Singapore — Weighing in on the issue of the Raffles Hall Association webinar on public discourse whose speakers were suddenly replaced without explanation, former journalist turned professor Bertha Henson has said that the webinar should be called off to save the organiser more embarrassment.
Prof Henson wrote a blog post entitled “Truth And Trust, But No Info” on the issue on Friday morning (Oct 30), saying that she had wanted to weigh in on the matter earlier but had waited to see “if there would be a fuller response on why academics Cherian George and Donald Low were ‘dis-invited’ from a webinar on Public Discourse: Truth And Trust”.
Professors George and Low, who are both based in universities in Hong Kong, had originally been scheduled as the speakers for the webinar but a new line-up of speakers was abruptly announced by Raffles Hall Association, without explanation.
After questions emerged online, an apology was issued to Raffles Hall alumni by the group’s founding president, Mr Sonny Yuen, who added that “all RHA learning events are private events for RH alumni only”, and that “the programme and its contents are developed at the organiser’s discretion”.
Prof Henson wrote: “The subtext: Everybody else should just shut up because this is an ‘internal’ thing. Since the statement, the spokesman seems to have decided to stop speaking altogether.”
She added that Professors George and Low, and those who had signed up for the webinar, which was open to non-alumni members, “deserve an answer”.
Prof Henson also brought up the point of RHA denying that it has any links with the National University of Singapore — and vice-versa, adding, “Raffles Hall, the residential college itself, also said it has no links to the alumni. The operative word is ‘autonomous’. So it seems that the decision was RHA’s alone, or it has been made to carry the can.”
She noted: “Nobody seems to have probed NUS further on whether it had communicated with the alumni organisers about the event, even though the two men kept mentioning ‘NUS’ in their responses to the media.”
She also commented on the irony of the situation, given that the topic of the webinar had been “Truth And Trust”.
“It’s just ironic that no one seems to want to take responsibility and give reasons for the change in speaker line-up,” Prof Henson wrote, further noting that one of the speakers in the replacement line-up, the Institute of Policy Studies, Mr Arun Mahizhnan, had withdrawn from the webinar after going on record that he had not received a “full briefing’’ regarding the event.
Prof Henson wrote: “What happened between the invite and the dis-invite is now open to speculation… This is what happens to Truth and Trust when nobody wants to say anything. People make links – even if they are false – because you really cannot expect people not to think, even if they don’t talk.”
She also asked if the abrupt change in speakers was related to Professors George and Low’s new book, “PAP versus PAP : The Party’s Struggle To Adapt To A Changing Singapore”.
“Did someone important object to their coming presence and the air-time the book suggesting reforms to the PAP’s mode of governance would get?”
She added: “Both men have had run-ins with authority. Both are also prolific commentators on the Singapore political, social and economic scene and have published books and essays.”
She wrote: “The first thing that would come to mind is that RHA had acted on its own initiative to invite the two men, until the ‘higher-ups’ got wind of it when the posters went out. Pressure was then brought to bear on the alumni, even though you will find nothing in the rule books about ‘governance’ and ties with other agencies. (Cue statements on ‘autonomy’) Unless you have a whistleblower or a mole, all looks neat and tidy on the surface.
“So, it’s either that RHA changed its mind, or someone else made RHA change its mind but doesn’t want to be in the picture. And everybody is too embarrassed to say why.”
At the end of her post, Prof Henson said she wondered whether the webinar would push through, now that two speakers remain. She wrote that perhaps it should just be cancelled. “But given the fiasco, I think it should be called off. RHA should save itself even more embarrassment.” /TISG