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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 16, 2005
Singapore learns hard lesson
By Jaya Prakash

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



as part of a strategy to reduce its economic reliance on manufacturing.

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.

Other foreign 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 domestic affairs.

Thus, it clearly came down to a clash of values.

Where 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 service.)

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.

As opposed 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 university.

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.

Yet another 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.

Meeting Singapore's 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).

Because such 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 economy.

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.

But Singapore 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 University.

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.

Jaya Prakash lectures in journalism at Beacon School of Technology in Singapore. He can be reached at prakruby@pacific.net.sg

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