Uneven results of a colonial legacy

March 17, 1995

The universities of Singapore and Malaya have gone in very different directions since their separation in 1962.

It is hard to believe that the premier universities in Singapore and Malaysia share a common ancestry. The National University of Singapore, located on a ridge of low hills overlooking the city centre, seems a vibrant, energised place. Students pack the playing fields and the lecture halls, academics discuss plans for the next multi-million dollar industry-based research institute, and glossy prospectuses promote the latest "executive" degree programmes run jointly with such elite American universities as Harvard, Stanford and Cornell.

In comparison, the University of Malaya seems sleepy, even second rate. Situated in the country's bustling capital Kuala Lumpur, the campus nevertheless seems drab, the playing fields deserted, and the students quietly conformist. Here, links with world-class universities and billion dollar companies are a fantasy, not least because of the tame intellectual environment where a lack of curiosity seems the rule. As one long-standing professor says: "Nowadays, the students don't use the books on the open shelves, only those they are told to read."

Only the Institute of Advanced Studies shines. Established nearly 16 years ago in a state-of-the-art complex, it is self-consciously modelled on Princeton's trail-blazing research centre. Yet its achievements to date do not dazzle on the international stage, with most of the British links funded by the Overseas Development Administration.

Yet just over 30 years ago, the two universities were part of the University of Malaya, a colonial foundation formed in 1949 by merging two older higher education institutions, the King Edward VII College of Medicine and Raffles College. It was solely based in Singapore until independence in 1957. Gradually, some faculties were duplicated in KL, and by 1962 the two institutions had formally separated.

But this alone does not explain the difference between the two establishments. The chief cause is the varied approach to dealing with development in the post-colonial age. The burgeoning Malaysian nation reacted strongly against colonial rule. As one former student put it: "In the old days, you would watch things like cricket, rugby, gentlemen's games as it were. But these days, they are hardly seen on the campus." The Malaysian government, not unjustifiably, initiated a policy of positive discrimination in favour of the bumiputras, the indigenous people who are the majority ethnic group yet who were under-represented at the university. A levels were replaced by local exams, the admissions procedure was skewed by reserving 55 per cent of places for bumiputras, and English was replaced by Bahasa as the medium of instruction.

There is no question that the new language requirement was the most significant - and, in the short term, the most damaging - of the changes. "Objectively speaking," says Lim Pin, vice chancellor of NUS, "that set them back very, very seriously in terms of access to textbooks, journals, and information from the rest of the world." A large expatriate fellowship was obliged to leave UM, which in turn left the university isolated from international developments, particularly the growth of research and development and the rise of university-business links.

Across the straits at NUS, English is the medium of instruction, expatriate lecturers comprise 40 per cent of the fellowship, and A levels are still the primary entrance requirement. The university has worked with its colonial legacy, and Cambridge-educated Professor Lim Pin says that "we have no hang-ups about where we come from". It is, at least in part, a consequence of this that the university is a player on the international stage, and very much at the vanguard of education-business links.

NUS has made extraordinary strides since the early 1980s, when it was still largely a teaching institution. The university has established three industry-oriented research institutes. One is the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, which has received Singapore $100 million (Pounds 43 million) from the British pharmaceutical firm Glaxo since 1987. It is hardly surprising that the phrase "R&D" seems to trip off Professor Lim Pin's tongue regularly. No longer is it "a backburner activity".

The gap between what Malaysian deputy education minister Fong Chan Onn calls "these sibling rivals" is sure to close over the next few years. Malaysia potentially one of the biggest "tigers" in the south-east Asian economy has woken up to the importance of research and development, and UM is in a good position to compete for a rising research fund currently set at Malaysian ringgit 600 million (Pounds 150 million). In addition, UM is well placed to take advantage of the Malaysian government's new policy of encouraging students from the region. A further boost will come in the shape of healthy (if not stiff) competition from London University's branch campus, still in its embryonic stages but set to attract around 5,000 students by the end of the century.

If UM does show signs of catching up, then the question of difference becomes a moot point. On both campuses, there is concern that the students are obsessed by passing exams, getting jobs and being financially successful. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a graduate of the old King Edward VII College of Medicine, has lamented the lack of curiosity among the undeniably diligent students, not least because this affects the country's research capability. Khoo Kay Kim, an eminent UM historian, says that "students make no attempt to think" as opposed to learn. In Singapore, Professor Lim Pin says, "the basic problem is that the students are so serious about their future and their sense of competition is so keen".

A much bigger problem which has arguably affected the spirit of curiosity is the question of academic freedom. Ever since the establishment of the university acts in the mid-1970s which banned political activity on Malaysian campuses, academic freedom has been a hotly contested issue. One observer, out-lining a view which continues to go down well in government circles, says that "academic freedom only produces philosophers - not economists, not physicists, not chemists".

Equally, although political activity is not banned specifically, there is a sense in Singapore that academic freedom is often secondary to the national interest. Professor Lim Pin emphasises the "national" in the NUS title, pointing out that the university's mission is "to support Singa-pore's social and economic development".

Lecturers are treated as government civil servants (they even work on Saturdays) and those promulwgating anti-government statements have often been disciplined. In January, American academic Christopher Lingle, who briefly taught at NUS, was fined Singapore $10,000 for contempt after criticising repression in Singapore. Mr Lingle resigned his post. Put in the same position, others with international experience might do the same. Nearly 50 years after the foundation of the first University of Malaya, NUS as well as UM can expect the issue of academic freedom to recur as they strive for international recognition.

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