In an opinion piece for the South China Morning Post, academics Philip G. Altbach and Gerard Postiglione write that the future of Hong Kong’s academic freedom may hang in the balance due to the new national security law. Thus, Hong Kong may want to look to Singapore to get an idea of what its academic future may look like.
The authors write, “it is worth looking at Singapore’s experience as a semi-democracy with limited university autonomy and its own restrictions on academic freedom to reflect on what this might mean for Hong Kong.”
The future of Hong Kong’s universities may be said to be at a crossroads because of the social unrest over the past couple of years, as well as the implementation of the new security law.
The economic, historical, and other similarities between Singapore and Hong Kong may shine a light, however, as to what direction Hong Kong’s academic future is headed. Both cities have universities in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education global academic rankings and have highly regarded higher educational environments, although Hong Kong’s ties with China differentiate it from Singapore.
In Singapore’s academia, there are consequences to the transgression of “often invisible ‘red lines’” even though “the velvet glove is more often employed than the iron fist.” The authors quote former Education Minister Ong Ye Kung as having said last year, “Academic freedom cannot be carte blanche for anyone to misuse an academic institution for political advocacy, for this would undermine the institution‘s academic standards and public standing.”
However, while guidance, as well as support, is given by the Government, when it comes to higher education in Singapore, it is the academic community that is responsible for the the internal management of universities. “There has never been any restriction on access to information or involvement with the rest of the world,” Messrs Altbach and Postiglione write.
They sum up Singapore’s situation as having “limited academic freedom and limited institutional autonomy,” which “most find acceptable and results in a well-supported effective and successful academic system.”
In Hong Kong, which has thus far had one of the most academically free and autonomous academic systems in Asia, “no one was fired for academic views, writings or actions as a public intellectual” until the national security law was implemented two months ago.
Previous to this, universities enjoyed an autonomous academic atmosphere attractive to top academic staff from all over the globe. But after the law was passed, “the University of Hong Kong’s governing council decided to override the university’s senate by firing a law professor for activities tied to political protests for universal suffrage. Academics can no longer take part in a protest movement outside campus without risking their jobs.”
With present concerns that the academic atmosphere in Hong Kong may now become more restrictive, this is where the authors say a look at how Singapore has managed to achieve balance may be helpful.
“Singapore might be a useful point of comparison, showing that carefully crafted limitations on academic freedom can coexist with a successful academic system,” they wrote. —/TISG