Growing the local core in academia

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Much has been said in Singapore about the need for quality and corruption-free political leadership.

However, equally important - but somewhat overlooked - is the need to grow Singapore's intellectual capital as well.

A solid Singaporean core in academia will help develop Singapore's brain bank and ensure that it can contribute informed opinions, propose solutions and identify blind spots.

It is therefore important that we build up Singapore's intellectual capital to stack the odds in our favour so we can preserve our gains and make new ones. Indeed, new problems and opportunities will emerge in the coming decades and it would be naive, dangerous even, to expect the Government to be the sole issue-aggregator, opportunity-seizer and problem solver.

In March last year, Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng expressed surprise that Singaporeans formed the minority in the political science, public policy and communications departments of several autonomous universities (AUs) here.

The 2013 figures for the political science department of the National University of Singapore (NUS), for example, show that 18 of its 25 faculty members were foreign. Mr Seah noted that it was important for Singapore to have greater local representation in these "context-sensitive" fields.

A month later, Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah noted that the Singapore Academic and Research Talent Scheme was launched precisely to "grow the number of existing postgraduate scholarships for Singaporeans".

To be sure, the search for academic talent should never be artificially constricted and must be kept open and global - this is how our schools maintain their rankings, teaching quality and research output.

An internationally diverse academic community will also contribute to Singapore's robustness and intellectual thinking. Having said that, more can certainly be done to grow the Singaporean core. In that regard, the teaching and research talent scheme by the Ministry of Education (MOE) is a step in the right direction.

This initiative - which provides over 1,500 scholarships at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels until 2030 to Singaporeans, so that they could assume positions in local autonomous universities after their PhDs - is a big statement of intent.

Adding to that, here are three more ways we can attract more locals into academia.

First, extra effort should be made to attract mid-careerists to join academia. These mid-career entrants would bring much needed "real world" working experience and would boost the strength and diversity of academia.

The intellectual community must not allow itself to be insular. Enlisting mid-careerists would bring in people with different life experiences and viewpoints. Academic institutions would need to rethink their hiring practices and do a better job of being age-blind.

While there may be concerns that institutions do not get the best years out of mid-careerists, especially after one's doctoral studies, examples are replete in the military, law, medicine and politics that have proven that older can be better.

Customised career tracks, such as NUS' "Practice Track", could be increased to attract and cater to these mid-career entrants. They can tap co-funded academic scholarships, with the Government and the mid-career recipient, who would have reasonably amassed some financial resources, jointly funding PhD studies.

Second, less focus should be placed on past pedigree and more on current skills, achievements and research output.

While academic track record should remain important, an applicant's "soft skills", such as creativity and emotional intelligence, can also be assessed by universities' scholarship boards.

To be fair, there has been an attempt at reducing the impact and expectation of consistently stellar academic records in scholarship offers - I was one fortunate beneficiary of this subtle shift. I scored a measly 200 points in my PSLE, struggled in a neighbourhood secondary school and went to a polytechnic.

Yet, I received the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences International PhD Scholarship at Nanyang Technological University under the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme supported by MOE.

I may be mistaken, but I believe I was an anomaly. (A look at the profiles of Singapore's President's Scholars would reveal that most, if not all, came from the top three to four elite junior colleges). Hopefully, "anomalies" like these will become more "normal".

Third, more can be done to promote academia as an exciting and rewarding career to young Singaporeans.

Academic work is viewed by some as being prosaic. But there are very few things more thrilling than being at the forefront of knowledge-making, knowledge discovery and pushing the boundaries of "reality".

AUs could take a leaf out of the book of uniformed services on how that sector has crafted exciting career opportunities that inspire recruits.

Academic scholarship sponsors and AUs could also raise their profile at career fairs and hold job talks in schools from the secondary school level onwards.

It is encouraging that the Government has moved decisively to strengthen the local core. Faced with an ever-shrinking pool of local talent owing to declining birth rates, it is imperative that we do more to boost Singapore's intellectual capital.

The writer is starting doctoral studies at Cambridge University's department of politics and international studies.

This article was first published on September 4, 2015.
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