The (educational) ‘mobility imperative’ – a glean from Singapore’s history

Intellectuals and observers claim that there is an imperative to move for education. For example, educational researcher Forsey (2017, p.67) writes: “We live in a mobile modernity that is propelled and compelled by formal education.” Others begin to address the dominant rhetoric that “mobility has become an ‘imperative’” for students. In Singapore, mobility is not only a coveted experience among many young people, it is also a prized cultural capital that many students, educators, or anyone barely familiar with the education system can identify with.

But the significance of mobility is not new. It is not a novel act, status, or experience that only emerge in the twentieth and twenty-first century spatial-temporal imaginary – or bluntly known as “globalisation”. In this post, I muse a little about the historically entrenched construct of mobility, by which I mean the actual movement abroad, and the ‘forgotten’ role of youth within this.

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Colonial Singapore: education, travel, and the Queen’s Scholarship

Contemporary discourses and practices around social mobility, movement, and education in Singapore need to be understood through historically influenced (colonial) ideas of what it means to be ‘educated youth’. The city’s education landscape under early British colonial empire was more invested in providing administrative skills to civil service staff who are supporting the colonial administration, rather than responding to the need for a sustainable education system for the local population (Gopinathan, 1974). But by the late nineteenth century, the colonial government was compelled by ‘reformers’ – many of whom formed the earliest few elite, highly-educated ‘mobile youths’ of the Straits – to improve educational access. Colonial schooling remained the privilege of a select few; and access to higher education before the setting up of Raffles College (currently National University of Singapore) in 1928 was possible only through overseas pursuits.

Movement and specifically departure for the ‘west’ was in this sense an integral narrative in Singapore’s history of education. A key conduit for higher education in colonial Singapore was the creation of the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship, which was replaced by the Singapore State Scholarships and then renamed President’s Scholarship as it is currently known.

The Queen’s Scholarship was introduced in 1885 by the Governor of the Straits Settlement, Cecil Clementi Smith, for young people in Singapore (and Malaya). The intention was to provide the brightest students in the Straits to receive a university education in Britain and using the prospect of overseas education to encourage young people to stay in school at a time when school dropouts and early entry to the labour market was commonplace. Scholarships were highly competitive and selected through a stringent examination set up by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. By 1903, most of the Queen’s scholars comprised of youth in Singapore who had studied at the elite Raffles Institution. Those who returned secured prestigious careers in medicine, law, and engineering.

However, the scheme began to attract criticism from some sections of the European, mainly that the system was depriving secondary and primary schools of funds and skewing education toward the elite few. There was also a burgeoning sense that ‘western’ education might threaten colonial status quo as in the case of India.  The government began to cut back on the number of scholarships awarded in 1907 and totally ceased the scheme in 1911. As Pomfret (2015, p.235) notes, travel and study in British empires was connected with growing intellectual energies of Asian youth and represented liberation “from the dead hand of ‘tradition’ and the suffocation of the individual within the authoritarian structure of the family”. Previous reform-minded scholars such as Lim Boon Keng (1887) and Song Ong Siang (1888), who themselves formed the earliest cadre of highly-educated ‘mobile youths’ in the Straits, helped champion for the restoration of the Queen’s Scholarship in 1924.

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The scholarship continued to serve as a coveted marker of educational distinction, rewarding those who successfully obtain it with both physical and social mobility. Scholars such as Turnbull (1977) noted that the scheme generated a degree of public aspiration among denizens in Singapore and Malaya towards British higher education. The wealthiest parents who could afford it began to send their children to British schools and universities, even without the aid of the Queen’s scholarship. This gradually resulted in a new cohort of English-educated elite who tapped into novel ideas gained from the ‘west’ to reshape ‘modernity’ in Singapore and the Straits. After Singapore became a self-governing state in 1959, the Queen’s Scholarship scheme was replaced with Singapore State Scholarships (with a bond to serve in the civil service). This new scheme put a brief halt to the ‘travel’ component of the scholarship as it was only tenable at the University of Malaya (1949-67), but quickly re-made tenable by 1964 at both local and overseas universities in a bid to frame it the most prestigious academic award available.

Post-colonial reinventions

A year later upon independence, the scholarship was renamed the President’s Scholarship and came under the administration of the Public Service Commission (PSC). During this time, the PSC expanded the range of overseas government scholarships, including the Singapore Government Scholarships for Humanities Studies at Oxford and Cambridge in the late 1960s, and the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship and Overseas Merit Scholarships in the 1970s (PSC, 2017). The PSC also extended the Singapore Government Scholarships that originally targeted Oxbridge to include Australia and New Zealand in early 1980s, and subsequently to rest of the UK in 1988 and the US in 1996. From colonial to post-independence Singapore, overseas travel for university education has been formulated as a prized experience among young people as prestige and status become tied to the state’s endorsement for mobility.

From colonial to post-independence Singapore, overseas travel for university education has been formulated as a prized experience among young people as prestige and status become tied to the state’s endorsement for mobility.

The post-independent Singaporean government also gave exceptional emphasis on human capital and civic virtues such as talent, hard work and individual merit. Given that the late twentieth century nation-building project was to mould Singapore into a “multiracial, non-communist, non-aligned, and democratic socialist state” (Chan, 1991: 158), the government drew on the egalitarian aspect of meritocracy to give this political ideology its legitimacy. Since then, meritocracy – broadly conceived “as a practice that rewards individual merit with social rank, job positions, higher incomes, or general recognition and prestige” by giving “all potentially qualified and deserving individuals an equal and fair chance of achieving success” (Tan, 2008, p.8) – has remained a cornerstone philosophy underpinning the state’s strategy to ensure social mobility. Under this principle, the ideal system by which individuals can earn their place in the society is through a system of ‘merit’ that would be measured by grades at school and university (and performance in workplace).

What ensued after the creation of this “brave new meritocracy” was a series of “incremental structural shifts in education policy… which made meritocracy part of the lived experience of generations of parents and children” (Barr and Skrbiš, 2008, p.60). This process folded into an enduring system of a ‘conveyor belt’ system that stream and track students based mainly on academic performance, even as newer policies aimed at softening this rigidity remain ambivalent (Lim, 2013; Cheng, 2016). These political interventions and experiences of education in Singapore led to the crystallization of a particular understanding of ‘youth’, tied to new age-specific and classed understandings of citizenship life itself. Educated middle-class youths conceptualise their trajectories of age and assign for themselves normalized goals, with securing a ‘good’ degree education often invoked by Singaporean youths as key to navigating significant life events such as marriage and family formation (Cheng, 2014).

These political interventions and experiences of education in Singapore led to the crystallization of a particular understanding of ‘youth’, tied to new age-specific and classed understandings of citizenship life itself.

Mobility in Singapore’s ‘global education’

As the city-state propels into the current global imaginary, historically borne discourses amd practices around educational mobility continue to shape contemporary geographies of young people and educational restructuring. Overseas scholars are still considered the ‘cream of the crop’ under intensified versions of educational brilliance and excellence (i.e. ‘all-rounders’ who are able to succeed in both academic and extra-curricular activities). Top ranking civil service personnel and state elites continue to be dominated by overseas educated individuals armed with credentials from highly ranked universities, such as Oxbridge and the Ivy League. While channels to these reputable overseas universities have widened, the main conduit remains concentrated on a select few elite schools that enjoy disproportionate amount of resources (Ye and Nylander, 2015).

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In addition to the idea that moving abroad for education and securing overseas credentials is pertinent for social mobility, the act of travel itself has also become an embodied experience much sought after. Travel and study (e.g. overseas expedition, study abroad programme, and overseas internships) is now inscribed into almost all of Singaporean higher education institutions’ agenda, as part of their internationalization strategy as well as to encourage mobility capital among students. Local public universities in Singapore also reinvent and reposition themselves as ‘global’ universities, channeling carefully crafted efforts into scaling world university rankings and building cross-border networks (Olds, 2007; Sidhu et al., 2016). All these aimed at producing an atmosphere of mobility and cosmopolitanism.

Just as how colonial “middle-class civilising projects” (Pomfret, 2015, p.209) in part depended on its youthful subjects’ mobility, the present globalising aspirations of Singapore also partially rely on the (hyper)mobility practices of the nation’s youth.



Barr, M. and Skrbiš, Z. (2008) Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-building Project. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press.

Cheng, Y. (2014) ‘Biopolitical geographies of student life: private higher education and citizenship life-making in Singapore’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers. doi: 10.1080/00045608.2015.1059179.

Cheng, YE (2016) Learning to labour in Singapore: cultural politics of education and human capital formation, in  Tatek, A. and Waters, J. (eds) Labouring and Learning, Vol. 10 of Skelton, T. (ed) Geographies of Children and Young People, Singapore, Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-4585-97-2_11-1.

Gopinathan, S. (1974). Towards a national system of Education in Singapore, 1945–1973. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Olds, K. (2007) ‘Global Assemblage: Singapore, Foreign Universities, and the Construction of a “Global Education Hub”’, World Development, 35(6), pp. 959–975. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2006.05.014.

Pomfret, D. (2015) Youth and Empire: Trans-colonial Childhoods in British and French Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

PSC, Public Service Commission. (2017) Public Service Commission Scholarships: history. Available:

Sidhu, R., Collins, F., Lewis, N. and Yeoh, B. (2016) ‘Governmental assemblages of internationalising universities: Mediating circulation and containment in East Asia’, Environment and Planning A, (24). doi: 10.1177/0308518X16644255.

Tan, K. P. (2008) ‘Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore’, International Political Science Review, 29(1), pp. 7–27. doi: 10.1177/0192512107083445.

Turnbull, C. M. (1977). A history of Singapore, 1819–1975. Singapore: NUS Press.

Ye, R. and Nylander, E. (2015) ‘The transnational track: state sponsorship and Singapore’s Oxbridge elite’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(1), pp. 11–33. doi: 10.1080/01425692.2014.967837.



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