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.