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?

[1] (


Getting Enough Sleep

Here is a recent string of tweets on UTown:

  • “utown is packed and my friends couldn’t find a seat”;
  • “found an awesome spot to study in utown”;
  • “camping at utown”;
  • “utown lvl 1 to 3 r all full, going to ctrl lib to mug instead”;
  • ”redbull giving out energy drinks at utown”;
  • “oh, so now sec 4 kiddos are studying at utown”;
  • “security doing checks on ppl in utown. Apparently too many NTU people crashing our study rooms already”;
  • “Utown is fully packed on a Saturday! Stop studying so hard dearest NUS”; ….

This is the Reading Period, which means that exams are around the corner. Our students are all ‘mugging’ hard, hoping to ‘squeeze in’ as much content into their heads as possible. UTown has proven to be a popular study spot and outsiders are also gate-crashing the compound! We are taking steps to ensure that our facilities are accessible only to NUS students.

To me, sleep is most vital, particularly during this trying period. Everyone’s physical make-up is different and our sleep requirements vary. But, insufficient sleep will lead to drastically decreased daytime alertness, and suboptimal performance.

Perhaps that’s why zombies are sometimes associated with sleep deprivation.

Studies have shown that a person’s performance, after 2 continuous weeks of less than 6 hours of daily sleep, can be as dysfunctional as someone who has gone without sleep for the past 48 hours at a stretch. I guess many of our students are in either situation now.

And students have devised ways and means to stay awake. My son told me that a 6-pack of Red Bull can keep him up for the entire night, and it is much cheaper and more effective than 2 cups of Starbucks coffee. This explains why Red Bull is giving out free drinks at UTown. From Wikipedia, Red Bull is plenty of caffeine plus sugar, and conventional (and scientific) wisdom suggests that one should not depend on that for too long!

This is a stressful period for many. Thus, the Counseling and Psychological Centre has been conducting classes and stress-relief clinics; the Centre conducted a ‘Stress No More’ class at UTown last week.

Whatever you do, do rest and sleep well!

Writing and Communications

English has become the lingua franca of academia, commerce and even diplomacy. Proficiency in the English Language – reading, writing and communications are now critical skills required in all vocations. This is also an area that employers have singled out as a weakness of NUS graduates.

I have been deliberating on whether it is necessary to introduce compulsory language and communications modules in the undergraduate curriculum. We do not want our graduates to be unnecessarily hampered or disadvantaged in the global talent marketplace, because of sub-par reading, writing or speaking skills. Language proficiency will give our graduates an edge in productivity and effectiveness at the workplace.

The undergraduate cohort is a diverse one. To cater to the varying levels of language competence, the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) is looking into how students can be matched to programs of an appropriate level according to their language ability. Some pilots are already in place.

Our challenge is that students are not keen! Our pilot Writing modules are not attracting much interest from Science, Engineering and Computing students. And students from the Science and Technology disciplines are precisely the ones who are most in need of these courses, as they have far less opportunities to develop language and communications skills through their disciplinary modules.

I sincerely hope students are convinced of the importance of English proficiency. Prof Brent Strong, the Lorin Farr Professor of Entrepreneurial Technology at the Brigham Young University, has written a persuasive piece on ‘Why Engineers Should Read Shakespeare’. He argues the importance for scientists to develop the ability to express themselves articulately in terms that all can understand and to discuss scientific and other issues from a broad and comprehensive viewpoint.  He encourages engineers to read Shakespeare, and explains how Shakespeare will help us think, because we think in words.

Of course, we recognize that a single module, or a set of modules, does not suffice to produce sustained results; we must in parallel encourage faculty members to integrate writing and communications components into existing course modules (and for each major). Supporting infrastructure must also be put in place to encourage and assist with writing and communications; these may include seminars, workshops, and writing and communications stations and resource centres amongst others.

I had to realise the importance of, and then learn English the hard way. English did not come naturally to me. I was raised in a dialect-speaking environment. Father had secondary education but in a Chinese-medium school; Mother did not have the opportunity to receive any education. And so, my siblings and I picked up English in school. I managed alright, until secondary school, during which English and Literature became my weakest subjects.

When in Pre-U, I harboured hopes of going abroad for university. I excelled in Math and the Sciences. But alas, it wasn’t good enough. During a PSC (Public Service Commission) scholarship interview conducted in the middle part of Pre-U 2, a panel member remarked that he didn’t think I would be able to pass my GP (General Paper). There went my overseas scholarship.

I felt hurt and indignant. And I was determined to prove to them that I could do well in GP. I was from a poor family and my parents could not afford tuition. So I decided to self-teach. I bought a few assessment books and First Aid in English became my ‘bible’. I read voraciously and disciplined myself to write a GP essay every day. Eventually, I was happy to have managed a P3 at the ‘A’ levels – though not stellar, it was a decent grade.

I still have this in my Math office.
I still have this in my Math office.

Language can be likened to music. Music is a medium of expression; one can depict merry and melancholy through music. We have heard and can feel how tenderly an instrument like the violin can render ‘Air on a G String’. But we cannot execute the same, unless we have acquired technical mastery of the instrument. Language is our primary mode of expression and communication. Likewise, without the requisite grounding in grammar, vocabulary, semantics et al, we are not able to express ourselves as richly and fully.

Language acquisition is a lifelong endeavour; I am still at it. Never cease to learn, and never ever give up.


An unfortunate incident occurred on Saturday, 1 Oct 2011. 725 students were scheduled to sit for a Managerial Economics (offered by the NUS Business School) mid-semester test, which had to be cancelled at the last minute. Shortly before the test was due to start, the lecturer found that he had less than 500 scripts on hand. After considering various options, he decided to call off the test. Within moments, comments were tweeted and disseminated instantaneously. The mainstream media fielded many reports too. There was much interest, speculation and commotion. Later, our preliminary investigations confirmed that a human error had occurred. A staff was tasked to print 750 scripts, but had instead printed less than 500 copies. We must and will take steps to avert a future occurrence.

The brouhaha and outbursts witnessed are perhaps in part a manifestation of how intensely our students and society view examinations. The Singapore educational system prides itself as a meritocratic one. Somehow, the notion of meritocracy has been deeply entwined with examinations. I would like to take this opportunity to share about the evolving role of examinations at the NUS, and how we should develop a healthier and more balanced perspective towards examinations.  

When I was an undergraduate at the NUS some 25 years ago, ‘exams’ was a terrifying word. Then, each course was taught over two semesters, and a typical load was to read 6 courses. Each course entailed 5 hours of lectures and one hour of tutorial every week, excluding laboratory time! At the end of the second semester, we had to sit for a three-hour exam for each course. Exams determined everything – it was a ‘make it, or break it’ system (or some would say, ‘do or die’). Should you fail an exam, you can attempt a Re-exam (the proper term was Supplementary Examination). If you’re not able to clear any of the ‘Re’s, there were no ifs and buts about it – you’ll have to repeat the entire year.

The release of exam results was even more interesting. NUS students nowadays can go online to view their results, or opt to receive SMS notifications. But back in those days, the Registrar would print out the matriculation numbers and corresponding grades of all candidates; these would be posted on a notice board near the Registrar’s Office. Results were usually released at around 8 am and many anxious students will be congregating there hours before.

Imagine the fear, grip and trepidation that exams evoked.

But, let us examine objectively – are examinations necessarily evil or are they a necessary evil? Some students feel that exams are intrinsically linked to a CAP system and with a CAP system in place, exams will always take centre stage at the NUS. This is not so. My view is that exams certainly do provide a means to measure learning outcomes; they are the traditional, tried and tested assessment medium. There are however, also other alternative methods that are effective in measuring and assessing learning outcomes; many of these methods are notably more labour-intensive to employ. 

Should we then embrace or eschew exams? Exams are not intrinsically bad, but we should refrain from using them solely and deterministically. Yet, a system with no exams may not be ideal, as exams do provide a sound learning and testing platform for certain subjects. The sensible and constructive way forward, I think, is to adopt a balanced approach.

As such, the NUS has over the years been moving away from a rigid exams-driven system. We have progressively decreased the weightage of final exams, and to place more emphasis on continual assessment instead. Even with continual assessment, we hope that our lecturers will introduce innovative methods of continual assessments, beyond the traditional tests. Many modules now have project work as an integral component. Overall, the NUS system is today a more flexible and forgiving one. We no longer have Supplementary Examinations. If a student fails a module, he or she is not ‘retained’, but is given the opportunity to retake the module, without having to repeat the entire set of modules taken in the previous semester or year.

Ultimately, our aim is to enable and empower students to maximize their learning opportunities at the NUS. We have since allowed students to declare S/U options after the release of results – the motivation behind this move is to encourage students to try out challenging modules and not be deterred by possible CAP implications. Students know this S/U option very well, but many see this as an opportunity to ‘even out heavy course loads’. Many students would like the S/U option to be expanded beyond 3 modules. We may consider this and I will take this discussion further in a future post.

There is a place for exams, but let’s put exams in its proper place.