Stanford undergraduates pose questions for Singapore in Singapore Journal

National Identity - Shallow or Deep? Nationalist Education - Top Down or Bottom-up? Politeness Campaigns - Smiles or Frowns? Entrepreneurial Culture - Transplanting Silicon Valley? Environmental Policy - Selfishly Green? Renewable Energy - What about Sunshine?

The inaugural (March 2008) issue of PRISM, an undergraduate journal published by the University Scholars Programme (USP) of the National University of Singapore (NUS), carries a dozen essays. Six were written by Stanford undergraduates for a Stanford Overseas Seminar taught in Singapore in September 2006, and six by NUS undergrads in the USP for an NUS course taught at Stanford in May 2007.

The Stanford students, their paper topics, and brief summaries of their conclusions follow:

Jenni Romanek examined Singapore’s national identity. She found that Singaporeans “embody certain shared attributes of national identity, but they do so on a superficial level … If the government truly wishes to impart upon citizens a Singaporean identity, it must allow them to cultivate and define it, at least in part, by themselves. This necessitates a level of self-expression that is not currently acceptable by government standards.” She ended her essay by asking, “Without free speech, whose identity are Singaporeans representing?”

François Jean-Baptiste examined Singapore’s efforts to inculcate national identity through the school curriculum. He found the education ministry’s top-down methods “generally unsuccessful” and recommended a more student-and-teacher-driven approach. “The real and representative Singapore narrative,” he wrote, involved the ambitions of a wide range of Asian immigrants including “Filipina maids,” “Malay Muslims,” and “opposition leaders like J.B. Jeyaretnam and Slyvia Lim.” Education in the city-state’s secondary schools, he concluded, “should and can incorporate that story.”

Lauren Peate studied the “Four Million Smiles” campaign launched in the run-up to the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank held in Singapore in September 2006 while the Stanford seminar was in progress. She found general public support for the campaign except among “young, [more] educated, and electronically connected” Singaporeans, one of whom told her, “We trust the government but it doesn’t trust us [to smile without being told to].” She ended by wondering how the authorities would choose to deal with a young generation of bloggers with critical minds.

Jon Casto explored Singapore’s efforts to instill an entrepreneurial culture despite a general aversion to risk (and a preference for state employment) “perpetuated through cultural norms, the labor market and [government-linked corporations].” He also, however, found entrepreneurship in Singapore “slowly on the rise” and argued that “today’s experiences” in promoting it “may bear tremendous fruit” if and when the economic climate because problematic enough to demand “that Singaporean individuals, not just the [People’s Action Party] government, provide solutions.”

Alexander Slaski researched the implications of illiberal politics for environmental policy in Singapore. He credited the government with having provided its citizens with a high quality of life, including “excellent environmental governance” from the top down. But he was struck by an artifact of the government’s relatively authoritarian approach to being green: the virtual absence in the city-state of a bottom-up or civil-society movement for conservation. To that extent, he concluded, “the authoritarian elements of the government have kept environmental protection from being as strong as it could be.”

Sam Shrank investigated the status and future of renewable energy. Singapore had previously managed to secure for itself “a constant and assured flow of oil and natural gas from abroad at reasonable.” But “peak oil—the year in which the supply of oil peaks—is in sight, and the end of natural gas is not far behind.” Oil and gas prices, he warned, will rise as demand outpaces supply. Amply sunlit as it is, Singapore could and should be doing much more to exploit sources of renewable energy sources, and solar (photovoltaic) energy in particular.

Compared with these essays, the Singaporean students’ essays in PRISM were no less diverse. If the Americans concentrated single-mindedly on Singapore, in keeping with the focus of the Stanford seminar, the Singaporean contributors were more inclined to compare American conditions and experiences with those in their own country.

Dan Goh, the NUS professor who taught the Singaporeans at Stanford, introduced the student essays. His thoughts are excerpted here:

"Reflections on Western civilization have often found themselves seduced by the idea of the American exception. … It seems ironic therefore that a group of American students would travel to this island to study what they have termed as the Singapore exception. Seen in the immediate context of Southeast Asia, Singapore is indeed an exception [whose] culturally diverse [im]migrants [have transformed the city-state] into a forward-looking nation. With little historical gravitas except for founding moments and fathers, it is a young nation filled with anxieties and self-doubt. Yet, it is resolute in forming its citizenry through clever ideological campaigns and in engineering visionary technological and economic projects based on successful foreign examples. For all its democratic institutions, it is beset by political elitism and illiberal tendencies. Despite its Edenic ideals and scientific prowess, it is reluctant to pursue environmental sustainability. These are the themes and contradictions tackled in the articles by the six young American scholars featured in this inaugural volume."

"But if we look closer, these themes and contradictions describe America as well. I have always suspected that the study of the exceptional other is always the study of our self as normal when the two are actually much more similar than they are different. Irony has a way of turning in on itself. However, the American students’ essays show that there is a major difference at the heart of comparing the American and Singapore exceptions."

"Given the American political culture of suspicion of state authority, it is not surprising that [in the Stanford students’ essays] the state sticks out visibly in the landscape of Singapore society. For the Singaporean students traveling to the Bay Area however, the feeling is best described by the excitement and trepidation of a Western naturalist traveling from sedate urban London to the rich jungles of Borneo. The state monolith fades and vibrant cultural diversities, intriguing identity evolutions and self-organizing chaos beckon. But always with Singapore in their minds, the young scholars reflected their study of Silicon Valley and San Francisco back unto Singapore. What they found was that the same diversities, evolutions and chaos were also evident in Singapore, but with the roots of the state apparatus sunk deeper into the rich soil here."

"Singapore is not anything like America and yet is everything American, except for the leviathan that stands over our shoulders. Nonetheless, the diversities and hybridities of vernacular everyday life continue to grow as ideas, images and identities speed around the global circuits of capitalism, … connecting young people across the deep Pacific …"

In his own preface to the PRISM issue, SEAF Director Donald Emmerson, who taught the Stanford seminar in Singapore, had this to say:

“In Praise of Bad Teaching.” Years ago at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I pinned a page of text under that title to a bulletin board next to my office door. The author argued that bad teachers were really good teachers because their boring lectures drove their students out of the classroom and into the real world where real learning could occur.

The argument is not wholly facetious. Conventional undergraduate education is notoriously indirect. Independent field work is the preserve of professors and graduate students. Undergraduates sit, listen, read, take notes, and take exams. Technology—the ability to google—has reduced the teacher’s ability to control information. But in standard classrooms, it is still the teacher who selects, interprets, and conveys knowledge, and who then tests and grades its retention. In humdrum pedagogy at its worst, the professor and the student are, respectively, faucet and sponge. A charismatic lecturer—a supposedly “good” teacher—may fill lecture hall seats only to reinforce the enthralled passivity of the sitters.

Fortunately, the National University of Singapore and Stanford University are not conventional institutions. Both campuses encourage their students to go abroad. Professors are not dispensed with. But by affording students direct contact with foreign cultures, NUS and Stanford necessarily challenge the teacher’s span of control. In that loss of unquestioned professorial authority lies a chance for serious learning by students and teacher alike. …

For lack of space, alas, we could not [publish in PRISM] all thirty essays written for our seminars. But those that are printed herein should give readers a feel for what happened when two sets of undergraduate students were “turned loose” on each other’s turf. I am grateful to [Dan Goh and the other individuals who made this issue and the seminars possible] and above all to both complements of students, including those not represented in these pages, for giving me one of the most enjoyable and memorable “teaching”—that is to say, learning—experiences of my life.

PRISM is not available on line, but it can be ordered (stock permitting) from

The Editor, PRISM
University Scholars Programme
National University of Singapore
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10 Kent Ridge Crtescent
Singapore 119260