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S’pore universities’ foreign talent policies need to change

Much recent discussion has focused on the declining percentage of Singaporean faculty in the university system.

NUS is reintroducing industry attachments for all engineering and computing students and revamping the general education curriculum to enhance the education experience. TODAY FILE PHOTO

NUS is reintroducing industry attachments for all engineering and computing students and revamping the general education curriculum to enhance the education experience. TODAY FILE PHOTO

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Much recent discussion has focused on the declining percentage of Singaporean faculty in the university system.

During the Budget debate in March, Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng commented on the low percentage of Sing­aporeans in several departments at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). His remarks returned to a concern raised in previous years by other politicians and generated further responses from academics and university administrators.

The issue is a real one: While more than half of current tenured faculty in the university system are Singaporean, Singaporeans now constitute only a quarter of early-career academics on the tenure track at NUS and NTU.

Discussions are complicated by an overlapping and at times contradictory series of needs: Singaporeans’ need to feel that key national institutions value their presence, the need to develop the cosmopolitan ethos that is fundamental to both the universities’ and Singapore’s history, as well as a need for university faculty to be socially engaged at a time of urgent debate about Singapore’s future.

My experience as a visiting scholar in Canada over the past two years suggests that discussions may not be enough and should be supplemented by concrete policy changes.


I have spent the past two years on leave in Vancouver, associated with both the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University. Canadian universities, like our own, are mostly autonomous public institutions supported through government funding.

UBC in the past few decades has, like NUS, grown into a major international research university that maintains a public role of educating undergraduates. Canada, like Singapore, faces challenges in a global higher education market. The country shares a long border and a free trade agreement with the United States, a nation with a far larger population and higher education system. American and American-trained faculty can move easily to any part of Canada except Francophone Quebec. As in Singapore, Canadians would be concerned if the national or local ethos of the university and thus the university’s social role came under threat.

However, in contrast to Singapore, few local graduate students or faculty appear anxious about non-Canadian faculty at the university or feel that hiring processes are unfair to Canadians.

This attitude results from two policies that Canadian universities have adopted. In hiring, they have moved substantially further than the changes suggested in the Fair Consideration Framework to be introduced in Sing­apore next month.

To take effect on Aug 1, the framework requires firms that want to hire foreign professionals to first advertise for Singaporeans to fill the vacancies in a government-run job bank. However, this does not apply to firms with fewer than 25 staff, jobs paying a salary of above S$12,000 a month and rank-and-file jobs.

In Canada, academic job advertisements indicate that while all applications are welcomed, those from Canadian citizens and permanent residents are, all else being equal, given priority.

This provision does not prevent good non-Canadians from applying, being shortlisted or hired, but it has two positive effects. First, Canadian applicants are assured that the university values them. Second, the policy focuses search committees, even if they contain a minority of Canadians, on the importance of hiring Canadian faculty or faculty who already have a stake in Canadian society.

The second policy difference is in provision of housing for international faculty. Vancouver, like Singapore, has one of the most expensive housing markets in the world and its universities have become concerned that high property prices may deter applicants.

Unlike NUS or NTU, however, UBC has not built on-campus housing for international faculty. Instead, the university operates a scheme providing loans and mortgage assistance, open to all faculty irrespective of nationality, to purchase housing in the Metro Vancouver area. This allows international faculty to better integrate into the local community, with a good proportion of them eventually becoming permanent residents and citizens.

In contrast, most international faculty members at NUS and NTU are initially offered on-campus housing at a subsidised rate for a number of years, an option not offered to their Singaporean colleagues. This makes it more difficult for international faculty to integrate into Singapore society, since moving out means the loss of a substantial percentage of income, especially for junior faculty.

Campus housing for international faculty makes it much easier for “clustering” to occur in the first few years in Singapore. With non-Singaporean neighbours, international faculty are less likely to make lasting friendships with Singaporeans outside the workplace or to send their children to local schools. At its worst, such campus housing can foster an “us-versus-them” attitude, in which non-Singaporean faculty view the university’s shortcomings as Singaporean rather than institutional traits.


Both housing and hiring policies result from historical decisions that now should be revisited. On-campus housing for non-Singaporeans came into existence at Raffles College on the present-day Bukit Timah campus in the late 1920s, under a colonial regime of racial privilege. Hiring practices that result in few Singaporean junior faculty being employed are more recent, arguably dating from the period leading up to the corporatisation of the universities in 2005, when emphasis shifted from the university’s social mission to its role as a business.

Both policies produce behaviour that magnify their effects. A preliminary survey by Cornell University graduate students Jack Chia and Carissa Kang in the Kyoto Review Of Southeast Asia found that more than 80 per cent of Singaporean graduate students, whether abroad or in the Republic, answered “yes” or “maybe” when asked if they felt local universities prefer to hire non-Singaporeans.

Such a perception, whether true or not, discourages talented Singaporean faculty from applying to local universities. Conversely, most non-Singaporean faculty I have met are initially very interested in Singapore society. They want to learn more and to belong, but the experience of segregated housing for their first years in the country makes this belonging more difficult to achieve than it 
needs to be.

I came to Singapore 20 years ago as an assistant professor. I already had Singaporean friends; I wanted to be in Asia and was also committed to the ideals of multiculturalism, democracy and cosmopolitanism that I believed and still believe the Republic has the potential to realise. Over time, through dialogue and learning, I have come to research and teach Singapore literature and culture and to play a part in society beyond the university.

Policies inspired by the Canadian initiatives discussed above accord well with this experience: They come from a generous sense of what a nation might be, in which the university acknowledges its role in society and its responsibilities to its nation’s citizens, but also acts as a bridge, which individuals can cross, between different worlds.


Philip Holden, Professor of English at the National University of Singapore, has worked in Singapore academia for 20 years. The views expressed in this commentary are his own as an educator, and do not reflect those of the University.

CORRECTION: The original article said a preliminary survey of Singaporean graduate students was conducted by Columbia University graduate students Jack Chia and Carissa Kang. This is incorrect. Mr Chia and Ms Kang are from Cornell University. We apologise for the error. This article was updated at 7.30pm on July 3.

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