SINGAPORE - Authorities have learned a
hard lesson after Britain's prestigious Warwick
University snubbed the city-state with its
decision not to accept an invitation to establish
a campus. The decision was a blow to
Singapore's strategy to attract more foreign
students and academics. It perhaps also is a
temporary setback to efforts to transform the
island into a knowledge-based economy.
State planners have dreamed since the
early 1990s of Singapore as a knowledge-based
state where everything from arts to culture and
science and technology would flourish. The
government plans to double the number of
international students to 150,000 by 2015
part of a strategy to reduce its economic reliance
Warwick and the
Australian University of New South Wales were the
only two foreign universities selected by
Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB)to set
up full-scale campuses, which would be able to
grant undergraduate degrees.
universities, mostly American, have satellite
campuses offering specialized, usually vocational,
programs, or maintain affiliations with
universities in Singapore but do not award degrees
locally. The University of New South Wales, which
will be the first foreign university opening in
Singapore, will welcome 500 students in 2007.
Meanwhile, many people are asking what
went wrong with Warwick? That may be best answered
by how Warwick's supreme governing body - the
senate - expressed its displeasure through its 48
members. It would appear the snub was all about
the school's lifestyle and reputation - in essence
the "Warwick way of life".
The bottom line
was that Warwick's senate was concerned about
academic freedom, Reuters news agency reported.
"In the absence of a positive commitment from the
academic community, [the council] resolves not to
proceed with the plan for a second comprehensive
campus of the University of Warwick, in
Singapore," the university said in a statement.
Thio Li-ann, a Singapore law professor who
drew up an advisory report for Warwick University,
warned the school that "the government will
intervene if academic reports cast a negative
light on their policies", Reuters reported.
Singapore requires foreign educational
institutions to abstain from interfering in its
Thus, it clearly came
down to a clash of values.
freedom flows According to reports carried
in Britain's Financial Times, the university had
sought guarantees from Singapore on the protection
of its students in such areas such as freedom of
assembly, speech and media, as well as in
religious practices. (Currently, Jehovah Witness
adherents are kept on a short leash in Singapore,
because of their opposition to compulsory national
That a university known for its
research prowess had to seek such a guarantee as a
first step meant it had fears that needed
placating. Warwick was evidently not willing to
risk setting up a campus without getting
guarantees on academic freedom.
to some other universities, Warwick's expertise
and reputation lie mainly in its social science
programs, where a great deal of analysis and
probing is required for its academics to present
their papers. Endangering or taking that avenue
away - ie curtailing aspects of the research
process so as to cause its academics to fall into
disfavor with authorities - may have been what
worked against Singapore's bid to attract the
Warwick also would have drawn
lessons from the experiences and disillusionment
of noted Singapore novelist and academic,
Catherine Lim, whose 1994 essay "The Great
Affective Divide" in the Straits Times newspaper
invited sharp rebukes from the authorities. In the
essay, she writes of "an emotional estrangement
between the government and the people". It was
only this year that she was able to get one of her
essays published in the paper.
academic, Cherian George, was also similarly
rebuked for remarks that did not endear him to the
authorities. And a disparaging article for the
International Herald Tribune on the containment of
political opposition in Singapore also landed
American academic, Christopher Lingle, in trouble
with the authorities.
standards would have meant enormous trade-offs for
Warwick, which probably led the university's
decision-makers to conclude it was not worth the
exercise. Using that as a gauge, Warwick's fears
may not seem unreasonable. That was further
reinforced by the refusal of many academics in
Singapore to comment on the Warwick situation.
Warwick, ranked eighth among British
universities in The Times Good University Guide,
has a reputation for diversity - its students come
from all parts of the political spectrum.
For example, the university did not shy
away from controversy when it recently invited
author Salman Rushdie, whose book - The Satanic
Verses - so inflamed Muslim sensibilities in
1989 that he lives to this day under a pall of
death arising out of the issuance of a
fatwa (Islamic edict).
gung-ho activism cannot be duplicated in
Singapore, it led one observer, Rejini Raman, to
say that the country is not "ready" for Warwick.
It is curious, though, why Singapore's EDB
- one of the bodies responsible for charting the
nation's growth - put out feelers to Warwick,
knowing the university's unique social features.
And it will be interesting to see what the
EDB does with lessons it learned from the Warwick
incident, so as not to derail its goal of
transforming the country to a knowledge-based
The incident has the potential of
hurting the republic's chances of becoming an
educational hub, as other universities no doubt
have been watching events unfold. Warwick would
have been welcomed with open arms had it tried to
establish a campus where students would not have
had their freedoms curbed.
is not Britain or the United States. Regardless of
what is published in the academic media, it
becomes politically charged when it appears in
Singapore's mainstream media, said Benjamin
Detenbeas, an American who teaches media
psychology at Singapore's Nanyang Technological
That, in a nutshell,
summarizes the tenuous link between where academic
freedom flows and feeds in Singapore. But as with
all other freedoms that are dependent on one
another, some links just have to be expediently
severed in Singapore.
For its part,
Warwick would have been better off had it
understood better how to deal with others holding
drastically different views. After all, freedom
can be interpreted differently depending where you
are in the world.
lectures in journalism at Beacon School of
Technology in Singapore. He can be reached at