By Ian Chong
In all honesty, I find the current attention on the proportion of foreign faculty in Singapore a little curious. My general observation is that few universities have faculty members from their local area. I dare say a majority of faculty at universities in New York City are unlikely to be born and raised in the city. The same probably applies whether you look at universities in the Bay Area, London, Canberra, or even Beijing. PhDs tend to be rare in any given population. The relatively few Singaporeans in our universities may simply be a reflection of this phenomenon, which may appear especially apparent in a place with a relatively small population.
Likely making Singaporean faculty members even more of a rarity may be the fact that social sciences and humanities traditionally take a backseat to disciplines in engineering and the sciences here. Even if this situation changes immediately, its effects are unlikely to be evident on faculties for some time yet. Doctorates in the humanities and social sciences take a notoriously long time–anywhere between four to seven years. Students in secondary school will have to move up through the education system, possibly even work for a few years, before entering and completing a doctoral programme.
When it comes to political science, my own discipline, it may be useful to consider the reticence Singaporeans display towards “politics” and the “political”, particularly outside kopitiams and gatherings of family and friends–perhaps until recently. Getting a PhD in political science and then choosing to work in a university usually means deciding on a career that focuses on politics and the political. This may be a reason why political science is less popular among Singaporeans, especially when it comes to getting a doctorate. Of course, this begs the question, why certain subjects that are pretty standard, even highly popular in other university contexts do no have the same standing in Singapore.
As a member of one of the departments singled out as having few Singaporean faculty, I note that no one seemed to have asked what faculty members and students think about faculty make-up on research and learning. Professionally, I think a person’s place of origin is far less important than their ability to add to the intellectual life of a department. This includes not just research and publishing. Helping students to think and actively contribute to society in various ways are no less important. There is no inherent reason why place of origin makes a faculty member better or worse suited to these tasks. This should apply to any discipline in the humanities and social sciences.
Outside the university context, Jack Chia and Carissa Kang make the fair point that, “Singaporeans simply cannot expect foreign intellectuals to engage politicians, lobby for social reforms, and advocate for the preservation of cultural heritage on their behalf. Rather, Singapore needs to nurture its own Singaporean intelligentsias [sic] and play a more proactive role in attracting talent back home.” Read “Whare are my country (wo)men?“. Their paper is also useful in pointing out the obstacles that Singaporean graduate students perceive about working in Singapore after graduation.
Behind Chia and Kang’s statement is a question about the role of academics and the university in Singapore, and perhaps any society. I do not see non-local places of origin as an intrinsic and unsurmountable impediment to broader civic participation. However, I believe contractual obligations limit the ability of expatriate faculty members from weighing in on “political” issues in Singapore. I could, of course, be wrong about this last point and would be grateful for any clarification otherwise.
The above are separate issues from compensation and benefits, which come down to how much a university values employing a faculty member regardless of national origin. Singaporeans who do good work may be as employable locally as anywhere else in the world. Any university that wishes to retain such faculty will need to be competitive with other prospective employers.