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February 21, 2004

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Universities in Singapore

An Attractive Option
for Bangladeshi Students

Khademul Islam

The office of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) rises around a central courtyard. Concrete encloses a circle. Within it, goldfish languidly turn beneath lotus pads in small pools, trailing gossamer fins. Way above me, surrounded by wall and window, the sky is a blue O.

It is a soft December morning, 9:30 a.m., warmer than in Dhaka. I raise my arms, stretch. Time to get to the business at hand. Ken, my guide, takes me to the second floor. Up here the light splashes against the outer pillars of a wide, colonial-style verandah. I shake hands with Liza and am ushered inside a cool, dark room with high ceilings. Inside, I am introduced to John and Ong, also of Education Services, STB. I ease into a chair, exchange pleasantries, open the binder in front of me. Click goes the Powerpoint, lighting up a graph to begin the crash course on Singapore's education system.

I am here because Singapore, driving forward with its typical efficiency, is transforming itself into an 'education hub'. The essential angle is fairly simple: The world education market is worth about $ 2.2 trillion, and Singapore wants a major slice of the pie. Primarily the Asian pie.

The key to the strategy is to attract the increasing numbers of Asian students, along with business executives signing up for corporate education, who otherwise go to Western universities to get their engineering and MBA degrees. A huge amount of government money has been plowed in. The plan, launched around in 1997, was to build, around the core of Singapore's own first-rate universities, a world-class university programme by establishing linkages with up to 10 top-flight Western universities. These would be 'centers of excellence in education and research, with strong links to industry.' Today, six American universities (Stanford, MIT, Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business), three from Europe (INSEAD, Technische Universiteit Eindhoven and Technische Universität Mü nchen), and one from China (Shanghai Jiao Tong University) have linked up in various ways: joint programmes and seminars, student and faculty exchanges, visiting scholars, joint degree programmes, similar syllabi and courses. Others such as Cornell, Ecole Polytechnique, and the well-known Indian Institute of Technology: are in the pipeline.

It was on a tour of this 'hub', to take a close-up look at some of its constituent parts, that the STB had invited someone from The Daily Star. To go around the campuses, meet academics, deans of engineering and technical universities, listen to presentations, get a feel of the place.

Here I should probably make clear to readers and prospective students that there are many excellent sources of information on the topic on government and individual university Web sites (principally www.singaporeedu. gov.sg) as well as in well-written guides available from the Education Services Division, Singapore Tourism Board and the Singapore Ministry of Education. Bangladeshi students interested in higher education in Singapore should check them out and write to the ministries/services concerned for more detailed information.

I visited the German Institute of Science & Technology, Nanyang Technological University, Centre for Creative Leadership, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, Singapore Management University, the National University of Singapore, and Stansfield College.

And kept thinking, what is in it for the Bangladeshi student wanting to study abroad?

Quite a lot, actually.

I was surprised to learn that the Singapore Ministry of Education provides tuition grants to all students who can get admission at the local universities and polytechnics, Including international students. I can't think of a single other foreign state that will provide funds to international students to study. There exist scholarship/training programmes in which one can compete and qualify but usually that is a state-to-state, or institution-to-institution arrangement, not directly with individuals. That is incentive to us Bangladeshis indeed. Besides the above, there is a whole host of scholarships, bursaries and tuition loans that should be investigated diligently by the concerned student. For example, I came to know that excellent scholarships are offered by Singapore Airlines to deserving foreign students/candidates.

International students who apply for the education ministry's tuition grant are required to sign a bond obliging them to work in Singapore for three years after graduation. Which sounds perfectly okay to me. Not only is Singapore a great place to work and live but the least you can do is repay in kind the people who paid for your education.

After graduation, they help with job placement. And in this regard the various universities do their research.

For example, at the Nanyang Technological University presentation by Dr. Lo, the emphasis was on their new Master's degree programme in environmental engineering. The NTU people have studied the matter astutely. The Asian environmental technology market is a multi-billion dollar market that is expected to grow hugely as more factories in Asia spew out smoke, as pollution levels rise in our air and water, as garbage piles up in cities in the coming decades. There it is: a huge job market in which it would be good to get in early.

About which I listened to the good Mr. Ng Boon Hwang, director of NTU's Office of Professional Attachments. Five of us sat in the room, with brilliant sunlight pouring through a picture window at my back. Looked like a great day for cricket. Below us lay the large, quiet campus, all green hollows and rises, university buildings scattered here and there with paved walkways between them, soccer fields, neat, orderly, streamlined. No graffiti, no slogans, no demos, no strikes or close-downs. Though I had come in the middle of vacations and the campus was comparatively deserted, I could imagine classes ticking away like Swiss watches during regular season. Every institution large and small --and Stansfield College, a private university, was indeed competitively tiny, within one building, like the private universities here in Bangladesh that I visited there had that same sense of order and quiet.

"So who makes the best job applicant?" I asked Mr. Hwang at one point. "The extrovert, the one who can best talk about himself, the job, why he thinks he is the best one suited for it," Mr. Hwang replied. "The one with people skills, one who does not get discouraged easily, the one who begins the job search early on, while still a student. The one who can best sell himself. We teach the rest." The 'rest' is of course, maintaining links with companies, with the private sector, industry heads, teaching interview and resume writing skills, keeping and providing job databases, arranging internships and hosting job fairs. "The economy is in a recession, of course, and it is very competitive out there, but" he added with a smile, "we try. We try very hard to get jobs for our graduates."

And finally, as per the logic of the meritocracy that is Singapore's abiding creed, if your work is indispensable to the company, if you have a demonstrable ability and talent, you can apply for Singaporean citizenship. Which, overall, is not a bad deal!

It is impossible here to detail each institution I visited separately here, but the story line was basically the same: linkage with a solid Western university, tough degree programmes, superior faculty, quality education. At the National University of Singapore, where I talked with the business school folks, they underlined their highly-rated APEX-MBA programme, with its emphasis on the Asian context. The campus, like NTU's, has sweeping vistas and winding roads cutting through little hills.

The Singapore Management University is a private university funded by the government. It is building a spanking new, state-of-the-art campus building right in the center of the city and its innovative teaching method is shifting away from the traditional classroom lecture towards seminars, where more responsibility, and greater challenges, devolve upon the students. The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (almost exclusively for professionals/corporate executives) follows the same exact curriculum as the mother ship back in Chicago, with the same faculty being flown in, and is housed in a delightful building that was once a temple. The German Institute of Science and Technology wants to produce the new kind of technocrat for the globalised future, Joerg Schweizer, its CEO (yes, today universities are run along corporate lines and Technische Universitat Munchen is no different), told me, with 'cultural awareness' in business contexts as an important part of the study programme.

Stansfield College, the last place I toured, is a small, reputed private business school with University of London and London School of Economics diploma and degree programmes. Here I should mention that Singapore's array of private schools, with all manner of diplomas and degrees, can be bewildering, and the prospective student should be careful to check whether the private universities are SQC (Singapore Quality Class) recipients. Just like in other countries, Singapore too has its own fast-buck artists setting up backroom classes in order to cash in on the "foreign degree" hunger of the middle-class Asian student.

Two other places I visited were in a different category. One was Bhavan's Indian Central School, called an 'international' school in Singapore, with a wholly Indian curriculum and examination setup. Such schools were originally set up for the children of foreigners, but now welcome students from different nationalities and co-exist with Singapore's own public schools. I also talked with (on the only overcast Singapore afternoon, when later it rained, gently, and boys glued to screens in video game parlors raised their heads momentarily towards the windows) Michael Jenkins of the Center for Creative Leadership, where company executives undergo a sort of shock treatment designed to shake them out of standard, cookie-cutter thinking and gain fresh, creative perspectives on business management. And once you talk with Michael you realise that this isn't some faddish, New Age-y stuff but serious re-training.

One topic I raised with all the faculty members/academic staff concerned English. What about the proficiency level of English in the applicants? A good A level, or TOEFL, or something similar was the answer. I said that with Bangladeshi students this could be the sticking point, in that while they could conceivably ace the science part of the exams, they could get hung up on English. The answer was that in addition to A/O level results, the universities had their own interviews and entrance exams, and if somebody demonstrated brilliance in the technical part, they for their part could perhaps relax the English requirements. As well put them through an English language course after admission. That the same problem was true of the Vietnamese and Chinese students hereit is estimated that fully a third of the international students in Singapore are from mainland Chinabut that eventually they coped with it and did well. Good students have determination!

I had one other question, which I put to Liza at the Singapore Tourist Board presentation. All this engineering and business courses are fine, these technical things, I said, but what about stuff that other Bangladeshi students are interested in: gender studies, poverty reduction strategies, development economics, law and human rights, alternative architecture? These are subjects and issues a lot of bright, young Bangladeshis are interested in. We have them, she answered, at our national universities.

In conclusion, all things being equal, I have to say that Singapore looked like an outstanding place for Bangladeshis interested in pursuing higher studies abroad. Besides the financial help and the later rewards for academic excellence, Singapore offers a unique opportunity to grow up in a westernised, cosmopolitan environment and yet experience minimal culture shock: it is after all an Asian country only a few hours away by air, there is a huge Indian community, South Asian food is everywhere, and the native Sinagaporean is a friendly, if busy, creature. Added to all the above are the opportunities for interaction with students from neighbouring countries and establishing regional networks and friendships, to internalise a disciplined ethos and work habits, plus access to, and acculturalisation with, the latest technologies and applications. For parents who are concerned about their children being thrown too fast too young into Western cultural environments (though of course one has to add here that going through the broadest range of experiences is a necessary part of growing up), Singapore has enacted draconian laws regarding drugs and pornography. I was quite surprised to learn that viewing pornography on the Web, something that is widespread in Dhaka, is impossible in Singapore, which monitors the Web servers and cuts off all those 1-800 sites.

So, all in all, I would tell Bangladeshi students planning to go abroad for higher education to look into the possibilities in Singapore, to research all angles, pore through Web sites and guide books, do a cost/benefit analysis, and then make up their minds. It just might be the most rewarding thing they have done in a long time.



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