Mothership Q&A: A glimpse of media academic Cherian George

Dr George reveals why writing a book is like sex and how he is a sucker for lost causes.

Martino Tan| December 25, 06:46 AM

Media academic Dr Cherian George, 47, has a knack for providing lucid analysis on the current issues of the day.

Recently, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) don was in the news for his commentary about Internet regulation (Online freedom: time to revise the Singapore report card).

Media regulator Media Development Authority (MDA) took issue with it, saying that they were astounded by Dr George's description of the registration process for Internet content providers.

It is not everyday that the authorities feel compelled to explain its position clearly.

And even before this issue, Dr George was a news-maker this year because of the controversy surrounding his denial of tenure by NTU. More than 1,000 people signed an online petition in March asking NTU to explain its decision. A denial of tenure for academics means a denial of job security.

NTU has subsequently turned down an appeal by Dr George against its decision not to grant him tenure, which means that he will leave the school early next year. speaks to Dr George as he reflects his time in NTU, his views on his journalism students, and his anticipation in writing his next book.


1. You are an academic and were a journalist with The Straits Times. If you can only choose a job for life, would you be the editor of a newspaper or the Dean of a Communications School?

The editor of a newspaper, because everyone thinks newspapers are dying and I am a sucker for lost causes. But seriously, what I like about both journalism and academia is that you can make an impact even if you're not at the top of the hierarchy. You don't need to obsess about climbing the corporate ladder.

In fact, most scholars in the best universities shun administrative appointments. Similarly, it's a bad sign if most of the journalists in a news organisation hanker after supervisory positions – it probably means that management isn't valuing frontline journalistic work enough.


Source: Dr George already runs What's Up, an award-winning monthly newspaper for students.


2. You taught many journalism students from Nanyang Technological University. Can you name a few former students whom you are most proud of?

"Proud of" suggests that I take credit for the way they turn out. That would be delusional. But there are certainly many former students I think highly of, and for very different reasons.

I've learned from my students that there are many different ways to shine. Some of them, I admire because they possess qualities I don't. For example, I tend to be loudly opinionated. But I have had outstanding students who are more quietly solid. I think of Sam Kang Li, Lin Junjie, Samuel He, Zeinab Yusuf, for example. These are individuals with strong values, independent minds and progressive ideals – and they have a quiet restraint that I sometimes lack. When I grow up, I want to be more like them, and I hope I make them proud.

Sam Kang Li

Sam Kang Li and his neighbours at their void deck. Check out the video of his initiative "At Our Doorsteps" last year, which was highlighted by PM Lee.


3. How would you react if your students fall asleep in your lectures? Or when they fail to hand in their assignments repeatedly?

My friends would laugh at this question because I was notorious for sleeping in lectures. I don't get worked up about university students drifting off or not keeping up with their work. They are young adults, not kids, so I assume they are old enough to set priorities and live with the consequences. There's a lot going on in their lives, inside and outside school, so if they decide to give my class a lower priority, it's OK. As long as they are aware of the cost – they could get a lower grade and maybe also earn reputation among their classmates and teachers that they are not very reliable. So I say, if you sleep, do it with your eyes open, so to speak. If you are only harming yourself, I would not get upset.

I draw the line when students spoil things for their classmates. One of the only times in nine years that I got quite angry was when a couple of students couldn't stop chatting while their classmates were doing a presentation. I felt really offended that they could be so inconsiderate to their fellow students. I went up to them and suggested that they leave.



4. ST invited its former staff for the annual year-end party. Who would you most like to meet at the party?

There is this girl I had my eye on at ST. Beautiful, intelligent, great sense of humour. Way out of my league. I believe she still works there. I'll make discreet checks on whether she's going for the party. If so, I'll show up too, and make it my mission to go home with her.


5. If you are a book reviewer, which of your three books will get the highest ratings?

Definitely the fourth, the one I haven't written yet. Writing a book is like sex. The anticipation and the act are the best parts. When you finish, you're exhausted. And then, when you look back, you are convinced you could have performed better. Even if you're told that you rocked their world – by your readers, I mean – you suspect they are just being polite, because you secretly know in hindsight that there are many things you could have improved. In contrast, my next book will be perfect. I wish.


[Dr George is the author of three books: Freedom From The Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore (2012), Contentious Journalism and the Internet: Towards Democratic Discourse in Malaysia and Singapore.(2006), Singapore: The Air-conditioned Nation. Essays on the Politics of Comfort and Control, 1990-2000. (2000)]


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