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Truth and trust, but no info

I wanted to write this yesterday but I was waiting 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 that was supposed to be held on Sunday. 

The mainstream media has finally reported this befuddling change of heart by Raffles Hall Alumni, which dropped the two men without even the courtesy of informing them, so we’re told. 

Instead, there was an apology from its spokesman to alumni members about the change on the RHA Facebook. Then there was a terse statement on how such events were only for  alumni members and “developed at the organiser’s discretion’’. 

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. 

Well, he might not need to make its reasons public, but surely the two men deserve an answer – as well as those who signed up for the webinar, including non-alumni members. Instead, posters of their talk were quietly replaced over the weekend with two new panel members taking the stage, speaking on the same issue of Truth and Trust. 

At a basic level, the RHA action was downright rude and terribly unprofessional. At a higher level, what Truth and Trust?

Then comes this weird spectacle of RHA denying that it has any links with the National University of Singapore – and vice-versa. 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.  

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. 

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What happened between the invite and the dis-invite is now open to speculation. For a seminar on 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. 

Even replacement speaker Arun Mahizhnan, Special Research Adviser at the Institute of Policy Studies, said he wasn’t given a “full briefing’’ on how he came to be invited. Now, this is astounding. The organisers didn’t even apprise him of the background? He has since pulled out of the event.

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. 

So was the change of heart to do with the backgrounds of the two academics and the new book they have written, 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? 

Professor Cherian George is a media studies professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, who had a very public and acrimonious separation from the Nanyang Technology University in 2015. He was also a former Straits Times journalist. 

Prof Donald Low is now professor of practice at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Institute of Public Policy. The former Administrative Service Officer was with  the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy till 2018.

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. Their latest book contains a selection of their past columns updated to reflect recent events such as the 2020 general election and the Covid-19 outbreak.  

I don’t know if RHA organisers have read it, and whether something in it made them change their minds about inviting the duo. I’ve read it already and as someone who follows their work, I wouldn’t describe their essays as surprising. 

True to form, Prof Low questioned the PAP Government’s obsession with accumulating the reserves, called for the introduction of a wealth tax and wants some universalisation of social safety nets. Prof George stuck to his favorite topics on the media, policies on race and the government controls on speech. They are not diatribes or rants, but considered pieces to get the People’s Action Party to re-think its approach to governance to keep up with the times. Of course, telling the PAP that it can do better wouldn’t make for comfortable reading for the Establishment, but that is what public discourse is all about, right? 

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So what happened? Why was the duo considered unsuitable for an audience of graduates and alumni members, who would doubtless have their own views on governance? They are not students or even undergraduates to be shielded by a higher authority worried that they would be influenced by different ways of thinking.

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. 

I’m embarrassed too. I will take at face value the RHA’s stance that it is “autonomous’’. I note, however, that it is not a flat-out denial that it didn’t cave in to pressure from somewhere. If it had exercised its own mind, I am surprised that it was so cack handed in the way it handled the matter. Today’s graduates aren’t even savvy enough to dissemble to tell a good lie, like having to replace the duo with speakers on a more time-sensitive issue, like the American presidential election.  Nor are they even honest enough to give the full facts.

RHA’s Mr Yuen said: “We continue the important conversations on today’s (social) media world, where we apparently can no longer trust what we read, see or hear.” 

I wonder if he’s being ironic. 

I don’t know if the webinar will still carry on with just two speakers, ex-journalist  Al Ramirez Dizon and NUS lecturer Shobha Avadhani, who was originally listed as the moderator for the original panel. 

But given the fiasco, I think it should be called off. RHA should save itself even more embarrassment. 

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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