Time for Scholars and Intellectuals to speak up for Freedom of Thought

October 29, 2016

Time for Scholars and Intellectuals to speak up for Freedom of Thought

by Kris Hartley

Kris Hartley is a Lecturer in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, where he teaches quantitative methods and public sector economics. He is also a Faculty Fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center and a Nonresident Fellow for Global Cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

He holds research appointments at the Center for New Structural Economics at Peking University, the Institute of Water Policy at National University of Singapore, and the Center for Government Competitiveness at Seoul National University. In the past four years Kris has held academic appointments throughout Asia, including Visiting Researcher at the University of Hong Kong, Visiting Lecturer in economics at Vietnam National University, Visiting Researcher at Seoul National University, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of the Philippines, and research and teaching assistant at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Kris focuses on economic policy, urban planning, and environmental management. An avid global traveller, he has visited 50 countries and resided in ten on three continents. Kris received a B.A. in classics (Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Tennessee, an M.B.A. from Baylor University, a Master of City Planning from the University of California–Berkeley, and a PhD in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore.

Scholars should allocate a portion of their time to addressing social injustice, Kris Hartley writes, and academics of all disciplines have a crucial role to play.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s draconian crackdown on university professors and deans has sent a chill through global academia. While Turkey’s oppressive political climate appears uniquely hopeless, free speech is under assault around the world as a wave of authoritarianism crashes ashore. Politically opportunistic ‘strong-men’ such as Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, and potentially Donald Trump are taking advantage of fears about terrorism and globalisation while ridiculing opponents as weak and traitorous.

Image result for Intellectuals and Scholars --Time to Speak and Make a difference

Sadly, their actions do not end there. Stifling freedom of thought has priority status in the dictator’s playbook and limited press freedom in many countries is an unsettling bellwether. Scholars may be next in line at the figurative guillotine, but does the academic system encourage them to fight back?

A widely circulated 2015 commentary by Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr argued that scholars are not doing enough to address real-world problems, with credibility and job security reliant almost exclusively on publishing output. Indeed, the academic promotion system rewards publication in journals that are at once elite (to a few) and obscure (to everyone else). Aspiring scholars are further incentivised by the metricization of research. One example is “impact factor,” a measurement of the mentions one article receives in other articles.

Like a tempest in a teacup, this tiny professional realm buzzes with insular measures of self-importance. It can do better.

Are academic elites repelled by activism and public engagement? The aforementioned term “impact” is misleading and has little concern with the practical world. Resources and intellectual capital are devoted to journal articles that reflect brilliant work but often receive little attention outside the teacup. More tragically, such work monopolises the time of scholars who could otherwise allocate some effort to social advocacy through their own discipline-specific perspectives.

A sea-change in the way scholars view their profession – rejecting the role of intellectual line-workers and embracing that of publically-engaged thought leaders – would not only inspire change-makers to enter academia but also lead to more impactful research.

Scholars are often portrayed as arrogant pontificators luxuriating in the proverbial ivory tower. Indeed, modern society has in most parts of the world granted them the freedom to speak as they please. It is left to the marketplace of ideas to reward some with publicity and others with indifference. However, when authoritarianism rises, scholars are among the first to be silenced. From Hitler to Pol Pot, and now to Erdoğan, the early stages of power consolidation see intellectual freedom deemed a threat to political legitimacy. Unenlightened governments fear that an informed populace is a noncompliant one. Fortunately, they are correct.

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More Noam Chomskys Needed Urgently

What can the world’s scholars do to help inform the populace? The modern academic profession is globally connected, particularly in research addressing universal problems like financial crises, pandemics, terrorism, and climate change. Academia offers a platform for immediate action through the strength of its networks. It is as unfair to expect scholars in Erdoğan’s Turkey to take a public stand against rising authoritarianism, as it also would have been in Stalin’s Russia or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Outspokenness in such environments can be career suicide – or worse.

Image result for Erdogan and Academic Freedom in Turkey

However, scholars in liberal countries can be valuable partners in exposing political ills, using information provided by their peers in at-risk countries. Information, like education, is a peaceful but useful weapon against authoritarianism. Several years passed before the world became aware of Pol Pot’s atrocities in Cambodia and governments were slow to act. It took the Khmer Rouge’s foolish military provocations to elicit the ire of Vietnam, resulting in swift regime change. Pol Pot, like Kim Jong-un today, tried to seal his country from information flows. Even in the modern era of ubiquitous information access, awareness alone has not always led to action (an example is the Darfur crisis). External intervention for regime change is a risky strategy and many governments fear domestic political blowback. Regardless, lack of exposure should never be a reason for predatory regimes enduring and academia can play an important role.

This call to action recognises the importance of maintaining a firewall between scholarly research and commentary. Credibility in one is not mutually exclusive of the other, as proven by the many internationally visible thought leaders holding academic positions (such as Paul Krugman and Robert Reich). It is crucial to the quality of scholarship that academic writing remains robust, scientific, and ideologically neutral; research should stand on its own scientific merit rather than on emotional arguments or political currency. Still, many journals now request authors to provide bullet points listing the practical implications of their research. While this effort recognises the gap between theory and practice, scholars must also go beyond bullet points and use their credibility to draw broader attention to social, economic, and political issues that have an impact on – and are explained by – their own particular disciplines.
Image result for Najib Razak and the ISA

Malaysia’s Plutocrat ala Erdogan–Freedom with Words and Double Speak

History may regard the current era as a reincarnation of the 1930s, when a ramp-up of authoritarianism was watched with nervousness before spiralling out of control. Scholars are positioned to fight back through a global conversation about freedom, fairness, and social justice. Hasty actions against academia by nervous authoritarian governments are evidence of this power.

Scholars who allot even a paltry 10 per cent of their time to addressing social injustice can make a transformative difference. No discipline is beyond this conversation. The social sciences – including economics, political science and sociology – are directly relevant. The fields of business, health, education, science, and humanities also offer valuable perspectives on government malfeasance, failed policy, and humanitarian strife. The venues are numerous – press publications, blogs, even Facebook posts – and in the modern era of social media a commentary in an obscure outlet can receive widespread attention almost instantly.

The renowned educator Horace Mann once said: “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” To paraphrase this, scholars should feel professionally unfulfilled until they have made dictators uncomfortable. Academia is capable of maintaining its scientific standards while mobilising for progress. Growing authoritarianism is a call to reinforce this effort.

Kris Hartley is a Lecturer in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, a Faculty Fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center and a Nonresident Fellow for Global Cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

This article is published in collaboration with Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s leading platform for policy analysis and discussion.

Professor, speak up and make a difference


19 thoughts on “Time for Scholars and Intellectuals to speak up for Freedom of Thought

  1. remind me of one pendatang Cina’s feelings towards China of my great grand father’s generation which has done an impossible 100 days failed reform.

    Confucius’s disciple Mencius had written, “He who restrains his prince, loves his prince.” … In holding his new convictions that individuals should and did have “rights” (quan), he never imagined that a state might become tyrannical or that its people might become rebellious.”

    My prayer with South-East Asian nations to not fall into another proxy war nation again. It is strange to figure how I should think about this being a pendatang related to all nations involved in this.

    @CLF, remind me this pendatang amerika cina malaysia how I can avoid falling into the trap of Cartesian Absurdity of lose-lose situation? I know I am all four of the above. So how, har?

  2. On this Freedom of Thought , nothing is better than to quote the mystic-saint of Lebanon in his Wisdom series :” Life without Freedom is like a body without a soul , and Freedom without Thought is like a confused spirit…….You may chain my hands and shackle my feet ; you may even throw me into a dark prison, but you shall not enslave my thinking because it is free…..” –

    Islamic religious authorities everywhere seem to be confused , because they equate freedom of thought as ” Free Thinkers ” , and are Infidels (Kafirs ) who do not believe in God – two vastly different connotations …..

    For Muslims who do believe in Allah (SWT ) , let us try to do some Comparative religious discourse , just to demonstrate this ” freedom of thought ” perspective.
    As an illustration , allow me to quote Bhagavad Gita (in Hinduism ) :

    ” The embodied soul is eternal in existence , indestructible and infinite ,
    only the material body is factually perishable ….” ( something similar is insinuated in Holy Koran but in great depth in Arabic …. Roh Hayat , Roh Hethapi, Roh Insan , Roh Quddus .)

    Hence, Hinduism/Buddhism talk of the ‘ perpetual or never-ending cycle of life, death and rebirth ‘ ( when a soul survives after death , it assumes new bodily form , may be as a human, or it may come back to be entrapped in the animal kingdom …..one can never say ……

    BUT, the mystic-saint Kahlil Gibran says , in order to AVOID going into the animal Kingdom , he says : ( @ page 20 of his book ) :

    ” Only those return to Eternity , Who on earth seek out Eternity ” as a pre-condition to AVOID the never-ending cycle of life, death and rebirth etc……

    Question here as a poser : How does a human being attain the Apocalypse to Salvation , in order to be FREED from the perpetual cycle of Life, Death and Rebirth ? –

    So Freedom of Thought is vital in this Discourse on Comparative Religion……Peace ! ( period )

  3. Expecting Scholars and Intellectuals to do the trick is stating the problem backwards… We must first probe ways to ensure elected officials remain true to their oaths…

  4. There is no absolute “Freedom of Thought”, though we think there is.

    We think the way we do and even the things we think about due to our accidental social, educational, religious birth and up-bringing. Because of this, some people don’t think at all no matter how much “freedom” you give or allow them to have.

    That was why we were told, (in those schools where real education was carried out), that travel broadens the mind, not just because we see, hear and smell things we don’t find at home, but because we start to realize everywhere we go we meet people who think very differently from us.

    So to even begin to have “Freedom of Thought”, your mind must first be free in the first place. And scholars / academicians are not necessarily the ones to have that, though the most hopeful.

  5. What might happen to democracies a decade or so down the road is playing out in the US now. The US may still be a democracy after this. The others I do not know what form of government will emerge.

  6. Intellectuals in the DAP include Liew Chin Tong, Ong Kian Ming and Zairil Khir Johari. I’ve always found their writings interesting and informative.

  7. “Expecting Scholars and Intellectuals to do the trick is stating the problem backwards”

    Exactly. Scholars are not necessarily ‘intellectuals’ and vice versa. Intellectualism is a state of reflection, study and mental activity. It seldom translates to action – much less political activism. I wouldn’t classify any of the philosophers, sages and prophets of the Axial Age as ‘scholars and intellectuals’ – would anyone?

    Modernism has bred a specialized creature called the ‘scholar’ – who is so self absorbed and with so narrow field of expertise – that it can’t see the end of it’s nose. That’s why them Professors and so on – of subjects with very little ‘substance’, tend to look down on us mere mortals as stupid, irrelevant, covetous, ignorant, barbaric and brutish.

    It’s not merely their arrogance that galls – it’s the fact that left alone in the streets of any major metropolis, they either go on a self inflicted hallucinogenic trip or else freeze up into catatonia. It’s probably worse when they are dropped into a desert or jungle. So to expect too much of them, nowadays is truly oxymoronic. They are among the educators who are breeding an unthinking generation of automaton. Their motto being: “Cari makan.” There is no Big Picture for these idiot savants.

    That is why we need more Professors of Practice who deal with Realism, not mere Mental-ism and Abstract-ism. With knowledge, experience and hot-water under their belts they can teach the youngsters how to avoid suicidal hot air and flatus – whether in politics. economics or psychological coercion/propaganda.

  8. Layusian,
    Repeat after me:
    1. I am genetically a Han Chinese. Hakka Tribe.
    2. I am a Malaysian by natural birth.
    3. I am Western Educated, by thought process.
    4. I am Affiliated to my Mother Culture.
    5. I am an American Christian, by adoption.

    Now go peruse the 5 Great “I Am’s” in the Gospel of St. John, and get to know yourself. Otherwise, it won’t be Cartesian Dualism you’d be dealing with, but a Multiple (or Dissociative) Personality/Identity Disorder. I pray you not transgender too.

  9. Scholar and intellectual are not synonymous. CFL has clearly pointed that out.

    A scholar is a person of vast ‘book’ knowledge of any discipline of study. He may not know much about anything else outside his discipline of study.

    An intellectual is one who uses or applies his own ‘intellect’ or ‘rationality’ over various issues relating to universe, self, life, social life…etc. As a result of his ‘rational thinking’, he forms his own opinions about those issues.

  10. If Islam is a way of life and the final and perfect religion, then how can clashing with freedom of thought avoidable? The dual insisting of codified personal and public life as well as there is absolutely it’s right means it has all answers and hence against thinking itself.

    So Islam, political Islam is against freedom of thought which is part of against freedom of religion.

  11. //Freedom without Thought is like a confused spirit.
    Confused I am, while waiting for @CLF’s guidance on Cartesian Absurdity.
    But, I have found my answer thinking through my own question. I am who I am. No pun intended to my Lord, especially since I am one sinner who found grace through Him. Identifying who I am is just as confusing an exercise as when I choose to not think about my freedom as per what @Abnizar shared on freedom and confusion.

    Confused Kris would be also, if he thinks of himself as much a Singaporean or South-East Asian, as he has to think like an American when he plans for the next metropolitan. There would many open-ended questions left unanswerable like the one about if there should be an Islamic center close to the Freedom tower? His time spent through the hallways of NUS and other South-East Asian colleges seems to match the years he spent in Tennessee, and his MBA Baptism at Baylor. Perhaps, he and I could be closer in worldview than me with my own brother.

    Yet, as it stands, without using too much thought or any big data analysis via my non-existent facebook profile, I must accept the fact that I am of the most common person in the world, despite the protest of my own brother for me to suggest so. My co-worker confirmed it with his poor attempt of flirting with big-data analysis on Reuters news feed as he tries to identify what key word moves the stock market. My last name popped up (I am not the market mover). I am of the most common sex among the most common race, with the most common last name of that race and other races. On freedom, I believe in the most common God, and get paid daily in the most common currency. I hold the rights to vote for the most powerful woman, and could easily claim my back-door access rights to never vote again as a citizen of the most populous nation in this world later in life. Adding the identity of being a Malaysian at heart, I could find all the reasons to identify with another one-fifth of the world’s population through my cousin-in-faith fellow country-men (and women), of which a lot of my other common identity are finding ways to ignore their existence. I eat as much curry, as I drink coffee, tea, and coke. I did flirted with the idea of stop eating bacon, for the sake of one pious Malay, and she is no Helen Ang.

    Yet, in spite of belonging to the most common of the world, I am constantly being reminded I am a pendatang, even as I have left Malaysia, by other less so common people. My mom-in-law reminded me that on the day I told her my intention to propose, with the reply of how my kind (as a Chinese pendatang, aka Hakka) is one who fights the land-owner. I was perplexed on where that notion came from then. Yet, Luke Skywalker kind of shock came to me when I learned to type in Chinese to baidu later in life. My maternal great grand-father was one such person who would have confirmed my mom-in-law’s social stereoptype. He, the reformer, robbed himself the landowner, while being a pendatang Guangdong senator, following Sun-Yat-Sen’s call for land reform. He even has the audacity to be a Sun-Yat-Sen pallbearer among his right-leaning Nationalist party members as he was one of the first few who spread the gospel of socialism in Guangdong, and yet didn’t die when Generalismo Chiang performed a left purge killing later, as he himself get to purge one corrupt party leader who gained wealth through opium selling. His oldest son’s heart could be closer to Zhou EnLai than any other Nationalist party members, as his son’s name was mentioned as people who were with Zhou EnLai while in Paris. I get to know how handsome he was from a picture he posed as a senator for a Japanese photographer. My father would still not be willing to visit any part of Japan except for Okinawa. This pendatang Kristian has to remember another Hakka pendatang who even has the audacity to proclaim himself as the heavenly brother of Jesus, literally, and caused a lot of misery.

    Thus, my Malaysia motherland has decided that those common pendatang memory ought to be erased for the common good. The Socialists are all the cause of the ill of the land and resulted May 13. As after May 13, all pendatangs, except for a few elite ones, could have their rights after the princes of the soil are done claiming their first birth rights. I read Tunku’s writings on May 13. I have also read John Slimming’s Death of a Democracy on May 13, not to mention Dr Kua’s work. I have no reason to believe too much into what Tunku has written given how hard our nation has tried to hide the intipati of both Reid and Cobbald Commission from the purview of the nation, not to mention how hard our administration is trying to sell the story of Tanda Putera.

    I did not like Tun M. I was never happy with DSAI, especially when DSAI chose to avoid the question when I asked him among a small group in Berkeley campus on what he thought the school should teach on May 13 if he ever became the Prime Minister. I forgave him the same night, as I saw him walking alone leaving the campus for an uncertain future. I like the book of Jonah, as he reminded me on how I must not be like him to have leafy plant dying on me as the way he wished he is dead when the Lord accepted Ninevites (an enemy of the Isrealites) as His people. Thus, I particularly keen on be-friending our own Ikan Bakar Handsome Jonah, as Obama’s administration has decided to purge ISIS from Mosul, today’s Nineveh before he left office. I am a Bernie Sander/Jill Stein supporter, and no fan of Libertarian elitism. But, I like Gary Johnson’s answer with ‘What is Aleppo’ as I figured it is so confusing thinking about Aleppo, as one learn more about ‘it’. One Turkish Stanford millenial graduate whom I respect told me how deceivious Erdogan is on Syria. This is when I get to digest it as I close my mind off on what my other Lebanese friend tells me about Lebanon’s experience of Christian politicians, and my Croatian friend sharing his Balkan experience. They all knew their experience pales in comparison on what is happening today.

    Being one of the most common in today’s broken world, my common kind would naturally be a common cause for today’s Melayu impending down fall. After all, the day of Bunga-Emas has arrived. I am worried about how the ‘Me’ first culture would cause Melayu to layu. I think the ill-fate could be reverted, if there were more I-Layu, either through more discerning intelligent halus iLayu like iPad, or through more willingness to self-sacrifice of I-Layu, so that all Malaysians could help Melayu survive through this.

    I am especially concern on China’s recent reaction towards Singapore on South East Asia. I am concern that today’s South-East Asian could be the playground for the common Americans and Chinese like myself. I fear for the Southern Filipinos, as Duterte reminded the world his grand-father is a Chinese. As such I fear for the Melayu would have a Duterte among them. After all, we do know know that one Hakka pendatang built a city out from mud. Many could suggest that they have worked well with the Chinese …

    But, if fear is all I get to share, then perhaps, I should learn to be kiasi in this kiasu world.

    I should learn from the wisdom of my inheritance of being a Hakka. No-one knows where the Hakka came from. Not even the Hakka. Yet the Hakka are every where in the world. We collectively have given the modern Chinese many leaders whom most Chinese are proud of. The world would not have taken notice of it, if not some Japanese started noticing it. I certainly would not have noticed it, growing up as a Hakka. But, I found wisdom in it.

    We wouldn’t forget to identify ourselves as pendatangs, and should not forget to identify with pendatangs, even when circumstances improve for us, by never stop calling ourselves pendatang. That is the dignity we learned from Confucian who perfected the art of dignity who get to enamor even the conquering dynasties. @CLF, I guess that is the identity chosen for us, as our sweet Jesus reminded us on “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head”

    Dr Bakri Musa has said it well. The halus way of Melayu would be one reason why the Melaka would thrive. It would continue to thrive, if only there were more iLayu instead of meLayu.

  12. Wow, katasayang, you’re really one complicated and complex son of a gun.

    The subject of identity has, throughout the history of mankind, sent poets to the blank page, philosophers to the agora, and seekers to the oracles.

  13. Wah liao… truly a wondrous tale, katasayang.

    For folks suffering from existential crisis (and headache) like yours, i suggest paracetamol 1g QID – or what American call Tylenol. Psychic pain can be treated with basic stuff too, you know?

    For those who don’t mind a bit of rubbish and have too much time, go to here to see some scholars in delicto with us common folk:

    http://www.livescience.com/56505-do-you-have-a-soul.html; or better still


  14. CLF, LaMoy, ha. Thank you for the simplicity. A foggy and rainy day heals all messed up mind.

    Will pass on the wahliao and wow trick for the next generation when I come to your stage of life. These generational talk is surely fun.

  15. Sadly, in Malaysia, most political leaders ( with self- interests, over inflated egos and fraudulence ) do not listen or have the capacity and capability to understand them even they ( scholars and intellectuals) speak out. Wasting of time but for self academia satisfaction ?

    The political leaders can afford to, because they could get away with everything, scandalous, criminal or otherwise, without being punished or with just a tap on the hand. They think they own the country and the people owe them a living, eternally. Really ?

  16. An Imbecile like me is still sticking to my favourite mystic-saint (who has been paranoid for a very long time ) , when he first gave the idea to the world : Only those return to Eternity, who on Earth seek out Eternity…….(otherwise man will be caught in the eternal cycle of life, death & rebirth ad infinitum…. in this mad world)

    Of course its not savory to seek for Eternity whilst on Earth , which is of a temporal nature , and even if one gets locked-up in the mental assylum , one can NEVER achieve it ! How to achieve it here on Earth , its all the way Sufferings through ‘ madness ‘ as we live on earth ?

    Well…..Gibran thinks and says (in addition ) :

    ” Those whom Love has not chosen as followers do

    not hear when Love calls ” (his essay in ‘Broken Wings ‘ ) –

    He thinks their hearts have been sealed by the so-called ” Eternity ” from Above,, so they DO NOT HEAR…..(must be dumb and deaf…..)

    He thinks , its because their Hearts are Sealed ,

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