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Former DPM Tony Tan’s foreign-talent-first Singaporeans-second university admission policy

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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.


Written by defennder

June 8, 2011 at 5:12 PM

Posted in Singapore affairs

36 Responses

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  1. For some reason I couldn’t leave a reply on the Tan Cheng Bock vs George Yeo post, so I’m commenting here instead. It’s notable how George Yeo draws a false dichotomy between ‘being friends’ with foreigners and taking care of Singaporeans. And he accuses Tan of making an ’emotional line of attack’ when he himself appeals to emotions (‘are you so selfish as to abandon your foreign friends?’) to make his point. This reminds of his ridiculous ’emotional dilemma’ remarks when he was fighting for his seat in Aljunied.

    Ponder Stibbons

    June 8, 2011 at 9:03 PM

  2. Thanks for reminding us, that these very rich people in PAP don’t have the ordinary Singaporean’s at heart. Cannot blame them too. Tony was born with silver spoon in mouth..the rest of ministers used him as a model and want to get as rich as him quickly.

    Alex Xia

    June 8, 2011 at 9:34 PM

  3. […] in a Strange Land – Furry Brown Dog: Former DPM Tony Tan’s foreign-talent-first Singaporeans-second university admission policy – Diary of A Singaporean Mind: PM Cameron on UK’s immigration […]

  4. Great article again Furry and keep up the good writing…


    June 9, 2011 at 1:01 PM

  5. I do not agree or support everything that PAP throws at us, but when it comes to education, I feel that your article may be a little unfair to the government and the PAP.

    From what I know, about 80% of places in the local universities go to locals. The balance, thereabouts, goes to foreigners. Please correct me if I am wrong here. To me, this is a good composition, as it gives the university an “international” flavor for the undergraduates. I once read, that university rankings also have international student base as one of its criteria as well. Had the universities recruited only locals for its undergraduate programmes, then the exposure for the undergraduates at the university will fall. If the universities indiscriminately enroll more local undergads, the education quality at the university will also need to be adjusted downwards to meet the abilities of the undergraduates as well. This would have affected the universities’ international ranking and lead to another whole list of issues.

    Look at it another way. Instead of seeing it as 80% for locals, the university has “100%” of places meant for locals. But after factoring the places for locals, it then opens another 20% of places for international students. This helps to ensure that the universities have a good international reputation and standing without compromising on the places that were already meant for locals.

    Tan Teck Chuan was cited as an example in your article. Unfortunately, it seems he did not apply for NUS or NTU, so it is not fair to conclude that he would not be accepted by the local universities. It is “on the basis that he did not rate his chances highly” that he went abroad to study. So whether he would be accepted by the local institutions cannot be determined.

    I find the argument of “boosting the image of NUS/NTU over the locals” somewhat misconceived. If NUS/NTU does not command international recognition and respect, then the locals who graduate from these universities would also suffer. Would Beijing University or Tokyo University or any of the ivy league universities open its doors to all and sundry in their respective countries regardless of the students’ academic qualities? Every reputable university will have their “cut-off” when selecting candidates.

    I agree that perhaps more can be done to address the aspirations and needs of those who fail to enter into NUS/NTU… a factor that might have caused many to seek university education abroad. But to increase the places offered in our nation’s premier universities would only dilute the quality and image that the universities have spent so many years building up. Maybe more tertiary institutes can be built to address this?? I believe this is what Tony Tan meant too.


    June 9, 2011 at 1:37 PM

  6. Anyway… No matter how…
    NO NO NO ex-PAP, pro-PAP, PAP-related presidential candidate will get my vote.
    We really need real check and balance. NO freak or fake alternative voice in parliament like NMP, NCMP and the stupid GRC.

    Daft Singaporean

    June 9, 2011 at 5:53 PM

  7. Y:

    Nobody is suggesting that international students be barred from NUS and NTU. The unhappiness is over the following:
    1) The vast majority of these students are on taxpayer-funded scholarships; while many low-income Singaporeans find it much more difficult to get scholarships. Many local students have to work part-time to pay for their university education. While you might think that the international students are ‘better’ and thus more deserving of scholarships, this is an assertion that needs to be backed up with evidence. There is no transparency at al about the quality of international students being admitted vis-a-vis local students
    2) It’s not clear that the international students who are admitted are clearly better than the local students who are rejected and forced to go overseas. Again, this is an issue of fairness that needs an explicit defence. The government can’t just assert that this is the case and expect people to believe them, especially when so many of the local rejects go on to do very well overseas.
    3) It’s not obvious that increasing the places offered will ‘dilute the quality and image’ of the universities. Why is there an assumption that poly grads (for example) will be below the average quality of current students? I see many people implicitly assuming this, but as far as I can tell there is no evidence for this assertion, again particularly since many of these poly grads flourish overseas. The obvious reply would be ‘but the places at which they flourish are lousier’, but this needs to be backed up by evidence.
    4) Many people think the government has a special responsibility to favour local students over foreigners, simply because it is locals who have been paying taxes throughout their lives to support local universities. I think this is a fair demand, and it has been implemented as standard practice elsewhere without any detriment to university reputation. For example, public universities in the UK and the US typically offer much lower fees to local students, and it is also much harder for international students to get financial aid there. In contrast, Singapore seems to go the opposite direction and make available more local study scholarships for foreigners than for Singaporeans. It is also worth investigating if the difficulty of admission is different for locals and for foreigners. In the US, is is much harder for foreigners to get admitted.
    5) There are widespread anecdotes of bond-breaking on the part of foreign students. We have no information on the rate at which this happens and how many of them actually pay the liquidated damages, instead of simply disappearing overseas. If the high rate of bond-breaking is a reality, then the offering of scholarships as a mechanism of talent attraction has to be re-examined.
    6) There is a widespread perception that many if not most of these foreign students merely see a Singapore degree as their stepping stone to a richer country. Again, if this is true, then there are implications for scholarships as a mechanism of talent attraction. Nobody wants Singapore to act merely as a cheap stopover point for foreign students who intend to settle elsewhere. Again, because there is no transparency, we have no idea whether this is really a cause for concern. If it is not, the government ought to release statistics showing how it isn’t, otherwise unhappiness will continue to fester.

    Ponder Stibbons

    June 9, 2011 at 9:09 PM

  8. I think it is important to note that most of the 20% foreigners are on fully paid scholarships to NUS/NTU where the students also receive a monthly stipend as spending money where their only requirement is that they work in Singapore for at least 3 years post-graduation. THis is in contrast to local students who have to pay their own way.

    Mind you, this is out of Govt coffers – yours and my tax money. US/UK uni scholarships are mainly given out by private entities.

    In a bid to go out of its way to attract foreigners, they have created an unlevel playing field


    June 9, 2011 at 10:01 PM

  9. Ponder Stibbons:
    All in friendly debate, yes? 
    I agree more needs to be done. But I feel that NUS and NTU local admission numbers should not have a sudden and significant increase just to cater to all locals. Opening up of additional universities can be an option. Promotion of some polytechnics to be universities is another. But allow me to respond to some of your points, which I would like to add, is fair although I do not fully agree with them all.

    1.1 Unless you refer to the tuition grants as “scholarships”, it is my understanding that not that many are under scholarships compared to the entire international student population. Tuition grants are given to all locals, so there is no difference. But birds of a feather flock together. If you see a scholar, likely you will see other scholars too as they tend to be together, which may give that impression that there are many of them.

    1.2 I do not think that international students are necessarily better than locals. So no arguments there.

    2. As I mentioned, it is a matter of perspective. You can also look at it as the university setting the number of local places to offer first. Then based on that open a few more % of places for international students. Comparing local students qualifications with international students qualifications is an apple/orange situation. It cannot be compared, hence should not be taken that locals are deemed to be of lower quality compared to foreign students.

    3. In some ways I agree with your statement here. Yet, I go back to pt 2 above. And also where do we draw the line. The universities do take in poly grads now. There will always be a situation where people don’t meet the cut off. Lower that cut off to accommodate and the next lower group of poly grads will clamour for places at the NUS/NTU. Where does it stop. Extrapolate it further and we might just get a situation where all ITE grads are guaranteed places at NUS/NTU too. Its far fetched, but just highlighting a point.

    4.1 I agree with you that many other countries, foreign students need to pay more. This is something I think the govt should look into and, I believe they have already started differentiating fees between locals, PRs and international students.

    4.2 I do not fully agree that in the US, it is more difficult to gain entry. From my observations, it seems that they are lax in offering entry into their programs. Except, getting the necessary study visa is the challenge instead.

    5. Yes, there seems to be bond breakers around. I don’t know the extent of this, so I will not challenge this point. Though, if I may add, we can also look at scholarships as being like venture capitalists putting money into new start ups. The rate of failure is high. But if these are really the cream of the crop, the chance of them succeeding in life is higher. Hopefully they will remember Singapore and the university, and contribute back to us in the manner they can. I do agree that the mechanism of scholarship selection probably need a lot of re-look at, and the govt needs to delve deeper than grades to select appreciative scholars too. That said, I also think that some of our local scholars are equally guilty of bond breaking, and our local scholar selection also needs improvement too.


    June 9, 2011 at 10:54 PM

  10. Ponder Stibbons
    Hi thanks for commenting. Would like to note that the other blog was created for the sole purpose of hosting and preserving articles which I come across. There’s no original content over there, so I decided to disable all comments on that website. It’s my personal preference that comments are discussed over here in this blog rather than over there. With regards to that exchange between George Yeo and Tan Cheng Bock, a later TNP article clarified TCB’s views on this.

    You can see that all TCB wanted was for Singaporeans to be given priority during recessions, not for it to shut the door completely. For that he was taken to task by various ministers including George Yeo and Lee Kuan Yew who rebuked him. That tells you something very interesting about the mentality of the Cabinet. They have all but ruled out a Singaporeans first policy. George Yeo is clearly no maverick, I’m surprised that he remains popular amongst the younger generation. A yes-man is still a yes-man no matter how polite or approachable he is.

    Alex Xia
    DPM Tony Tan was apparently out of touch with Singaporeans on this. I’ve read many stories of parents who had to pool together their liquid savings (CPF can’t be used for overseas education) just to send their child overseas. If they can’t afford it, the student would be forced to start work early (at whatever low pay he is able to command subject to competition for jobs from foreign workers). By the time he earns enough to pay for education, it may be many years later when as a mature graduate, he might be discriminated against by potential employers given his age. Gilbert Goh’s website might contain some similar stories to this:

    Please see my newest post on this.

    Gilbert Goh
    Good to see you around Gilbert. I haven’t had time to update my blog earlier because of work commitment. Unfortunately that coincided with the elections. I hope to be more active this time round during the presidential elections campaigning. Please continue to update your website. I’m personally touched by all those stories there of ordinary Singaporeans struggling to get by in their lives.

    Daft Singaporean
    Unfortunately all the well-known candidates at present are either current PAP members or past PAP members. That includes both Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Kin Lian. To myself it appears more important to look at their record and what they stand for. Their past party affiliation should not be a factor if they have truly turned from the narrow-minded mindset their former party espouses.


    June 10, 2011 at 2:02 AM

  11. @Y,

    I’m an academic with a PhD working in the US. I’ve never heard of anyone telling me how good NUS (my alma mater) or NTU are because of their intake of international undergrad students, whenever their names crop up in shop talk. Most world class universities are renown for their research, not for how diverse their undergraduate population is. Since the international undergrads obviously cannot do any meaningful research, having more of them doesn’t help the university in producing better research.


    June 10, 2011 at 3:13 AM

  12. Sorry guys, some of the comments earlier were blocked by the spam filter. I have since approved them. The two comments which were blocked were Y’s and kenji’s.


    June 10, 2011 at 4:03 AM

  13. @ken-ji:

    “I think it is important to note that most of the 20% foreigners are on fully paid scholarships to NUS/NTU where the students also receive a monthly stipend as spending money where their only requirement is that they work in Singapore for at least 3 years post-graduation. THis is in contrast to local students who have to pay their own way.”

    This is not accurate. The MOE tuition grant requires the grantee to work at least 3 years post-graduation. The scholarship, which is in addition to the tuition grant, usually requires another 3 years of commitment although there are exceptions to the rule. So, in total, it is usually about 6 years of commitment for the scholarship awardees.


    June 10, 2011 at 6:04 AM

  14. @Y:
    If the qualifications of the international students could not be compared with that of the locals, it makes me question the underlying rationale of providing scholarships to attract foreign students whose capabilities are not even measurable by local standards.

    Alex Ang

    June 10, 2011 at 2:16 PM

  15. @Alex Ang
    Please do not twist my words. I do not mean that Singapore undergrads are better or worse off than foreigners. In the same token, it should not be taken that foreigners are better or worse off than locals. Tuition grants are not scholarships. Not all foreign students receive scholarships. And those who do would be the ones who are academically very strong. If our local students are academically as strong, they would probably be on scholarships too.


    June 10, 2011 at 4:34 PM

  16. @Y:
    ” those who do would be the ones who are academically very strong. If our local students are academically as strong, they would probably be on scholarships too.”
    This is an assertion that should be backed up by evidence. It’s not obvious me that this is true. People are suspicious exactly because the government has released no statistics about the quality of foreign students, and there are plenty of anecdotes in the opposite direction.

    Ponder Stibbons

    June 10, 2011 at 8:35 PM

  17. @Ponder Stibbons
    Are you saying that there are plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that these overseas scholars cannot compare to our local students? The examples highlighted are only of foreign scholars breaking bonds. not their quality.


    June 10, 2011 at 8:48 PM

  18. @Y:
    Yes, but like I said, just anecdotes. Not data. Of course, local students who complain about this are not exactly unbiased. That’s why we need data.

    Ponder Stibbons

    June 10, 2011 at 8:51 PM

  19. @Ponder Stibbons:


    June 10, 2011 at 8:53 PM

  20. @Y

    “Are you saying that there are plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that these overseas scholars cannot compare to our local students?”

    Let me interject here and say that the best local students are comparable or even better than these foreign students.

    By piecing together different bits of statistics given out by MOE, you can roughly guess how many of the international students are on scholarships. I invite you to read an old blog post of mine http://next-stop-wonderland.blogspot.com/2006/08/welcome-newcomers-with-big-handout.html where I gathered the statistics from parliamentary records.

    We know that 14 percent of undergrads are on scholarships and 2/3 of them are foreign students. Hence, about 9 to 10 percent of each cohort of undergrads are foreigners on scholarships and about 4 to 5 percent of the cohort are locals on scholarships. To put these figures in context, we have a 20:80 ratio of foreigners to locals in our local universities. Hence, it is fair to say that 1 in 2 international student is on a scholarship.

    Now that we have established that there are 2 foreign undergrad scholarship holder for every 1 local undergrad on scholarship in our local unis, we ought to expect them to dominate the 1st class honours roll. But this is simply not true at least in the year I graduated from NUS in 2004. The names of the 1st class honours graduates in engineering are listed in the commencement program (I still have the booklet) and I did a count of the names that sounded local Chinese Singaporean (Lims, Tans, Teos). They outnumber those that sounded like they were from Indonesia, China or India. It could be that those that sounded like Chinese Singaporeans were Malaysians but the numbers simply did not add up. At all.

    One conclusion that you can at least draw is that these scholarships were not awarded purely on academic merit because if they were so, 2/3 of the first class honours would have be non-locals. Unfortunately, this was not reflected in the list of first class honours graduates in engineering in 2004.

    Now, these numbers that I cite are for the period between 2000 and 2005. Things may have changed since.

    1. http://next-stop-wonderland.blogspot.com/2008/01/st-its-spores-gain-even-if-30-40-of.html
    2. http://next-stop-wonderland.blogspot.com/2006/08/welcome-newcomers-with-big-handout.html


    June 10, 2011 at 10:51 PM

  21. Hi, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I think, there may be some over-hostility against Y…Y’s comments are actually quite valuable as they help to prevent groupthink…


    June 21, 2011 at 2:25 AM

  22. Tosh

    Y is not being censored in any way. There is no moderation on this blog. As for groupthink, anyone, yourself included is free to contribute to the debate so I fail to see how this would lead to that. Commenting on this blog does not require that you provide your real name or even your email (some commenters entered evidently fake email addresses) so anonymity is retained. If Y wants to make a point, he/she has to substantiate it or do a follow-up. It seems a rather hollow objection to say that one cannot respond against Y the way it has been done. If anyone wants to defend Y’s arguments, let them do so. But it is against the spirit of enquiry and free thought to argue that arguments should be watered down just to ensure groupthink does not exist. So far, it looks like no one has resorted to personal attacks or name calling against Y, so I’m puzzled to see why you think this will lead to groupthink.

    Additionally, Y made a number of leaps in reasoning which are not justified. He/she advanced a strawman argument that said the universities should not recruit only locals when nowhere did I say I wanted Singapore universities to take in only locals. He/she said that if NUS/NTU expanded their intake, this would lead to a fall in standards. Again, no evidence was provided to substantiate this.

    He/she did however point out that invoking Tan Teck Chuan was not a good case study because he never tried applying to local universities. That was a good point he raised and I have conceded that.

    His/her last point about the reforms being necessary to boost NUS/NTU international image was addressed in my latest post. Again after looking at the data I found no evidence to support that contention. So as you can see, I have addressed most of his/her arguments.


    June 21, 2011 at 11:09 AM

  23. This is an interesting post that is close to my heart. I did my undergrad in NTU back in 2002 and am doing my masters now.

    There is an element of truth regarding the points made about the foreign students. All by one of the foreign students in my class are under MOE study grant. They told me that they have to work 3 yrs post graduation at any Singapore based company (not 6 year bond).

    One point that is frequently overlooked are the qualifications of the foreign undergrads at NTU. Compared to the local students, they either a) already have a degree or b) have undergone at least one year of undergraduate study back in their country. If I were to compare my undergraduate experience to my current post grad one, I would say that this disparity in experience is obvious. Local students that did not do as well for their first degree are actually faring better then the foreign scholars(full timers) in the masters degree arena.

    Next is the awarding of honors. I believe a good honors is typically classified as 2nd Upper and above. In reputable UK unis, the top 40 percent of graduates are awarded 2nd Upper degrees while the top 10 percent are 1st class. I am very certain that this number is much lower in Singapore Universities. This has a direct impact on the number of local university graduates being eligible to enter PhD programs. For UK engineering, honors is awarded by the third year of undergraduate study. thereafter the student my chose to pursue a M.Eng degree. This M.Eng degree is the equivalent of our local Hons degree. This can be verified by checking with the the profession engineer board. So don’t be overly enamored when you see M.Eng on a name card

    I support the argument that our polytechnic grads are being short changed. I have several friends that could not get into local unis but made it to universities such as Melbourne, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Sydney. All graduated with at least 2nd Upper. My current dissertation co-supervisor is one such example. He was rejected by our local unis in the late 90s but paid his way to Uni of Bradford. He excelled and was awarded a full scholarship for the remainder of his undergrad and PhD.

    james toh

    June 22, 2011 at 6:09 PM

  24. I think there is some confusion here.

    The MOE tuition grant, which subsidizes 50 to 75 percent of the tuition fees, requires a 3-year bond which obliges them (the international students) to stay in Singapore for 3 years. However, the tuition grant does not cover all the fees and living expenses. Singaporean students get the tuition grant bond-free. The vast majority (~95 percent) of international students take up the tuition grant because the tuition fees in NTU/NUS/SMU would be too unaffordable for them.

    In addition to the tuition grant, some of the international students are also covered by scholarships (MOE, SIA, NOL, Sembawang, etc) which pay the remainder of their fees and living expenses. This usually obliges them to stay another 3 years in Singapore although they are not bonded to any particular company. Therefore, it is a total of 6 years.

    Most Malaysian and Indonesian students that I knew were on the tuition grant but not on scholarships. So, they were obliged to work in Singapore for 3 years. The PRC and Indian students were usually on tuition grant + scholarship. So, they had a 6-year bond.


    June 22, 2011 at 10:10 PM

  25. I should clarify that I was referring to their grant for master’s level only. Typically its a one year course work program. Thus their bond is three years.

    james toh

    June 23, 2011 at 1:44 AM

  26. Hi, Don’t be like this lah, don’t say ‘hollow’ or what…Just saying to help you improve your blog ….In the end, already so much anti-govt posts here, you should treasure alternative views if not pro-govt views will be scared to come in…And the groupthink will exist through peer pressure although technically “free to say”.

    Actually that thing is not leap in reasoning, lets say NUS/NTU relax cutoff of AAB and still want to recruit from local only, it will have to recruit from AAC or AAD and below right? So there will be a fall in admission standards. No? But I think the views from the other side are valid too…Hmmm….

    And lastly, I thought your post showed that the point of boosting international image is inconclusive both ways(i.e. neither for nor against Y). Please correct me if I am wrong. But, Y is not totally wrong in saying that foreigners boost international image either as according to your research “international mix” is one of the criterias under consideration right?…

    Will be happy to hear views from anyone but please don’t flame me…heh!


    July 11, 2011 at 3:08 PM

  27. Tosh, I don’t understand your logic. Why would NUS/NTU want to relax the cutoff and how do the international students factor into this? Suppose NUS/NTU eases the cutoff from AAB to AAC. How does admitting international students affect this cutoff easing?


    July 13, 2011 at 5:00 AM

  28. Oh..Sorry and thanks for asking. My expression could have been clearer…That paragraph is a little clumsy. What I meant was: Suppose NUS/NTU does NOT want to recruit from international students BUT nonetheless still wants to expand intake…(In other words, expanding intake by recruiting from local only,)…then it has to logically relax its cutoff from say AAB to AAD….

    This ‘relaxed cutoff’ is the lowering of admission standards I am referring to…sorry, I could have been clearer.

    Thanks for reading..


    July 13, 2011 at 6:51 AM

  29. But why would NUS/NTU have to expand their intake in the first place?


    July 14, 2011 at 6:32 AM

  30. Hmmm…not too sure about the reasons for expanding their intake…BUT as long as there was a need to expand intake, one could either recruit from Local or Foreigners…One could either expand the intake from Local, (which would lead to a drop in admission standards) Or one can look beyond Singapore’s shores to search for Foreigners who could meet the non-relaxed admission standards…

    Also, I am just throwing up a suggestion here, need not be true. You said that the scholarships to Foreigners were not awarded purely on academic merit, citing that “2/3 of the students would have been non-locals” otherwise…Please correct me if I interpreted this part wrongly or have not read everything fully…

    However, it is a little unfair to draw such a conclusion based on the “output” of the foreigners. Because, at the point of admission, the scholarships could still have been awarded based on academic merit..

    One explanation that the Foreigners did not do so well here could be their unfamiliarity with the education system here, (the launguage medium the subject is being taught in, etcetera…). Therefore academic input during the point of admission need not necessarily translate into academic output.

    I am quite sure that you have also heard of anecdotes where people with good O-level scores flunk their A-levels, or people with good PSLE scores flunk their O-levels etcetera right? (Well, at least I have heard of such anecdotes before..)


    July 14, 2011 at 10:55 AM

  31. If you are going to speculate some more, then there is no point arguing with you. Get your facts straight first.

    “Therefore academic input during the point of admission need not necessarily translate into academic output.”

    In that case, the academic input (foreign academic qualifications) is no good. Why should we use it as a gauge for how scholarships are awarded?

    The simpler explanation is that many high qualified/able local students, more so than the foreign students, do not get any financial support because… they are locals. Haven’t you read https://furrybrowndog.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/singapore-education-scholarships-for-foreign-students-only/


    July 14, 2011 at 11:43 AM

  32. See..that’s the problem…I want a pleasant discussion you but you just want to see it as argument…Why do you have to use this kind of tone…

    How is it speculating? Be specific…NUS/NTU expanded its intake, I am just telling you I don’t know why…But NUS/NTU did try to expand its intake and I was listing some possibilites on how this can be done…

    I was saying that Good Academic Input during the point of admission need not necessarily translate into good academic output..so the 2/3 First Class Honours need not necessarily be the result of poor academic input during admissions. Or do you have statistics to show that the foreign scholars selected for scholarship were not of good academic input at the point of admission?—I know that you have showed that they only performed moderately at the output(assuming the facts are true)…But I would like to know if you have statistics to show that the foreigners given scholarship have poor academic input at the point of admission.(i.e thay have bad foreign academic qualifications)

    Yes, I haven’t read the post, thanks for the links, but somehow I feel that you can ask me in a nicer way like “I am not sure if you have read this” rather than “Haven’t you read the post?”(is like assuming that I am supposed to have read every post)—sorry, just my opinion. Also, sometimes I feel that this blog is too anti-government..sighzzz….It is like there is a lack of balanced views…(the mirror image of Straits Times)…Please be more balanced..

    Anyway, thanks for the links again. If you would like me to comment, I have no idea why those scholarships are not available for Singaporeans to apply, and why they come without Local Bond, although “all scholars are expected to return home at the end of their studies in Singapore to contribute to the development of their [home] country”(there is still some responsibility attached..)

    However, I heard it from my secondary school teacher a long time ago that these scholarships are part of an Asean or some broader regional scheme to promote interaction amongst top talent by allowing bright students (the presumed future leaders of the respective countries) to study together so that when they eventaully become political/business leaders in their home country, they would share some affinity with the political/business leaders of other ASEAN countries, having studied and interacted together. This is one possible explanation I can offer I guess…


    July 14, 2011 at 2:13 PM

  33. Tosh

    I think you have some basic facts wrong here. Here’s what I know. The fact is 1997 was not the year which first saw foreign students enter NUS/NTU. There were already foreign students all along, since at least the 1980s. So your entire argument about dropping standards at NTU/NUS if they admit only local students only is moot. NUS/NTU has never admitted only locals and had a cap of 20% on foreign students since at least the 1980s. I cannot pinpoint exactly when the 20% cap started but it’s been there for a very long time and it certainly preceded the university education reforms of the late 1990s.

    What changed in 1997 was that the previous cap of 20% on foreign student became a quota. Meaning all along foreign students could take up to 20% of the university places. But left to its own (pre-1997) it was found that foreign students would take up only 10% of places.

    That’s why all the recruitment and scholarships for FTs were started (including subsidising foreign students even more). The government of Singapore was really trying to hit the 20% target (it went from a mere 20% cap to a 20% target for foreign students).

    On the issue of fairness maybe you can consider this. Why are the local students graded and judged on their command of English whereas foreign students are not for university admission? The fact is, the playing field is not even fair to begin with. All male Singaporean students have to serve NS, and coming back from NS to their 1st year of study in universities is not easy. It’s hard to adjust and get back to studying after you’re away for 2 years. Yet foreign students don’t have this liability. Some of them have even completed say a year or two in their own countries universities before coming to Singapore, and all these give them an unfair competitive edge over local students who just matriculated after NS. You consider this fair?

    Lastly I think if you want to debate you should really drop the self-righteous attitude of lecturing others on how to respond. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here. There is no moderation on this blog, and I have not deleted any comments. That alone should be sufficient. If you think it is not, you are welcome to not participate here. It’s your choice.

    EDIT: On the point of allowing in more foreign students to boost Singapore university rankings, I think Fox has a very good reply on his blog posted some time back which I quote here:


    In terms of international faculty and international students, NUS and NTU have some of the highest scores. However, the high marks given are misleading. Allow me to explain why. In most universities, the presence of international students is regarded as a good thing because they correlate to the quality of the university. The general idea is that the better the university is, more foreign students would be willing to pay the extra fees to go there. For example, a Singaporean students looking to study in the US would generally prefer to go to the best place he or she qualifies for given the very high cost of education. People naturally prefer some place like Berkeley or MIT over Podunk University, if they can get in. The idea is that since you’re paying so much for your education, you would want a place that gives you more bang for your bucks. Therefore, it is quite natural for THES to accord a significant positive weight to the number of foreign students in a university since most universities do not go out of their way to bring in foreign students just for the sake of bringing them in.

    Of course, the situation is not like that in Singapore. NUS and NTU have a large number of foreign students not because of any intrinsic superior quality of their education but because the government effectively bribes a large number of foreign students with subsidised tertiary education and scholarship to study there. So, you see, the legions of foreign students in NUS are not a testimony to how great the university is but are really there because people are financially incentivised to go there. If you remove that component of that score, I suspect that NUS and NTU’s rankings will drop drastically because few people would go to NUS paying full fees. That is not quite so for other universities such as LSE or UNSW with very high scores for international students. Foreign students go there paying full fees. Hence, their presence is a reliable indicator of the quality of these universities.


    July 18, 2011 at 11:56 PM

  34. No lah, I think you misunderstood me. I don’t really want to debate at all, please don’t say I want to debate. I just want to plesantly discuss so I suggested reducing the hostility. I like the second part of the reply from Fox’s blog. It really addressed the questions I have in mind. For the rest of the first part, I have to thank you for your rigorous research. However, I want to ask you about the first paragraph. Actually, I did not say 1997 was the year they first allowed students to enter NUS/NTU…But thanks anyway, for shedding more light on the facts..:)

    Actually, my point about the standards dropping if they admitted only Local students is not based on empirical data, but rather through intuitive reasoning that if NUS/NTU were to expand their intake, but does NOT want to recruit from international students, (In other words, expanding intake by recruiting from local only,)…then it has to logically relax its cutoff from say AAB to AAD, in order to let more people in.

    This ‘relaxed cutoff’ is the lowering of admission standards I am referring to.

    Hmmm….But after reading the whole thing as a whole I see what you mean….with the 20% foreigner quota and all, the empirical data which you presented shows that it is not really a free market, but rather a Fixed market situation…ultimately meaning that we are subsidising foreigners into NUS/NTU on an uneven playing field..tilted on English language proficiency(there may or may not be some rationale for this ‘affimitive discrimination’ in favour of Foreign talent born in a non-English language background, but ultimately, I get what you mean that there IS a difference in assessment nonetheless.), whether this difference in assessment is justifiable is another question…

    On your second point, I agree with you that Local Males are discriminated vis-a-vis foreigners through NS. To add to that, Local Males are dicriminated vis-a-vis females too…So there is Double discrimination for Males!!…

    Anyway, thanks a lot for your reply…


    July 19, 2011 at 5:39 PM

  35. Actually, admitting more local students will of course lead to a lower admission standard but that is trivially true. What really matters is whether our students are sufficiently prepared for the rigours of university studies and our university curriculum standards. If all our students are prepared for university, then just admit them. If they are not, they will not survive or thrive in a rigorous environment.

    Eventually, what matters is the graduate that comes out, not the freshman that goes in.


    July 19, 2011 at 10:16 PM

  36. mesonman

    September 19, 2011 at 11:00 AM

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