Singapore’s powerhouses neglect local intellectual life

Singaporeans deserve more local impact from their top-ranked public universities, says Cherian George

January 11, 2018
Singapore skyline
Source: Getty

Singapore’s two main public universities have risen in global reputation, lifted by the state’s economic might. For most Singaporeans – as well as many of the region’s brightest students – getting a place to study at the National University of Singapore or Nanyang Technological University is a proud accomplishment. In several fields, our universities have become research powerhouses, worthy of mention alongside the traditional brand names of the West.

But the NUS and NTU suffer from stunted development. Even as they rise in global rankings, their contribution to the country’s intellectual life is relatively modest. Particularly in the humanities and the social sciences, they are largely absent precisely when their expertise is most needed – when complex and controversial issues call for the clarity, context and research-based insight that we academics claim to be able to provide. This retreat from the public sphere has been so complete and enduring that it is no longer noticed. It doesn’t occur to most Singaporeans that our universities could be playing a much broader social role.

I hasten to clarify that the public shouldn’t expect university departments to replicate thinktanks, which are meant to insert themselves directly into current policy debates. Given how compressed news cycles are getting, with controversies exploding and fizzling out within a week, it would be a mistake for academics to flit about, reacting to every matter that grabs people’s attention. That shouldn’t be the job of serious scholars.

But a strong university department or scholarly association should be visible in major public debates that are relevant to its field. At the very least, universities should be able to serve as honest brokers, convening discussions on challenging topics. After all, they are the only institutions in our society that give their employees the time and resources – largely taxpayer-funded – to think differently. They are not pressed to arrive at policy positions. They are not required to be popular or profitable. They can examine problems deeply, challenge conventional wisdom, clarify issues, offer insights that are counter-intuitive and keep contrarian viewpoints bubbling on the back burner for future reference. One might even say that they have a moral responsibility to do all this.

Singapore’s two public universities have very busy calendars, but their activities focus on non-Singaporean matters. While many other universities are seeking desperately to overcome their parochialism and climb university rankings by internationalising, ours have the opposite problem (rankings organisations don’t really measure a university’s local relevance – it probably hasn’t occurred to them that universities might fail to be local enough). Singapore has already emerged as one of the top centres of learning for anyone interested in Asia; it is academia’s contribution to Singapore’s own intellectual and cultural life that is lacking. Consider, for example, the government’s move to amend the Constitution to reserve presidential elections periodically for candidates from Singapore’s racial minority groups. There were individual academics interested enough to make submissions to 2016’s Constitutional Commission, but the activity fell far short of what would be considered normal elsewhere, perhaps for want of a critical mass of such scholars. In a different setting, universities would have been falling over themselves to convene public events to discuss such a major move before the parliamentary vote. Legal scholars and political scientists would explore constitutional implications and issues concerning political representation. Sociologists might want to showcase their research into ethnic identity and politics. For anthropologists, this could be an opportunity to share their research on the construction of race. In a normal developed country, local universities might run a series of public seminars on such subjects. Not in Singapore.

Some Singaporeans might feel that there is nothing wrong with universities staying focused on teaching enrolled, fee-paying students without the distractions of public outreach. But one can’t really compartmentalise a university’s mission this way. Universities have to fertilise the soil they depend on. Just as our national orchestras give free concerts at the Botanic Gardens to help cultivate an appreciation for music, research universities need to be out there showing the public that their intellectual work is worth supporting. Furthermore, schooling that’s confined to textbooks and classroom learning, by professors who show no interest in the real world passing by their window, wouldn’t amount to much of an education.

Singapore tree lights

The lack of engagement in the local can compromise institutions’ ability to mount even basic Singapore-related courses. Our universities do have a Singapore studies requirement in their undergraduate curricula, but departments often struggle to mount relevant courses, sometimes relying on adjuncts or faculty borrowed from other departments. When I worked at NTU’s communication school, I taught a freshman course called Media in Singapore, introducing all communication majors to our media industries and their political, economic and cultural contexts. Since the school’s founding, this course – or earlier iterations of it – had been considered important enough to be listed as a compulsory module. But when I left, the school didn’t consider it a priority to find a replacement teacher. It simply dropped the course. After a year, the course was revived – but no longer as a core requirement; it became an elective.

The most disappointing case of going regional and global at the expense of the local must be political science at the NUS. I’ve followed public forums on local politics for decades. In recent years, one thing that has become practically guaranteed is that none of the speakers on Singapore politics will come from the NUS department of political science. To understand why, visit the department’s website and study the faculty profiles. At the time of writing, of 29 full-time faculty members, only one – a veteran now in his sixties – claims Singapore’s domestic politics as a research interest. In contrast, 22 colleagues – including all seven assistant professors – do not have “Singapore” anywhere on their research profiles or publication lists. Just five of the department’s scholars list at least one published work with “Singapore” in the title, and only two of these publications are more recent than 2013. You have to go back to Chan Heng Chee in the 1980s to find an NUS political science don who has made a seminal contribution to our understanding of Singapore politics. It’s a situation that would be unthinkable in virtually all developed countries.

Political science is an extreme but not unique case. If you scanned the research interests and backgrounds of faculty in NUS economics, for instance, you’d have a hard time guessing which country or even region the department belonged to. You might think it was based in Greater China, or perhaps in a US university with an Asia-Pacific focus. When I checked one commonly used database of scholarly articles, I was able to find 152 articles on Singapore categorised under “economics” published since 2015, but only one was by someone currently listed as a regular faculty member of the NUS economics department. The NUS accounted for about 30 other articles, but these came from elsewhere on campus, such as the public policy and business schools, and the real estate department.

NTU’s history department website suggests that perhaps three out of 22 faculty members could claim a focus on Singapore history. The history department at the NUS is more illustrious but is nevertheless short on local expertise. Consider the books that have been published on Singapore history: the National Library has compiled a useful bibliography. Of the 27 recommended titles covering Singapore’s history up to 1964, just one is (co-)authored by a current faculty member of the NUS history department.

There are two fairly obvious reasons for our universities’ C-minus performance in Singapore studies: the lack of academic freedom and the absence of a Singaporean core in many departments. Political restrictions date back to the first decade and a half of independence from Malaysia, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the government cracked down on activism in what were then the University of Singapore and Nanyang University. From the ashes, the new NUS and NTU rose like phoenixes – with a permanent phobia of the fires of politics.

In many fields, academics are also thwarted by a lack of access to government data. For this reason, one can hardly blame economists for choosing not to specialise in Singapore. Historians have a different problem. They know too much. Declassified British records in London offer a rich vein of evidence concerning Singapore’s pre-independence history – but mining this lode puts historians on a collision course with the government’s official narrative. Sadly, this has meant that young academic historians of Singapore are able to find work more easily outside the country.

Made in Singapore eye transfer

It would be simplistic, however, to blame only the government. The universities’ problems are partly own goals scored by administrators obsessed by the research productivity game. This rewards those who churn out papers in so-called top-tier journals, ignoring the fact that these journals are published in, by and for the West. To illustrate how this bias works in practice, consider an American political scientist writing a 6,000-word article about voting patterns in Ohio. He can quickly get to the heart of his findings and theoretical contributions. In contrast, a scholar researching Singaporean elections would have to devote half her paper to justifying why Singapore is worth studying, and would need to explain the local context in painstaking detail for an audience of mystified journal editors – all before she’s finally able to discuss her actual study. The problem is compounded by the fact that the off-the-shelf theoretical frameworks currently in circulation were mostly developed in the US and Europe and might not fit Singapore. It’s therefore much harder for scholars working on Singapore to sail on the main theoretical currents in their fields.

This bias results from the uneven distribution of power in global academia. The US and its concerns lie at the core of most disciplines; the rest of the world is peripheral. It is a frustration familiar not only to scholars of Singapore, but also to academics in Australia, the UK, Hong Kong and elsewhere. In these other societies, however, universities put up stiffer resistance to the imposition of key performance indicators that would undermine their core mission to study their own locales. Top-tier journal publication is still prized – but not at the expense of neglecting impactful local research or teaching needs. Our universities could do the same, prioritising Singapore-focused research even if it is likely to generate lower citation scores. Bibliometrics are not ends in themselves, but merely crude proxy measures for research impact. Our university leaders and education policymakers are free to adopt different yardsticks. As things stand, the metrics don’t encourage research into our own milieu. Furthermore, it is an open secret that, in many departments, hiring and promotion decisions focus more on a candidate’s research numbers than on what he or she is able to teach – hence the problem of not having enough faculty to teach Singapore content well.

Responding to these market signals, many locals and almost all foreigners decide to focus on regional or international topics or on purely abstract theoretical work that is not grounded in any particular context. There are still scholars who, despite the disincentives, persist and study their first love – Singapore. But in many social science and humanities fields, they lack clout. The situation suits the foreign faculty who now dominate departments – and in many cases run them. Singapore is the only place in the world where foreigners can work at a top-ranked university without feeling any shame at knowing nothing about their host society; where, indeed, such ignorance is often more of an asset than a liability.

Singaporean economists Pang Eng Fong and Linda Lim have similarly commented on the lack of a strong local core in our universities ( “Singapore’s fling with global stars sidelines local talent” , News, 24 August). But one shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that foreign faculty as such are a problem. It’s simplistic to equate local origins with local commitment. Some foreigners have had a transformative impact on Singapore studies. The NUS archaeologist John Miksic is a prominent example. Others have been conscientious institution-builders for Singapore. I personally benefited from the mentorship of two such giants, Taiwan-born sociologist Eddie Kuo, the founding dean of NTU’s communication school, and historian Anthony Reid from New Zealand, founding director of the Asia Research Institute at the NUS. Philip Holden, a professor of English at the NUS, is another model foreign-born scholar. He became a respected authority on the Singapore literary scene. But after more than 20 years, he began facing problems maintaining his permanent resident status. When his application for citizenship was denied, he and his Singaporean wife decided to relocate to Canada. Hearing this sad news, a former student who had become an English teacher commented on his Facebook wall: “Without you, a generation of Singaporeans wouldn’t have known what SingLit was, and SingLit would be nowhere near what it is today.”

Whatever the mix of reasons for the lack of emphasis on Singapore-focused work, the overall pattern is striking. The government’s new Social Science Research Council is trying to come to the rescue with substantial funds earmarked for research relevant to Singapore, but the problem has never been money. Grants alone won’t counterbalance the factors weighing against independent research on Singaporean society, especially if, as with arts funding, the council denies money to projects that are seen as critical of the government.

The university has a role that goes beyond equipping and credentialing students for employment; beyond serving the needs of industry; and beyond developing its region’s pulling power as an educational and research hub – all great strengths of the NUS and NTU. It also has a civilising mission, to show how the pursuit of knowledge and reasoned deliberation are the best ways for a society to manage its contemporary and future challenges. This can be achieved only if a university is engaged with the society of which it is part. And this is where Singapore’s institutions of higher learning should do much more to live up to their stratospheric global rankings. 

Cherian George, a Singaporean, is professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. This essay is an edited extract from his new book, Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development (Singapore: Woodsville News, 2017).

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