Leveraging on Diversity

Here are the student demographics that some of you have been asking for. There are currently about 25,000 undergraduates at the NUS, of which over 5,000 are international students. (This post uses the terms international students and foreign students interchangeably. Figures are approximate and exact figures are available in the NUS Annual Report.) The graduate student population totals 8,000, of which more than half of the graduate students, or 5,000 of them are from overseas. Taken in total, we have about 33,000 students on campus; 10,000 are international students and the rest are citizens or permanent residents of Singapore. In addition, every year, we have 1,400 NUS students going away for at least a semester on exchange programs, and we correspondingly welcome a similar number of international students from our 180 partner universities for a semester exchange at the NUS.

Our international students

The topic of international students is a sensitive one to discuss, but I believe that as members of the university community, we are mature enough to broach this topic in a constructive and appropriate manner. Each year, the MOE stipulates the number of places to be given to Singaporeans and PRs, based on the Cohort Participation Ratio (CPR), i.e., the CPR is the percentage of locals, in a Primary One cohort, who matriculate into publicly-funded full-time undergraduate places at our local institutions. This year, the CPR was set at 26%. Local universities may admit international students; international students made up not more than 18% of the overall undergraduate intake at the 3 local universities in AY2011.

Why does the NUS admit international students? First, diversity creates a campus environment that mimics the global operating context. We thus value the diversity of cultures, perspectives and experiences that our foreign students bring. Second, many of our foreign students are talented individuals of high calibre; they are admitted on a more rigorous and stringent criteria. Foreign students set the bar high, and spur our local students to challenge themselves towards greater heights. And in the process, local students emerge stronger and better prepared to take on competition in the global workforce. Third, we hope to retain foreign students to contribute to Singapore’s economy. It is true that foreign students with service obligations may leave Singapore at the end of their term. Notwithstanding, they will  remain as friends, associations and vital links of the NUS community (and Singapore) whom we can tap on.

NUS is a microcosm of a globalised environment

With a diversity of nationalities and cultures right here on campus, the NUS is truly a microcosm of the global environment. At any one time, we have over 11,000 international students from a hundred countries around the world, studying in our campus. One of the key educational priorities at the NUS is to hone graduates who are effective at and ready for the broader global environment, i.e., graduates who are adaptable and able to communicate, engage and work in cross-cultural settings. 

Although we are physically present amidst a diverse campus environment; alas it is quite plausible that some of our students are completely oblivious to the rich opportunities for learning and discovery surrounding them. Take for example, Peter and Jane are enrolled in the same module. They sit next to each other twice a week, continuously over 15 weeks. Yet, at the end of the semester, they may be none the wiser about each other, and remain acquainted merely by name and face.

Here is a second conceivable scenario. Instead of being glued to their iPhones during class break, Peter and Jane may be having a casual conversation, on anything, perhaps where they’re currently residing and their experiences commuting with the internal shuttle buses. Jane is from Wuhan in China. Peter, a born and bred Singaporean who’s served NS, soon discovers how and why she came to Singapore, what sort of tests she had to take, how the educational system here differs from that in Wuhan and perhaps even how she views certain government policies in Singapore and how these compare with the Chinese government’s approach, and so on. Jane learns that Peter had served his NS as a combat medic, how he continues to be liable for reservist, drives a car that has a whopping COE price tag of $50,000 and so on.  What can emerge? How much can we learn from and through each other? The possibilities are endless.

Within the classroom

How then can we leverage more fully on this diversity in our university, to enrich our students and in so doing, better prepare and develop them for the globalised world? One way, is perhaps to create the time and space for us to talk to each other and to foster interactions, in our academic courses.

A professor once related this experience with me. He taught a class and assigned a term project. He requested students to form their own groups of 4 or 5 for the project. One group came to him, looking ostensibly unhappy. The group comprised two Singaporeans, two Chinese students from PRC, and a Vietnamese. The professor thought the composition of the group was great; it was a multinational team! He later realized students from the same nationality, had congregated to form their own teams: there were several Singaporean groups, some groups of students from India, some from China, and another from Vietnam. The multinational team was visibly unhappy, because it was made up of reluctant individuals who had described themselves as ‘leftovers’.

Henceforth, the professor never allowed his class to form their own groups. Instead, he thought through and allocated the group assignments, deliberately ensuring that each group was diverse. He explained that in our working lives, we often do not get to choose our colleagues and partners, and we should take the opportunity to learn to work with our assigned teammates. He also introduced peer appraisals, to obtain a sense of each student’s contribution to the group.

This got me thinking. If a professor does not take the active step to form diverse teams, what would the likely outcome be? Sometimes, some nudging does help to take us out of our comfort zone and to expose us to experience something different.

Living and learning together

Beyond academics, residential living also provides a wonderful platform for mutual learning and enrichment. At the NUS, we currently have 3 types of student accommodation, namely halls, residences and residential colleges. In our halls and residential colleges, two-thirds of the residents are Singaporeans and PRs, one-third are foreign students (including students on exchange).

By and large, the residing students do participate in the numerous social activities, and contribute to student life on campus and within their halls or residential colleges. This was especially so at the halls, when CCA points were the main criteria to secure hall places for the subsequent year. This year, we implemented a new scheme, the Residence Admission Scheme (RAS) to replace the Revised Hall Admission Points System. This was in response to students’ feedback, as students complained of being subject to excessive pressure to keep up the CCA-involvement within their halls. Some students had however raised the concern that students in the halls might become less active in social activities.  

The new residential colleges at UTown have academic program components, and I do hope that all students will participate actively to create a vibrant, memorable and exciting atmosphere. Ideally, students will engage with each other intellectually and socially, within and beyond the classrooms, in the corridors, dining halls, the lounges and wherever else.

Do take steps to explore, enjoy and embrace the rich diversity we have on campus.


  1. NUS is shaping up to be a truly global University. Fascinating.

    The story of the ‘unhappy multinational team’ is worth a second thought. I attended MBA school in the USA. Our class was about 330 students. The school Administration divided us into 5 sections of about 65 students. Within each section, we were further sub-divided into study groups of 5 students. Students had no say in this matter. The sections and study groups stayed with us throughout our compulsory core modules, which comprised about half of all the modules we had to take in the MBA programme.

    The sections and study groups were carefully designed. The School Admin wanted to maximise the diversity and institutionalise the learning opportunities even within the Sections and study groups. My study group of 5 had 3 guys and 2 girls as follows:

    a) American guy A – a gifted musician and an equity trader; had bachelors and Masters degrees in Music

    b) American guy B – a guy whose Dad owned a multi-million dollar business in the food industry, currently working for his Dad; first degree in the social sciences

    c) Asian guy C – myself, hailing from Singapore, first degree in the social sciences

    d) American girl D – hailing from the financial services industry; first degree in Urban studies and planning

    e) American girl E – worked for an MNC in an engineering role; first degree in chemical engineering

    The other study groups had a similar mix of very different individuals. There appeared to be some general formula. Each group of 5 was typically made up of 3 guys and 2 girls. Each group would at least have 1 international student, some had 2. Within each group, the backgrounds would be very diverse. Had the school left these groupings to chance, such diverse groupings would have been next to impossible. In fact, we would probably have seen groups by nationalities – this would have been a great tragedy for everybody involved!

    I understand such a system of ‘forced’ allocation by the School Admin is widely considered as a best practice in the good MBA schools worldwide, and for good reasons! A key strength of any decent MBA programme is peer learning and teaching. This can only be maximized if the groups of individuals are diverse and can bring together different perspectives, preferably from different industries and different cultures.

    At least 1/3 of all students at NUS are international students, at any given time. It would be a tremendous waste if more is not done to institutionalize cross cultural learning.

    I would fully support the idea of getting NUS professors to allocate study groups or project groups to ensure a mix of nationalities within each group.

  2. Dear Provost,

    I agree with you, something needs to be done about it, and nothing should be left by chance. If the management does not carefully intervene in this issue, we’ll still be in a laissez-faire environment.

    I am a Math student here, and as a Math professor, I would believe you have seen this us-against-them mentality around the students, ingrained right at the freshman year where competition for grades are stiff. Furthermore, the fundamental problem about Math modules is that they’ve hardly any projects and final examinations carry a heavy burden – most are at least 60% of the final grade in fact, sometimes up to 80%.

    Well, many of us tried our best to mingle around with them. A majority of them have their own self-help groups (that is, of seniors from similar backgrounds). I could easily sense that there is no need for us for them to survive here. To put it plainly, we are there only to make up the numbers for them.

    Yes even though grades aren’t the determinant to everything, but let’s be frank here – when the grading factor is as such, interaction becomes secondary. “To each its own,” sadly, that’s the phrase here.

    Indeed this is a sensitive issue. However, I do need to re-iterate that if management does not carefully thread in this issue, the differences could only get more profound.

    1. Dear TT
      I am aware of this imbalance in disciplines such as Maths. At the basic level (i.e., year 1 and 2 modules), projects are much harder to design. Thus, CAs and exams are the usual means of assessment, and these are individual assessments which do not promote interaction. Further, foreign students, especially Chinese students, are better prepared for Maths. Take Quantitative Finance, for example. It is a popular major, and the entry criteria is a very strong foundation in basic mathematics, which favours foreign Chinese students. It is a delicate issue.

      1. Dear Provost,

        Although this is somehow related to your previous blog entry, I believe that, with your introduction to the compulsory English module for freshmen, hopefully the delicate balance gets to be addressed?

        I do heard from grievances by a Finance friend of mine who was doing a project with some QF majors (I assume they’re Chinese-based, because they’re a overwhelming majority) with regards to their group work and presentation. Maybe that was the issue that you’re addressing too?

        I do agree with you that Chinese students are better prepared for Maths. This disadvantage could be markedly seen since the Further Math subject was removed from the A Level syllabus, and H2 Mathematics, is actually arithmetic in nature – not the sort of demands we have in the University.

  3. You know, it only works if the international students mix with the locals. But as observed, some foreigners insist on staying in their own comfort zones and Singaporeans vice-versa. So it only makes us feel like enemies, when the truth is, that once people open up they can be nice friends. I know because I mixed with some of my foreign NUS counterparts when I went on exchange.

    But the housing system here somewhat creates enclaves. My impression is that PGP can be characterised with Chinese and Indians who often keep to themselves. Also, I heard from my exchange student friend that NUS likes to pair up with students of the same nationality to reside together. This only reinforces the nationality clique-ing. During my exchange we from NUS were deliberately separated into different units (though in the same complex), and as such could mix more with people from other nationalities. I am happy to say I have friends from Mexico, Peru, Brazil, China and Germany. Maybe NUS could consider something similar.

  4. Hi MSCHAP,

    I would actually agree with you that the housing system has created enclaves. Honestly, even within the halls, where most people would assume that there is more interaction and less cliquing; although this is my first sem staying in a hall, I’ve noticed very evidently that the foreigners (mainly the PRCs and Indians) mostly keep within their own cliques and certain practices they have which are different from us are certainly not very pleasant and in fact, creates more animosity between them and us.

    Additionally, to add from my experience with working together with them for my MKT1003X, which we were forced to have a mix of people in our group, they certainly did not even bother much about the project and would rather spend time doing their own individual assignments.

    However, that unpleasantness aside, I have felt that I have benefited a little from the diversity of NUS and am happy to meet friends frm Mauritius, India and China all the same

    1. Dear MSCHAP and SPUNKGAL

      It takes two hands to clap – foreign students and locals students must want to engage one another. I am glad to hear that both of you had positive (or some positive) experiences. The situation at PGP is due to a constraint – we have about 10,000 accommodation places and about 2,500 Singaporean students living on campus (out of about 20,000 Singaporean undergraduates). We would like more Singaporean students to live on campus, but this is not the case. Even if we have more Singaporean students wanting to live on campus, we do not have enough accommodation.

    I do share the same perspective with you about the hall system, yet I have another story to tell from foreign student to tell. Not only once or twice i have been rejected to join a project group just because of my nationality. So who should I blame for my miserable 4 years in NUS then?
    Rather than complaining that Indian students are smelly ( hey, I heard that during an official presentation once), PRC students are eccentric, Vietnamese students are clueless, Singaporean students are kiasu, what did you, as a student, do to change this stereotype and misconception?
    What can NUS do to improve this?
    – delibrately mix the student groups. Give the lecturers a computer tool to automatically do the grouping, in which a wide base of criterias such as nationality, CAP, major should be diversify in the group. I think this do-able for NUS.
    – adjust the amount of people of same nationality in a course. In mine, foreign students literally mean either Malaysian or PRC.

  6. I support the idea of getting professors to intentionally allocate groups to enhance diversity too, but not limited to having a blend of nationalities, but also faculties, majors and gender etc. I have personally benefited from such group allocation: for instance, For one of the NUS business module I took, my group had 2 Singaporeans, 1 Indonesian, 1 Vietnamese and 1 Pakistani. Although the diverse backgrounds often resulted in conflicts due to differences in opinions, most of them were creative abrasions that generated new ideas where were particularly useful for our project. I had a pleasant experience working my groupmates, and I appreciated the efforts made by the professor to mixed us up as I managed to know new people outside my usual social circle, especially since I am a Science student and have fewer chances of group interactions as compared to other Social Science/Business majors.

    However, I believe that even if compulsory allocation of groups were to be implemented to increase diversity, it would still require students to bear an open mind towards the differences in personality and background in order to leverage on diversity. I also had bad experiences working with people as my groupmates (an Indian and a PRC) had entirely different viewpoints and were on a heated argument. It created a tense atmosphere in the group till the end of the course that was never really resolved.

    I am currently on student exchange in Korea and the partner university here is facing the same problem: The Korean students here form a closed community distinct from the international students largely due to the language barrier. In order to improve the situation, the school has a regular programme in place that encourages international students to come forward and present their countries to others. Each week, a country would be introduced during a 1h session and the international students presenting would be provided with funding to cook up a simple home-style dinner (representative of their country) for the audience. The response was good from the general student population and I have learnt quite a bit about other countries. Not sure whether there is such a programme in NUS but I have not heard of any. If there is not, perhaps similar ones could be implemented in NUS since it was mentioned in the post that there are 11,000 international students from a hundred countries studying in our campus.

    1. You are spot on, XX. Students must adopt an open mind in order to fully benefit from the diversity. This applies to all (academic) programmes – to benefit from the programme, you must adopt the right mindset. What you have seen in Korea is also practised (in some form) in our Residential Colleges and Halls. They have cultural nights, language tables, etc., all in the spirit of promoting greater cross-cultural understanding and to facilitate interaction.

  7. The integration of international students with locals is made tougher by the public sentiment over foreigner influx. Somehow I feel that persuading students to integrate through intellectual reasoning may not be effective nor sufficient. One way which I think may help would be to create a common ground between international & local students – by introducing & encouraging Singaporean culture & language.

    I have always found it easier & enjoyable to speak to a foreigner/international student who speaks some Singlish and knows the use of the “lah”, “leh” particles etc. I have local friends who have girlfriends from other countries and I admire their ability to adapt to our culture and blend in, so much that I begin to treat them as Singaporeans.

    Though the University & authorities may frown upon the use of Singlish (for fear of polluting linguistic standards), socially it is an important way of getting people to accept each other. Having worked with numerous colleagues from China, I have begun picking up lots of useful vocabulary and Chinese scientific terms to facilitate smooth communication and socializing outside work. In other words, it’s adapting to your new environment (入乡随俗) [though it’s a new environment within my own beloved country…]

    I’m not an expert on social dynamics, but my observations lead me to conclude that we need to integrate by understanding each other’s cultures and that is a starting point for being accepted. Don’t we all teach children that during Racial Harmony Day?

    Through the various comments left above mine, we can see that some locals welcome international students, others tacitly place barriers. Some international students are active and constructive while some are in their own world.

    If studying in SG is part of their globalization experience, why not learn some local culture, pick up some Singlish and see if it works for both sides? When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Once a good friendship is established, it’s harder to discriminate against each other 🙂

    Otherwise I feel most locals might still view international students as ‘sparring partners’ who threaten the limited resource of “A” grades.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It is natural for students of the same nationality to cluster, but if this becomes their default behaviour, it will generate tensions on both sides. Public sentiments do affect our students’ perception and behaviour, and this is because NUS is a microcosm of Singapore society and the global world. However, as educated individuals, I do hope that we can approach this issue in a constructive manner.

  8. Globalisation is here. We need to embrace it wholeheartedly. I think people who still think that we can still afford to isolate ourselves is clearly out-of-sync with today’s trends. Singapore is a small saturated market and we locals can only expand and grow if we seek out better business opportunities with others. The tertiary level of forming multi-national project teams is just a trial run or a test run for the conservative students to adjust. There are some MNCs such as 3M Singapore and they hire Africans, Phillippines and Indian engineers. If we cannot even do that, in working life, it becomes harder to adjust.

  9. Dear Provost,

    I have benefited greatly from diversity during MUN conferences and exchange, on a Singapore-tour when I volunteered to bring exchange students out, and from working with talented individuals on my YEP. While these experiences on the one hand could be liken to NUS in general, they do not accurately reflect daily sentiments, that we learn and thrive together in diversity.

    First of all, I have to agree that professors are crucial in integrating the class. In classes where professors consciously tapped on the diverse experiences of these foreign students, I have come to learn much more. Understandably, humans of the same “feather” flock together. It’s a pity that students seldom wish to flock with our international friends (even though sometimes they actually pull up the group grade!).

    More support can be provided to integrate these full-time international students. I believe these students face problems in integrating that we do not know of, but because they score so well in every class, they are understandably perceived as a threat (either economic in grades or cultural in challenging the prevailing norms) and get alienated first. Friendly international students tend to blend in with greater ease. This helps create the diverse climate NUS wishes to achieve. Perhaps approval and support from top-down will drive the change.

    1. Dear Keira

      The MUN Conference is a very special one, and diversity is an underlying feature. We should have more of such events, with many of our students participating. You raise a very important point – we should be perceptive of the problems and issues faced by foreigners, and if I may add, of Singaporeans as well. Resolution can only be achieved with top-down and bottom-up actions.

  10. Seeing the comments above me, it confirms my own observations that there exist some gap among the diverse groups we have in NUS. More should be done to bridge this gap.

    There is also an antagonistic sense of “us vs them” and I observed that this feeling permeates throughout society. In a sense, I feel that its a huge problem not just for NUS, but this whole country. I’m afraid that the sentiment may be headed for the wrong direction as I look at some of the facebook posts posted by my friends. I must say it is regrettable.

    I believe we shouldn’t harp so much on the issue of enclaves forming because it is an invaluable resource of support and assistance for international students assimilating in a new environment. Rather we must find to ways to “grow our common spaces” or common interests in sports, culture, and other activities. Through these environments where we collaborate together and do not feel the pressure of achieving a good grade, I think that is where the deeper level of interaction and understanding can be achieved.

    Incentives/ funding could be given to CCA groups that organises any event or activity that focus on bring together a diverse mix of participants and have high interaction rate amongst its participants.

    1. I like the way which you have put it – growing “common spaces” where foreign and local students can grow as well as collaborate and compete. Indeed, CCAs, residential halls and colleges, etc., are all good platforms for us to do this.

  11. Dear Prof Tan,
    As a local graduating student, I appreciate studying alongside with my foreign friends whose nationality ranges from the PRC, Vietnam to Germany, but there are some thoughts that I wish to share.

    First of all, after two years of military training, our knowledge acquired during the JC years is rusty. However, we (the male citizens) are being pushed into direct competition with international students who are often fresh from their previous educational institutions. For those who are unable to adjust to the pace initially, they are severely disadvantaged since our CAP is cumulative. Furthermore, from my experience with some of the international students (SM scholars), they seemed to be given the chance (a few years?) to adjust to the NUS workload and environment before joining the undergraduate program. Hence, to say that they are of higher caliber than some of the local students may be unfair. The international students might be better prepared for the university life and academic workload, but may not necessarily be smarter than the local students.

    Secondly, it seems that some of the international students are not “admitted on a more rigorous and stringent criteria”. I can still recall that some of the PRC scholars actually struggled conversing in English and their essay writing skills make me suspect that they will not even make it past the General Paper. I think this is one of the reasons why some of the local students feel that they are “robbed” of their place in NUS. In fact, some of us have wondered if the international students are admitted just to raise the ranking of NUS.

    Thirdly, despite the significant population of international students in NUS, there seems to be little interaction with the locals. I observe through my experience leading a modest society that many of the international students are simply too preoccupied with their academic studies to care about anything else. Even when they participate in CCA activities, it is obvious that most of them simply joined for the sake of securing points for accommodation and do not put their heart into it. This is very regrettable as CCA activities are in fact the best opportunity for students of different nationalities to mingle and interact together.

    Another phenomenon that I observe is that due to the large number of foreign students from the same nationality, they tend to stick as a group and not interact with other students. I feel that the wide range of amenities available to certain residences actually worsen this situation as the international students do not need to venture outside the campus at all. In fact, one of them actually said that all she had ever seen outside the NUS campus is the scenery on her way from Changi airport to NUS.

    Finally, I feel that in order to encourage interaction between local and international students, we will need to change our current way of assessment and grading. Whether we are truly graded using a bell-curve, there is no doubt that such impression remains entrenched in the mind of the students. Hence, it is hard to encourage students to build up teamwork in such cut-throat, competitive environment. Furthermore, for most of the modules I have taken, all the assessment methods are examination-based (pop quiz, midterm test, lab report, essay etc) and all those with interesting projects are usually GEM modules. Group projects are even harder to come by.

    In my opinion, it may be better for the university administration to maintain a communication channel with the academic societies. The situation in different faculty and department is essentially different and the challenges faced by students from different majors are varied. By asking for feedbacks from the academic societies (who represent students from respective majors), their suggestions may be more specific and useful, since recommended changes may only be essential at departmental-level.

  12. Thanks for you very thoughtful comments, Yuki. We are very mindful that NSmen will need time to adapt to NUS. In time to come, there will be more writing and communication as well as skills enhancement modules for all our students, possibly on a S/U basis, and these might help to minimize the disparity. There are two main groups of students admitted into NUS directly from China – SM2 (Senior Middle 2) and SM3 students. The SM3 students have previously been admitted into a top university in China; the SM2 students are potential admits to a top university in China. If you do an off-the-cuff estimate, these students are typically the top 1% of students in China of each birth cohort. Compare this with Singaporean students in NUS – who are amongst the top 15% of each birth cohort, based on A-level results. There are differences – the Chinese university-entry system does not require a high level of English language competency, and these SM2 and SM3 students can only choose Computing, Engineering and Science degrees. Hence, the SM2 and SM3 students undergo a bridging program spanning 18 months and 10 months respectively, primarily to improve on their language competency. Because they have lived together during their bridging programs, they build strong ties that carry through their university studies. I know many tend to stick to their same groups, and this will not be healthy for their personal (professional) development. We are trying to change this by using a different model of the bridging-cum-residential program next year.

  13. If NUS did a projection, surveys, modelling and forecast that the benefits of having more international students who are on MOE tuition grant will be better for SIngapore in the long run, there will still be howls of protest from local citzens. I recently read a book titled “Behavioural Economics and Policy Design” by Donald Low. http://www.amazon.com/Behavioural-Economics-Policy-Design-Singapore/dp/9814366005 . It talks about how when a efficient market hypothesis may not even work if a policy maker fails to factor in behavioural economics. Behaviour Economics is irrational and is more on the cognitive and emotional side of an individual. For example, if Ministry of Manpower were to project its forecast and statistics show that small medium enterprises need more foreigners to get work permits to help ease the labour crunch, many Singaporeans will still complain to Ministry of Manpower and said that foreigners will get jobs while locals get National Service. This is because when foreigners with work permits come to Singapore to work, they bring their own habits which may not be desirable to Singaporeans into our heartlands. Therefore, to resolve these, Ministry of Manpower may need to factor in behavioural economics… How MOM does it, I don’t have the answer. …… I am going for Ministry of Manpower interview this Friday and there is an essay question on this. Any students who have any pointers on this? (evil grin).

  14. My Ministry of Manpower interview was postponed to next month. When I asked what happened, the HR executive said that they wish to have more quality candidates in their pool, which means more competition for me. The situation in the private sector is even worse. Some small medium enterprises and MNCs hire work permit foreign S-pass holders and these compete together with Singaporeans once again. Speaking English is not a criteria for work permit holders which explains the presence of office girls from China who do not speak a word of English in Singapore. Employers are now very picky and have no shortage of graduates and are becoming more intolerant of employees’ mistakes. Make one mistake and you can be asked to resign and they have no shortage of staff to replace you. Life is getting more and more competitive and with international students in NUS, there is already intense competition. While it is in Singapore’s long term interest to open itself to foreign talent, individuals like me who have served National Service 2 years of my life find it quite unsettling that we have not been conferred significant benefit or advantage at all. Singapore men use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something in Singapore. And yet, in my previous working profession, my nasty unappreciative female boss insulted me by saying “You have no significant benefit to the organisation”. I find it discomforting that I should devote 2 years of my life to a woman or international student who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then question the manner in which I provide it. I graduated from NUS in 2005. So far, 2 of my international friends (Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and China) have gone on back to their home countries and another two to Germany and United States after serving their tuition bond in Singapore. I do not have the statistics but even when I was a NUS student, quite a number of them simply do not wish to stay in Singapore after completing their bond. Therefore, I really can’t help but feel that this country Singapore is really not worth defending or living when our foreigners treat it like a hotel.

  15. Hi Provost, Hi readers,

    It seems that we are unaware of a minority of foreign students – those who have done their education in Singapore since the very beginning. They fought for primary school places, they fought in the O levels, they fought in the A levels, they fought for university places, all using the same criteria as local Singaporean students. In all likelihood, they are almost indistinguishable from local students. These are the people who naturalised, who adopted the Singapore culture, who embraced the educational system, who are rooted to Singapore and I believe would be the group most likely to remain and contribute to Singapore in the future. Yet they are tainted with the same brush of “us versus them foreign students”. Many allegations regarding foreign students (e.g. regarding easy admission) cannot be applied to this group – it’s unfair. So next time somebody introduces him/herself as being from another country, spare the judgment. Chances are he/she might be more Singaporean than Singaporeans themselves.

    1. I agree with you, H. If I may add, some of these folks do National Service too. My wife’s good friend from Malaysia returned to Singapore last year, and brought her British son to do NS. We should not generalize too quickly.

  16. At this point it is pertinent to address the issue core to this topic, which is… WHAT IS A SINGAPOREAN?

    I don’t mean the kind of matter-of-fact definition that a Singaporean is someone who is born in Singapore. That much is obvious and not very useful.

    Others (H and Edmund) have raised very good points regarding this, but given the nature of Singapore I feel it is necessary to establish this concretely. If someone does not tell you that they are born in Singapore, how will you know that they are Singaporean?

    Our country is an immigrant society to begin with. The spirit of xenophobia is pretty prevalent due to our ridiculously high foreigner population relative to local popuation, but honestly speaking is somewhat absurd because the few of us that can claim to be truly native to Singapore are the same few who never speak up on this topic. Namely, the few descendants of the Orang Laut. Even the majority of the Malays currently in Singapore are immigrant by nature from Indonesia and Malaysia owing to our extremely close proximity. However, even if we consider the entirety of the Malay population to be indigenous rather than only the more narrow group, it is interesting to observe that the majority of anti-foreigner sentiments stem not from the Malay group, but from the Chinese group. And for the most part, our ancestors came here less than 5 generations ago, from thousands of kilometres away.

    If I were to look at behaviour, I agree with H that there is that group. Some foreigners I know, who came here when they were in primary school and fought through the same bell curves as we did, essentially have faced the same struggles, the same culture, behave in the same way we do, associate with Singaporeans mostly, and more. And yet, I know some people who are the opposite. People who are Singaporean by 2 generations, but whose family groups and associations are so enclosed they behave more like Chinese nationals than most Chinese nationals do. So whatever common academic culture we have is not isolated to Singaporeans. If we are to consider that as a mark of being a Singaporean, then we would necessarily have to consider some foreigners more Singaporean than some Singaporeans are.

    If we were to go back to the citizenship definition, and look through the only things citizens do that foreigners do not:


    Whether this is sad or encouraging is up to the reader to decide, but with the current policies in place, that is the conclusion I’ve drawn. Singaporean men have a common identity because we have all suffered under the same military training regimen. Many have grown stronger from it, many have wasted the entirety of two years of their lives, and some have learnt what it means to be broken, for those who have had the misfortune of being sent to the Detention Barracks. Even so, experiences differ by unit, by rank, by vocation and by person, but what is in common are the two years spent there.

    For voting, rare enough an occasion as it is (such that some have up to this point still not been able to vote at all), we have reviewed our candidates, made our selection and queued up to make our voice heard. For Singaporean females in particular, this is the only experience they have in common with Singapore men, and with each other, because they do not serve National Service.

    It is odd that all things granted, I find myself sharing more in common with some foreigners than I do with some women from my own country.


    So what is my point? I am a local, I have gone through NS, and because of that I will never give up my citizenship here, it being bought at too expensive a price. For some definitions, you could call that a form of loyalty.

    However, the problem I see isn’t so much of foreigners posing a threat to us in an academic or work sense. While it is strange that foreigners can take jobs here when they also have jobs (albeit less-paying) back in their home while some locals end up unemployed with nowhere to turn, this situation is more an economic one, a political one, with little or nothing we can do at the university level, with the exception of altering entry criteria. The main social problem I feel foreigners pose to Singapore is that they remind us that we, in fact, have very little in common. Malays from our neighbouring countries are so similar to Malays here they can integrate relatively well, and the same for Chinese (though it should be noted that Chinese from China and from Southeast Asia generally have quite a lot of differences in culture), and the same applies for Indians. If we are able to accept the differences between the main racial groups in Singapore, and we recognise that foreigners who have spent the majority of their lives here also share the few similarities we have in common, then the conclusion is that there really is nothing much that makes Singaporeans essentially Singaporean.

    Except for NS.

    Which is viewed negatively by most.

    Therein lies the source of much unhappiness, that the only thing we get for being Singaporean is a burden. Anger is directed towards foreigners for being able to live our lifestyle without paying that price, but in my opinion that really is misdirected, for it is not the foreigners’ fault. Perhaps it is ours for not forging anything else in common, perhaps it is the authorities’ fault for inadequate recompense for National Service.


    Moving forward, if we are to obtain any benefits from international students, we need to recognise that they are not the problem. Viewing them with a negative opinion only serves to alienate them from the start, and no learning can take place from someone you refuse to learn from. Similarly, foreign students need to attempt to integrate into our society as well, at least somewhat. Lecturers can certainly assist in breaking walls by forcibly assigning people of different backgrounds together, but how successful that will be depends on the locals’ and the foreigners’ attitude towards cooperation. As tempting as it may be to associate with people who are similar to ourselves, any form of clique formation along cultural lines will instantly cease any potential for any benefits foreign students can bring to us, regardless of whether it is we who exclude them (in many cases), or they who exclude us (which commonly is complained about regarding Chinese nationals).

    I’ll add in here that these are observations and not a kind of personal thing, since the majority of students in my particular major are local.

    What the university can do is set out systems in place in which clique formation is sabotaged, such as by random, irrevocable assignment of groups.

    What the students can do is to do our best to learn from each other.

    The rest of the problem is at a societal level that may be far beyond the scope of anyone at NUS to deal with.

  17. NUS student’s comments on Chinese website spark buzz
    Xavier Lur
    Thu, Nov 24, 2011

    Think twice before posting your thoughts on the Internet.

    Parry Liu, a foreign student from Beijing, China currently studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS), on Tuesday published a controversial comment regarding Singaporean students.

    On the popular Chinese social networking platform Ren Ren, Parry Liu posted in Chinese, “There is a lesson we can learn from the recent Singapore vs China soccer match — and we can apply that into our (university) final exam. No matter what, do not give up, because there is always a Singaporean student who will perform worse than us.”

    His remark attracted hundreds of comments from netizens on forums and social networking sites, most of them negative although some users agreed with him.

    27-year-old business manager Leroy Lim said it is very irresponsible for PRC students like Liu to make such a remark about Singaporean students, especially when the university final exam is around the corner.

    “It’s inappropriate for him to publish such a comment on a social networking site, particularly when the final exam is nearing. Furthermore, his Chinese peers might perceive we Singaporeans as inferior and academically-disinclined, as compared to the students from China,” he told Yahoo! Singapore.

    However, a few locals think what Parry said was rather accurate, and that we Singaporeans should accept that fact.

    “This is hard truth, and indeed the high-achieving students are usually from China and few from local,” said Ng Wei Jun, a 23-year-old engineering student from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

    In a later post published last night, Parry said he regretted posting such a foolish remark.

    “I agree. My sensitive remark has caused major dissatisfactions among the local community, and I sincerely apologise,” he published on his Ren Ren blog.

    Parry Liu has since deactivated his Ren Ren and Facebook account. Yahoo! Singapore has reached out to him, but he declined to comment.

    1. Given that the Chinese students here are at the top of their cohort and we comprise the entirety of our cohort, what he said is strictly accurate. If it wasn’t, they should not be here.

      If we were to send our top students to China we’d also necessarily defeat the majority of their students there, but this says nothing about the relative strengths of Singapore as a whole and China as a whole.

      Comparing the top Chinese against the top Singaporeans would be a more meaningful comparison if you’re into that kind of thing. Not that it really means much; if you’re good enough, you’re good relative to any population in the world. If you’re not, you’re not relative to any population in the world. And most importantly, even if your population is above average, it’s not going to help you if you are not, and even if your population is below average, it’s not going to detract from you either.

      However, not everything that is true is appropriate to say…

      And it’s not productive for the Chinese to slack just because someone will lose to them by default though. The goal of learning should be understanding and self-improvement, and the ultimate measure against which we should compare ourselves to now is the ourselves from yesterday. If we improve ourselves continuously, being competitive on the whole is merely a natural consequence.

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