What has Chiam See Tong done for university education?
I refer to this article What has Tony Tan done for university education? by Luke Ng posted to Temasek Review. The writer makes several misleading claims which are addressed below.
Luke Ng asks if universities which reserve special places for students ever did well for their international standing, and if whether graduates of such universities ever discovered that no one recognises their degree. For this, he needs to look no further than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
MIT is a well-known prestigious technological university in the US. MIT has a quota of 8% for international students. Contrast this with Singapore universities, where foreign students may take up to 20% of each intake. Unlike NTU/NUS, MIT is a fully private university which has every right not to restrict international students to a measly 8% quota. But yet it does. NUS/NUS on the other hand, are public, which though corporatised, do not enjoy the same degree of autonomy as MIT does. Yet, year after year, MIT ranks among the top five universities in the world.
Currently MIT’s undergraduate student population comprises of 400 international students out of a total of 4299 undergraduates, which amounts to 9.3%, slightly higher than the stated 8% quota (likely due to discretionary admission criteria). Again this is far lower than Singapore’s 20% quota.
Luke then says that Dr Tony Tan was the one who helped to set up NTI. This is true. But note also that Tony Tan was also in charge of merging University of Singapore and Nantah to form NUS (The Straits Times, 25 April 1980). In effect this amounted to a closure of Nantah.
It’s simple arithmetic to note that -1 + 1 = 0. Setting up NTI only helped to “undo” the effect of closing down Nantah; NTI was not set up as an additional new university as Luke appear to have implied. Why couldn’t the government have expanded Nantah instead of closing it down and setting up a new university?
Luke says that Dr Tony Tan pushed to expand university places for Singapore students. This is only partially correct. In truth, Tony Tan was a latecomer to the idea that university places should be expanded or that new universities should be set up. Who first made the call to set up another university?
It was none other than long-time former opposition MP Chiam See Tong.
SET up another university if a bigger pool of talent is needed, said Mr Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir) yesterday. This would increase the number of graduates, he said, citing Dr Albert Winsemius, the economist, as an advocate of the idea of having a second university in Singapore.
Chiam reiterated his call for another university six months later in September (ST 2nd Sept 1985). In addition, in 1988 Chiam said that university places should be increased to provide Singaporeans with better chances of getting a degree:
Earlier, Mr Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir) said it was not “excellence in education” if 50 per cent of NUS applicants did not get a place. He felt that everyone who wanted a university education should have a chance to get “a training of the mind”.
Guess who objected to Chiam’s call to expand university intake? Dr Tony Tan.
But Dr Tan disagreed with Mr Chiam’s suggestion that the NUS should throw open its doors and let in students to improve their minds, and not worry about whether they can find work later. The government would be doing a disservice to the students if they could not get jobs later, he said.
A month later in March 1988, Chiam again called for another university to be set up (NTI was not yet a full-fledged university). This time Chiam also argued against stringent faculty quotas, saying that the government should not artificially limit places in certain faculties. Again Dr Tony Tan slapped down that call:
Urging a freer intake of students at the National University of Singapore, he said the Government should not impose a limit on the number who can do a popular course like medicine and ask them to do engineering instead.
Education Minister Tony Tan said the Nanyang Technological Institute would be developed into a technical university in the future, so there would be two universities. But he disagreed that the Medical Faculty should be expanded and the Engineering Faculty shrunk, just because more students wanted to be come doctors.
Mr Chiam interjected from his seat that market forces should be allowed to prevail, but Dr Tan replied: “I’m a great believer in market forces, but not at the expense of the careers of young people.”
(For those who remember, the hard cap on medical student admission of course, was further throttled in the early 1990s, leading to a great shortage of doctors in Singapore. It was not until 1997 that the problem was finally recognised by the government.)
In 1989, Chiam called for a third university to be set up, saying that many Singaporean students had no choice but to travel overseas for their university education. Yet again Dr Tony Tan cautioned that a third university would have to wait, saying that it’s better to upgrade NTI than to start a new university.
THREE MPs who yesterday urged Education Minister Dr Tony Tan to start a third university here were told that the priority (or the next tew years would be to upgrade the Nanyang Technological Institute to a full university by 1991.
Dr Tan said when the Nanyang Technological University is ready, it would be providing more university places. He added: “Until that is done, we would not proceed with the third university. We have to do this step by step in order to make sure that all the universities which we establish will be proper ones, universities which we would be proud of.”
Fast forward to 1996, Chiam again called for universities to expand their intake. Then education minister Lee Yock Suan slapped down that call:
SINGAPORE’S two universities and four polytechnics together provide enough places for about 60 per cent of each year’s cohort of students – one of the highest rates in the world, said Education Minister Lee Yock Suan yesterday.
These six institutes have enough places for students who wish to pursue a tertiary education here, he said in reply to calls by Mr Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir) and Mr Umar Abdul Hamid (Ang Mo Kio GRC) to increase the number of university places.
However a year later in 1997, something unexpected happened. Dr Tony Tan who was then DPM revealed that Singapore faced an acute shortage of graduates:
Quite a number of Singaporeans must have said ‘I told you so’ when Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan revealed that Singapore would be short of graduates – by about 7,000 a year from the year 2000. Why were manpower planners so wide off the mark? What could have accounted for the sudden demand?
Did the number crunchers crash at the stalls? After all, what Dr Tan’s announcement really means is that Singapore is short of that many undergraduates right now.
His speech took many by surprise, as, in only the previous Budget debate in March last year, then Education Minister Lee Yock Suan slapped down calls from two MPs to increase the number of university places, saying there were enough places for students who wished to pursue tertiary education here.
In that debate, opposition MP Chiam See Tong and then PAP MP Umar Abdul Hamid called on the minister to increase the number of university places.
Indeed, the Government has long resisted pressure from parents and prospective students to open up the tertiary system, saying it was concerned about maintaining academic standards and a good fit between demand and supply of new graduates.
What was Tony Tan’s solution to the acute shortage of graduates? A previous post on this gave the answer. It was none other than to do as Chiam suggested, to increase the intake of students at local universities and to allow more foreign graduates in to alleviate the shortage caused by the government’s own repeated refusals to expand intake.
* MORE GRADUATES NEEDED: Singapore will not have enough graduates to service the economy in the year 2000, and steps will have to be taken to boost the intake at the universities here, while attracting more graduates from abroad as well, said Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan, who oversees university education.
In short, DPM Tony Tan and future education ministers repeatedly rebutted calls to set up a new university or for existing universities to expand their intake. It was none other than long time opposition MP Chiam See Tong whose calls to build more universities or to expand intake at local universities which repeatedly fell on deaf ears, until it was apparent that Singapore lacked graduates and had to import foreign talent to make up the shortfall.
Tony Tan vs. Chiam on foreign student tuition fees
As an opposition MP in 1987, Chiam clashed with Dr Tony Tan on the issue of foreign students in Singapore universities. Then, Chiam questioned if the Singapore government was too generous to foreign students in subsidising their tuition fees.
Mr Chiam had remarked that in many countries, local university students were given almost free or cheap education while foreign students were charged 10 times the amount.
What was Tony Tan’s answer to Chiam? Again Tony Tan rebutted Chiam saying that foreign students helped to “broaden the outlook” of local undergraduates.
Dr Tan, in pointing out why we would not like to have fees for foreign students fixed at so high a rate that “very bright talented students” are prevented from joining the universities here, said:
“In addition to supplementing our own talent pool. I think that they are a benefit to our own university students. I have explained on many previous occasions that with all our students coming from the same type of social and home backgrounds, it is useful for them to mix with students from other countries — students who have had other experiences of life — so that it will broaden their outlook.”
Tony Tan vs. NCMP Lee Siew Choh on funding tertiary education with budget surpluses
In 1991, as education minister Dr Tony Tan dismissed former long-time opposition Barisan leader NCMP Lee Siew Choh’s suggestion to use budget surplus to fund tertiary education, preferring instead that students paid for their education (ST 8th May 1991, Dangerous to use surplus funds for education : Dr Tan)
Dr Tony Tan yesterday dismissed the suggestion to use the Government’s huge surpluses to pay for education costs as “very dangerous philosophy”.
Noting that the surpluses had been accumulated by a very thrifty and hardworking generation of Singaporeans, the Education Minister said: “Looking at all our vast surpluses, it appears to us that there is no limit and that we can spend on anything we like.
“But believe you me, it only takes a few years to spend what your fathers and your forefathers have earned.”
He was replying to Non-Constituency MP Lee Siew Choh who had asked why the surpluses could not be used to fund education and cited the provision of free tertiary education in some Western countries.
Dr Tan said he did not believe that a free education would result in a better education system.
Where do the surpluses go to then? They are invested by GIC, which Dr Tony Tan would later head as Deputy Chairman. Doesn’t the government regard education a form of investment? Or would they rather invest it overseas than in Singapore’s students?