Global Competition

How can NUS nurture graduates who are able to compete against the millions of other graduates?

In March this year, Evan Osnos, an American reporter for the New Yorker based in Beijing, appeared on The Colbert Report and revealed a startling fact. “There are more Chinese kids right now learning English than there are American kids learning English. Think about that for a second.” He declared to a rather bewildered Stephen Colbert.[1]

Not just the Americans, we too here in NUS, Singapore, are cognizant that global competition is real. Last year, China’s universities and colleges produced over 6 million graduates, up from 2 million graduates just in 2003. We must thus enable and ensure that our graduates, though small in numbers, are competitive, and are a notch above the others.

Our challenge is cut out for us. The top 50 universities in China take in about 0.1% of China’s yearly cohort of newborns, which numbers in the millions. The three public universities in Singapore take in collectively about 25% of Singapore’s yearly cohort of roughly about 45,000 (new births, 18 years ago). Just based on pure statistics, China’s top universities already have a head start over us in NUS in terms of the calibre of undergraduates.

In light of this, how will our graduates compete with other top Asian graduates?

A key advantage that NUS graduates have over graduates of other Asian countries is our competence in English. That said, Chinese students are beginning to understand the importance of acquiring English, as Osnos had pointed out. According to this article, the demand for English teachers is insatiable and there are as many as 300 million Chinese people are learning English. This ‘English advantage’ will not hold out for long.

How now?

In my previous blog posts, (hyperlink: I had commented on the importance of global readiness and of having effective writing and communications skills. ( These are but some of many other attributes which we believe will better equip our graduates to compete globally.

One other important attribute is the competitive spirit of NUS graduates. Let me elaborate. On the university’s part, we have taken care to provide an array of free activities to aid NUS undergraduates in their development. For example, the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning ( organizes free workshops on communications skills, on making effective presentations, etc., and there are also numerous job fairs and career workshops that the NUS Career Centre and individual Faculties/Schools provide for their students.

That NUS students do not seem keen attending job fairs, career workshops or communication skills workshops has been a point of our concern. This is in spite of arranging for workshops to be held during the weekends to avoid timetable clashes. I will be interested to understand why.

We are one of the world’s smallest countries, with a resident population of nearly 3.8 million people, a territory of 700 sq. km and no natural resources. By conventional wisdom, Singapore should be a rather insignificant country. Yet, Singapore has remarkably defied the odds to progress from third world to first in a single generation. This little country has evolved to become a global city that is a focal point for talent, enterprise, cultures and ideas from across the world. It is often said that Singapore ‘punches above her weight’, be it in economics or in diplomacy.

The physical and economic realities have not changed. Singapore has stayed ahead because we are continually a step faster and better than others. Can we continue to stay ahead? As NUS is a crucial part of the Singapore system, how can we enhance NUS education to nurture graduates who are competitive in the global workplace, and allow Singapore to stay ahead?

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  1. “That NUS students do not seem keen attending job fairs, career workshops or communication skills workshops has been a point of our concern. This is in spite of arranging for workshops to be held during the weekends to avoid timetable clashes. I will be interested to understand why.”

    this i believe is simply most of us students hate to do anything remotely related to academic stuff outside our curriculum. unless it’s fun or of paramount importance to our future/career.

    the only way to get us to attend these workshops is to force it on us. though another set of problems will arise :p

    1. Forcing students to attend career workshops may not be ideal. We think it is important enough for the University to provide these workshops for ALL students, and we intend to use a “softer” approach. We will provide more details soon.

  2. How about making events or workshops at the Career centre more of a mandatory proceeding for students? Maybe make some “modules” out of them.

  3. I feel many students (my peers) are narrowly focused on academic excellence, and are only willing to allocate some extra time for activities that may add to their CV, convinced that a good transcript will secure them a job.

    While this is true, this gives them no competitive edge in the mid-to-long term. I might suggest if the university could allow for the time to immerse one’s self into a variety of subjects, without any implication on one’s transcript, that goes beyond the currently mandated electives.

    If we can critically arrange and piece together a holistic integrated understanding of our world, I think we will stand a better chance of providing a special and unique value-added perspective to our employers who operate in a complex globalized market place.

    1. Keith:

      I feel many students (my peers) are narrowly focused on academic excellence, and are only willing to allocate some extra time for activities that may add to their CV, convinced that a good transcript will secure them a job.

      I concur. In a paper-driven society, you’re taught from young that grades (perhaps only grades) matter. Much less emphasis is placed on skills outside examinations i.e. “if i ace my results, I shouldn’t have an issue with getting a good job once I start sending CVs out. Therefore, why should I spend time attending workshops, brushing up skills that aren’t examinable?”

      Furthermore, in contrast to a job interview, exams are much shorter term targets that take up much focus. Undergrads simply aren’t in the right state of mind to accept the importance of lessons taught in workshops nor feel enthusiastic about a job hunt when the final exam is coming. Perhaps a change in environment is necessary, an environment where students discover for themselves the importance of skills beyond exams. I believe such skills can be picked up in industrial attachments where students are immersed into a world which NUS is trying to prepare them for. Less emphasis on exams, more on projects should also help.

    2. Our S/U modules (and SEP) serve this purpose – to allow students to explore a variety of subjects without implicating their transcripts. We are currently deliberating whether to allow for more modules to be taken on an S/U basis. Writing and Communications modules are another possible suite of modules that may be taken on an S/U basis.

  4. To stay competitive, one important characteristics is taking initiative or being proactive. Knowing our weaknesses and taking steps to improve on them is taking initiative.
    When resources are made available, as students, the onus is on us too, to fully utilize what have been made available. I am surprised to learnt that career workshops are not well attended; how about resume writing and interview skills? Are these not important and not well attended too?
    Also, inviting industry practitioners to deliver 1 or 2 lectures that covers both subject matter and career development aspects of relevant modules may help with addressing the challenge of time-table clashes.

    1. Last year, about 1,500 students (out of the 25,000 undergraduates) attended one of the five workshops on career preparation. Of these, about 320 students attended the whole series of 5 workshops covering various aspects of career preparation such as resume writing, interview skills, networking, etc. Well, these numbers speak for themselves. Further, many of these workshops were conducted by industry practitioners.

  5. The competition on campus is no doubt rather heated. Everyone strives hard to do more in less time, to gain an edge over our coursemates. The thing is, much as we all hate to admit, our energy is limited & we are unfortunately not made to be energizer bunnies. As it is, lessons, studies and campus activities take much of our time; much as we would like to do even more, sometimes we just don’t have the time and energy to do so.

    As university students, we face many other concerns besides academics and our future careers. And as many have warned us, we should be taking the time in university to explore things beyond academics, since working life rarely permits us the freedom to do so. Some of us choose not to attend extra-curricular activities that are aimed at preparing us better for the working world only because we have other priorities and commitments.

    That said, the workshops continue to be a wealth of resources and it is a privilege to have access to them. Thank you for providing us with extra resources which we know we can rely on

    1. Well, working life has its set of problems and pressures. Many alumni have found that university life was far easier. Do find time to attend some of these workshops at the Career Centre.

  6. I just feel sad that I know of local friends who are dropping out of their programmes in NUS because they have been edged out by the foreign competition. Maybe for a start, we should think about looking after the welfare of our local students first? And by that I don’t mean just giving them more places, but also providing a better-taught and tougher curriculum that would equip us to be on competitive par with foreigners in the workplace.

    Competence, in my opinion, does not come just from academic and other abilities, but also confidence, a global outlook and a willingness to adapt to the working habits of incoming cultures.

    1. Surely you are not suggesting that we have some programmes only available to local students? That would be a “slippery slope”.

  7. “That NUS students do not seem keen attending job fairs, career workshops or communication skills workshops has been a point of our concern. This is in spite of arranging for workshops to be held during the weekends to avoid timetable clashes. I will be interested to understand why.”

    I agree that we are not all that keen on attending these workshops and we each have our own set of reasons.

    Here are some of mine:

    Although some workshops are organised during weekends, we are still not keen to attend as weekends just consist of two days. Most of my friends spent these two days catching up on lectures, doing homework, paying back the sleep debt we accumulated throughout the week. Besides that the majority of my part time work falls on the weekend, which is on top of the CCA activities that need to be planned and carried out.

    While this might not be applicable to the workshops and seminars mentioned in your blog, some of the seminars organised by NUS by various departments are boring and do not relate to students. I recently attended “The Recent Christchurch Earthquakes – Insights into land and building issues” by Mr Bernard Toh at the Faculty of Engineering which was organised by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, I thought that the talk would be interesting as I figured that it would cover issues on why the buildings collapsed, what can be done and what NUS students/ graduates can do in this field. But it turns out that he was talking about what his company is doing and the whole talk was draggy and somewhat boring. I also noted that there only a 2-3 undergrads who attended.

    Personally, I have attended and completed the career workshop organised by the career center at the end of last semester. Also I do read all the emails from NUS that announce various seminars and talks, and attend those that fit my daily schedule and those that are related or sound interesting.

    If staying competitive requires students to develop other areas besides our course of study, perhaps workloads and exams be reduced so that students would not have to spend both weekdays and weekends just trying to keep up with the classwork.

    1. We cannot teach everything. Neither can we guarantee that all students who have attended these workshops will be excellent job hunters. We also do not wish to have NUS graduates providing a “robotic” response, and that employers will know that “they are trained to behave this way”. Exposing students to career workshops will sensitize them to relevant issues on securing a career – there are many skills which students will need to internalize. I am aware of the time constraint, but it is a choice which students must make.

  8. “The physical and economic realities have not changed. Singapore has stayed ahead because we are continually a step faster and better than others. Can we continue to stay ahead? As NUS is a crucial part of the Singapore system, how can we enhance NUS education to nurture graduates who are competitive in the global workplace, and allow Singapore to stay ahead?”

    Something of the hippie liberal (suppressed and buried by the tons of readings that exemplifies an NUS Law education) in me stirs at that. I find it repulsive that this premise is so unquestioned. Is ‘staying ahead’ a sine qua non of being Singapore, Singaporean, or a member/graduate of NUS? So what if China is producing millions of college graduates? Why is it that we as college students must always attend school (and all these workshops and whatnot) with a view to ‘compet[ing]’ with other Asian graduates? This is typical pro-competition rhetoric stemming from an incomplete understanding of the facts. Allow me to present an alternative view.

    First, I suspect that this obsession with the ‘competition’, viz the People’s Republic and the World’s Largest Democracy, is less justified than it seems. (I must caveat that as [an inevitable] member of the legal fraternity I would be, rightfully, accused of speaking from under my bomb shelter, but believe me I do realise the privileged position of my comrades and myself.) The millions of Chinese and Indian (and Vietnamese and Thai, etc) graduates aren’t just suddenly going to burst into the world. Most of them will work in their own countries, for the betterment of the lives of themselves, their families, and their people. Those who go abroad to seek their fortunes are but a minority (albeit arguably a very talented and adventurous minority).

    The learned Provost would have us imagine waves of elite, hardened job-snatchers assailing our shores and those of other industrialised economies. That, it is respectfully submitted, is alarmism. The Chinese and Indians are always welcome if they have something to contribute – but our Government will (hopefully) have due regard to the interests of native Singaporeans. Labour barriers are part and parcel of any coherent national policy – and I have no doubt that the Administration will remember that lest they lose their grip on political control. And many more will pass our tiny island by – for they have bigger fish to fry elsewhere.

    What does this really mean? All it means is that NUS graduates must continue to be relevant to the demands of Singapore society. Most of us will not want to (or be able to) find jobs abroad. Most of us will stay and live out our lives on this tiny island. Many of us will want to limit the number of foreigners coming to join us here. To argue that each and every NUS graduate must prime himself for a lifetime of struggle with the invading Chinese and Indian and other Hordes (as the learned Provost and other equally learned and distinguished gentlemen have from time to time advocated) is pure paranoia and wilful blindness to the real needs of Singapore qua society and nation, and NUS qua a public institution of the people.

    NUS is here to educate, to arm the people (many of whom are not so privileged as to head abroad or get full-ride scholarships) with the tools they need to move around the social web (I dislike ‘ladder’ as a metaphor as it suggests only a binary solution. Life is more complex than a decision on get rich/not get rich). NUS as an institution is not just about producing warriors for the Singapore economy – it is also a bastion and sanctuary of learning and reflection.

    Pray do not corrupt the sacred nature of higher education for the people. And stop this fear-mongering. Painting other Asians as the ‘competition’ is as good as declaring economic war on them. Let us take a deep breath and a step back, and put a halt (if not an end) to this arms race.

    1. At >30%, we do have a greater foreign population in Singapore at present than is the case in most other countries in the world, though in a way since Singapore is an immigrant society it can be said that none of us are really all that local in the first place.

      There are some barriers to entry for some careers (like law, medicine, the civil service) but in most commercial cases, once a foreigner passes through the border with the right to work here, they are able to take most jobs. Inasmuch as you have acknowledged that you are speaking under your bomb shelter, I will equally admit that my own field (Pharmacy) is also, somewhat, a bomb shelter of sorts. However, I do not share your optimism regarding the ability of students in general to avoid having to compete.

      With the role of foreign workers in Singapore to be to fill the jobs that locals are unable to perform adequately, training locals to be able to perform jobs will necessarily increase their ability to get jobs.

      I do not feel it is wise to assume that the Government will necessarily put into place protectionistic policies. If recent population trends and their press releases are any indication, the influx will not stop till at least 6.5M total population, 2.2M foreigner population (with the 1.2M PR population, which arguably is somewhat still foreign since their citizenship isn’t here, counted within the 4.3M). Their mandate from the Singapore people is still strong, and in the recent elections they still retain the majority of the representation. Regardless of what the vocal minority feels, the silent majority still support the current direction and there is little incentive to make major policy adjustments as yet. An elected Government serves the needs of its constituents, and as of now it still seems to be the case that the majority of the constituents do not feel the foreigner influx to be a significant enough issue to abandon support.

      In addition, do not underestimate the attractiveness of Singapore to foreign labour in general, especially from China. While we use English very widely, we are one of the ONLY countries in the world in which a Chinese worker can function without knowing that much English, because our population majority is Chinese, and because there are already many foreign Chinese here. Many in the local research scene are capable of speaking semifluent English, but still use Chinese for communication with their colleagues. It is also interesting to note that some Chinese workers sometimes feel more at home here than in certain parts of China itself since we use the Simplified Chinese standard that some areas of China (like Hong Kong) do not, and which, if my sources are correct, no other country in the world except Malaysia uses, and their barriers to entry are significantly higher than ours.

      In addition, for all types of foreign workers, we are attractive for our extremely high currency strength, our relatively low entry barriers, and our relatively low non-accomodative cost of living. This makes the salaries we offer here significantly higher than what is available in many other places that foreign workers may access, and our high cost of housing is not relevant to one unless one is intending to stay here permanently.

      Another thing is that your post assumes that local students will want to work here, but there is an increasing trend by which local students go overseas to find jobs as well. The Government has labelled them as “quitters” with a kind of traitorous implication at times, but many of these still remit finances back, and many retain their citizenship. Males greatly outnumber females in the emigration trend, and citizenship for males is a very hard-fought process that few will deign to forsake. For this increasingly large group of students, their ability to find jobs overseas is dependent on their abilities, since they must necessarily offer more skills than other countries can get from the majority of their own citizens.

      I still do personally feel the primary role of education to be that of learning and the improvement of oneself, but the significance of education to the majority as a requirement for employment should not be regarded so lightly. Nevertheless there is a friend of mine who is able to survive for the rest of his life based on investment alone and is studying in NUS because he wants to learn more of the topic of his interest. These people are few and far between, and while some may be unhappy with them for “taking a university place someone else needs”, there is a place for learning for learning’s sake as well. But for most students, employment is a very real and very significant drive for learning.

      While I do agree with you nonetheless that the people coming here from overseas comprise a minority of their respective populations, our local population is so small that that miniscule percentage is already enough to overwhelm us. With 8 billion people in the world, if the top 0.05% of the people in each country attempt to work in Singapore, and entry restrictions are not tight enough, Singapore’s population will then comprise >50% of foreigners by number. The hordes effect can’t really apply here since there isn’t enough land area for, say, even 10% of China’s population to stand here comfortably, let alone work. We have enough issues with infrastructure even a small minority.

      Based on the information available to me I do not believe it to be alarmism to have a view of competition as something we would have to deal with. However, I do not view competition to strictly be a negative thing either. Competition drives efficiency and improvement, and input from many areas in the world can give companies here perspectives and flexibility not available otherwise. It is useful to look at what we can do to benefit from competition, and improving ourselves as a response to it is not something we need shy away from.

    2. Alan,

      I wish to assure you that you are entitled to your own views, but I urge you to visit Kent Ridge campus and engage the larger community more often.

      Firstly, you mentioned that “most of the (foreign graduates) will work in their own countries, for the betterment of the lives of themselves, their families, and their people”. While statistics may show that most of them indeed stay in their homeland, one must question whether it is due to the lack of opportunities to venture out of their own country or it is their desire to do so. From my interactions with my course mate (unlike Law school, foreigners make up at least 20% of the Engineering faculty), they will want to work abroad for the sake of the money before retiring back at home. Furthermore, they have many friends who wants to do the same but were denied the opportunity.

      Secondly, I wish to but can’t make myself believe that our dear “government will (hopefully) have due regard to the interests of native Singaporeans”; The labour policies in Singapore are too impotent and too biased against Singaporeans. Take for example, the rise in the qualifying salary for Q1 pass (from 2.5k to 2.8k). In case you do not know, Q1 passes are mainly used by foreign graduates to work here. Let’s analyze the figures. Given that the AVERAGE starting pay of local university graduates is between 2.3k (lowest average, for an Arts and Design course in NTU) and 4k (SMU ISM), I’d say that the entry barrier is as good as useless since companies can and will opt to hire a foreigner at the same wage rate without needing to contribute to CPF, or to release their labour force for ICT every year.

      Competition is a reality, not an hypothetical speculation.

  9. Just my one cent worth

    I always felt that students are caught in a vicious cycle, and this cycle starts as early as Primary School.

    Since our Primary School days, parents have instilled deep in us the need to get into good secondary schools where our prospects will be better. This, while not entirely wrong, is the start of the vicious cycle. Impressionable kids start to view examinations and qualification as the key to success in the future. They start viewing many things in a very practical way.

    Being surrounded by a system of bell curve (yet again), throughout our developing years, it inevitably influences students perception in the need for academic excellence. Coupled with the fact that most employers look at qualifications first when choosing fresh graduate hires, students are geared up to get a good honours by the end of their undergraduate stint. We have long heard stories of students with 1st class honours getting job offers before graduation and that companies will come looking for you if you have a 1st class honours. With more and more graduates produced each year, it is inevitable that students feel getting a good degree will give them a competitive edge over others because it differentiates one from another.

    While higly motivated students do go for such resume writing and interview workshops, many still hold the perception that a good degree is the first requisite to getting a job. This perception is not entirely untrue as no matter how we try to convince ourselves that it is important to develop essential skills to increase our competitiveness in this global market, we are still stuck with the mentality that employers look at your degree first before anything else. The chances of getting an interview with a 3rd class honours is much much slimmer than someone with a 1st class honours. So it doesn’t make much of a difference if I have good interview skills when eventually I get a 3rd class honours because most of the opportunities will still go to the one getting 1st class honours even though he may be less proficient in handling interview situations.

    Question we may sometimes ask ourselves is, should I be a jack of all trades or should I focus on one aspect and hopefully excel in it? Students usually go for the latter and focus on academic achievements because if I can’t get a good degree employers are probably not even going to consider my application.

    Because of the practical mindset that has grown in us over the years, we tend to look at the utility of things we undertake. While the workshops are useful, we cannot see how it is more or equally important as a getting good degree which is perceived as clearer indicator of our abilities and competitiveness.

    Maybe we can start looking at changing the perception meritocracy and tell people that merit is not everything. Or shifting our focus away from a meritocratic system.

    1. Our society is driven too much by exam results. At the NUS, we are mindful of the differences between first class and third class honours, and we are trying to change that. It is not uncommon to find a non-first-class honours student who has done very well. It is also nice to know that employers are moving away from simply looking at results. Changing such a “culture” will need time.

  10. In my humble opinion:

    From my experience relating to students abroad, in terms of skills I feel that NUS / Singapore students are often ahead of our global counterparts. This includes communication, presentation, interview, analysis and even to some extent relational skills. (Hence referring to Dennis’ post, the problem of students not attending job fairs, career workshops or communication skills workshops is really not the issue since this is not what Singaporeans are lacking.)

    However I feel that what is lacking in Singapore is the urgency for creativity, the desire to explore and the desire for greatness/excellence. Let me clarify myself here. I do not speak of desire in terms of getting a successful career in the traditional sense (stable / high income, good prospects etc), this we do not lack. Rather, what is lacking is the desire and willingness to venture out to find something greater, something revolutionary, something to change our world but at the same time something that might seem so out of reach.

    I feel that perhaps at times the over emphasis on economic competitiveness has compromised the development of such creative potential in people. However, due to pragmatic considerations, it remains a tricky issue how to balance the two.

    1. I am sure many of our graduates are comparable to the best in the world. The challenge is to make a significant proportion, if possible all, of our graduates with this ability. I agree that enhancing creativity is very important, and some efforts are in place at NUS. But this is a much harder problem to tackle.

  11. It seems like the general answer to the question “Why are the extra activities not being attended” is that our basic requirements in University are already too high, and we have little time to allocate to stuff that doesn’t directly affect the transcript.

    And the general solution is “if you’re not going to force people to take it, they won’t.”

    It’s Mechwarrior’s “Law of the C-Bill” – Do unto others what gets you paid.

    Thing is, is it necessary to ensure high attendance? If we’re going to force people to attend the workshops, chances are high they won’t learn anything anyway because they’d be doing their assignments during the workshop.

    With less people the few that go will benefit from greater interaction opportunities as well, and there won’t be any problem with a course being overbooked.

    People learn what they want to learn; the University is already doing all that it can and more but simply offering the enrichment programmes in the first place, and publicising them. If students do not wish to take up the offer, they are the ones who will bear the loss.

    “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

    I might be attending a few upcoming ones. A lot of the time there are timetable clashes and time needed to complete projects during semester time though. And yes, I do have clashes even if the workshops are on Saturdays since I have 2 active CCAs on Saturday, leaving Sunday to be the only day left to do projects and/or assignments. =P

    There are some excellent opportunities to do stuff within CCAs that may be difficult or impossible upon leaving the University, which I do treasure. Inasmuch as school is a preparation for work life, it is also the last checkpoint before work begins, and once work starts it’s difficult to do a lot of fun stuff that are still available at this point.

  12. In my opinion, These workshop skills are generally covered by employers through training courses. I’ve always assumed that the workshops at NUS were primarily aimed at foreign students to improve their communication skills.
    In regards to an earlier post, There is no need to make these workshops compulsory as a student should have choice to decide whether they need to improve a particular skill.

  13. I think it’s shallow to insinuate all these ‘workshops’ will make the Singaporean student more competitive.

    Presentation is a skill and takes many practices. One workshop won’t instantly change an engineering student to be a better presenter than a business student who had to give many presentation (although some innate talent might). In any case, most workshops on presentation seems to be full going by my experience.

    Communication skills should be made compulsory. While some might ask for the liberty to choose, fact is, simple business writings such as resume, business letters, business emails, business talk settings etc has become the norm rather than the exception. I am amazed at the number of NUS students who faces so much problem crafting a decent resume. I’m glad my education before uni actually made it a compulsory course (and not just some 2 hour workshop).

    Job fairs are always full of students. Which student won’t be anxious about securing a job nearing graduation? I don’t see how Singapore students are not attending job fairs. In any case, NUS needs to take a serious look into their job fair program. The companies don’t change much every year. The fact is, the kind of companies setting up booths in the job fairs isn’t fantastic. The career center has much room for improvement.

    NUS can have a bit more faith in their local students. I have seen Singapore students adapting extremely well in various countries whether or not they are from NUS. As an alumni, I must say the students can do a lot more with less bureaucracy and liberty on their own university education. Support and do not restrain them (which is totally ironic).

    1. A module or a workshop will not be sufficient. As I have mentioned, these have to be infused into the entire currciulum. We will be happy to hear your suggestions on how to improve our career fairs.

  14. Is global competition any more real than competition in general? This might seem like a facetious statement, but ‘global’ is merely one of many aspects we ascribe to that complex of competition and motivation that drives people to work within any organized social system. Alan has pointed out the ways in which the attribution of ‘global’ to the nature of competition is possibly alarmist. The concern I’d like to address is somewhat different. I don’t think the lack of recognition of ‘global’ competition is the cause of low workshop attendance (though certainly I would not assert that the account of global competition as illuminated by you and the statistics you provided is something already thoroughly well-recognized).

    Why won’t students like me (more or less) even consider attending many of the workshops made available to us? Why do I routinely delete email notifications about, say, ‘Professional Writing Series’ and not others? (Disclaimer: I am unqualified to offer any judgment on the quality of the program. The previous statements should discourage no-one from attending.) The easy answers are the relevance to the individual’s skill development and the potential time and energy investments involved. But what happens if I do have the time and there is significant room for development in a relevant skill area?

    I would propose that, rather than a lack of competitive drive, the pressure is on to compete profitably. I don’t think the problem lies with the quality of the programmes offered for furthering skills. It is just that – excuse the caricature – it is better to go study in my room, or go study with course-mates. The latter prospect has the added benefit of letting me know about the standing of my competition.

    If students, rightly or wrongly, regard crossing a threshold of performance for a grade as a make-or-break prospect, it doesn’t make sense to go for programmes that aren’t directly relevant to improving them. I think most students would both acknowledge and appreciate the importance of the skills that, through workshops, we are offered the opportunity to develop, but it is often a less pressing concern than grade numbers. Those numbers offer a different sort of opportunity, which is, ironically, the right to compete for more opportunities, for prestige or other forms of potential socioeconomic betterment. Some examples of these opportunities might be programmes with a strictly limited quota, or internships with prestigious organizations. Ultimately, there is the wider problem of the difficulty humans have in resisting the tendency to assess people by important numbers simply because those are easy references.

    Can this change? It is a tricky prospect when even the admission that everyone is necessarily competing with everyone else is socially distasteful. (Perversely, though, wild speculations about one’s prospective position on a hypothetical bell-curve has become a convenient way to achieve levity.) If one’s sense of one’s self is offended by the reality of one’s place in an organized system, I think the problem is that sense not being robust enough. I do not mean this as a condemnation of any individual’s soundness of character or anything like that, but I do feel that Competition as an evaluative or economic reality tends to warp the rest of reality, and that includes my own.

    If it is true that the physical and economic realities haven’t changed, it would be true retrospectively as well, and Singapore has managed to be a step ahead regardless. The danger, then, is in not moving on, rather than from being in a forever-imperiled state. Whatever the ‘global’ dimension is to the relationship between competition and motivation, I find that the danger is in taking it as just one more arena. If that is the case, there is little reason to change and adapt. It only means 加油 and intensify. Should ‘Onward, Singapore’ be one kind of progress or are there other ways forward?

    Finally, I would like to say that it is about as fair to judge that students self-victimize as it is to cast them as victims, and I hope not to have indulged too much in either.

  15. I feel that there are opportunities for students of different disciplines to integrate, work together and create a certain advantage. NUS graduates can go out to the world with certain appreciation of cross functional teams. NUS graduates can be known to be versatile.

    We already have cross faculty modules, but students still work within the respective discipline. I think we could have some joint-faculty special project modules not just Engineering+Computing, but Business + Arts + Computing etc.

    1. Indeed, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural competencies are important traits too. These are new competencies in an increasingly complex and globalized environment.

  16. Dear Provost:

    Few of the tricks recruiters used at Johns Hopkins during my MPH was to have lunch time seminars (free-food) or in-lecture interaction with industry or guest lectures by industry/recruitment people. Most sessions were held during weekdays, and sometimes could clash with classes. These would be followed up by periodic workshops/seminars/sessions. Of course, the big annual job fair had stalls where the biggest organizations in healthcare accepted resumes or determined job-eligibility on spot. That day was usually a work day and classes were usually off. However, there was always a good turn-out.

    It probably had to do something with the social setup and job dynamics in the US. What I noticed was that the job market in the US seems to have a balance between networking and academic acumen. Most of my friends got jobs through their networks. I’m sure the same scenario holds true in S’pore as well. Hence, if students feel the same social requirement/pressure of networking like they feel toward academic achievement, perhaps they might be interested in attending more of these fairs.

    If I am not wrong, the NUS B school is actually doing very good with regard to networking and job hunting. They might be a good starting place to begin with. In the end, I think jobs and opportunities should be marketed to students in the same way we Asians market education.


    1. Dear Rishav

      NUS Business School has prepared their graduates well in these aspects. We are trying to extend the NUS Business School’s experience to all other students. Thanks for sharing the practice at Johns Hopkins.

  17. There are some employers who prefer to look at grades as a criteria for shortlisting. For example, MTI, EDB, MOF, JTC all need at least a Second Upper Honours in order to be shortlisted for an interview. Some of my friends said that employers look at how many As you score as their criteria in their hiring decision. As a result, most of us are focused on getting good academics and ignore Career Workshops. Maybe you can propose making Career Workshops mandatory for those people who only get Bs and Cs because they have a harder time getting job interviews. In addition, the NUS counselling centre may also encourage their walk-in patients to go for Career Workshops because usually students who seek help also need help in their careers later on.

  18. Hi Prof Tan,
    I guess one of your key concerns as a Provost must have been how can our students are able to compete globally, and in this case, I’m suppose you meant if we were to venture overseas to look for work or do business, will we be able to succeed in different situations and scenarios? Personally, I feel that Singaporeans/NUS Students are kind of caught up in our own city and our comfortable way of life to be really be able to really succeed overseas (when SEP students go overseas, it is often the case that these students congregate amongst themselves and not really mixing with the locals), but then again, Singapore has one of the most heterogeneous societies around, and I guess being in such an environment make us one of the most adaptable people in the world. I guess we do have a huge potential in becoming eventually global citizens that could compete in the global arena, or even better make a difference in world, if we are willing to take the leap, and to obtain the knowledge/skills required to do so.

    I feel that we have been inundated with so many assignments/presentations that I guess Singaporeans/NUS graduates assume that they know what is meant by a good presentation, and coupled with the fact that nothing is counted, there is a tendency to overlook work

    shops and seminars for more time for our assignments. “Empty vessels make the most noise”, and I believe that anyone who just depends on pure communication skills without any real knowledge/ability or great ideas can never succeed in a global arena. We need something in addition to communications skills, and in my opinion, one of the key issues and obstacles that we are faced with is an ability to think, critique, and provide constructive ideas. Only with both good ideas and effective communications to bring these ideas across to others can we really be globally competitive.

    I’m definitely sure that these qualities are what our FASS and Law students have, but what about those in the science and engineering faculties? I’m from Science, and other than just memorizing and applying concepts, we do not really have an opportunity or are even equipped with the necessary skills to critique and challenge the current paradigm, which are what nobel laureates are known for. Instead of just citing journals to write reports, I really hope that we could be guided and trained on a thought process on how we can deconstruct a point made in a journal, and learn how we can challenge and or even better it. Thought processes such as design-thinking, systems-thinking etc could also be incorporated into assignments to help facilitate this process.

    Another limiting factor is really, outside of Asia, NUS is practically unknown. I told my Canadian counterparts that I’m from NUS, Singapore, and she queried: “so, you’re from the US? What are you doing in Singapore?” It is weird, and it felt as though outside of our positive rankings, NUS doesn’t seem to be known at all. Are rankings really the fundamentals of NUS and what makes it a great University? I feel that we need an NUS identity: who is this NUS graduate, and what makes this person special. Is he a person that can take on the world, or maybe just good enough to deal with the bell curve. Without a unique selling point or valued-addedness that we can provide for the world, can we really compete?

    1. Dear Calvin

      I agree with many of your comments. You need the depth of knowledge and understanding, as well as the ability to articulate them. NUS graduates are very good in the former, but they can improve in the latter. On NUS’ international stature and visibility, my sense is rather different. Many do know us and envy us.

  19. Calvin:

    Another limiting factor is really, outside of Asia, NUS is practically unknown. I told my Canadian counterparts that I’m from NUS, Singapore, and she queried: “so, you’re from the US? What are you doing in Singapore?”

    Haha this is so funny!

    I believe NUS should tie up with more foreign universities for joint degrees. e.g Duke-NUS is one good example. We need more of these to encourage cross-cultural learning, and boost the name of NUS.

  20. Dear Sir,

    I want to offer this point of view that maybe the country and the administration can reduce on saying things that create a sense of complacency. To have fighting spirit, people need to know their dangers.

    There are too many reports on the achievements and the high level of education and so on, but if one were to check various sources, some of the achievements are rather insignificant or was already done before and done better.

    This flood of reports is only making us complacent, and our tolerance level is very low. We complain easily and maybe there is some sense of self indulgence in the achievements.

    Tell us more dangers. Wake us up.

    1. Dear LML

      We shall do both. Sometimes, we need a pat on our shoulder to tell us that we have done well. But like you said, we cannot be complacent.

  21. NUS can also allow anonymous nomination of fellow peers who need career guidance. I have seen some friends who are anti-social and introverts but they don’t realise it themselves until it is too late. Perhaps allowing friends to nominate their own people will allow Career Centre to zoom in on those students who really need help to ace the interview.

  22. Hi Sir,
    I am from FASS and I signed up for the FASS mentorship program. I really appreciated the enthusiasm of the organizers, of Prof Chang TC who very eloquently and dynamically gave us a PPT presentation about what this whole program was about, and explained the whole idea of a ‘mentor’.

    On one hand I thought — ahh, so stereotypically and quintessentially Singaporean, imposing this “mentor” from the “top-down”. All the examples raised in the presentation had happened organically – one of the examples was of Oprah Winfrey mentoring that Dr Phil dude, I’m pretty sure there was no ‘mentorship program’ that *matched* dr Phil to Winfrey, things like that just happen.

    But this is what I love about our little society, we very earnestly learn the lessons of success from others and very earnestly replicate it top-down style. From one POV it TOTALLY makes sense. I liked how we filled out these forms and wrote down our favourite books, films, life philosophy, areas of interest (career-wise) etc and were matched to our mentors.

    I was also inspired by previous batches of mentor-mentee reports, mentees seemed to have learned so much! I was also very interested in finding out more about my mentor etc.

    Nevertheless, my mentor was less interested, it turned out, in learning about me than in having me follow his own path. I mean, he’s a great guy, and I am pretty sure it is subconscious on his part. But when I told him my plans, he said — oh this won’t work, don’t be naive, the ang mohs have a monopoly on this area etc. And I’m like, precisely because the ang mohs have a monopoly and the asians haven’t broken in yet, that’s how I feel i can differentiate myself.

    And my mentor is like — you have to be very very exceptional to do so. I appreciated his concern, and in the end it turned out that he already had plans to link me up with his existing contacts which are in an area that I had no interest in venturing into. However, for awhile he had convinced me that perhaps i was being too naive so I had gone along with his plans for my future, but it was only lately that I decided to stay true to my original interests and plans.

    So my experience with NUS Career programs is limited only to this one particular one, and I must say I *have* learned something at least — I have learned how to interact with my mentor’s personality type, he is a very exceptional man in his own field, and a tough negotiator (you kind of have to be in his line) and he almost had *me* convinced that I didn’t really want what I wanted. But ultimately I decided no, I do want what I want.

    Nevertheless, I don’t think this was really the aim of the career /mentorship program that was organized, haha. But the positive attitude to take I think is that at least I learned… that I really wanted what I wanted? That at least I learned something, even if it was through negative example by my mentor.

    Yet, a weaker personality I think may have been cowed by the likes of my mentor. So my feedback here would be to at least ‘educate’ the mentors (which I know are so very hard to find, and I really appreciate FASS’ efforts in locating these mentors in the first place, it really is a wonderful program) not to be so aggressive in “planning” the careers of their mentees?

    I don’t know about other forms of career programs that NUS offers, I know that USP offers interview workshops and stuffs, and these are quite well attended. It could be the quality of the trainer/course coordinator — generally I think that despite all that talk about not enough time, grades, homework exigencies etc, IF you have a GOOD career preparation program, people will definitely go for it.

    Reference SMU’s program, I think it starts with ‘F’ or something, they teach you how to eat with all that weird cutlery at fine dining restaurants, how to write a presentable CV etc. How to conduct small talk. Haha.

    So my feedback is – improve your career prep programs, you’ll definitely see increased student attendance.

    1. Dear Punctual Grasshopper

      Interesting pen-name! Thanks for your remarks concerning the FASS mentorship program. It was pioneered by FASS, and had been runned by very passionate colleagues such as TC Chang. Your experience is an unfortunate one, but I am glad it was not entirely useless. We do brief our mentors, but sometimes, certain personalities can be over-powering. We will refine this program as we go along. I agree it is pointless to force our students to go through career preparation programs. We will make it easy for them to attend, and more will join if our programs are good enough.

  23. Do you really believe that NUS in particular, or Singapore as a whole, provide a conductive environment for students to ‘venture out’ ? Personally, I don’t. Except for NEC, wherever I applied for something ( exchange, internship, research attachment), the first thing I was asked is to give out my transcipt, and despite all the academic achivements and recomendations from professors, I was always rejected. The reason was given that my CAP is simply not high enough for them to even interview me ( on this, I highly despite IRO, haha).

    1. We are reviewing the criteria for SEP and overseas exposure. I think it should not be overly dependent on academic accomplishments.

  24. I agree it is pointless to force our students to go through career preparation programs. We will make it easy for them to attend, and more will join if our programs are good enough.

    Definitely. I am sure most students are actually serious about getting a job that suits them, and if these career preparation programs cater to what they want, they will naturally want to join. Others may not want to join such programs simple because it does not suit their character. Each person is unique, so there is no point in telling them to fit into a mould if they do not want to. Moreover, such career preparation programs need not always be relegated to talks or courses but the relevant material should be put up somewhere so that students can access them, so that they can selectively read them at their own convenience.

    Also I think we should be much less worried about global competition than about how students compete. Certainly we do not want them to value appearance, achievement and acknowledgement over truthfulness, goodness and kindness?

  25. For mentors programme, some mentors do tend to boss people around and tell people what to do and what not to do.

    To be a good mentor, you have to adopt a non-judgemental mindset. Instead of telling people what to do, let the person motivate himself to tell you his opinions and viewpoints.

    NCSS has a course on Basic Counselling Techniques which has a fee involved. Otherwise, you can ask mentors to watch some Youtube videos on counselling techniques.

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