SINGAPORE - In Singapore universities’ accelerated race to join the ranks of the world’s best, a silent casualty may have been the local academic who devotes his career to studying the country and region through a uniquely Singapore lens.
That is the view of several scholars who traced the current controversy over foreign faculty members to the late 1990s, when Singapore launched its bid to play among the big boys of academia.
In 1996, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong challenged the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University to build “the Boston of the East” and be dubbed the “Harvard and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) of Asia”.
The two universities could achieve this by drawing in “the best and brightest” from Asia and around the world, he said.
That ushered in an era of universities vying to raise their standing in world rankings such as those by Times Higher Education and QS, says Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“While it is praiseworthy that Singapore wants to benchmark its universities globally, it cannot be done with the intensity of a pneumatic drill, without a sense of nuance and moderation,” he says.
“You must also bear in mind that you need a vision that makes Singapore unique rather than a clone of certain Western universities.”
Nominated MP Eugene Tan shares his discomfort, warning that the pressure to produce tangible outcomes quickly may have led universities to seek easy “off-the-shelf solutions” by importing foreign faculty instead of nurturing home-grown talent.
As far back as 2002, veteran backbencher MP and then Feedback Unit chief Wang Kai Yuen warned that local faculty members were unhappy about the “Americanisation” of the universities and the push for them to not just teach but also do research and get published in international journals.
In an interview with The Straits Times in that year, then NUS president Shih Choon Fong said the university had to reinvent itself rapidly to sustain Singapore’s position as a First World economy. “NUS, like Singapore, has only a narrow timeframe of about 10 years to build its comparative advantage and niche,” he said.
Professor Shih said the issue was not about Americanisation but “about globalisation versus parochialism – removing the walls and competing with the rest of the world”. He added: “And one of the walls a university aiming for world-class status has to remove is with regard to talent. Mediocrity is not an option.”
Professor Chan Heng Chee, chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities and a former NUS political science faculty member, says the universities also had to expand quickly to meet society’s strong demand for a university education. Thus they had to hire foreign academics to augment their staff, she says.
The shake-up of the local universities was also an inevitable effect of the world rankings, which look at factors such as international outlook and how often other academics cite a faculty’s research.
Such factors shape a university’s approach to research. For instance, some like NMP Professor Tan have highlighted the diminished incentive for academics to research on Singapore as such work is less likely to be published or cited in top-tier journals due to a perception that Singapore is too small to be relevant to the rest of the world.
An academic can also feel pressure to be “unfairly critical” in analysing Singapore to increase the odds of getting published in these journals, he says, adding: “Put bluntly, bashing Singapore pays.”
Prof Chan says that to counter these biases, she has long advocated that universities here consider a broader band of publications when they assess faculty in the humanities and social sciences, a point which has the backing of many of the academics interviewed.
But the drive to be world-class has also had other far-reaching repercussions.