Outspoken academic Cherian George takes up post at Hong Kong Baptist University

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 2:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 4:06am

A Singaporean academic and former journalist who has had disagreements with the city-state's government is to take up a job at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Cherian George said he would start in August as an associate professor. The head of the university's journalism department, Steve Guo Zhongshi, confirmed George's appointment on an initial contract of three years. George's move to Hong Klong comes after he was twice denied tenure at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

"I'm impressed by how Hong Kong academics, students and the public have succeeded in vigorously defending academic freedom. [Hong Kong] universities have excellent media scholars who are deeply engaged in society's issues, and the idea of working alongside them is very attractive," George said.

The Reporters Without Borders 2014 Press Freedom Index ranked Hong Kong at 61 and Singapore at 150 out of 180 nations.

Guo said: "It was the unanimous view of the selection panel that George will be a valued asset to the international journalism branch."

An argument between George and the Singaporean government broke out over an article published in The Straits Times on October 10, 2005, in which he alleged the government adopted "a calibrated approach to coercion". In a letter to The Straits Times two days later, Chen Hwai Liang, press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, denied the claim. In another letter to the newspaper on October 14, Lee's press secretary questioned whether George was non-partisan, saying: "It is no surprise that critics of the government, especially those who are academics, want to portray themselves as dispassionate observers above the fray."

George worked for The Straits Times, Singapore's main newspaper, as a reporter and editor in the 1990s. In September 1999, The Straits Times quoted Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, as saying, if "you can denigrate the prime minister at will - whether it's Catherine Lim [a Singaporean writer] or Cherian George - and they succeed in undermining the standing of the prime minister - where do we go from there?".

George joined NTU's school of communication and information in 2004. In 2009, he was promoted to associate professor but denied tenure. In 2010, NTU blocked the school's attempt to renew George's position as head of journalism, Singapore's only university-level department that trains journalists. He was denied tenure again last year and his appeal was rejected. His contract ended in February with no possibility of renewal.

"As for why the university took the exceptional step of withholding tenure from a faculty member who it decided had earned promotion, I was assured this had nothing to do with my scholarship, teaching or service, and not because I had conducted myself inappropriately," George wrote on his blog.

An NTU spokesman said: "The tenure review process is purely a peer-driven academic exercise with two equally important criteria, distinction in scholarship and high quality teaching. Service and other contributions to the university, profession or community are also taken into consideration."