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What has Chiam See Tong done for university education?

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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?

Taken from SPP website

It was none other than long-time former opposition MP Chiam See Tong.

The Straits Times 26th March 1985:

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?


Written by defennder

July 4, 2011 at 2:42 PM

Posted in Singapore affairs

13 Responses

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  1. wa lao! Too many babies then too few babies. After that, too many graduates then too few. After after that, too many flats become too little flats. See beh smart! For many years now Spore giving scholarships to foreign sec school students and university students. How many number is so secret nobody knows. But Spore hope many stay behind and register to become no-NS citizens. Lagi smart! Some people actually believe this b.s.

    wa lao eh!

    July 4, 2011 at 9:04 PM

  2. I think nothing was done because it was suggested by an opposition. In the mindset of the dominant party, it is only they can come out with good ideas. Pride, just sheer pride.


    July 4, 2011 at 9:34 PM

  3. Policy makers have been very myopic. First population policies and now educational policies. I wonder how long it will take the casino policy to backfire into social problems….oh wait, it only took 2 months. I think only the ministers and elite rich stand to gain from any sort of policy that is standing. Why do the ministers earn this much for having created such a huge mess of things? To top it off, we vote them in again so they can tell us to not throw bricks at their institutions of rotting, inhumane policies.


    July 5, 2011 at 9:43 AM

  4. […] Election – Singapore Recalcitrant: How Independent Is Dr. Tony Tan? – Furry Brown Dog: What has Chiam See Tong done for university education? – Thoughts of a Singapore Statistician: Dr Tony Tan Vs Dr Tan Cheng Bock – Battle of the PAP […]

  5. Talk so much what’s the point? Selfish 60.1% like it.
    Screw them!!! Idiotic


    July 5, 2011 at 1:51 PM

  6. Good article and reminder…those who support TT thinks he is an “angel”…well not true at all. And it is know among senior PAP cadres TT is a political conservative.


    July 5, 2011 at 10:43 PM

  7. When will they ever learn?

    Without delving deeper, even Tony Tan opposed for opposition sake!

    Thanks Furrybrowndog. Appreciate your research on the history of the education system in Singapore and telling it like it is! And yes, they made a song and dance about Chiam See Tong’s ‘O’ level results to put Mah Bow Tan in a better light.

    Look at the respect and and love that CST receives from SIngaporeans today compared to MBT’s lamentable loss of a ministerial position!

    When will they ever learn?



    July 6, 2011 at 12:46 AM

  8. Evil Bastard son of a whore Tony Tan, may he die a terrible death for screwing with Singaporeans’ education, money, lives and happiness. I curse him to hell, may he be fried by burning oil every day in hell, his sons and daughters and grandchildren become slaves and whores, his whole family get AIDS and die. He is the most evil man on earth, now still trying to get million dollar salary? this shameless gutless bastard and old fool!! Fuck him! Tony Tan you are the motherfucker son of a bitch and you’re better off dead! Sucking the cocks of all the foreigners and ramming Singaporeans’ asses till we bleed? you old fuck.. go suck your own cock and choke on your own AIDS infected sperm!

    tony tan kuku

    July 6, 2011 at 2:25 PM

  9. Your headline and your post are founded on one idea, that Chiam See Tong was the first to call for a second university. That’s what your article itself alleges. But even Chiam himself accepts that he is not the first. He cites Dr Albert Winsemius, the economist, as having advocated that idea before.

    So you are fundamentally wrong to make this statement: “Who first made the call to set up another university? It was none other than long-time former opposition MP Chiam See Tong.”

    Willy Wee

    July 6, 2011 at 6:21 PM

  10. Hi all, thanks for your comments. Will address them later.

    Although this objection was not raised here, this comment is meant to pre-empt the criticism that Tony Tan objected to expanding university places in the 1980s because that might entail jobless graduates if the economy could not create enough jobs for them.

    Searching the archives, I came across a few articles which appear to suggest that an over-supply of graduates was not a problem then. If anything the articles appear to suggest that Singapore had room for more graduates. As for whether NUS/NTI expanded their intake in the 1980s and by how much, I’m not too clear.


    There was a recession, I think in 1985. But long term planning for building new universities shouldn’t be affected by short term events. NTI for eg. took about 10 years to become a full-fledged university.

    Plus a special bonus:
    Then BG-Lee’s defense of foreign students in NUS


    July 7, 2011 at 12:34 AM

  11. Thanks a lot for doing this research.


    July 9, 2011 at 4:44 AM

  12. wa lao eh!

    Yes I think you just pointed out a very important point. It seems to me that for about some 30 years at least the Singapore government has been involved with micro-management of supply. The outcome for some of these policies meant to choke off supply is that they fail to calibrate the proper supply, and they have had to import foreign talent to make up for the shortfall.

    This itself I think can fill up a very long post. For eg. throttling the medical student intake in the early 1990s. When the government realised in 1997 there was a problem in not getting in enough doctors, they resorted to bringing in foreign doctors. Similarly for lawyers, there was a parallel effort to cut down on law graduates. Again when supply was found to be too little in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Singapore government started decided to take in more foreign law graduates and relax standards so they can practice in Singapore.

    Of course the most famous case of throttling supply is basically the population problem. The anti-natalist campaign coupled with a half-hearted later campaign to increase the birth rate resulted in insufficient numbers for the workforce. Yet again the government resorted to bringing in FTs.

    The same story of course, was told above for graduates. It’s interesting to see how the Singapore government resorts to mass importing foreigners to cover up policy failures which constrict supply of say graduates, doctors, lawyers, people in general. Seems to me that the FT solution has been repeatedly invoked when their planning failed.

    Anon & Su

    Yes I think generally speaking the opposition has actually hit the nail on the head for a number of things. Back then they looked like opposing for the sake of opposing. But after having looked through the archives I realised a number of them made important points which the government has only admitted to recently. Like for example back in 1984, opposition MP JBJ was horrified when MND minister Teh Cheang Wah outlined how CPF could be used buy HDB flats. JBJ was actually worried that this might exhaust retirement funding. Guess what, the government only explicitly admitted this in the late 1990s and basically did nothing except raise Minimum Sum and create CPF life.

    feedmetothefish & twasher

    You’re very much welcome. I learned a lot too when doing the necessary research.

    Willy Wee

    Hi I think if you read the article carefully you’ll notice that you’re objecting to just a particular line and not the main focus of the post. Removing that one line changes almost nothing in the article. Yes I’m not exactly sure who started the entire idea. But it doesn’t change the fact that Chiam appeared to be the first MP to call for another university to be set up. If you can provide sources which prove otherwise, please do so. Thanks.


    July 19, 2011 at 12:20 AM

  13. Great article, thoughtfully researched. My pleasure discovering this read!


    August 3, 2011 at 4:38 PM

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