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Choosing Cairo over Cambridge

Why Singapore students should go beyond traditional studying destinations

Choosing Cairo over Cambridge

Studying or working in ‘non-traditional’ destinations such as the Al-Azhar University in Cairo is crucial to ensuring that Singaporeans do not get trapped in Western-centric modes of thinking. Photo: Reuters

When Ms Melissa Yoong wanted to pursue a Masters programme in Egypt, the then-Cambridge University undergraduate had to convince not only her parents, but also her employer, that it was a rational and viable decision.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) scholar explained to me that the PSC Secretariat was concerned about her safety after mass protests broke out across Egypt in 2013.

It did not help that the international media ran a constant barrage of articles that painted a picture of chaos and lawlessness in Cairo.

However, she highlighted the strong security measures and support network offered by the university and the Singaporean Embassy, as well as the fact that there were many Singaporean students and madrasah graduates studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. After Ms Yoong provided them with a better understanding of her proposed living situation in Cairo, the PSC approved her plans to study there.

Ms Yoong, who also contributes to gobeyond.sg, a website featuring Singaporeans who have studied or worked in unconventional places around the world, belongs to a minority of PSC scholars who studied in non-traditional destinations.

In an open letter published in 2013, PSC chairman Eddie Teo lamented that over the previous 10 years, “only about 7 per cent of our scholars studied outside US/UK/Singapore, both as undergraduates and graduates”.

He urged scholars to “see value in putting themselves out of their comfort zones to gain unusual experiences”, further warning that “(they) should not regard higher education as an exercise to collect degrees from renowned universities to burnish their CVs”.

Nevertheless, mindsets have been slow to change — not only among civil servant scholars, but also among undergraduates at local universities as well.

National University of Singapore (NUS) provost Tan Eng Chye shared that in the past three years, about 75 per cent of all students who went on overseas exchange programmes ventured to the US, Canada and Europe. In the same time period, more students went on exchange to Australia and New Zealand than to all of South-east Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Latin America and Africa combined.

Cost does not seem to be a factor, as generous grants and subsidies are available for “non-traditional” exchange destinations, which also tend to have weaker currencies than the traditional destinations.

Many undergraduates I spoke to cited a variety of reasons for their choices. Most shared that exchange programmes were seen as an opportunity for an extended holiday away from the rigours of the Singaporean education system, a holiday they preferred to take in a city such as Paris, rather than, say, Hanoi.

Prof Tan of NUS is aware of this mindset. He told me that treating an exchange programme as a break from old routines in Singapore is not necessarily a bad thing as it is important to retain one’s sense of fun and play.

The challenge, rather, is for the university to get students to recognise that an exchange experience in somewhere like New Delhi can also be “cool” and “fun”, and possibly even more rewarding.

“The important first step is to realise that the world is larger than the developed West,” Prof Tan added.

 

DOWNSTREAM ISSUES

 

Such conservative attitudes towards the wider world, whether at local tertiary institutions or among civil servant scholars, translate to risk-averse mentalities when these students eventually graduate and begin working.

In the private sector, for example, few local businesses would be inclined to expand into emerging markets such as India or Africa if they do not know much about them. Even for the few who do venture forth, they face the challenge of convincing investors, business partners and bank personnel of the rationality and viability of their expansion plans, especially if these individuals are also unfamiliar with these emerging markets.

Similar challenges afflict our public sector. One, it may be difficult to persuade Singaporeans to accept overseas postings to “non-traditional” countries. Two, familiarity only with the developed West may bias a policy-maker’s holistic assessment of the rapidly changing global order, or prejudice an officer’s risk assessment regarding security concerns of certain non-Western countries.

Mr Andrew Cheong, 26, is a PSC scholar who did his degree at Peking University and his Masters at Yale University. He acknowledged that the quality of teaching at Yale was certainly more rigorous, and being there gave him opportunities to take classes with practitioners such as US General Stanley McChrystal, who led US troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, Mr Cheong also noted many institutional blindspots in the Ivy League institution that he would not have noticed had he not previously spent four years in Beijing.

He shared with me that while it was great to interact with people of influence, it was also a reminder of how easy it was to think from the perspective of a great power with little understanding of the perspectives of the world beyond.

In contrast, Mr Cheong’s time at Peking University forced him to confront many ideas that he initially had problems accepting, as the perspectives he encountered there are not those shared by the Anglophone media he normally consumes. For example, it took him some time to understand why his Chinese professors and classmates were so supportive of China’s increasing aggression in the international arena even when they recognised the potential risk of conflict.

Another thing that struck him was the very informal and dynamic way that things got done in the country that made use of social networks and bureaucratic loopholes.

“In both cases, an understanding of their historical points of reference, cultural norms and the nuances of social interaction helped give insight into what initially appeared to me to be inexplicable, irrational attitudes,” he explained.

Mr Cheong’s experience shows that venturing off oft-trodden paths in the US and Europe is crucial to ensuring that Singaporeans do not get trapped in Western-centric modes of thinking.

As for Ms Yoong, the 25-year-old has just graduated from the American University in Cairo.

“After two years in Egypt, I feel like I have obtained an intimate knowledge of the Middle East and North Africa region, as well as the ability to navigate unpredictable and unforeseen circumstances,” she said.

She looks forward to returning to Singapore and contributing to building a diverse and adaptable public service that does not shy away from the unknown.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Koh Choon Hwee, a PhD student in the US, has studied in Singapore, India, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Vietnam, Mexico and Japan thanks to grants from the National University of Singapore and other institutions.

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