April 28, 2017

Authors Posts by Suhaile Md

Suhaile Md

Suhaile Md
You can reach me at suhaile@themiddleground.sg

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by Md Suhaile

NATIONAL University of Singapore is now the 26th ranked university globally and the best in Asia, at least according to the Times Higher Education World University Ranking (Times). The title was previously held by Tokyo University, which surprisingly plunged from a global rank of 23 to 43 in just one year. Nanyang Technological University (NTU) did well, rising six places to claim the 55th spot globally.

Tokyo down, Singapore up. Is there anything more to it?

We think so. In fact Times has changed how it’s evaluating these universities. First, it surveyed a lot more people about the universities after it expanded the number of languages in which the surveys are conducted from 9 to 15. It also doubled its rankings list, from 400 to 800. But perhaps most notably, it changed its research database provider from Thomson Reuters to Elsevier’s Scopus. (Could this be why Reuters decided to come up with their own university rankings?) Consequently, the Times was able to assess 11 million research papers this year as opposed to 6 million from last year – again, nearly double.

This particular point is significant for two reasons.

First, Times scores performance in five broad areas with different weightage given to each: teaching (30 per cent), research (30 per cent), citations (30 per cent), international outlook (7.5 per cent) and industry income (2.5 per cent). Note the weightage attached to research and citations. Second, the vast increase in number of papers assessed means that previously unaccounted for citations are now included.

Since the weightage for the categories have not changed, this means while the ranking has not put more emphasis on research, its assessment of the universities’ quality of research work now is arguably more refined.

Tokyo University maintained performance standards in all categories except in citations – where its score plunged from 74.7 to 60.9. On the other hand, both NUS and NTU improved their research and citation scores significantly. For Citations: NUS leaped from 66.0 to 79.4 points while NTU improved from 75.9 to 85.6 points. This is probably one reason why NTU was able to leapfrog the competition – this was also mentioned in the papers today when NTU president Bertil Andersson said: “We are focused on our fundamentals – to create a world-class environment for learning, teaching and research.”

NUS has the same idea. The school’s tagline says it seeks to change the way “people think and do things through education, research and service”.

The marked improvements by the two universities in the latest edition of Times bodes well, of course. But as many people have pointed out, us included, no ranking list will ever be exhaustive or sufficiently nuanced to fully capture the value of any universities – whether it be based on research quality, innovation, or other scholarly metrics. Including Singapore’s. That, we’ll have to decide for ourselves.


Featured image UTown, National University of Singapore, by Flikr user smuconlaw, CC BY 2.0 

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Image of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak waves to camera
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak

by Md Suhaile

MALAYSIA’S Prime Minister Najib Razak has had a few rough months in his own country, but it looks like pressure from other parts of the world is now building up. The latest: A United States Justice Department investigation that has led to suspicions over US$150 million (S$213.4 million) worth of properties owned by shell companies linked to his step-son, Mr Riza Aziz, and family friend, Mr Jho Low.

The Justice Department’s enquiry tops a list of investigations that started at home, around 1MDB the government-owned strategic development company, in March 25 this year. 1MDB is the brainchild of Mr Najib, and he was its funds advisory board chairman.

Since early this year, the company has been plagued with allegations of fund mismanagement to outright accusations of corruption after it was revealed that it failed to pay S$13.8 billion in debts. Problems compounded for Mr Najib when the Wall Street Journal claimed to trace almost US$700 million from 1MDB to Mr Najib’s personal bank accounts.

In the past few months, authorities from Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore have also become interested in the case and are currently investigating the aspects of the allegations that fall within their own jurisdiction.

Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney-General launched criminal proceedings last month and its financial regulator, the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (Finma), got in touch with various Swiss banks to address the issue. Hong Kong police confirmed earlier this month that they were investigating complaints linked to Mr Najib. In July, Singapore police froze two bank accounts related to the 1MDB probe.

Investigations within Malaysia have failed to produce incontrovertible proof for or against Mr Najib. The former Attorney-General of Malaysia, Mr Abdul Gani Patail, who was involved in investigations related to 1MDB, was sacked.

So the local authorities haven’t made much progress into the investigation. Will foreign watchdogs do better? We wonder what they will turn up…


Featured image Perdana Menteri Malaysia Hadiri APEC 2013 by APEC 2013,  CC BY 2.0.

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NUS poster

by Md Suhaile

NATIONAL University of Singapore (NUS) scraped into 94th place of the top 100 World’s Most Innovative Universities by Reuters. Nanyang Techonological University (NTU) was a no show. This barely days after NUS and NTU ranked 12th and 13th in the 2015 Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings respectively. So… world class, just not innovative? Sarcasm aside, here’s a question: which one matters more?

Rankings are a dime a dozen. The report by Reuters is just another addition to a list full of mouthful titles: Academic Ranking of World Universities, Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Center for World University Rankings… just to name a few. They differ in their aims, their criteria and their rigour even. It would be counter-productive to attempt to top all rankings – though, that must sound pretty tempting to the universities themselves.

Reuters in question placed universities based on how successful they are in ” transforming science and technology and impacting the global economy”. Their 10 point criteria is heavily centred around patents and their industry value. Are patents the best measure of innovation? Are there other ways to measure? Also, the fact that it’s a completely new survey is not insignificant – there are no basis points from earlier years.

The QS ranking on the other hand wants “to help students make informed comparisons of leading universities around the world”.  It focuses on  six indicators like student to faculty ratio and citations per faculty. The bulk of it though, 40 per cent to be exact, is geared to “academic reputation” – where academics globally name the institutions they feel produce the best work in their field of study. The QS ranking has been around for more than a decade, but its emphasis on subjective measures like “academic reputation” could also give rise to questions of rigour and scientific validity.

No ranking list is exhaustive and sufficiently nuanced to fully capture the value of any universities. They are at best, proxies. Maybe Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sums it up best: “the KPI should be how well the universities serve Singapore. Whether they are academically and intellectually rigorous and vibrant, yet develop an authentic Singaporean character.”

“Whether they give Singaporeans a good education, not just academically but holistically, building skill sets relevant to the economy so that people can get good jobs and fulfill their aspirations.”


Featured image 8M5A9215 by Flickr user Melvin YapCC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

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Image of an elderly man watches the live telecast with PAP supporters in the background at Toa Payoh Stadium
An elderly man watches the live telecast with PAP supporters in the background at Toa Payoh Stadium

by Md Suhaile

THE electorate surprised pundits, including the politicians, by handing the People’s Action Party such a strong win of nearly 70 per cent, up from 60 per cent just four years ago. Analysts previously caught flat footed have now recovered sufficiently to opine with the benefit of hindsight. Here’s a selection of thoughts circulating as of Sunday, September 13.

1. Alex Au, yawning bread

Headline: General election 2015: Huge win for PAP signals stasis
Quote: “The 2011 results, including the by-election results following that general election, now have to be read as purely a protest vote.”
“Xenophobia is not a defining characteristic of Singapore. Yes there are outbursts from time to time… Looking at the long term, this result kind of confirms what I have long felt to be Singapore’s future: A lengthy period of stasis supported by a complacent electorate” said Mr Alex Au, a well known socio-political blogger, in his personal blog.

His sense is that the 2015 results, read against 2011 results, shows the SG electorate to be short-termist. The 2011 swing to opposition was more due to protests over some key issues than a real need for change. The G won them back after some tweaks to said issues. SG voters have thus shown themselves to be comfortable with a paternalistic state, unconcerned by repressive policies or loss of civil liberties and trusting of broad assurances – as opposed to demanding for details – that problems will be tackled.

Mr Au feels the CPF issue, cost of living and foreigner issues gained no traction with voters. AHPETC was not a biggie either based on the swing vote percentages in the three Workers’ Party wards coming in lower than the national average of 9.8 per cent. The core anti-G block remains at about 30 per cent, a proportion that seems to have renewed itself generationally.

2. Cherian George, Air-Conditioned Nation

Headline: Beyond GE 2015: A second chance for reform
Quote: “Another weak spot that the election results should not obscure is the quality of the PAP’s self-renewal, which is one of the core goals for which it wanted a strong mandate.” said Mr Cherian George, Associate Professor of Journalism in Hong Kong Baptist University, in his blogpost.

It’s premature to assume that GE2015 results will take PAP to SG100. What’s certain is that the PAP has been given five more years. In the last few years, the G made some changes but stopped short of reforming itself. As such, persistent problems remain:

  1. Structural problems with the feedback mechanism from the ground as evidenced by the failure to pre-empt and persuade citizens of the Population White Paper.
  2. Problems of self-renewal: too many from public sector with no private sector high-flier. Public sector group-think may result within the cabinet. Original thinkers in the Lim Kim San mould is required. This issue “merits a red flag”.
  3. A hardline stance by the G towards critics and its tendency for “short-circuiting debates” get in the way of effective policy making. This should be done away with because spirited debates are needed to produce “resilient and robust policy ideas”.

He argues that now is the best time to initiate reform given the strong mandate and a star Cabinet member who came “through the bruising new normal with his reputation enhanced”, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He also mentioned that “there was at least one battle-scarred high-flier who was prepared to talk during the campaign of a “New PAP” that welcomes a “genuine diversity of opinions”. He is probably referring to Mr Ong Ye Kung.

3. Vikram Khanna, The Business Times

Headline: A stunning outcome, a moment to reflect
Quote: “If you want to be elected, you should, like opposition parties everywhere else, also be prepared to govern,” said Mr Vikram Khanna, Associate Editor of The Business Times in a commentary.

No one – not even veterans known for their acuity – predicted the landslide victory of the PAP. This phenomenon, where voters surprise pundits is not restricted to Singapore. It also played out in the British elections earlier this year and the Indian general elections last year. The conservatives in UK won a clear majority against prevailing wisdom that they would face a hung parliament whilst Narendra Modi’s BJP secured a decisive victory in spite of predictions of a coalition government being formed. 

The reasons for PAP’s win cannot be restricted to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing and the Lee Hsien Loong – Tharman Shanmugaratnam factor. PAP’s campaign exhorted voters to “vote for who can govern” while the Opposition challenged voters to have “a bigger opposition as a check on power”. The PAP undermined the Opposition’s play by persuading the electorate that they have in fact internalised – and acted – on their concerns post 2011.

4. Warren Fernandez, The Straits Times

Headline: The end of the ‘new normal’
Quote: “The moral of the story here is simple: In politics, what goes up can also come down.”
“Each time voters go to the polls is different, and anything can, and often does, happen. There are no straight lines to the future in politics, with all its surprising ebbs and flows, and if nothing else, GE2015 has debunked the idea that a ‘new normal’ was set after 2011,” said Mr
 Warren Fernandez , Editor of The Straits Times in a commentary.

Mr Fernandez cautions against drawing a linear political projection based on the results of this GE. That was what happened post 2011 and clearly, pundits were wrong. This is not new. In 1991, SDP secured three seats (number based on Elections Department website, ST article states four) but lost all of them in 1997. Only Mr Chiam See Tong retained his seat but did so under the SPP banner. The PAP won 75.3 per cent of the votes in 2001 but lost nearly 9 per cent share in 2006.

What caused the swing in 2015? Not just the positive vibes of SG50. Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing put the spotlight on the fragility of Singapore’s existence in a tough environment and focused the attention of Singaporeans on the sacrifice and struggle required for survival. The haze, plummeting stock markets and protests up north underscored the vulnerable reality. PM Lee Hsien Loong and the PAP “made palpable efforts to heed and address voters’ concerns on housing, healthcare, transport and immigration, even if there remained much work to do on some fronts.” Finally, the Opposition might have overreached itself this election. Voters paused to think that “perhaps, having brought Singapore this far over the last 50 years, the PAP deserved at least another five years at the helm.”

5. Terry Xu, The Online Citizen

Headline: The failure of the opposition is its high possibility of success
Quote: “Should it (PAP) take the votes for granted again, voters might once again voice their displeasure via the polling booths in the next General Election.” said Mr Terry Xu, interim Chief Editor of The Online Citizen in a commentary.

The Opposition was expected to improve on their gains from 2011. So why did the reverse happen? Mr 
 Xu believes there are a few factors.

First, he contends that SG50 celebrations attributed the success of Singapore to the leadership of the PAP – and clearly Singaporeans agreed. Second, the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew won over some sympathy votes for the incumbents. Third, voters were mollified by the “stop gap” measures taken to address the housing and transport problems. Finally, the much publicised reports of the large crowds flocking to some opposition parties may have led voters to assume that they would secure many seats. This in turn motivated the electorate to be more conservative in the polls, as opposed to registering a “protest” vote against the PAP.

He concludes by asserting that “it does not really matter whether the opposition is credible or not – a majority of the people prefer that the PAP continues to run the country and that the status quo and their pace of life are maintained” . Mr Xu suggests the Opposition move to educate the electorate that political change need not be abrupt as transition can take place without derailing the competitiveness of Singapore.

6. Foreign Media

Foreign media also picked up on the strong showing for the PAP. Agencies such as the BBC and Malaysia’s The Star attributed the swing to positive SG50 vibes, sentimentality due to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing and, voter confidence that the PAP is making a tangible effort to listen to the ground. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation  and South China Morning Post picked up on academic Bridget Welsh’s analysis piece for New Mandala, an Australian National University blog. In it, she argues four reasons for the PAP win.

First, the “silent majority”. They tend to be private about their political views but  can cause significant swings due to the strength of their numbers. Analysts have difficulties assessing their voting patterns and thought processes – consequently skewing their sensing of the political climate.

Next, Opposition blowback. The increasing prominence of opposition parties in the media “provoked a counter-reaction that boosted the PAP performance, an opposition blowback.” This counter-reaction was fueled by unease with opposition parties, disappointment with their performance or a lack of trust.

Thirdly, right timing. Externally turbulent economic conditions, the passing of founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the SG50 celebrations came together to form an opportune climate that was advantageous to the incumbents.

Finally, anger dissipation. The move by the PAP to listen closely to the ground and tweak policies that, among other things, included more subsidies mollified the electorate sufficiently. Ms Welsh concludes her analysis on what it means for PM Lee as well as future challenges for both the incumbent and the Opposition. For the Opposition, their challenge lies in expanding their appeal to the “silent majority” and to reduce attention to personality. For the incumbent, complacency would be their downfall.


Featured Photo by Joseph Nair.

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