Singapore’s science dreams
Singapore’s laying the foundation for a future economy based on science, harvesting young talent from other Asian countries and buying first-class education from American and European universities. This might be a good strategy for Singapore, but for the young scientists forming this new workforce, the situation is a bit more complicated. I traveled to Singapore and filed this story with The World.
Aired on The World: Thurs, 27 August 2009.
KATY CLARK: I’m Katy Clark and this is The World. Singapore has long been a fierce economic competitor. The tiny island nation in Southeast Asia has grown wealthy as a center of manufacturing and finance. Now it’s laying the foundation for a future economy based on science. Singapore is harvesting young talent from other Asian countries and it’s buying first-class education from American and European universities. This might be a good strategy for Singapore, but for the young scientists forming this new workforce, the situation is a bit more complicated. Ari Daniel Shapiro traveled to Singapore and brings us this story.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Lee Yun Hom Ching [ph] grew up in Eastern China. She loved science as a girl and she decided to major in biology in college. She did well. Three months into her freshman year a foreign delegation showed up.
LEE YUN HOM CHING: The Ministry of Education in Singapore went to my local university and recruited about 30 plus students.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Lee Yun was one of them.
LEE YUN HOM CHING: They provide us with a scholarship, basically asking us to come to Singapore.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Lee Yun got a full scholarship to complete her undergraduate degree in Singapore. She then got another scholarship to do her PhD here. Now she’s working in a lab in Singapore’s vast Biopolis research complex. Biopolis is a collection of nine buildings linked by zigzagging glass walkways. The labs are clean, stocked with state-of-the-art equipment. It’s a first-rate operation and Singapore needs first-rate talent to staff it. Since 2001 Singapore has been scouting for the best science students across Asia, like Lee Yun, and luring them here. It’s part of a national initiative called A-Star or the Agency for Science, Technology and Research. A-Star’s goal is to catapult Singapore to the forefront of scientific research. And A-Star isn’t just attracting foreign talent to Singapore; it’s also sending Singaporeans overseas to study at top Western universities.
HO HUN KIT: It’s probably the most exciting phase of my life.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Ho Hun Kit [ph] received an A-Star scholarship to do and his PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle. He felt a certain patriotic pride, going abroad to hone his skills and then coming home to benefit Singapore.
HO HUN KIT: Life sciences is the next big thing for Singapore. Being a small country with limited resources, limited space we have to invest in industries that doesn’t take up so much space. Things that are human capital intensive.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Experts say this plan is smart for Singapore. Christian Kettles [ph] is with the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School.
CHRISTIAN KETTLES: They really only can succeed as a very small society if they’re very heavily integrated in the global science community. And that’s exactly where this program fits in. Attracting other people, leveraging the human resources that they have internally, but really bringing them in touch with foreign universities rather than kind of creating a little bubble in Singapore and trying to do it all on their own.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: And yet, for this plan to work the students Singapore trains have to stay in Singapore. The government doesn’t want to cultivate young scientists only to lose them to other countries. So the scholars are required to work in Singapore for up to six years after graduating. For Singaporean, Ho Hun Kit, returning home after his studies in Seattle was no big deal.
HO HUN KIT: My roots are still here, and I would — as a Singaporean I would also like to contribute to the country.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: But for Li Hun Hom Ching, the Chinese student recruited to Singapore, the sacrifice was far greater. In exchange for her PhD scholarship, she had to forfeit her Chinese citizenship and become Singaporean.
LEE YUN HOM CHING: I can still clearly remember the day that I went to the Chinese Embassy and surrendered my passport. I have some struggling in my heart, because it’s my home country. It’s like my parents.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Some Singaporeans criticize the scholarship program, saying it puts too many demands on its students, forcing them to work long hours and to live a cloistered life. In fact, some speculate the pressure may have contributed to two recent scandals. In one, an A-Star scholar committed suicide; he jumped from the ninth floor of a building after a young woman rejected him. In the second, a female scholar studying for a PhD in Sweden was arrested for public nudity in Singapore. She was caught streaking during Chinese New Year. One disgruntled student told me that the A-Star program asks a lot of its scholars, but doesn’t provide much support for those who speak out or think differently. I contacted the A-Star program on several occasions to talk about its scholarships, but officials declined to be interviewed. Still, many young scientists say their involvement with Singapore’s scholarship program has been worthwhile. Even Li Yun Hom Ching says she’s grateful for the educational and financial support she’s received, despite having to forfeit her Chinese citizenship.
LEE YUN HOM CHING: Some of my friends were saying that you are forfeiting your nationality for something material. Right, but I will say that if you were in my position you would do the same.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: And a lot of young people are doing the same; it’s been eight years since Singapore’s scholarship program began and it’s having no problem filling its slots. 145 new scholarships were awarded just last month. For The World, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro, Singapore.