Singapore Armchair Critic

A blog about politics and policies in Singapore and beyond

Category: Singapore Identity

Explaining the Dearth of Singaporean Academics in our Universities

One oft-cited argument in defense of a high percentage of foreign faculty and students in Singapore universities is “global competitiveness,” which is, presumably, measured by the ranking of our local universities in the world.

Our top local university, the National University of Singapore (NUS), currently ranks 22nd in the 2013 World Reputation Rankings published by the Times Higher Education (THE).

Let’s look at how much the internationalization of NUS’s faculty and students contributes to its 22nd position.

THE ranking uses 13 indicators grouped under five categories. You can see from below that “International outlook” is worth only 7.5% out of the overall score of 100% (see methodology).

  • Teaching: the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)
  • Research: volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)
  • Citations: research influence (worth 30 per cent)
  • Industry income: innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)
  • International outlook: staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).

Out of the 7.5%, the ratio of international to domestic students is worth only 2.5%; same for the ratio of international to domestic staff. This means no matter how “internationalized” the university is in terms of its foreign faculty and student community, the university can only get a maximum score of 5 percentage points out of 100. Continue reading…

Ilo Ilo: A Portrait of an Ordinary Singaporean Family in Adversity

Although the name of the first Singapore film I watched in a cinema eludes me, the experience has endured: I still remember how enthralling and magical it was, to see on the silver screen familiar sights and scenes of Singapore, and to hear characters speaking like locals do.

This excitement induced by novelty, however, quickly fizzled out.

Since then, sadly, the Singapore feature film has more or less degenerated into formulaic facsimiles, like the surfeit of indistinguishable shopping malls that have sprung up in our heartlands. Take a local setting, cast familiar faces who can deliver lines in Singlish or a mix of languages and dialects, throw in the occasional anodyne snipe at the government (or a ghost or two) and, lo and behold, you have the ingredients for a top-grossing local film. Never mind the weak plot, banal jokes, and lackluster or over-the-top acting.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that you can’t find local elements in Anthony Chen’s award-winning debut feature film Ilo Ilo. On the contrary, Ilo Ilo has a realistic late 1990s’ Singapore setting painstakingly re-created under the keen supervision of Chen: his team visited some 500 HDB flats before finally locating one with the specific door grilles and flooring that he wanted.

But unlike other Singapore productions in which a pastiche of local elements is foregrounded and often supplants the story, those that permeate Ilo Ilo are subtly embedded to serve and strengthen the narrative, to the extent that a reviewer comments: “Except for the Tamagotchi toys Jia Le plays with, the late-’90s period background is de-emphasized.”

The late 1990s milieu may appear nondescript to an outsider but is fondly recognizable to a local who has lived through the period. Says a crew member, “Every tiny thing in Anthony’s films is thought through, nothing is accidental.” Continue reading…

What Makes a Great City

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“There is a certain something in the air, in the look and in the sound of Paris, that cannot be found anywhere else.” George Sand

I am back from my sojourn in Paris, a place I knew I would miss dearly even before my return to Singapore. My friend tried to console me, “Maybe you’ll bring back a new perspective; a new way of looking at your city.”

During my month-long stay in Paris, my dormant right brain had taken over and I had not been keeping up with what’s going on in Singapore, which explains why my blog was growing cobwebs. On the long flight home I tried to remind myself what I love about the place where I was born and bred: the people dear to me, the luscious greenery, the beautiful shophouses, a good, thick cup of kopi, the safe environment, and my relatively cushy job.

But the more I delved into it, the more I realized what’s missing in Singapore Continue reading…

A Singaporean Core?: What Defines a Singaporean (II)

About a week ago I was looking through the Population White Paper and was greatly perturbed by the missing definition of a “Singaporean core.”

Like many of us, I am concerned about a “diluted” Singaporean identity with the proposed influx of new migrants each year: according to the projected target, “Singaporeans” — which includes a substantial number of new citizens — only make up half the total population by 2030.

As I was trying to tabulate the number of “true blue” Singaporeans, i.e. those who are born and raised in Singapore, I was stumped. Continue reading…

Seeing through Colored Lenses: How Singaporeans View the SMRT Strike

Around end November when Singapore saw its first strike in 26 years by 171 SMRT bus drivers from China, another seemingly innocuous incident, also centering on the beleaguered train service provider, stirred some disquiet among the Singapore community.

An Indian reader and a Malay reader wrote separate letters to the press questioning SMRT’s recent move to announce station names in Mandarin, on top of the usual announcements in English, the lingua franca of multi-ethnic Singapore. SMRT’s explanation that it was acting on “public suggestions” to announce station names in Mandarin riled netizens, including native Chinese who make up 74% of the population.

Surmising that this was a move to accommodate the growing community of non-English speaking Chinese from China, netizens seethed at the slight to Singapore’s racial equality and the alienation of its minority races:

Singapore is turning into a mini China, isn’t it? And as a Singaporean Chinese myself, I would say, please spare me the mandarin announcements! It’s a total turn-off!

…We locals, young and old regardless of race and educational level have learnt and accepted the English announcements, why can’t these newcomers? We are a city-state, not a Chinese state.

Continue reading…

The Meaning of Citizenship

A survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in 2012 asks Singapore-born citizens and foreign-born citizens what it takes for immigrants to be considered “Singaporean.” And this issue marks the widest divergence in the opinion of the two groups: sending one’s children to serve National Service (NS). Whereas 69% of Singapore-born citizens take this as a yardstick that qualifies immigrants to be Singaporeans, only 43% of foreign-born citizens think so.

Why do Singapore-born citizens think sending one’s son(s) to serve NS is such an integral part of being Singaporean? Because it entails sacrifices and risks on the part of the young man and his family. Not only does it take up two years of a young man’s life; it also means going through some hardship and perhaps getting injured in training. And although we live in peaceful times, there is still the possibility that Singaporean men may be conscripted in the event that war breaks out.

For sure, we can opt to leave this country and give up our citizenship. But because we are born and bred here and bonded by ties to our family and friends, uprooting is easier said than done. For those of us who stay put, it is a sacrifice we make or simply a duty we perform. It is part and parcel of being Singaporean and the ultimate test in one’s commitment to be a Singaporean.

So naturally we apply the same yardstick to immigrants who choose to come to Singapore and take up citizenship. Continue reading…

What Defines a Singaporean?

Two mainland Chinese were caught sitting in the first class compartment on a Hong Kong train although they had only paid the normal fare. When the ticket inspector explained to the fare dodgers that they each had to pay a HKD500 fine, the male passenger hollered, “Get your leader to come over! (叫你們的領導過來!)”. The ticket inspector coolly riposted, “Sorry but what we have here is a system, not a leader! (對不起,這裡只有制度,沒有領導!)”. And he proceeded to make the fare dodgers pay the due fine (source).

If I were a Hong Konger, this episode would fill me with pride. A Hong Kong ticket inspector stood his grounds and defended an important distinction between Hong Kong and mainland China – a respect for and adherence to established rules and regulations that cannot be circumvented through guanxi (關係, literally “relations”), i.e. who you know.

This anecdote also set me thinking: how would we Singaporeans respond in the same situation? Confronted by a brash and cocky foreigner challenging our norms and values, would we be able to hold our heads high and defend what is important to us? Continue reading…

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