Sunday, December 03, 2006

Singaporean come first (or so they say)

Taken from the CNA article Health and education ministries reviewing fees for PRs and foreigners.

SINGAPORE: Singapore citizens will always come first, before Permanent Residents and non-citizens, says Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

That is why the health and education ministries are now working on changes to reduce fee subsidies for non-citizens, so that foreigners do not enjoy the same benefits as Singaporeans.

The next offset package for the GST increase will be for Singaporeans only, just like the Progress Package earlier this year, said Prime Minister Lee.

This is because the Government's responsibility is to Singaporeans first, although Permanent Residents and foreign workers will remain priorities.

"While we have non-citizens here, citizens always come first. We have to treat them as the best, we have to treat visitors well too but citizens have to be treated better," Mr Lee said.

"Right now, PRs enjoy the same subsidies as Singaporeans for education and healthcare, and in fact in healthcare, foreign workers also receive subsidised treatment. I think we should make a clear difference – PRs should pay more than Singaporeans but less than other foreigners, there is a distinction.

"If you are not a PR and not a citizen, you should be given good treatment but we will not give you special privileges."

For education, Mr Lee said there are plans to charge non-citizens more, but not to set fees so high that foreign students will not come.

While for healthcare, foreign workers will have to bear the full costs of their medical bills.

Halimah Yacob, Chairman of the GPC for Health, said that employers of foreign workers should do a proper costing to cover their full healthcare need so that Singaporeans would not end up paying for them. She also hopes that employers will not ignore the needs of these foreign workers.

"We got feedback from many Singaporeans and even from my own constituents that since everything's equal for Singaporeans, foreigners and PRs, what's so special about being Singaporean? To some extent, short of being nationalistic, PM's message of 'citizens first' is well overdue. It'll be much appreciated among Singaporeans who are wondering what's in it for me holding that red passport," said Zaqy Mohamad, MP of Hong Kah GRC.

More details about the review will be announced by the respective ministries over the next few months.

Fox says it's about bloody time.

If Singapore's hospitals and schools are as world-class as the government claims, then foreigners should still flock to them even when the rates are lowered for them. If local universities cannot attract enough foreign students, so what? It probably means that they are providing an overpriced service that only the locals can buy (with financial support from the state of course). In any case, why should Singapore subsidise a foreigner to get his or her undergraduate degree in Singapore? In the US, in any state, if a state-funded public university offers subsidised tuition rates to nonlocals, the governor and the state representatives will get lynched publicly.

On the other hand, the cost of medical care should not be made prohibitively expensive. If affordable healthcare is not made accessible to foreign workers, some of them may be skimp on that. Think SARS, TB, dengue, malaria, etc. Do people living in Singapore really want foreigners with these diseases to go untreated and mingle with them? One possible solution is to make it mandatory for employers to buy medical insurance and provide full healthcare coverage for their foreign workers.

Let's wait and see...

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Harry's Island on Harry's Island

Taken from: Eighth Wonder submits $5.5b bid for Sentosa Integrated Resort

Eighth Wonder submits $5.5b bid for Sentosa Integrated Resort

SINGAPORE: The final bidder for Sentosa's Integrated Resort project, Las Vegas-based Eighth Wonder, revealed its S$5.5 billion plans to develop what it calls "Harry's Island" on Tuesday.

Eighth Wonder's Chairman Mark Advent intends for Harry's Island to be iconic, creative and one-of-a-kind.

He has lined up an international star-studded cast to work with him in developing the Sentosa project.

"There is a spirit that is special about Sentosa regardless. It is an amazing place. It is a lush tropical serene paradise, and now it is evolving as a place for commerce, hospitality, residential and, ultimately in the future, an integrated resort," Advent says.

"So it's a very fine balance to figure out that place where all of these different elements could co-exist in a manner that is sensitive to all. Ultimately, when you isolate it into an integrated resort directive, there is a huge opportunity to create world-class excitement, entertainment, must-see appeal just by the type of project we are proposing," he adds.

When completed, Harry's Island will have 10 world-class, luxury and family-oriented hotels.
I wonder about the provenance of the proposed name...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Education in the old days

I remember doing a compulsory social science module as an undergraduate and I had to write a paper on education and economic development in Singapore in the 1960s and 70s. As part of the research, I went to a dark musty corner the Central Library where they stored Singapore related materials and went over the educational statistics. When I looked the educational statistics of ASEAN countries, one thing that immediately struck me was that Singapore did not actually do a very good job of providing basic education services to its people from the 50s up to the 80s. Part of the blame should really be laid on the British but even after independence, Singapore lagged behind countries like the Phillipines and even Vietnam in some respects. For example, the percentage of Singaporeans in each batch in the 70s and 80s who completed secondary school is astonishingly low. Things only started to improve significantly in the mid-80s but by then, it would be fair to say that a large number of people left school undereducated and minimal education. Back in those days, relatively few people had any kind of post-secondary education (VTI, polytechnic, university).

Some people would say that Singapore could not afford to provide large-scale secondary and post-secondary education back then. It is quite hard to believe that claim, considering that Singapore has always been in the top three in Asia in terms of per capita GDP even before independence. We were not that poor to start off or else immigrants from China and India would not have settled here in the old days. Further more, even South Korea and the Phillipines, which had and still have lower per capita GDP and large rural agricultural populations, did considerably better than Singapore.

If you look at the statistics here, the average person in the 25-29 age category in 1984 had only 8.5 years of schooling, which means that he/she probably didn't even finish secondary school. Twenty years later, in 2006, this means that the majority of people in the 45-50 category are undereducated and lack qualifications, such as basic English skills. That would not have been fatal in the 90s when manufacturing jobs did not require too many qualifications and you could earn a decent living as a factory operator. However, manufacturing jobs in Singapore are rapidly being outsourced and the new jobs created in Singapore are in the services sector where you do need at the very very least a basic high school education. If you see where I am going, it is not so difficult to see why there are so many middle-aged people who find it hard to get employment opportunities in the current job market in Singapore despite the tight job market (or so we're told).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

NUS - 19th in the THES ranking

I wanted to comment on this but got sidetracked by some work. Anyway, the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) world ranking of universities came out a couple of weeks ago. As many would know, Singapore's NUS got into the top 20 again and thereby, proving that it is better than inferiors like Johns Hopkins University, ETH Zurich, Ecole Polytechnique and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Really? Let's take a closer look. Of course, if you look at the breakdown of the scores, which is available at the THES website for subscribers, you will realise that NUS does very well in criteria like 'international faculty', 'international students' and 'peer review' and rather poorly on things like 'citations per faculty'.

In terms of international faculty and international students, NUS and NTU have some of the highest scores. However, the high marks given are misleading. Allow me to explain why. In most universities, the presence of international students is regarded as a good thing because they correlate to the quality of the university. The general idea is that the better the university is, more foreign students would be willing to pay the extra fees to go there. For example, a Singaporean students looking to study in the US would generally prefer to go to the best place he or she qualifies for given the very high cost of education. People naturally prefer some place like Berkeley or MIT over Podunk University, if they can get in. The idea is that since you're paying so much for your education, you would want a place that gives you more bang for your bucks. Therefore, it is quite natural for THES to accord a significant positive weight to the number of foreign students in a university since most universities do not go out of their way to bring in foreign students just for the sake of bringing them in.

Of course, the situation is not like that in Singapore. NUS and NTU have a large number of foreign students not because of any intrinsic superior quality of their education but because the government effectively bribes a large number of foreign students with subsidised tertiary education and scholarship to study there. So, you see, the legions of foreign students in NUS are not a testimony to how great the university is but are really there because people are financially incentivised to go there. If you remove that component of that score, I suspect that NUS and NTU's rankings will drop drastically because few people would go to NUS paying full fees. That is not quite so for other universities such as LSE or UNSW with very high scores for international students. Foreign students go there paying full fees. Hence, their presence is a reliable indicator of the quality of these universities.

If you look at the 'citations per faculty' score, NUS does badly, which indicates that the quality of their research is not commensurate with their ranking. Of course, this ranking is not merely about the research performance of universities. Also, the 'citations per faculty' has a time lag factor and is calculated by looking at citation records from ESI over a 5-year period. To be fair to NUS, if there was a quantum leap in the quality of its research in the last two or three years, the ranking would not reflect that although it would show up in the ranking in 2009, provided that the same ranking criteria were used.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Work and more work

I foresee a busy time with work this weekend... like any other weekend in grad school so far. The things to do list looks like:

  1. Do limiting cases for the thermodynamics in the new formalism. More number crunching.
  2. Read, no, study a couple of review papers. See if there are any possible thesis topics.
  3. Homework.

I have been working through the field theory notes and find the whole business of Dirac spinors to be quite tedious. Everything is fine when you do a Wick rotation to make get a Spin(4,0) from a Spin(3,1) because with a Spin(4,0), you can pretend it has a tensor representation i.e. SU(2) x SU(2) and then use the familiar spin-1/2 formalism. Of course, when you have to go back and work with Spin(3,1), things become a little more complicated because the representation no longer be block diagonal with independent blocks and you have all the rules with the gamma matrices to ensure that you recover the correct Lie algebra and transformation properties for Spin(3,1), generators and all. Just everything is just about 2x2 representation about the homogeneous Lorentz group...

Researchwise, the 'oomph' value in my project has been largely exhausted after a couple of months. It is not likely to be of any use a thesis topic. I will probably have to ask for another project or think of one myself. Hence, I will have to go through the papers. Since there is no job waiting for Fox after getting a PhD, unlike the bonded sojourners from Buona Vista, I need to do a thesis with substance, a mother of all theses.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Finding Jobs in the Life Science

There is a piece in Today on the difficulties recent Life Science graduates from NUS encountered in finding Life Science jobs.

Frankly, I'm not surprised. During my time in NUS, the enrollment in the LS programme probably doubled with all the hype. A great number of people wanted to study LS because of the better job prospects, with the seemingly intimate relationship between LS and biotech, not because of any great passion for biology. Well, it turns out that they were wrong about the employment prospects. The biotech sector in Singapore at the moment does not need so many LS B.Sc. holders. It needs LS graduates with advanced degrees. Sorry, there aren't even enough test-tubes to go around for people to wash.

What did these people from LS expect? The whole point of having a biotech industry is for Singapore to resist the economic competition from China and India and the only way to do that is for Singapore's economy to develop niches. This means that jobs that require specialised skills will have to be created and taken up by people with those skills. At the level of a bachelors in LS or any science for that matter, there isn't much specialisation. Advanced training is required. If you really want to a LS job with a LS bachelors, then go and get a really good honours degree.

The problem is that the biotech industry really needs people with PhD qualifications or at the very least, people with masters or even good honours. For a LS graduate with only a pass degree or a lower honours, it is difficult, if not impossible, for him/her to find a job in the biotech industry. This is not the case for the other established 'high-tech' industries in Singapore like wafer fabrication plants. Even if you have only a pass or 3rd-class honours degree in engineering/science, you can still find work in the industry. I have been told that one needs only very basic knowledge of semiconductor science. I know a EE graduate who specialised in computer engineering in NTU but still found a job as a process engineer in a wafer fab despite knowing next to nothing about the industry.

Therefore, we can see that a mediocre engineering graduate can find an engineering job that does not require a great deal of technical skill but a mediocre LS graduate is going to have trouble finding a LS-related one. This also means that the competition-resistance level of many engineering jobs in Singapore is probably low, since they require only superficial technical abilities, and thus, are at higher risk of being moved to other countries. But the upside is that there are plenty of such jobs are around. The more specialised positions in the biotech industry have a far lower risk of being moved overseas (which is obviously why the government is promoting the industry), at least for now, but are scarcer.

For me personally, when I went into physics, I knew that it would be even more difficult to get a physics-related (teaching, semiconductor, research, radiology, meteorology, scientific programming, etc) job when I graduate. A bachelors is next to useless for any job that required specialised skills although it is perfectly fine for other non-technical positions. The stakes were high and I knew that I had to get into graduate school. I calculated my odds and then worked my balls off so that I could go to graduate school.

Of course, I don't go to graduate school just for the better prospects, if it were any good in the first place. I do it because I enjoy doing and learning physics immensely. That's why I went into physics in the first place although I could have gone into engineering or law with my grades (I did get into law but that's another story...). But you have to acknowledge that a career in science can be chancey espcially in a country like Singapore. There are no shortcuts in life and taking up a degree just because of the hype is a surefire way to set up oneself for disappointment.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Welcome, children of the corn...

The department is cutting down its intake of students primarily because people here take far too much time to finish their degrees (I heard one guy took 14 years) and the graduate population has bloated substantially over the years to nearly 300 although you probably couldn't have known by just poking around in the department. A great number of grad students don't work in physics proper but in materials science, multi-disciplinary stuff, ECE, chemistry, etc. We're probably one of the biggest departments in the country - 'big' like Jabba the Hut though.

As a result, one unintended side effect is that the department is actually becoming more selective. They admitted 50 new grad students out of 500 applicants. In terms of GRE subject scores, the average score for the entering class was pretty competitive at 873. That, incidentally, is higher than the scores for Stanford or Chicago. I can't understand why all those high-scoring idiots would come to a place like this. Perhaps, they feel some affinity for corn.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What was I doing at 22?

It was the 22nd birthday of K, one of the undergrads, a couple of days ago on Sunday. So, happy birthday to her.

A Singaporean grad student asked me what was I doing when I was 22. I remember spending quite a bit of time in the games room in Yusof Ishak on video games and pool and, of course, when I was not working, studying my balls off so that I would have a shot at a decent graduate school overseas. I was essentially the library regular that had to be chased out of the library at 9:55pm on weekday nights and got my vitamins from coffee, cigarettes and char siew rice.

A lot of my time was just spent in the library, reading and working through advanced texts in physics and mathematics in an unguided and haphazard way, turninging pristine textbooks dog-eared. I still have my tattered copies of Dettman, Marsden, Schwabl, Reitz-Milford-Christy, Hassani, Griffiths, Singleton, etc and the notebooks filled with exercises and detailed solutions. Along the way, I must have mowed down about 80 percent of the problems in R-M-C as well as gone through two-thirds of Hassani's 900-page graduate textbook on mathematical physics. I remember working through in detail the first half of Schwinger's QM textbook and contributed substantially to the errata of the first edition since one of the author is a professor in my alma mater. (Unfortunately, he fails to acknowledge my contributions.) Most of my knowledge in physics and math I accumulated during my undergrad days came from my own reading and self-study. I don't recall learning much from classes except during my honours year when there was some stuff I had not seen before.

Regretfully, I probably didn't have as much 'fun', in a social way, as most of my peers in university though. Professional dedication does require some sacrifice and I paid my dues.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Give that man a Tiger

I was chatting with my boss the other day during lunch. His route to academia is rather unusual.

As an undergraduate, he went to a lesser-known public university because it was near home and his working-class family was poor. The 70s was a difficult time for many working-class families especially when factories were closing down in the US and blue-collar jobs were outsourced, ironically, to places like Singapore. The first time he had steak was after he had left home to attend college. In college, he survived on two dollars a day - 40 cents for a can of peas, 75 cents for a can of tuna and the rest on rice and pasta - so that he didn't have to work during the regular semester and could concentrate fully on studying. He worked fulltime in summer to pay for his expenses. He did say something about joining a fraternity though. People with his family background and gifts usually don't think about taking up a major in a dangerously unremunerative field, much less go to grad school. At least, a Singaporean of that background wouldn't go down that road.

After he got his basic degree, he stayed on in the same university to finish his PhD for family reasons and got his PhD in 3.5 years, followed by a very productive postdoctoral stint in Britain before he moved to a respectable national lab on the west coast where he stayed for 10 years. Most people in his shoes wouldn't think about going into academia, much less one in a competitive top-tier research university, especially when they are free to stay in a research environment where funding is not a problem and life is less hectic. Oh, the weather is a hell lot nicer on the west coast.

After 10 years in the national lab, he moved to a top-tier research public university in rural central Illinois (i.e. middle of nowhere) to be an assistant professor, essentially working his way up the ranks. Today, he's an APS fellow, a full professor with appointments in three departments, two of which are ranked in the top 3 in their fields and a top honcho in his research specialty. And he still finds time to coach his son's little league team.

Frankly, I find that amazing and inspirational. I believe that, very often, people, especially I, are only held back by their insecurities and their lack of achievements are only a consequence of the unwillingness to look past the hand that fate has dealt them and move on to achieve greater things. Everyone has dreams. It's a matter of whether we dare to believe in them or not.

I must work harder. Bloody harder.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

GEP is no more

MOE has decided to close down the GEP in secondary schools although the programme will still be run in at the primary school level.

Although it has been more than a decade since I left the programme which was conducted in a premier secondary school in the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio area, I still remember my days in the GEP with some fondness. Back then, the GEP was a highly exclusive (i.e. elitist) programme which only admitted about 0.4 percent (~200) of each cohort. Strangely, during my time, the sex ratio in the GEP was highly skewed with the number of males outnumbering the number of females by a ratio of two to one.

Looking back, I find the GEP curriculum to be of no more use to me than the express-stream curriculum is of use to the average express-stream student. We sure had a lot of enrichment programmes, which I did and still do not appreciate, and plenty of academic projects in the humanities and the sciences to take up our time. In retrospect, I would say that those projects probably did not play a very formative role in my intellectual development since I had neither the academic inclination nor the maturity to take advantage of them; I was too preoccupied with other things that adolescents of that age were usually preoccupied with at that time, perhaps considerably more so than many of my peers in the programme. A consequence of that style of education was that I was put off serious academic/intellectual endeavours for most of my adolescent years. Things only changed after JC...

Although the curriculum had no effect on me, being in a programme surrounded by many very smart people had a tremendous influence on me. It was only after I had left the programme, when I joined the premier pre-university institution in the Ghim Moh area that I realised how intellectually capable most of my peers in secondary school were, even compared to the average student in the institution. Having classmates like them meant that everyone had to share a smaller academic pie and people like me had to know my place. It was discouraging most of the times. Of course, the upside to it was that one got accustomed to a very high level of academic competition really quickly.

In the programme, we took for granted that everyone had a certain level of intellectual competence. It was no joke to sit in class side by side with people who would go on to top their classes in MIT or to win the only Math Olympiad gold medal for Singapore; it was a humbling experience. Like a good number of my peers in the programme, I believed that I was just stupid and not cut out for academic endeavours because I had to struggle to keep up with many of my classmates and was plain beaten. I don't think I have ever faced that sort of struggle to keep up even in grad school where I know people who come from Peking University, USTC, Cambridge, MIT, MIPT, etc. Then again, things were so different back then that a useful comparison cannot be made...

Another consequence of being in the GEP environment was that I learned to be quite independent and methodical in my approach towards learning something, out of sheer necessity to cope with the quicker people around me. In the GEP, independent learning was encouraged and most people could pick up things quite easily. I remember struggling to learn what a function and a Cartesian plot were in secondary one for a group project in math by reading it up from a textbook in the library. Some of the extra things we learned in class in lower secondary were quite delightful although most of them were over my head back then; I recall being introduced to basic probability concepts, matrices, injections, surjections and bijections, sets, etc.

One disadvantage of the GEP environment is that rote work was discouraged. The volume of homework in the GEP was somewhat smaller than that of homework in the express stream. I think the idea behind the reduced homework load was that 'normal' homework was less useful than doing projects and enrichment work for people in the GEP. Tests and exams were sometimes seen as a gauge of a person's brilliance and not as a measure of a person's to mastery some a certain content. I certainly had no self-discipline to sit down and to do the prescribed exercises, having soaked in the very much anti-work ethos. That, of course, changed later on.

As a result, I knew people who never got around to developing the disciplined capacity for the steady plodding work. It was a pity because I knew my share of brilliant people who could have profited from a more disciplined and systematic approach. I had a classmate in university who was also from the GEP but flopped his degee course because he was less than motivated to do his work. As a result, he ended up with a suboptimal honours class. In fact, a good number of GEP people whom I knew in NUS did not do well in their degree course. A lesson that I learned very early, outside of the GEP, was that an intelligent mind not properly supplemented by regular practice quickly loses its ability to work at a higher level. My only regret is that I never got to learn that lesson earlier during my school days.

Being in the GEP had its pros and cons. Overall, it was a positive experience although there were things that I had to unlearn as a result of being in the programme.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Invitation to meet PSC officials

Another great benefit to studying overseas, as opposed to studying locally, is that PSC officials from Singapore will go over to your university to let the Singaporean students, in their own words, 'learn more about new initiatives and opportunities available in the Singapore Civil Service'. They will even throw in a free lunch. Thus, I have conspired with a fellow Singaporean grad student to go enjoy the free food. The only problem is that I can't find my flip-flops and it will be too cold to wear bermudas to the lunch...

Also, Singapore banks - DBS, Standard Chartered, HSBC, etc - are trying to recruit students and working professionals in the US. The recruitment sessions are going to be held in posh places like a Hilton hotel as well as at selected campuses. That's another compelling reason why Singaporeans with the ability to leave should consider exiting the country - the country values you more when you're not in the country. I wonder if I would have even known of such things if I had not left Singapore then.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Something does not add up

Taken from the CNA article More jobs go to Singaporeans during good and bad times: MM Lee.

Max Lim, General Secretary, Singapore Bank Employees' Union, said: "Some of them are concerned, that they have to compete with more foreign workers, what if the day comes when there are not enough jobs to go around for everybody?"

MM Lee replied that in many retrenchments, the largest numbers affected were foreign workers, and when the jobs came back, the majority of them were taken by locals.

Wait a minute. If the foreign workers are the largest number affected in many retrenchments and the majority of the new jobs go to Singaporeans, then won't we see an increase in the proportion of locals in the Singapore workforce?

Notice how Max Lim's question was not answered directly in the article.

The graphs

"Do you ever sleep?" - Crazy postdoc in office.
The culmination of one summer - two graphs showing the covariance of the site probabilities of a 3-component ABC lattice gas. Will put in the error bars later.

I believe that I am the first to generalize the formalism successfully. Not bad for a summer's work.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Education and life

"You know, graduate school is like kindergarten for people who refuse to get a regular job." - Crazy postdoc in office.

I have been hacking away at the computer on my program for the last 12 hours, tweaking the parameters and debugging the code. Oh God, when will this end?

Was talking to a fellow Singaporean (FS) a couple of days ago. It went something like this.

FS: I'll be going back to Singapore to a suckcock job with a lousy pay.
Fox: Suckcock job? Don't you have an engineering masters? Won't your organization employ you in an engineering postition? At least you have a job after you graduate. When I graduate, I won't even know if I can find a job.
FS: The pay sucks. I also realized that I am not good enough to do R&D.
Fox: Why did you do engineering in the first place?
FS: It was my only chance to go overseas. There was no way I could have afford to study overseas without a scholarship.
Fox: Ahhh... I see.

I used to think poorly of people who took up scholarships for the money. I've always believed that people who did that were mercenary. To me, a scholarship, in the context of Singapore, is really an employment contract and taking up a scholarship means that a person is committed to a career in the organization. For example, if you have a SAFOS, you better like killing things with M-16; if you're an A*STAR scholar, you should ideally only sleep, breathe and eat science; if you're an MOE scholar, please love teaching. I know a GEP schoolmate with very good grades who took up a social work scholarship because he wanted to be a social worker - I have nothing but the highest admiration for people like him. On the other hand, I know of people who took up scholarships, local and overseas, just for the money and the job security. I don't feel comfortable with the notion of signing on just for the money. To me, a job is about commitment. I could never see myself as a civil servant so I basically ruled out government scholarships. (Not that I could have gotten one. Anyway, it was a good thing since I believe the tax-paying public is much better off without an idiot like me in the ranks of the civil service.)

Of course, that sort of idealism has to be tampered by a sense of reality. Many decent people take up scholarships because they did not want to burden their parents who are near retirement. My parents do make a comfortable living and probably won't become financially crippled when they retire. Coming from a middle-class family that could pay for my university education (although I had to work for my other financial needs), I don't think I have the right to judge people for making decisions based on financial considerations. I know of a few very bright people who took up scholarships by my ex-employer even though they could have done without it. They took it up because of the money which allowed them to financially support their parents. In this regard, I am just very lucky that my family can afford to let me pursue a PhD without being beholden to a Singapore sponsor.

I occasionally feel guilty that I am still in grad school, not in Singapore to take care of my family and don't have a regular job. I should be back at home to help out at home. It doesn't help that my elder sibling sometimes goes on prolonged spells of unemployment or semi-employment as a freelance programmer and that my younger sibling is taking the O-levels this year with the prospect of polytechnic becoming very real. Or that my parents have high hopes for me, at least academically speaking, since I was a child.

On the other hand, having worked in Singapore in a large research organization, I am convinced that my professional prospects there would have been poor, given my academic qualifications and the less than stimulating environment. Singapore is just too intellectually backwards and small for any cutting-edge research in the physical sciences.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Research note 1

Adding a constant shift term to the k-space components of a Fourier-transformed correlation matrix element only alters the zeroth component of the real space correlation matrix elements.

To recalculate Fourier components of correlation matrix.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Citizenship, Loyalty and National Service

The Kwayteowman has an article on 'Citizenship, Loyalty and National Service'. Here's a brief summary:

  1. He says that "citizenship and loyalty are orthogonal issues, though they are likely to be correlated". In other words, if you're a citizen, it doesn't mean that you're more likely to be loyal.
  2. He succintly defines loyalty in concrete terms: to "put Singapore's interests ahead of other nations", like reporting for mobilization in the even of a war, not badmouthing Singapore if you're overseas and joining in the civil debate if you're in Singapore.
  3. NS is a not about loyalty. It is a cost-effective way of maintaining a significant military. He also acknowledges that male Singaporeans would be better off without NS.

My comments:

Sure. Citizenship is a legal status. Loyalty is a choice. Unfortunately, as he mentions, most of us had no choice in our citizenship. There really isn't much for me to say on this issue.

The KTM is honest in saying that he is not sure what "put Singapore's interests ahead of other nations" actually means. I think that the main problem is in defining what Singapore's interests are. Obviously, security is an interest as evidenced by the need to for a military. He also mentions that if you're contributing to the economy by holding a job, you're being loyal. Hence, the state of the economy is also an interest. Personally, I think that there are other kinds of interests like social justice, a strong national identity, inter-racial harmony, etc.

NS is of course not about loyalty. But, in the country, it is sold as such. The burden of national defence falls disproportionately on a certain demographic group of the country: male Singaporeans. NS is highly unequitable even among Singaporeans. For example, naturalized Singaporeans over 27 need not perform NS. Female Singaporeans also don't have to. Handicapped people don't have to. The commonly given reason - a national myth really - why medically-fit male Singaporeans have to do NS at 18 is because it is some kind of national rite of passage for male Singaporeans to do their part for the country.

Once you move past the assoicated hubris about NS, then certain demographic group may start asking questions like: why do I have to pay more (2 years of my prime) for Singapore's national defence? In dollars and cents, they are penalized more than any other group. Cost-effectiveness and fairness are separate issues. NS as it is practised in Singapore is cost-effective but not equitable. For example, there can be a national defence tax on people who have not undergone some form of NS which will can be used to provide benefits and gratuities to people who have completed NS. That way, NS remains cost-effective but not inequitable. After all, national security is a public good enjoyed by everyone. People who do NS don't enjoy it more than people who don't.

Think of it another way: it's like people with O-type blood being asked to pay more for their hospital bills. Why should people pay more if they receive the same medical treatment? If people with O-type blood are paying more for their hospital bills, they are effectively subsidizing the non O-types.

Of course, the government is not going to implement a NS tax just for the sake of equity. Taxes in Singapore are generally considered anti-business and bad for the economy. Moreover, it is not going to add to the revenue of the government. Morally speaking though, I don't think anyone should have any objections to a NS tax though if you delink NS and loyalty.
So, NS has to be sold as an issue of loyalty so that a particular demographic group can bear the bulk of the burden of national defence.

Feeling poor

Fox is feeling very poor this month. You see, in the underfunded public midwestern university that Fox attends, graduate students are paid only 11 months per year for tax purposes and August is the month that he does not get paid. And the stipend here isn't exactly fantastic to start with, compared to what he could have received as a graduate student in a private university in upstate New York. *sigh*

To save money, he has converted his individual phone plan to a family plan with two other grad students, thus saving $30 per month. When one has to make do on $1250 per month over 12 months after tax, every dollar counts. It doesn't help that the price of gasoline is so high now.

On the bright side, the graduate education here is wonderful and better than he ever dared to hope.

Overseas Singaporeans

SQ, a fellow student in my lowly ranked underfunded midwestern university in rural American, has written an article for Singapore Angle on why the Singapore government should reach out more to overseas Singaporeans or something along those lines. Some of the things he talks about sound rather querulous and I can't quite understand what his point is, other than he hopes that the Singapore government makes more of an effort to 'bond' with overseas Singaporeans. He seems to hold the opinion that the government neglects overseas Singaporeans , especially university students, and has the propensity to view them as disloyal. I know of no specific examples to prove or disprove that.

Personally, having had the wonderful 'privilege' of doing my undergrad in a world-class Singapore university, I think that the government probably makes more effort to reach out to overseas students than local students in Singapore. Take me as an example: in my one year overseas, I've received more email notifications of job opportunities and internships in Singapore than in my four years in Singapore. Oh, this despite the fact that the current university that I attend has a lower ranking than my undergrad school.

Some of the points that do not make sense to me:

Often times, I hear from fellow overseas students commenting on the lack of positive recognition and support from the nation, which shouldn't come only after these students have become successful in the fields they specialize in.

Actually, even if you were a very bright NUS/NTU/SMU student, you also won't get a lot of 'positive recognition and support from the nation'. For example, PSC looks to Harvard, Cambridge, etc to recruit interns. How many local undergraduate from NUS/NTU/SMU have been invited to intern with PSC?

One such benefit from an active overseas Singaporean workforce is the lesser strain upon the local employment scene. The local talent pool has to face poor local support ranging from companies granting relatively lower salaries to them than to their overseas counterparts, plus having to face competition from the government's ever-beloved foreign talent, and on top of that, returning Singaporeans who have acquired broader skills, knowledge and overseas experience.

Erm, thanks for the 'benefit' of not seeking employment in Singapore. In any case, we can derive the same 'benefit' from the millions of Americans, Japanese, Germans, Brazilians, etc not seeking to work in Singapore. It doesn't take very much effort to not compete against the locals in Singapore for jobs when you are overseas.

Besides, why on earth would someone who has paid for an expensive overseas university education think about going back to Singapore from the US when professionals there easily make double or triple of what their counterparts in Singapore earn?

Since he acknowledges that 'relatively lower salaries' and 'harsh environment' in Singapore, I have my doubts that any element of altruism plays a significant role in the decision of the overseas-educated not to return to Singapore and compete with their locally educated brethen. People overseas are already having it better than their fellow citizens in Singapore, in terms of opportunities and rewards. Let's not rub it in for those who are still in Singapore.

While local branding in the global market is honorable, overseas Singaporeans should also be recognized for being a part of global big names such as Microsoft, Motorola, KPMG, Boeing etc.

I am not sure what kind of recognition that overseas Singaporeans want. A medal or a certificate, perhaps?

However, more could have been done to better encourage and facilitate these countrymen who have the opportunity and courage to venture beyond our local shores besides.

I also don't understand what he means by 'encourage and facilitate these countrymen' to venture overseas. Why should the government encourage people to go overseas for the sake of going overseas? If anything, the government should restrict people from going overseas since it is not cheap to subsidize the education of a Singaporean from primary school to university. A university graduate consumes about $75K of tuition grant by the time he graduates and if he leaves Singapore, he takes that amount with him to the other country. Sure, it is great for the individual when he gathers more experience and opportunities overseas but it is Singapore's loss when he leaves.

In any case, it is not that easy to venture overseas. For most people, they need some form of sponsorship - either from their companies or from their parents. A lucky few can go overseas because they have skills that the host country wants.

Don't get me wrong. I support the forging of stronger bonds between overseas Singaporeans and Singapore; I just don't think that they should clamour for more recognition and accolades just because they are overseas. Compared to their Singapore-based brethen, they already have it a lot better. I know because I was a local too.

Thursday, August 31, 2006


Hilarious. Who needs TV when you have

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Of talents and talent

PM Lee:

I went to Sydney, visited the University of New South Wales, because they are setting their university here. They asked me to give away some awards. So I went, I gave away the awards, I said: "What are these awards?'' They said: "These are awards given to the top poly students from Singapore who go to study at the University of New South Wales [laughter], donated by alumni from Singapore." And we have poly students there, I met them, they are all doing very well, bright, able, ambitious, and many opportunities open, and good for them. The vice-chancellor told me, we are happy to take them in as students, but we are even happier when they stay [laughter]. So I came back, I asked NUS and NTU: "Have you got any scholarships for top poly students?'' [laughter] They said: "We are getting them soon."

Let's examine the above closely. What can one learn from this account in the National Day Rally?
  1. Overseas universities recognize that there are bright, able, ambitious poly graduates and are happy to take them.
  2. Local universities didn't. They had to be prompted by the PM to offer scholarships to attract top poly students.
  3. There are people who are regarded as talents by people overseas but not by our local organizations.
  4. However, if you gain recognition for your talents overseas, you become a talent in the eyes of the Singapore government.
So, if these bright poly graduates had not ventured overseas to study in the first place, would NUS or NTU have thought about offering scholarships to top poly students? Suppose the vice-chancellor of UNSW hadn't told the PM about how happy he would be if the poly students stayed. How would the establishment have viewed the poly students?

Ironically, the head of the Singapore government has to be told about the value of his own people. So, in fact, the prospect of more people like the aforementioned poly graduates quitting has improved the treatment of poly graduates in Singapore when it comes to university admission. Hence, quitting isn't such a bad thing after all.

Let's go a bit further. Is it possible that there are local talents that the system fails to recognise or to develop? Ask yourself this question in the light of the push for more foreign talent.

Welcome newcomers with a big handout heart

From the ever trusted 140th:

Aug 21, 2006
Welcome newcomers with a big heart
By Krist Boo

SOME Singaporeans are uneasy about foreign immigrants but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wants them to be big-hearted and adopt a welcoming stance towards these newcomers.

He acknowledged there were those who worry that an influx of immigrants will spell competition for jobs.

Others complain that they do not have to do national service, or it may be a case that they simply do not like having a foreigner living next door.


Singaporeans don't welcome immigrants? Could it be that the latter are treated better than the locals by the government? Let's take a look at our local universities.


Question No. 337

To ask the Minister for Education, from 2001 to 2005, (a) what are the yearly percentages of postgraduates with scholarships in the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University respectively; (b) what are the ratios of local to foreign students in these percentages; and (c) how many of these scholarships are sponsored by industries, universities, government related boards and research agencies respectively; and (d) what are the ratios of local to foreign postgraduates holding university sponsored scholarships.


On average, about 14% of our undergraduates and 30% of our postgraduates in NUS and NTU in 2001-2005 were on scholarships. About one-third of the undergraduate scholars were local students. One quarter of the postgraduate scholars were local students. The largest segment of undergraduate scholarships comes from industry, which offers about 54% of the scholarships. The Government’s share is about 35%. The universities have been increasing their provision of undergraduate scholarships, with their share rising from about 8% in 2001 to 11% in 2005. The remainder comprising less than 1% has been offered by research agencies.


Our universities have come a long way and have gained much reputation since 1997. Today, foreign students constitute 20% of the universities’ enrolment, compared to about 12% in the late 1990s. As I have said at this year’s Committee of Supply debate, there is room for MOE to explore how we can set differentiated fees for different types of foreign students. But, this would have to be done after taking into consideration the larger strategic objectives for the universities and Singapore.


The Government subsidy for the international student is S$13,950 for non-laboratory-based programs and S$18,800 for laboratory-based programs (Nanyang Technological University, 2000, p.4). Although tuition fees vary slightly between institutions, a calculation of the estimated number of international students in Singapore multiplied by the amount of Government subsidy per student suggests that the international student program is being supported by at least S$130 million per year; by no means an insignificant investment.

Any idea who pays for all of this?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Holiday Stints

Holiday stint helps students understand civil service better

MR KURT Ma had always heard stories about how civil servants are stuffy, unfriendly people.

But after having interned for a month at the Public Service Division, he found this to be untrue.

'Everybody is really friendly. People are always buying food to stock up the pantry, and the whole office always goes out to lunch together,' said the final-year literature and law student at Cambridge University.

Mr Ma, 24, is one of 29 overseas students spending their summer holiday here doing internships with the civil service.

They are here as part of a new Public Service Commission (PSC) programme. It seeks to attract top Singaporean and Singapore permanent residents - who are not scholarship holders - to consider the civil service as a career option.

PSC Secretariat director Choo Lee See said: 'We hope that, through the six- to eight- week stint, the interns will understand better the work done in the civil service and be more open to considering joining us in shaping Singapore's future.'

The students were informed of the new internship programme through e-mail and those interested were asked to submit their resumes. The e-mails were sent to Singaporeans and PRs studying in top schools such as Harvard, Cambridge and Wharton.

There is another carrot for these top students - a mid-term scholarship to pay for the rest of their studies.

The scholarship was set up because 'not all talented students at 18 years of age may be ready to commit themselves to a civil service career'.

Usually, scholarships are taken up before undergraduate studies begin.

But none of the four students on the internship programme who spoke to YouthInk will be taking up the scholarship.

Their reasons vary: Two are in their final year, and the others do not want to be tied down to a bond.

The bond would require them to work in the civil service from four to six years upon graduation.

All four want to gain some experience working overseas before 'coming back to Singapore to contribute'.

Cool. They want Singaporean undergraduates to intern with PSC and they invite only people studying overseas. What about the folks in NUS/NTU/SMU?

Oh, which nut is going to take up the Mid-Term Scholarship? The bond is just as long as that of the full-term version but he will only be compensated for half of the cost of his overseas studies. No wonder none of the interns interviewed wanted to take up the Mid-Term Scholarship.

This reminds me of my NUS days when I tried to intern with DSO between my second and third year. I had sent in emails with my resume to DSO but I never got a reply. A JC classmate who was studying in Cambridge told me that he had applied the year before and promptly got an offer after some correspondence. Oh, he got a chance to work on aerodynamics in DSO for his holidays after his first year while after two years of undergraduate work, no one had the basic courteosy to reply to my email. By the way, I believe my A-level results are better than his. I had also asked a couple professors in the department about any paid research positions but was kindly informed that they did not have the budget. The budget got eliminated because of the downturn in the economy.

And the university talks about encouraging undergraduates to pursue postgraduate studies...

Anyway, in the end, poor Fox had to go sell educational software for a friend that summer to earn his keep.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

This is just a simulation...

Cool. A breath of fresh secular air in bible-thumping America.

Some remarks on spoken Singaporean English

For those who interact extensively with native English speakers (e.g. Americans, Australians and Britons) and may have noticed, Singaporean English has a very distinct character in terms of phonology. Singaporeans speak English in a manner dissimilar to that of Americans or Australians. Of course, Australians don't speak English like Americans but if one compares the speech of Singaporeans against that of Americans or of Australians, one perceives that spoken American English, British English and Australian English to be more similar to one another than to spoken Singaporean English.

Here, by Singaporean English, we mean standard English (also known as Standard Singaporean English or SSE) as spoken by Singaporeans who can speak it. In other words, it should be understood that it is the standard spoken variety to which we refer and not the written variety or Singlish. By native speakers, we mean English-speaking Americans, Australians, Britons, etc. An immediate question that a Singaporean may have is: do we consider English-speaking Singaporeans (ESS) to be native speakers? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that English is their mother tongue/first language, and no, in the sense that the term 'native speakers' is usually used in linguistics to refer to Americans, Britons, Australians, etc. Thus, we stick to the more common usage, which may be outdated. It should be noted that this usage of 'native speakers' would generally exclude English-speaking Jamaicans and Indians.

Also, by spoken American English and British English, we will simplify things and take them to mean 'General American' (GA) English and 'Received Pronunciation' (RP) or BBC English respectively. In other words, we will approximate the speech of English-speaking newscasters in these countries to be representative of the general population although the case is certainly not true for Singapore. Newscasters in Singapore don't sound at all like the average English speaker in Singapore. The former don't speak SSE but rather a RP-esque English.

Before we go on, it should be stated that Fox has no formal training in English linguistics or the teaching of the English language.

From personal experience, there exists some Singaporeans who have trouble speaking to native English speakers. One common cause of miscommunication, especially between Americans and Singaporeans, is that the pronunciation of words. Another cause is lexical (i.e. Singaporeans use words with different meanings in Singaporean English and American English). It is easy to understand the two aforementioned causes of communication - SSE is derived from RP while Americans use GA for obvious reasons. These two problems are not unique to SSE speakers. Indians and Britons would also encounter the same problem since their varieties of English are essentially based on RP.

In terms of pronunciation, SSE, like RP, is non-rhotic while present day GA is largely rhotic although if one listens to old American films and radio broadcasts (stoneage podcasts), the degree of rhoticity is less marked. Rhotic is just a fancy word used by linguists to indicate the pronunciation of 'r' in words. A rhotic pronunciation does not have a silent r's.

For example, a SSE or RP speaker would pronounce words like 'port' without the 'r' sound i.e. in a non-rhotic way. In RP, the presence of the 'r' usually serves to lengthen the syllable, if the syllable is not the final syllable, and is not meant to be pronounced. If one listens carefully, the words 'pot' and 'port' can be distinguished in terms of the length of the vowel. However, in SSE, the 'r' stays silent but does not lengthen the vowel. Hence, 'pot' and 'port' are homonyms in SSE although they certainly are not in RP. In GA, rhoticity is fully preserved and the 'r' is always pronounced. The rhotic syllable is also lengthened slightly although less so than in RP. RP and GA have different devices to prevent what would otherwise be homonyms in SSE. For RP, the loss of rhoticity is words like 'port' and 'person' is generally compensated by the (exaggerated) lengthening of vowels. Of course, there are exceptions but I think the point has been made. Hence, SSE would sound strange to native Americans because of the greater number of homonyms in SSE (e.g. pot/port, course/cause).

This brings us to another point. Unlike native English varieties, vowel lengths in SSE are usually not distinct. Try pronouncing the words 'put' and 'choose'. The 'u' sound in 'put' and the 'oo' sound in 'choose' are not the same in RP or GA whereas in SSE, most speakers do not distinguish between these two vowel sounds. It is difficult to guess the length of the vowel from the spelling of the word in general. Hence, for economy of speech, SSE speakers simply shorten all vowels.

One very great difference between SSE and native varieties of English is the timing. English, like all Germanic languages (Swedish, German, Dutch, etc) is a stress-timed language while SSE is a syllable-timed language. In English, one or two syllables in a multi-syllable word are stressed while remaining ones are unstressed. For example, take the word 'remarkable'. In RP, the stress falls on the second syllable (which is also lengthened). Hence, it should sound something like re-MAAAH-kuh-bl with a strong stress on the second syllable and the following syllables sounding as if they are being swallowed. In SSE, every syllable have roughly the same length. This gives SSE a 'machine-gun' feel.

Take as another example the word 'project'. In SSE, the two syllables are given the same stress whereas in native varieties, such as GA, the stress falls on the first syllable and the second syllable is unstressed. Consider the related word 'projected'. In SSE, you simply tag on another syllable '-ed' and the three syllables remain roughly the same in terms of stress whereas in RP or GA, the stress actually shifts to the second syllable so that it sounds like pro-JEC-ted. Again, SSE simplifies matters and retains the 'machine-gun' pronunication scheme.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Stepping Stones

A couple of days ago, during a lecture, I met Y who is a postdoc in E's research group. At first, Y looked very familiar and when he mentioned that he had completed his Bachelors and Masters in NUS before getting his PhD in theoretical chemistry from Berkeley, it struck me that he had been one of my TA's in NUS. It is a small world after all...

From what I see, Y seems to have a pretty promising future in the academic world. Getting into Berkeley as an international student (i.e. an applicant without a US degree) is really no small feat.

The punchline here is Y is actually a PRC national and he was a MOE scholarship holder. If I recall correctly, Y was started his undergraduate life in Fudan, one of China's premier universities, before he was awarded an MOE scholarship to study in NUS. Before I go on, a little background information is in order.

As anyone who is from NUS or NTU knows, MOE sponsors large numbers of foreign students, mainly from China and India, to do their undergraduate studies in one of our local universites, usually in one of the science or engineering disciplines. The scholarship usually entails a 6-year bond - 3 years for the MOE tuition grant which pays for 75 percent of the tuition fees and another 3 years for the actual scholarship itself which provides for a living allowance and the remaining 25 percent of the tuition fees. The bond does not actually stipulate which organizations the award-holders have to work. All that is required is that they work in Singapore. In effect, the scholarship is a souped up version of MOE's tuition grant scheme to foreigners - it sponsors/subsidizes the undergraduate education of the undergraduates in return for a period of servitude. It is important to note that these people are not obliged to serve in any particular industry or organization upon graduation.

Now, one might be curious about the objectives of such scholarships. After all, a considerable amount of taxpayers' monies are involved. The justification is that the bringing in these students into the local universities would
  1. improve the academic quality of the university,
  2. increase the cultural diversity of the institutions and,
  3. supplement the local workforce.
Point 1 makes no sense to Fox. The most commonly accepted measure of the standing of a modern research university is its research. In this respect, our local universities do not fare very well. In fact, they are mediocre. The necessary conditions for research excellence are good researchers and adequate resources (e.g. funding, grad students, equipment). Bringing in undergraduates, no matter how talented, does not in any obvious way alter these conditions and improve the research output of a university. The most obvious way to improve the standing of our local universities is to increase research funding.

Point 2 also makes little sense. The bulk of the students under the MOE scholarship come from two countries - India and China. How much diversity can there be?

Point 3 does make some sense to me. Bringing in and bonding these young people does supplement the local workforce. However, the same can be accomplished by directly approving more work permits. One might argue that the quality of the people who come in under the work permit scheme may be lower although it is difficult to determine if that is true or not. There is also an implicit hope that these people would stay on and become citizens. Fat hope.

The problem is that, from my experience, it is wishful thinking to believe that such people will want to stay on. In today's world, talent is mobile. The more talented one is, the more mobile he or she is. That's the way of life today. For those who are unable to move, are they really the kind of people Singapore wants?

There is nothing to compel people like Y to stay on in Singapore once they finish serving out their bonds. In fact, the really smart ones know that the US offers many more opportunities. It is foolish to expect people, who have shown the willingness to leave and have left their native homelands, to shift their allegiance to Singapore. If one is prepared to leave India or China, why should he or she choose Singapore only? Why not consider Australia, Europe or the US? It is really little wonder that many of them perceive Singapore as a stepping stone and will leave for greener pastures once they have the means to. I know several of such scholars from my NUS days and I have never known a single one who has not expressed the desire to go overseas.

In some ways, I believe the scheme was a good idea in that it could 'capture' young foreign talents when it was first started in the mid-90's. For many young PRC nationals, the opportunity to study in Singapore is often their only chance to leave the country. However, this is getting less and less true nowadays with the increasing economic prosperity of China. Hence, it has also correspondingly become more and more difficult for Singapore to attract these people. For example, in the mid-90's, it was not difficult to convince a PRC undergraduate from Tsinghua or Fudan to come over to one of Singapore's university. However, from what my sources tell me, it has become more and more difficult, and MOE has started sourcing from second-tier universities in China. Instead of getting people who would have otherwise qualified for USTC and Beida, MOE is now getting people from the likes of Zhongshan University. While these people are obviously talented, in the sense that they are more academically accomplished than the average NUS undergraduate, they are not as good as those before them.

This brings us to the question: do the benefits of such scholarships outweight their costs? In other words, what are the tangible returns on the tax-monies invested in these foreigners? It would make sense for us to ask:
  1. how many percent of such scholars remain in Singapore for X years, where X = 1,2,3 and so on, after they first come?
  2. how many of them eventually take up Singapore citizenship?
In other words, how true is it that Singapore is only a stepping stone for them?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Meeting with the D-man today

Today was the last day to see my advisor D. I have been trying to meet D for the past few days but he was busy with all sorts of administrative matters since he is the top honcho of our centre and the man responsible for keeping our group alive, financially at least. Being the procrastinator that I am, I had put off talking to him about Fall support until today when I finally managed to grab hold of him at 5pm.

As I was running out of time, I dispensed with the usual niceties and told him that today was the deadline for informing the department about Fall support and that I had emailed him about the matter roughly a week ago. He looked at me and said that it was up to me whether I wanted to carry on with the project. Of course, I said yes - I just spent the entire freaking summer, including one unpaid month, on it. I don't think I can stand another semester of TA-ship. Then, he went on rambling about our project for the next two hours in which I tuned out after the first 15 minutes.

Anyway, the formalism that I derived looks promising and, if numerically verified, can form the basis for at least a couple of papers - one on the formal theory itself and another on an application to a real system. Heck, if everything goes right, several papers on applications can be written up. The only problem is getting D to understand what I've done so far and to help me understand the applications aspect. I have been pretty much on my own so far for this project. Right now, I am playing with a toy model and will try to see how the analytics and the numerics match up. I don't think this project is that important though - there's probably not enough material for a PhD project.

The funding situation may be a little tight though. From what I previously gathered, the project had been given to a postdoc and a grad student. The postdoc did some programming and wrote up a code but made no headway in extending the formalism before he left for a real job. I think that was in the last decade. The project was put on the backburner for several years before a very smart Ukrainian fellow C beat D to the punch and made a breakthrough in a related area in 2000, which looked as if it could be used in the project. D sat up and decided to give the project another shot with a graduate student.

The graduate student made an attempt two summers ago but only succeeded in sucking dry the funding support for this project. I heard that he dropped out of grad school after that summer. So, the remaining funds for this project was used to support me. Going over his notes and calculations for that summer, I can say that he pretty much did nothing. And two months' of funding went down the drain with him. Gaah.

Will be working on the project for the next few months. I hope that C doesn't start working on it. It is not that hard to come up a n>2 version of what he did. It is rather surprising that he hasn't done anything about it even though it is clearly within his ability to do so, judging from the technical depth of his papers.

Reply from MOE

Fox got the reply he asked but not quite hoped for. He has been too busy to publish this online until now. It is a standard reply but, nevertheless, it is better than nothing.

Dear Fox,

Thank you for your email dated XX XX 2006 to MCYS Feedback Unit.

As a government agency, MOE strives to share as much relevant information as possible that would be useful to the general public whom we serve. However, this must be carefully balanced as resources are needed to generate and maintain the information regularly, for the information posted to remain useful. Given the vast amount of information available, it is necessary for MOE to prioritise and make available only those information that would be of greater relevance to the general public.

With this in mind, you may wish to note that some of the information that you are looking for can already be found on the MOE website, albeit not in the order of format you have asked for. We have enclosed an example below for your information:

We would however, take your feedback into consideration when we next review the scope of information that would be useful for the general public consumption. Prior to the review, we regret that we would not be able to provide you the specific statistics that you have requested for.

for Quality Service Manager
Ministry of Education

Like a good citizen, Fox popped over to the recommended link and found something interesting. Associate Professor Ong posed the question:

To ask the Minister for Education (a) why the difference in tuition fee grants between a local and a foreign undergraduate is only $590 per year; (b) how does the Ministry justify the tuition fee grant of $12,830 per foreign student regardless of their affordability; (c) whether the Ministry can explain why there is no means-testing when awarding the $12,830 grant per foreign student when means-testing is applied when awarding CCC-university bursary and study loans to Singapore students.

Actually, Fox wishes to point out that the grant is a lot more than $12,830. The last time Fox was in NUS, he received a letter from MOE every year stating that he had been awarded a subsidy of around $18,000. If he recalls correctly, his foreigner contemporaries in his university also enjoyed a similar amount of subsidy, maybe less $590. Clearly, Fox feels the need to inform the public that the figure of $12,830 is wrong and there is misleading information on an official public webpage of the Singapore government.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Likely reply from the MOE

The Fox predicts that the reply from the MOE to his early enquiry will look something like this:
Forum Topic: Reducing Tuition Grants for Foreign Students

1. I refer to the Straits Times Forum letter “Cut tuition grants to foreign students” (Edmund Lin Weixiong, 13/12, pH11).

2. Unlike Singapore citizens, foreign students pay 10% more tuition fees and are bonded to work in Singapore for 3 years after graduation in return for the tuition grant they receive. The tuition fee increase is necessary for our universities to recover costs. This is especially important as fees have not been increased since 2001 while universities' expenditures have risen annually.

3. Reducing tuition grants for foreign students is neither sufficient nor a good measure to "tide things over and avoid a fee hike" as suggested by Mr Edmund Lin Weixiong. Our universities will continue to attract and enrol foreign students from different countries and background. This will help enhance the vibrancy of the learning environment in our universities.

4. Local students can also benefit from the exchanges with these foreign students and establish a network of contacts. Having studied and worked in Singapore, foreign students may decide to continue to live in Singapore even after they have completed their bond.

Lim Chee Hwee
Director, Higher Education Division

A letter to the Feedback Unit

Fox has decided to be a good Singaporean citizen by opting to give feedback to the Singapore Feedback Unit. Actually, Fox is just curious about a couple of things and would like to know a bit more about his government's policies. So, Fox decided to write a letter to the Feedback Unit, specifically addressed to the Ministry of Education in Singapore, which went something like the following.


I have searched on the internet and have been unable to obtain the following information:
  1. The number of foreign students in our local universities and polytechnics from 1996 to 2005.
  2. The number of foreign students in our local universities and polytechnics under the MOE tuition grant scheme from 1996 to 2005.
  3. The total annual value of MOE tuition grants that have been awarded to the aforementioned foreign students in local universities and polytechnics from 1996 to 2005.
  4. The proportion of the aforementioned foreign students who have successfully completed their bonds obligatory under the MOE tuition grant scheme from 1996 to 2005.
I wonder if such information can be made available by the MOE to the public. If possible, I will like to have such information. If not, I will like to know why such information cannot be released.

Thank you and regards,
Fox believes that such information ought to be made available to the tax-paying public. There is considerable debate over the foreign talent policy which Fox believes to be highly complex and to encompass several issues that has to examined one at a time. For example, there is the matter of job creation as well as that of the large number of government-subsidized foreign students in local institutions. Since the latter involves the use of taxpayer's monies, Fox thinks that the public should at least know how much money is spent.

On a more immediate matter, Fox is also interested in how the relevant government body/bodies respond to enquiries of this nature. On browsing through the website of the Singapore Feedback Unit, he has realized that replies to feedback often do not answer directly the questions that have been posed. Take for example, in this brief letter, a member of the public wrote:
Dear Sir/Mdm,

I understand that the 4th child in a family is not entitled to the Edusave fund. As a result, the 4th child concerned would felt ostracised, especially when his classmates would be using their Edusave funds for their class outings while he/she has to pay from his/her own pockets.

Such a regulation is contradicting the Government's call for Singaporeans to have more children.
On browsing through the Edusave Scheme website, Fox notes that the website states:
However, only the first, second and third child were eligible for the Edusave account prior to 2004. In 2005, the Government will contribute $170 and $200 to the Edusave account of each eligible student at primary and secondary level respectively.
Fox would imagine that the person who came up with that feedback in the first place would like to know why the 4th child is not entitled to the Edusave fund and/or if the government is planning to change the existing policy to accomodate the 4th child and/or how the government reconciles the policy with the call for more children.

Predictably, the reply is not really satisfatory. It skirts the issue of why there is no Edusave grant for the 4th child and extols the merit of the Edusave scheme in a somewhat irrelevant way.
Dear contributor,
I refer to the above feedback.
The Edusave Pupils' Fund is one way in which Singapore pupils benefit from the Edusave Scheme. The Edusave Pupils' Fund is limited to the first three children of families, in line with the national population policy, which encourages couples to have three children or more if they can afford it.
Besides the Edusave Pupils Fund, the Edusave Scheme also makes available Scholarships, Merit Bursaries and Good Progress Awards to citizen pupils who have done well academically or shown significant academic progress. The Edusave Scholarships are awarded to students who have obtained good academic results, whereas the Good Progress Awards are given to students who have made significant improvements in their academic performances. Eligible students from low-income families are also awarded the Edusave Merit Bursaries. Since 2001, Edusave Awards for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service have also been given to students to recognise their leadership quality, service to community and schools, and excellence in non-academic activities.
In addition to these awards, schools and technical institutes are given Edusave grants to run enrichment programmes for their pupils.
Seen in totality, the Edusave scheme maximises opportunities for all Singaporean children. Students who do not qualify for the Edusave accounts can still benefit from the Edusave awards if they meet the criteria and the Edusave grants channelled to schools. Moreover, the heavy government subsidy in education and the wide range of financial support for every Singaporean child provide many opportunities to nurture our local talents.
Thank you for your feedback.
Not very satisfactory, Fox is afraid.

Back to the perfectly innocuous questions on the MOE tuition grant scheme for foreign students, Fox has the feeling that if the MOE do reply to his enquiries, they would first wax lyrical (irrelevantly) about how the presence of foreign students benefits the education of our local students and how important it is to have foreign students to keep Singapore's education system competitive and to draw foreign talents to top up Singapore's workforce. Then they would also mention how the tuition scheme subsidizes the education of the local students who form 80 percent of the student population in our local institutions. Also, they would mention how most foreign students stay on to join the workforce. Blah, blah, blah.

It is quite likely that the MOE will not reply directly to Fox's questions, if at all. Then, because of the furtiveness, Fox will have to draw his conclusions about the soundness of the policy of subsidizing foreign students.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Are local talents valued in Singapore?

May 15, 2006
Top US school wants him but he can't defer NS

Teen talent's bid for deferment to pursue music studies rejected
By Maria Almenoar

ONE of the few Singaporeans ever offered a prestigious music scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in the United States, may have to pass up the opportunity of a lifetime.

Violinist Ike See, 17, has applied to the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) a second time to postpone his two-year national service stint and pursue his dream of being a top musician.

Said the son of a pastor and a retired teacher: 'I understand that serving my nation is important and I will do so eventually, but this is a dream and an opportunity of a lifetime.'

In an e-mail statement yesterday Mindef said: 'Mr Ike See was earlier not successful in his application for deferment. His family has recently put in an appeal and the appeal is currently under consideration.'

So far, it is understood only two other Singaporeans have attended the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia - violinists Siow Lee Chin and Kam Ning.
All students who are accepted to the school receive a scholarship which covers their tuition fees, totalling about US$28,500 (S$44,000) a year for four years.

The youngest of four children, Ike started playing the violin when he was 3 1/2 years old.

His first music performance was in kindergarten.

Said his mother, Mrs I.S. See, 55: 'We were more nervous than him. Despite his music teacher telling him he wasn't ready, he approached his kindergarten teacher and just went on stage and played.'

When he was 10, he took his first music examination, skipping the first seven grades and aceing the final grade in the violin.

By 14, he had obtained six music diplomas, all with distinctions. He has also bagged the National Violin Champion prize in three categories.

A former Raffles Institution student, Ike practises three to four hours a day and puts in another one to two hours on the piano - his other favourite activity. He is a member of the Singapore Youth Orchestra and became its concert master - the leader of the orchestra - in 2004.

Said Ike, who also enjoys reading and playing tennis: 'I didn't have as much free time as other teenagers but because I love playing the violin, it wasn't much of a sacrifice to me.'

Having applied to six music schools in the US, Ike decided not to continue his studies under the Raffles Programme where he would qualify for Raffles Junior College and pursue his A levels next year.

He spent the early part of the year preparing for auditions and a month auditioning in the US.

He was also accepted by other prestigious schools like Juilliard, the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory, but he was ecstatic to receive a call from the Curtis Institute's president, Mr Gary Graffman.

Ike did not pass the auditions for Curtis two years ago, when he applied in Secondary 3.

Earlier this year, he applied again and after two rounds of auditions was one of the 44 students accepted for the term starting in September.

In an e-mail reply, Curtis Institute dean Bob Fitzpatrick, who saw Ike's auditions earlier this year, said: 'He brilliantly played excerpts of the Glazunov Violin Concerto and two movements of a Bach solo sonata with great flair, confidence and musicianship.'

As a former student of the Integrated Programme, Ike did not take O levels last year.

Said Mrs See: 'Of course, I'm worried about him. After all, he has no academic certificates except his PSLE, but this is what he wants to pursue and we support his decision.'

For Ike, paper qualifications mean nothing if he is not allowed to pursue his first love of music.

Said Ike: 'I'm hopeful I will get the deferment but if after appealing as many times as I can, I'm still rejected, one option is to finish my NS first and then reapply to Curtis.

'But who knows what my level of skills will be then and whether they will accept me?

Fox is simply amazed that Mindef will reject a request for an NS deferment from an exceptionally musically talented born and bred Singaporean but foreigners under the Foreign Talent Scheme who are under 27 (the cut-off age for NS) and take up Singaporean citizenship
are exempted from NS. The sheer hypocrisy of the system.

This raises the question: are local talents less valued than foreign talents in Singapore? Fox suspects so. In fact, given cases like these, he finds the claim by the Singaporean government, that the overwhelming presence of foreign 'talents' is necessary to make up for the dearth of local talents, to be somewhat dubious. Perhaps, Fox will discuss the issue of foreign talent some other time and why he thinks that local talents may not be properly developed and utilised in Singapore.

In any case, Fox advocates that Ike See be exempted from national service given his exceptional talent. Yes, that's right - exempted. Anything extraordinary about that, apart from Ike See's musical talent? Not really. After all, the ex-foreigners in Singapore's national football team were also exempted from NS on account of their footballing abilities despite the fact that they qualify for NS in terms of their age. Realistically speaking, forcibly confining an individual of Ike's gift to Singapore is waste of talent. Drafting him into a combat unit does little good to the country's defence and may even harm Ike's prospect especially if he were to break his arm/fingers; even if he were to enter the MDC, he would be just deprived of the necessary musical coaching and training that he needs to develop his gift.

Rather than the normal NS, perhaps an alternative NS can be made for Ike See. For example, rather than serve 24 months of NS continuously, he could be made to do 2 months of national service - like public performances and music workshops to train other musicians- in Singapore every year until he clears his 24 months. To be fair, Ike See should probably not expect to be paid professional rates while he does his NS.

Singapore has precious few world-beaters. Ike See certainly possesses the potential to be one in music. Fox can only hope that good sense will prevail and that the government will recognise that Ike See is an exceptional talent and warrants exceptional treatment.