Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Quacquarelli's quandary

There were 3 apparently unrelated threads in today's ST that to me were saying pretty much the same thing. If only we would prick our ears to listen.

Firstly, there was the opinion piece by US Bureau Chief Chua Chin Hon about "Rethinking MNC Strategy". (You can't find it on Asia1 without subscribing, but can find in The Malaysian InsiderOne frequent point of contention among analysts is whether Singapore was right in aggressively courting foreign multinationals instead of nurturing home-grown industrial giants as South Korea and Taiwan did. Over-reliance on foreign companies, critics argue, leaves Singapore vulnerable to economic downturns and political changes elsewhere — two factors that now loom large."
:))The essential thrust of his insightful commentary was whether Singapore needed to rethink the national strategy of attracting MNCs, a strategy that has succeeded since the 1960's. In the article, he says, "

Secondly, Professor Jackie Ying, one of the big whales caught by ASTAR, was interviewed as saying Singapore should be focusing on developing dolphins rather than just drawing in the whales. Hor him, whales tend to be migratory and do not stay. Dolphins are helpful, seldom migrate and tend to stay. He was of course refering to world class researchers and academics. Many of the big whales caught by A*Star tended to make a big splash, contributed little locally and quickly made an exit, especially when times grew difficult.

Thirdly, there was that facile ranking of universities done by Quacquarelli. In the ranking of Asian univeristies, the National University of Singapore, floundered miserably at a pathetic position of 10. Let me say I am not one to take these rankings seriously, but the ranking fluttered more than a few eyebrows, and I am sure some senior people at the NUS must have convulsed frothing at the mouth. Managing Director Nunzio Quacquarelli said the results of the Asian University Rankings focus on regionally relevant measures of excellence, with the top performing universities distinguished not only by quality, but also by high productivity of research, compared to their regional peers.

What the three threads said to me was really that there is a clear recalibration in our thinking about our Asian position vis a vis the traditional ideas of Western leadership, whether this be about economics, academia or education. It has always struck me as strange that while Singapore's success was really a product of Singapore's unique leadership style and ideas, when it came to academia, we submissively sacrifice local efforts to the perceived dominance of Western academics. This is a mindset that seems to be uniquely Singaporean, because other Asian countries tend to have a bit more faith in their own home grown abilities. The Quacquarelli ranking may be disputed for years to come, but I think it has pointed out one very important thing to us, and that is, we are in Asia, and if we look at ourselves with Asian eyes, we are not as great as we pretend to be on the world stage. One could of course argue that we play on the world stage and not just Asia, and that would be true. But as the centre of gravity shifts towards Asia, we need to be careful we don't get flatfooted though our over emphasis on following the West.

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