About doing Science in Singapore

July 25, 2006 at 4:23 pm 2 comments

Anonymous asked: as a grad student, are you able to comment more on the situation? for example, how easy is it to get that many investigators to move to singapore?

i’m guessing that there are very few PIs/full profs who would relocate without very large financial incentives.

10:04 AM, July 25, 2006

Short answer? It is not easy and yes, very few PIs/established professors would relocate without (to put it bluntly) lots of money. Even so, this does not guarantee they would not quit and move back home later.

The Singapore bureaucracy tends to think they can simply throw money and get the returns it wants. Might be true if you are talking about easily quantifiable *stuffs* like factories, or shipyards, or number of (doctors/lawyers/life scientists/engineers). But scientific talent? More than that.

With regards to scientific research, Singapore has several drawbacks.

1. Weather. Eg.: In the area of Organic Chemistry (synthesis), the hot and humid conditions (even inside the lab) pose challenges if you are working with water-sensitive materials as is the case with most reactions. Relevance to Singapore? How about pharmaceutical research?

2. Distance from the main centers of scientific research, namely the US and Europe. This isn’t just the travelling time researchers in Singapore need to take to get to conferences to present their findings. Many advanced equipments that the local A*star institutes and universities use are manufactured in the West. If there are serious breakdowns, parts and technicians have to be flown in to repair them. This naturally jacks up (financial) costs; and in the fast paced world of research publications, where many investigators have to ‘publish or perish’ the loss in time is something they cannot ignore. One of the (local) institutes once had to wait 3 whole months to get their mass spectrometer fixed. You can imagine how many research groups were affected.

On the other hand, if you are to check out the manufacturing sites for these scientific equipment, they tend to be located in places near some US research university. (CA and MA have many.) One of the equipments my lab uses was manufactured in a factory an hour’s drive away from campus. My boss said that their customer service is good. “Very fast in their response time.”

The distance is also an issue with the family members (spouse/kids) of the researchers. Who likes to uproot themselves from a familiar environment to go to somewhere far and foreign? I know a few cases of professors turning down offers from NUS because of familial objections.

3. Support network. Scientists do not (like to) work alone, and they are drawn to places where there are already many established universities/national labs. Think Research Triangle in North Carolina, or the CA schools (Berkeley and Stanford are only about 1 – 1.5 hours drive apart), or Boston with its numerous colleges and universities. Or how the presence of Los Alamos National Laboratory attracts researchers to New Mexico, a state which is not known for scientific research. Can NUS/NTU, and by association the research institutes generate the critical mass?

4. Libraries. Might not be very obvious, but many faculty members like to read. And Singapore’s culture is one that does not encourage reading. How many of you had been teased when young if you told your friends that you want to go to the library to read? Nerd!


So, what does a real US-based prof think about the Singapore tertiary education and research scene?

The emails below are part of an exchange I had with my SRP mentor a long time ago while still serving in the SAF. He was then returning to the US and is now at a highly regarded university in New England. Do bear in mind I was only 19 at that time, so please excuse my youthful naivety. 😛 For obvious reasons the identifiable parts have been changed/edited to maintain my anonymity. This took place sometime in the late 90s. The situation might have changed since then, but I doubt it.

From : x@nus.edu.sg>
Sent : June 17, 199X 2:52 AM
To : takchek
Subject : RE: Some Queries about US education system

Hi takchek!

You may be a product of the Singaporean system, but that doesn’t make you rigid. Actually, the fact you are exploring the possibilities of study abroad already sets you apart from your classmates! Most of the students I encounter are quite satisfied with what they have been given and seldom question anything. When they consider study abroad, if they do, they are always concerned about the possibility of losing something here. I don’t find Singaporeans to be big risk takers, in the way Taiwanese and Hong Kong people are.

I may sound down on Singapore and its people, but please don’t misunderstand. I actually like it here, and most of all, I like the Singaporean people. I just want them to have more opportunities to develop themselves to their fullest potential. I guess that is what every teacher would like for his students.

Thank you for your kind wishes, I am returning home with mixed feelings, I must confess. I have enjoyed my sabbatical here, free from the stress and pressures of our system and of my job at (US university), and of course, I am changed in some way. I have enjoyed all of my experiences here, good ones and bad ones. I have also learned a lot and made some wonderful new friends whom I shall always treasure. I have met and tutored many interesting young Singaporeans such as yourself and look forward to watching them develop in the years ahead.

I hope you will stay in contact. I will return here in the fall and look
forward to seeing you again.

With best wishes and warmest regards,

From: takchek
Sent: June 16, 199X 5:04 PM
To: x@nus.edu.sg
Subject: RE: Some Queries about US education system

Dear Dr X,

Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that the education system here is too rigid, but unfortunately I am a product of this system. Rote learning drills knowledge in but leaves one inadequate at the teriary level, where one will be working/studying at the frontiers of his/her discipline.

Bon voyage (Happy Independence Day on Jul 4!) and I will let you know when Mr Y (Ed: another prof he recommended I contact) replies. I am sure he will bring in a fresh
perspective and correct some of my misconceptions.

Till then, best regards.

From: x@nus.edu.sg
To: takchek
Subject: RE: Some Queries about US education system
Date: Tue, 15 Jun 199X 13:48:34 +0800

Hi takchek!

Thanks for your reply. I won’t mind your writing to me in the future if you wish to discuss your academic plans. By the way, I will return to the USA on July 4. My e-mail address in (the US) is: x@ivy.edu

I agree that you need to have an overseas education in order to have a good future in the 21st century. From my experiences in Singapore, I can say that the system here isn’t yet world class. Yes, they have nice facilities, but the libraries don’t measure up to even those of average universities in the USA. But what is really lacking is the quality of the faculty, they aren’t doing world class research in most areas and while they are good, the best have left the country to work in the US, the UK or Australia.

There is also a rigidity about education here, too much emphasis upon grades, memorization and little concern for creativity or critical thinking. The classroom here is boring as far as I am concerned. Well, I don’t want to seem unkind by criticizing my colleagues but I have enjoyed this experience and learned a lot. What I will take back with me is fond memories of the kindness and warmth of the Singaporeans!

But for an undergraduate education you can certainly receive a decent one here and then consider transferring to an overseas university for graduate training.

I think your idea of having a study abroad experience is an excellent one, but I don’t recommend summer programs, you should consider a full semester program. For example (US university) and NUS have an exchange program and we receive undergraduates from Singapore for a full semester.

It’s a more meaningful experience and the students return very happy from that experience.

I don’t think you are ready to decide such matters as what to do after you graduate right now. Let’s just concentrate on getting an undergraduate degree first!(-:

Take care and let me know if you need more help.

Warmest regards,

From: takchek
Sent: June 14, 199X 8:32 PM
To: x@nus.edu.sg
Subject: RE: Some Queries about US education system

Dear Dr X,

Thank you (Ed: for offering to help me answer questions about US universities). I do not have any more questions at the moment, but there will definitely be more coming in the months ahead (I hope you won’t mind)as I consider my tertiary education path. I firmly believe that I need to have an overseas education to get the experience, which I think will be invaluable in the 21st century. Unfortunately, I have to consider the costs, so I may want instead to go for the summer programme and/or a semester as an exchange student for my undergraduate education. I have not really decided yet. As for my Masters, I hope I can get the grades needed to go to one of America’s top research universities. Maybe a PhD after that? Or straight to industry and followed by a MBA a few years later? I don’t know.

Best Regards


More about the A*star and JHU break up:

e pur si muove (I), (II), (IV); Joseph.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

More on the JHU-A*star breakup Sg Govt worry we will all leave

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elia Diodati  |  July 25, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    I would like to add to your list:

    6. Absence of any decent technical staff who are dedicated to maintaining and operating big expensive apparatuses who know what they are doing. It’s amazing how few technicians in Singapore and how few vendors actually know how their machines work. It’s pathetic.

  • 2. vivienne  |  July 26, 2006 at 8:20 am

    Another add on to point #2.

    Reagents take forever to arrive and the reason for that is partially due to the high cost of shipping. In order to offset some of these expenses, distributers tend to batch orders before processing them.

    On top of that, the research community is very small and lacks diversity, so the concept of borrowing a less common reagent isn’t what you would call an option.

    I still recall one of my refrains (when I was working in a local lab) was “By time my XXX solution comes, my enthusiam for this experiment would have evaporated!”

    A very far cry from my days at uni where my antibodies arrived within a day. A week at most.


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