Former DPM Tony Tan’s foreign-talent-first Singaporeans-second university admission policy
Just today, news broke that former DPM Tony Tan has not ruled out a presidential run to succeed President SR Nathan. Although he did not say he might be running for President, he has refused to rule it out either. What should Singaporeans make of his possible candidacy? To answer this question it might be helpful to shed some light on his record on one specific aspect.
For over two decades, Dr Tony Tan oversaw university education as its Minister-in-charge. In the late 1990s, the Singapore government convened a panel, under the direction of DPM Dr Tony Tan to re-examine university admission criteria. One of the pressing problems seen by the government at the time was that Singapore’s low birth rate, in part caused by misguided eugenics population policies, had resulted in fewer and fewer graduates entering universities. As reported in the Straits Times on 1st August 1997:
* 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.
The panel was set up in 1998 and held its first meeting on 17th April 1998. Although Dr Tony Tan was not on the panel, he was the minister overall in charge of it. Apart from the projected shortage of skilled graduates, one of the other reasons for reviewing university admission criteria was to address the perception that it was almost entirely academic based with no consideration for extra-curricular achievements. The other, seemingly innocuous goal, was to transform the local universities of NUS and NTU into world-class universities.
Right from the start in 1998, Dr Tony Tan ruled that a policy which limits foreigners or protects Singaporean students and graduates was not on the table:
One student had asked if the Government would implement policies that would protect Singaporeans facing competition from foreigners, for jobs as well as university places.
Dr Tan answered: “There is no way in which you are going to be able to protect either Singaporeans or Singapore because we are a small country.
“We don’t set prices. We are a price-taker, not a price-setter,” he said on Thursday.
In a similar vein with Minister George Yeo, who rebutted MP Tan Cheng Bock later in 1999 on grounds that Singapore should not adopt Singaporeans first policy when it came to jobs, DPM Tony Tan was adamant that Singaporeans should not get preferential treatment whether competing for jobs or places in local universities.
Fast-forward a year later, when it was becoming apparent that Singapore still needed more graduates to service its economy lest economic growth slows, a report appeared in the Straits Times questioning if the government should increase the intake of university students at local universities NTU and NUS due to an increasing number of Singaporean students who were unable to qualify for local university, and had to resort to expensive educational opportunities overseas, the vast majority of them being polytechnic graduates who had been shut out of local universities without being told a good reason why (given the non-transparent nature of university admission critierion):
Overseas education counsellors say most Singaporeans go abroad because they cannot get into the local universities and the bulk of them – about 60 per cent – are polytechnic diploma holders. Some 65 per cent of those who went to British universities last year were polytechnic graduates. The comparative figures for Australia and the US were 80 per cent and 15 per cent respectively. Another 20 to 30 per cent are A-level holders who do not meet NUS and NTU admission criteria. The rest head overseas on scholarships.
To make matters worse, it was becoming apparent that Singapore was losing talent because of this overseas brain drain. Taking the case of Tan Teck Chuan:
After completing his national service, he joined Ngee Ann Polytechnic where he began his winning streak, sweeping more than 10 book prizes, a scholarship and the first Tay Eng Soon gold medal for outstanding work as a diploma student in building services.
Then came decision time. He could wait for another eight months and try for a place at the National University of Singapore or the Nanyang Technological University.
If he clinched a place, it would mean studying for another four years as he would not be allowed to skip the first year because his polytechnic course was not considered relevant.
His other option: Go to Cardiff University and aim for an honours degree in two years.
NUS and NTU do not reveal how they calculate the entry points for polytechnic graduates, but Mr Tan knew that besides his polytechnic grades, his O-level results and work experience would be taken into account. On that basis, he did not rate his chances highly.
On the other hand, he had a firm offer from Cardiff, one of the top five universities in mechanical engineering in Britain.
The choice was clear, but the two-year stint in Wales did not come cheap though – $60,000 to be exact.
At the end of it all, Teck Chuan said that he wished he had a chance at local universities:
Although he appreciated the value of the overseas exposure, Mr Tan told Insight he wished that Singapore had given him and others like him the opportunity to pursue tertiary education here – at less cost to himself and his family.
“People ask me why was I not satisfied with a poly diploma. But let’s face it, in Singapore, what counts is a degree.
“And by the end of my poly course, I knew I had the ability to do a degree in two or three years, so I don’t see why I don’t deserve that shot at a university degree – right here at home.”
To be clear, Teck Chuan was not just one out of a few Singaporeans who missed out opportunities at local universities. The articles goes on to say that UK universities usually found that Singaporeans were model students:
Officials of Leeds, Glasgow, Leicester and Loughborough Universities note that Singaporeans are model students who pass with first class or second-upper honours.
The University of Glasgow alone had 20 first class and 40 second-upper class honours among the graduating batch of Singaporeans last year.
Tony Tan’s role
Here is where DPM Tony Tan’s role came into play. DPM Tan said that while more graduates are needed to keep the economy going (a shortfall of graduates was expected even if NTU and NUS increased their intake), but that increasing the intake was ruled out for fear that it might “lower their standards” and cause them to become “unmanageable”. His solution? Part of it was to instead increase the intake of foreign students from overseas (similar to overseas recruitment, no?) so as to retain education standards, done probably in part to ensure NUS and NTU were seen as world class education institutions which foreigners would flock to:
Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan revealed in Parliament that projections by the Ministry of Trade and Industry indicated that Singapore needed 17,000 graduates a year to service its economy.
With an intake of about 10,000 or 11,000 to NUS and NTU, there would still be a shortfall.
He ruled out expanding the intake at NUS and NTU, saying that it could lower their standards and cause them to become unmanageable “mega-universities”.
The better options were to increase the number of tertiary-level institutions and recruit students from overseas.
In other words, if one is looking to blame any minister for the huge influx of foreign students in local Singapore universities and the huge brain drain of polytechnic graduates who leave for overseas university education (who are unfairly penalised due to consideration of ‘O’ Level grades), DPM Tony Tan appears to be the minister responsible.
In his quest to ensure the Singapore economy had enough graduates to keep it going and while also trying to boost local university standards and international appeal, DPM Tony Tan set in motion the policy which discriminated against local students in favour of foreign students who, in some apparent cases are not able to qualify for their own country’s competitive university entrance exams.
Is this not a clear case of putting foreign students ahead of locals? All in the name of boosting the image of NUS/NTU over that of the locals. To make matters worse, CPF money cannot be used for education overseas. Polytechnic students who had to go overseas or resort to expensive college education through distance learning have DPM Tony Tan to thank for putting foreign students overseas ahead of locals.
It would not be the least bit suprising if it eventually emerged that DPM Tony Tan was the brains behind the policy which explicitly invites foreign students fully sponsored by the Singapore government (and its taxpayers) to study in NUS/NTU and offers them a PR (without the obligation of National Service) upon graduation. Such an ill thought policy marginalises local talents and swells the ranks of non-committed PRs who are in Singapore only as a stepping stone to overseas universities. Here’s an account by a forumer of how such a reverse-discriminatory policy worked.
Now DPM Tony Tan says he might run for President. Well when the voting comes, Singaporeans should keep in mind the above.