The Importance of Academic Freedom: A reflection on Dr Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied

Benjamin felt a nose nuzzling at his shoulder. He looked round. It was Clover. Her old eyes looked dimmer than ever. Without saying anything, she tugged gently at his mane and led him round to the end of the big barn, where the Seven Commandments were written. For a minute or two they stood gazing at the tatted wall with its white lettering.

‘My sight is failing,’ she said finally. ‘Even when I was young I could not have read what was written there. But it appears to me that that wall looks different. Are the Seven Commandments the same as they used to be, Benjamin?’

For once Benjamin consented to break his rule, and he read out to her what was written on the wall. There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran:


In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegory of the system under the Soviet Union, the animals of Manor Farm successfully overthrow the farmer Mr Jones and other humans to establish their new way of life in Animal Farm. They inscribe Seven Commandments based on the principles of Animalism articulated by the pig Major, the great thinker. The Seventh Commandment originally read, “All animals are equal.” However, in a twisted tale of deceit and betrayal, the pigs became increasingly like the humans they deposed. Finally, Clover the stout motherly mare sought to remind herself of the Seven Commandments and urged Benjamin the donkey to read the Seven Commandments to her, only to find that all the commandments had been erased and the only commandment left read, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

Recent events involving National University of Singapore professor, Dr Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, beg this question. TODAY gives the following background in ”NUS professor acknowledges ‘poor judgment’ in posts on sexuality” (6 March 2013):

Two current students and a former student had earlier lodged a complaint to NUS over Professor Khairudin’s Facebook posts, claiming that Professor Khairudin had described “alternative modes of sexual orientation” as “wayward”, and as “cancers” and “social diseases” to be “cleansed”.

In turn, the Fellowship of Muslim Students Association released a statement supporting the professor, while a petition has been circulated online disapproving of the conduct of the three individuals who complained against him.

Deputy President (Academic Affairs) and Provost, Prof Tan Eng Chye, sent out a circular on 5 March, which reads:

Faculty Members, Staff and Students

Building an Inclusive and Mutually Respectful Community for Learning and Scholarship

NUS is widely known for its academic and educational standards, and is a respected university in Asia and the world. A central element of our community is an open and inquisitive academic culture. Faculty and students are free to study as well as pursue scholarship and research in a wide range of topics, to express their views, and to debate and discuss ideas and issues.

We value the diversity of people, cultures, perspectives and experiences that we have on campus, and in our wider Singaporean community. Diversity enables and enriches the mutual sharing, learning and exchange of ideas and perspectives that mark a vibrant intellectual and academic environment. NUS embraces faculty, staff and students regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, political beliefs or sexual orientation. Respect for people is also one of the three fundamental principles that underpin the University’s Code of Conduct for staff and for students.

The recent incident involving Associate Professor Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied is a learning opportunity for our community. He had posted comments expressing his views on lesbianism that contained provocative, inappropriate and offensive language. I have counselled Associate Professor Khairudin, who has acknowledged that whilst his only intention had been to convey his point of view, his original posts reflected poor judgment in the tone and choice of words. He has since amended or removed these posts.

This incident reminds us that issues concerning race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and value systems continue to be sensitive, contentious and potentially divisive in Singapore, as in many other societies. The situation is aggravated by the ease with which views once expressed can be rapidly and widely disseminated via social media to much larger audiences. Members of our community, both staff and students, should be mindful of this, and show restraint, due care and respect with their words and actions, particularly when communicating online.

I look forward to your continued strong support to collectively contribute to a vibrant NUS community and environment that promotes and supports exploration, discovery, debate, learning and development; one where members of our community can express themselves openly but in a manner which is civil and encouraging of positive engagement, particularly on issues which are complex and contentious.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely
Prof Tan Eng Chye
Deputy President (Academic Affairs) and Provost

Are some people “more equal” than others?
The proximity of events and similarity of issues bring to mind the recent Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) FAQs on Sexuality, which stirred quite some controversy, and which the Government has defended in a spectacular show of doublethink and self-contradiction (see “Welcome to the Animal Farm: MOH’s response to HPB FAQs on Sexuality“).

In particular, the responses to each incident bear out a serious case of double standards.

There, HPB essentially accused Singapore society, including religious groups, of being mentally ill. It had accused society of “homophobia” and “biphobia”; “phobia” being a psychiatric or medical term which refers to term for a severe mental disorder. Nevertheless, many in various circles had praised the HPB FAQs for being “objective” and “unbiased”. Furthermore, in the Government’s response, no effort whatsoever was made to either apologise for a wholly unwarranted slur on Singapore society or religious groups.

Yet on the other hand, when Professor Syed Khairudin made certain remarks, these were regarded as reflecting “poor judgment” as well as “provocative, inappropriate and offensive”. Whatever happened to the valuing of “diversity”, including religious diversity?

Have some people become “more equal” than others? (See also “Why Same-sex Marriage is the Liberal Left’s Most Illiberal Position Yet“)

PC Police Prof HPB
Freedom of speech and religion
Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are fundamental rights under the Singapore Constitution; a point worth remembering.

Comparison may be made with the Swedish case involving Pentecostal pastor Åke Green, who delivered a sermon denouncing homosexuality as “a deep cancerous tumor in the entire society” and condemned Sweden’s plan to allow same-sex legal partnerships. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 days in prison for the crime of expressing contempt “for a national, ethnic or other such group of persons with allusion to race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religious belief or sexual orientation”. On appeal to the Supreme Court, his conviction was struck down. It was noted that a conviction would violate the rights to free speech and freedom of religion under the European Convention of Human Rights. The courtheld:

In an overall assessment of the circumstances – in the light of the practice of the European Court of Human Rights – in the case of [Åke Green] it is clear at the outset that this is not a question of such hateful statements that are usually referred to as hate speech. This also applies to the utterance of his that may be regarded as most far-reaching, where sexual abnormalities are described as a cancerous tumor, since the statement, seen in the light of what he said in connection with his sermon, is not of such a nature as can be regarded as promoting or justifying hatred of homosexuals. The way in which he expressed himself cannot perhaps be said to be so much more derogatory than the words in the Bible passages in question, but may be regarded as far-reaching even taking into account the message he wished to convey to the audience. He made his statements in a sermon before his congregation on a theme that is in the Bible. The question of whether the belief on which he based his statements is legitimate or not is not to be taken into account in the assessment…

Under such circumstances it is probable that the European Court of Human Rights, when examining the limitation on [Åke Green’s] right to preach his ideas based on the Bible which a verdict of guilty would constitute, would find that the limitation is not proportionate and thereby would constitute a violation of the European Convention. 

Should NUS have responded differently? Quite possibly so, especially since there is an added dimension of academic freedom in question.

Tolerance and “Tolerance”
A final word should be said about tolerance. Tolerance is an important value which is essential to freedom of speech and religion, but a distinction should be made between the classical version of tolerance and a postmodern version.

The classical version of tolerance has been best expressed by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography on Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Strictly speaking, it is people who are tolerated, not viewpoints.

By contrast, a postmodern version of “tolerance” goes beyond the classical version in claiming that one should not even judge that other people’s viewpoints are wrong. Typical of a politically-correct culture, this is actually an intolerant inversion of classical tolerance, where all viewpoints are tolerated while people are discriminated against.

In fact, postmodern “tolerance” does not even do justice to the idea of tolerance. The very concept of tolerance entails that one does not agree with that which one tolerates. If I think that you are right, I wouldn’t need to tolerate you, I would agree with you. That is not tolerance, but approval.

For good reasons, true tolerance – classical tolerance – should be preferred (see “Tolerance and “Tolerance”: Two versions of tolerance“).

The entire saga involving Dr Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied can only be described as unfortunate on many levels, for the reasons stated above. 

Perhaps the greatest threat to our society today is not religion or homosexuality, whichever side of the debate one stands. Instead, the greatest threat is political correctness and the inconsistent application of standards. It lies in a misconceived understanding of tolerance. It is rooted in doublethink and self-contradiction.

It is a society where some people are “more equal” than others.

Welcome to the Animal Farm.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *