Singapore’s failing bid for brainpower

Simon Montlake
Far Eastern Economic Review
10 Oct 07

On a leafy lane in a residential neighborhood, Singapore’s latest tilt at the performing arts is taking shape. Inside a metallic-blue building, a class of aspiring filmmakers last month became the first to enroll at the Tisch School of the Arts Asia, a branch of New York University’s storied Tisch School. The class of 33 graduate students, of which two are Singaporean and half are American, will spend three years learning about film and television production. From next year, Tisch plans to add a second master’s in fine arts. The programs mirror identical courses offered at the New York campus and levy similar tuition fees.

By persuading Tisch to open its first overseas campus in Singapore, the city-state’s economic planners can point to modest advances on two, intertwined fronts. The first is the goal to turn Singapore into a “global schoolhouse,” where world-class universities bring in star faculty to teach talented, mainly Asian students. This policy in turn reinforces Singapore’s appeal to multinationals that need a research and development hub in Asia. A second goal—closely related to the first—is to shed a reputation as a stodgy, scripted society, where creativity is dulled by overzealous government regulation. In short, by promoting innovation, whether in the arts or stem-cell research, Singapore wants to become a global hub of brainpower.

By 2015 Singapore has set a target of enrolling 150,000 foreign students, up from around 80,000 at present. The bulk of overseas students are from Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, India and South Korea. These ambitions reflect the rapid growth in global education. In 2005, globally there were 2.7 million people enrolled as students outside their home country, up from 1.3 million a decade earlier, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States is the most popular destination, followed by the United Kingdom and Australia, which has successfully marketed its universities as low-cost options for Asians who want foreign degrees.

Singapore also wants to tap this growing market. While its homegrown universities have some appeal to other Asians, a far juicier prize is to partner with a prestigious Western school, essentially outsourcing world-class education to Singapore. Since 1998, around 16 universities have forged linkages with local institutions, typically in the form of joint graduate programs such as that offered by Nanyang Technological University with Cornell University’s renowned hospitality school. The graduate business school INSEAD has one of its two campuses in Singapore—the second one is in France.

More elusive, to Singapore’s increasing frustration, is a fully-fledged foreign university campus—not just business schools—that would put some backbone into its “global schoolhouse” catchphrase. Persuading Harvard to open up in Singapore—and dilute its premium brand—sounds like a pipe dream. But surely other, less haughty foreign universities could be induced to take the plunge, given the right incentives and a forward-looking strategy? Singapore has never made any secret of its large financial resources and its willingness to use them to promote industries in which its governing elite believe it has an edge over competitors, such as biotech and environmental services. The rise of China has intensified the hunt for knowledge-based economic drivers to replace sunset manufacturing industries.

Next door to Tisch School of the Arts Asia, standing empty apart from a solitary guard, is a 12-storey white tower. Like Tisch’s refitted building, it belongs to the Ministry of Education and was once used as a polytechnic. Earlier this year, in a fanfare of excitement, the University of New South Wales in Australia opened a temporary campus here for its first intake of 148 freshmen. Meanwhile, across town on a site near Changi International Airport, builders broke ground on a $91 million UNSW complex designed for 15,000 students that would have become the first comprehensive foreign university in Singapore.

By May, though, the game was up. The university abruptly canceled its construction plans and announced that it was closing its temporary campus after spending $14.4 million. Vice Chancellor Fred Hilmer called the project an “unsustainable financial burden” and offered to transfer students to Sydney. He told reporters that enrollment had been disappointing and offered an explanation of why so few had signed up. “When a student says I want an Australian degree, what they really mean is I want the experience of living in Sydney…buying surf boards,” he said.

Leaving aside the city-state’s surf deficit, it’s difficult to assess just how unsustainable was the attempt to recreate UNSW in Singapore.

University administrators are now wrangling with Singapore over its liability for $10.8 million in government grants, the most visible part of the state largesse earmarked to the project. Australian media have reported that Singapore was covering most of the costs of building the new campus. But when the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper asked the UNSW to release further details, the university replied that its communications with Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) were confidential and may fall under Singapore’s strict Official Secrets Act. Even the normally compliant Straits Times sniffed at this lack of disclosure, calling it a “hard-to-defend” position.

Neither the lavish subsidies nor the shroud of secrecy were a surprise to seasoned observers of Singapore. But they cut to the heart of the debate over its ambitions to become, as one government minister put it, the “Boston of the East.” When UNSW committed to the Singapore campus in 2005, the U.K.’s Warwick University was also in the running to open a large campus. It eventually declined after faculty and students objected on the grounds of academic freedom in a semiauthoritarian country. Those opposed to the move pointed out that the kind of political activism taken for granted on British campuses would be strictly curtailed in Singapore.

That makes Singapore an unlikely stand-in for freewheeling intellectual hubs like New York or Oxford, where academic freedom is vigorously upheld, even when the message is controversial, such as the recent address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University in New York. In August, Singapore’s police banned a lecture by Douglas Sanders, a Canadian academic and gay rights advocate, citing his outspoken opposition to colonial-era laws that criminalize homosexuality. Singapore is also notoriously prickly about foreign interference in its domestic politics. Foreign academics say this rules out research that digs too deeply into the affairs of the governing elite.

It might be tempting to believe that it all comes down to money. Clearly the UNSW debacle reflects a hard-headed calculation by Mr. Hilmer, whose predecessor had agreed to the move, that it wasn’t worth the risk. Those constraints are magnified by the task of getting complex and decentralized institutions to shift locations, particularly a comprehensive university like UNSW says Kristopher Olds, a geographer at the University of Michigan who writes frequently on global education. “The relationship between a host society and a foreign university is easier to manage from both sides when the scale of the undertaking is small,” he said.

A bigger question is whether Singapore’s model—bringing in foreign universities to teach mostly foreign students—makes business sense. Importing foreign faculty, who already dominate local universities, isn’t cheap, and rising living costs are straining the budgets of school deans. This inflation goes double for the star faculty that Singapore says it needs to prove itself a global player in education. “A major input in the education process is people to teach. In higher education, you can import professors, but you need to pay a premium for ‘world-class’ faculty to induce them to move from Stanford or Harvard to Singapore,” says Linda Lim, a Singaporean who is professor of strategy at the University of Michigan’s business school.

Singapore’s taxpayers might also ask whether giving generous support to foreign institutions and foreign scholarship students is necessarily a boon to the city-state. Officials from the EDB say the economic pay-off will come in the global reputation for education it acquires, as well as the foreign talent who decide to stay to work or do research. Bright foreigners are invited to apply for permanent residency in Singapore. Ms. Lim says that university scholarships may not give Singapore the educated workforce it craves, as many use it as a stepping stone to the U.S. The privileging of smart foreigners also means fewer university places for local students, of whom less than 30% currently go on to tertiary education. While the government says that footloose professionals will become international ambassadors for Singapore, it’s hard to quantify this in a cost-benefit analysis.

In its publicity material, Tisch says the “burgeoning arts scene” in Singapore is “somewhat reminiscent” of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. That’s quite a stretch. For all the money it showers on arts and culture and promoting multicultural events, Singapore’s main pastime is still shopping. Perhaps it needs to take more seriously its campaign to make the city fun. Decades of single-party, paternalist government has bred political apathy. Singapore wants to attract foreign talent, but doesn’t let its own citizens speak out of turn. Banning a gay-rights advocate—whose views might offend conservative Singaporeans—bodes poorly for academic vibrancy.

Mr. Montlake is a free-lance writer based in Bangkok.

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