previous election who hosted the electoral debate, and that puts him a very important position.

PJ Thum: I remember criticising him at the time, because he kept cutting off everyone, the politicians in the opposition, saying okay “we are out of time”, “we are out of time”, when the answers would start getting into something substantive.

James Rowlins: It is pretty shocking and goes back to the question of democracy – can we call what we see democratic? I believe not, and this has lots of implications. I think in Singapore it’s sadly an accepted truth that is the modus operandi. What interests me personally is the Brexit conversation, where Singapore is floated as a potential model for post-Brexit England. And if this is the direction that we’ll be going in, then I have huge concerns.

PJ Thum: Singapore is only touted by people who don’t understand Singapore, because the level of government intervention into our lives will never be tolerated here for an instant. They think of Singapore as this deregulated paradise, but in reality, they’ll run on socialist lines which the PAP enacted in the 60s. And with that intervention, the government can affect not just where we go for school and where we live, but who we marry, how many children we have, the health care we receive. All this would never be tolerated in most other places.

James Rowlins: No…. I mean, the West has these problems to varying degrees. I’m reminded of something that Charles de Gaulle, the President of France, said when all the commentators, the intellectuals, the journalists, were against him and it looked like he was going to lose an election. But he said to his supporters, “do not worry, we have the television.” And he won! So you know any government who has control of the television, the media, the print media, the online media, has a very solid kind of setup, and it’s very difficult to see a way out of that impasse, and how the oppositions parties can get their message out without immediate bias.

PJ Thum: There was this brief window where they could use the internet but now the government has utilised the internet as well and has created its own proxies online and utilised many tools with superior resources to the independent media.

James Rowlins: That’s right. And Steven Chia gave an intellectual defence of this and that was very shocking. It was no real surprise to acknowledge it, but to intellectually defend it…We don’t want anything outside of the white picket fence. We don’t need it. It’s very problematic, and a disturbing position for someone who’s clearly intelligent, who did his degrees abroad. To then go back and impose this on the viewers of Singapore, on his compatriots, it’s bad for them. I can also talk about my personal experiences with media. I have to say it took me a while to realise how bad the stranglehold was, as I was clearly naive. I was talking to journalists at some point about the institutional problems at SUTD and realised after that they were more likely to inform on me than to print the story. But what was more disappointing was that I taught film production and at some point, we had a fair amount of success with some films that we made with the students – we won some prizes and were getting recognition from overseas. So someone from HR said “let’s try to get a media story out of this.” But the media wouldn’t touch it. Why? Because the subject matter of the films was often rather dark or controversial, exploring the students’ fears and anxieties etc. There was one film in particular which won a lot of prizes, it was a murder film with a noir theme, but the trail went dead. So that’s how self-censorship operates. And in fact Singaporean youth organisations like Scape, there’s a branch that deals with cinema, is populated by Mediacorp producers, people with a connection to the government, and they will not encourage or allow their filmmakers to touch any kind of “out there” subject matter.

PJ Thum: Right. There isn’t like a specific prescribed list anywhere, right? My impression and I think what you were saying is that, as Goh Chok Tong has used the term, out-of-bound markers, these rules. And that you only find out what is not possible afterwards when you get punished. So it comes down to censorship, and also gives the authorities plausible deniability, where they can say “Oh we did not ban it, we just decided not to approve it.”

James Rowlins: Exactly. That is how it works. It’s a kind of genius as statecraft goes, but it’s an evil genius. Pioneered by Lee Kuan Yew, I would have to say. I mean he was, like Margaret Thatcher, very good at statecraft, but with rather sinister repercussions that continue right to present.

PJ Thum: Did you ever consider approaching the alternative media? I mean it seems that The Online Citizen is there only one that’s really out there. Did they cover your work at all?

James Rowlins: No and I have to say I wish they had. Again, I would say I was slightly rookie and naive, I didn’t realise they weren’t part of that club. I do now, and I salute them as a great source of news and would encourage any person interested in Singaporean affairs to consult them, and perhaps only them.

PJ Thum: And well, and us.

James Rowlins: (laughs) I mean yes, and New Naratif!

PJ Thum: So, what has happened in the past few years, you sat on this story, but now it is out. So, what has changed? And why?

James Rowlins: Oh, well I quit my job. Partly for private reasons, but essentially on principle. I believe I’m the only person to resign from SUTD, from my department. Many of my colleagues I know are very unhappy there, but for various reasons they need to stay in the job. For myself, I couldn’t reconcile the very rigorous training I’d had in America, at a PhD level, with what I was having to do, and I saw it getting worse. There were for initiatives, for instance, to introduce a kind of mandatory civics component into our Humanities classes, basically seminars on good conduct as Singaporeans. Essentially it was ludicrous. But no one was fighting these battles, no one would dare in our faculty meetings to contradict any of it even though, if asked, most of them would say it was nonsense. I thought that I got some way with my students in raising awareness of a discourse about the “Other”, the political power of art, and subversiveness. I was very happy to have done that for a certain time, but I saw brick walls looming and if I had stayed, I would be doing the same thing, facing the same barriers, you know five years down the road, and that’s not the kind of impact I wanted to have. And I saw the first cohort of SUTD graduates being immersed in corporate culture from whatever job they had to take, and it was disheartening, honestly.

PJ Thum: Right. If I may ask you that did you try to make an issue of why you resigned because I did not see any coverage on this. Did you actually put out a public statement or some sort of letter saying why you resigned?

James Rowlins: No, I didn’t. There were other factors, personal reasons. But essentially, I felt that I was fighting a losing battle. In politics you should only fight the battles that you can win, I think. Now my problem is, as an outsider, I can’t win the Singaporean battle. My voice was constrained and limited while I was there because I couldn’t say and wanted to say. But even having quit, I am a Westerner, I am a British, we have a complicated relation with our colonial past, and this also weakens my voice, unfortunately. So, what I am interested in doing is sharing my findings, my observations, to New Naratif in particular, so you can build on what I’m saying, what I’ve able to show, highlight the problems, and I want that to happen. In fact, though the tone of what I have been saying has been negative, the bottom line is I want Singapore to be a better place. And I think it can be and it will be, it’s a question of time. But as I couldn’t help bring this about, as it was not happening fast enough, I made my decision to quit. It seems a real shame to me that these conditions are created and imposed by a minority, albeit a ruling one, and that they made it essentially impossible for me to carry on there as an academic.

PJ Thum: What would you like to see for Singapore’s future?

James Rowlins: I’d like to see profound change. Hong Kong always struck me as a model. Of course, it has enormous problems given its relationship to the mainland. But it did, at least with the Umbrella movement, seem to offer a glimmer of hope and I would always point my students in that direction, to take a look at what is going on there.

But generally, when I started talking to my students about these things, they would clam up and I immediately faced a brick wall.

They were looking primarily to say things that would please me, so when you started straying onto territory like this, their response was to say nothing. It’s because of the rhetoric they’ve been indoctrinated with, quite frankly. Actually when Lee Kuan Yew died, I was lecturing on Hong Kong cinema and I couldn’t help but make the connection and parallel. Maybe I was gauche and insensitive, looking back, and afterwards I felt a little bad, but I couldn’t help it because I’d come to understand by that point that the system that Lee Kuan Yew has created is this legacy that is really hard to overcome and put a gridlock on the way the young are thinking, and it shouldn’t be like that. This would be my final point. Singapore has nothing to be afraid of! If it embraced proper democracy, if it embraced ‘the Other’, it would be a strong place, it would be a really great place. It really, really would! There is a fine line between dystopia and utopia. At the moment I see it as a dystopia, and it is such a shame because Singapore has so much to give. I was given a position and I was grateful for that. But what I wanted more than anything was to have a real conversation and to give something back, because that is what I’d been invited to do, and the absence of that possibility was really soul destroying.

So, I would end on a message of hope, that when Singapore embraces democracy in a real way, when it has freedom of speech, when it clamps down on prejudice and gets rid of its completely contrived notions, such as of Asian family values that are just a script and a narrative written by someone in a bunker, frankly, it will be a fantastic place, and I can’t wait to go back.

PJ Thum: Oh, thank you very much.

James Rowlins: My pleasure.

PJ Thum: I really enjoyed talking to you.

James Rowlins: My pleasure.

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