Singapore: learning in the lion’s den

Not even education can escape the long reach of globalisation. Armed with models from the business sector, many of the world’s universities are seeking low cost locations to deliver part or all of their courses. The frantic scramble to recruit students has become a global marketing industry, cleverly differentiating degrees by virtue of their location as much as content.

Singapore is never slow to seize the opportunities of globalisation. Universities from North America, Europe and Australia are being encouraged to offer their courses on the island, furthering Singapore’s vision of itself as a knowledge hub for Asia. Apart from the predictable MBAs and technology degrees, what subjects have affinity with this location? – might these include development studies?

The presumption must be that students of poverty and disadvantage would experience a sense of unease in the flourishing city state.

Singaporean values are more in tune with rampant neoliberal economics than the new concept of global citizenship, its people driven by the need to earn and the even greater obsession to spend. Directors of development courses will surely seek partners in cities such as Mumbai and Nairobi where students can focus on their subject merely by walking to lectures.

There is however a very different way of looking at Singapore in this context. The study of development is now as much absorbed with effective political frameworks as with economic models; attributing value to multi-party democracy, respect for human rights, and support for global institutions working towards a better world. These are indeed the characteristics sought by institutional donors as conditions for their economic interventions.

Judged by these benchmarks, Singapore is an offender on a grand scale. Opposition politics is stifled, terrorist suspects are detained for 3 years or more without trial, sentences of hanging and flogging are implemented, landmine production continues, the Kyoto Protocol remains unsigned, and the treatment of foreign workers recently attracted a 126 page censure from Human Rights Watch complete with a recommendation that standards of employment contracts should be raised to those of Hong Kong, a nasty blow below the belt for Singaporeans.

Yet by yardsticks of success to which the most diehard development institution would surely accede, Singapore is a champion. It punches far above its weight in headline economic performance, whilst pulling off the trick of full employment, low inflation and stable integration of ethnic minorities. Standards of housing, health services and education even for lowest income groups are high; public transport and recreation are affordable. Corruption in political and business life appears to be low with a corresponding high public respect for leaders in these sectors.

Students of development need to get to grips with this challenge to the hegemony of values subscribed by western institutional donors and universally swallowed by the development community. A base in Singapore would be ideal for the purpose as the government rarely hesitates to defend tooth and nail its social and political model. Detractors call this a defensive mentality but there is learning potential in these strong public views which receive inadequate airing in our cautiously “correct” western media. In Singapore the mindset of “western liberals” is shaken and stirred mercilessly.

For example, when the latest Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) placed Singapore at number 140 – below Russia, Algeria and Sudan – former prime minister Goh Chok Tong delivered a major speech defending the regulatory framework for the Singapore media – his arguments were powerful – who in the UK could fail to observe how the Blair government came to power through obsession for an agenda laid down by unelected media barons?

Similar resistance surrounded the recent execution of an Australian drug-runner, Nguyen Tuong Van. The Australian media waged a hate campaign against Singapore as it became clear that pleas for mercy would fall on deaf ears. The Singapore press cleverly fought back by demonstrating that the so-called free press in Australia (rated upper quartile by RWB) was not accurately reflecting the views of its readers.

These defences do of course suffer from fundamental flaws which slip through the local coverage. Students would need to learn quickly how to deal with the standard Singaporean appeal to “Asian values” which place interests of family, community and state above those of the individual; a concept not greatly different from the Christian message of selflessness, but which too often is used as a smokescreen of denial of the principle of universal human rights.

There would indeed be no shortage of stimulating possibilities for students seeking dissertation topics. Why is civil society advocacy so feeble in a country which appears to be imbued with a relatively generous spirit of volunteering and donation? What is the true nature of the power of the dynasty headed by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son Lee Hsien Loong, the current premier?

Student learning could therefore thrive in an environment which in many ways represents the antithesis of accepted values. But things are never that simple in Singapore. The UK’s leading home for international students, Warwick University, recently reached an advanced stage of negotiations for building a new branch campus in Singapore, offering a full range of courses. The local media proudly flagged the impending announcement until, at the last moment, the university’s own enlightened structure of democracy saw the deal thrown out by staff on fears that academic freedom would be restricted.

Political correctness was unwilling to play away from home.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK