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.

school-for-chinese-girls-singapore-singapore_1152_13026909251-tpfil02aw-1010 (Source)

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.

Editors-SCM-235x300  (Source)

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).

index (Source)

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.



From HDB flats to student hostels

This is an en bloc conversion of a HDB public flat into a student hostel, located on Woodlands Street 13. From the external physical look of it, one can never tell it is a student housing, as it blends into the surrounding HDB estate in a similar faint yellow and orange paint-work.

But if one does look carefully, the corridors are barely decorated with potted plants, shoe racks, individualised colored painting of door grilles, which is much typical of a flat populated by longer term residents. There is a sense in which the habitat is meant to be kept as a transient space; a space that is not consumed as a long term “home”. As I made this mental note, the sound of a wooden door slammed, followed by a grille crashed closed. A young lady dragged a huge suitcase down the steps and headed for the main road to get a taxi.

The surrounding area was exceptionally quiet during the time I visited between 4 and 5pm. A young female happened to be walking towards the block lift, with a NTUC plastic bag filled with grocery. I approached her. She was friendly, yet appeared to be suspicious of my awkward presence in the neighbourhood. I asked her if the block is indeed a student housing, to which she confirmed. I then asked if it is for international students. She nodded. OK, she appeared to be displaying signs of discomfort speaking to a stranger, and so I stopped “interrogating” her.

En bloc conversion of public housing to student hostel is something that has happened since early 2000s (or perhaps even earlier?). For instance, three blocks of HDB flats near the Singapore Management University’s city campus were converted into hostels in end 2006. Located between Short Street and Prinsep Street, these are able to accommodate up to 268 students in total. A year later, in 2007, it was announced that two blocks along Boon Lay Drive nearby the Nanyang Technological University, formerly home to foreign workers, were turned into a hostel for students. The 200 three-room flats built in the 1970s would mainly cater to international tertiary students as well as some low-income Singaporeans.

More recently in 2012, SUTD took over several HDB blocks nearby its campus along Dover Drive that were undergoing en bloc, as a solution to provision of student accommodation.

Know of any other cases whereby HDB flats have been en bloc converted into student hostels? Leave me a comment!

Why am I blogging about this? See:

AAG 2017 – endings

Writing this from the Boston Logan Airport, where I cleared security in less than 10 minutes (including queuing time). Two more hours to boarding time so plenty time to spare. Updating a quick post now – on my presentation at the AAG – and then followed by marking theses! Crazy deadlines in the next 2-3 weeks I really cannot see how I would manage… *sighs*

So AAG 2017 was a week of productive meet-ups (with twitter friends), learning, and exchange of ideas. I presented in my own session that I organized alongside Dr Mark Holton (Plymouth), on Theorizing Citizenship in Higher Education: Students as Agents of Change? My presentation drew on initial thinking about liberal arts experiments in Asia and the question of citizenship formation. Key to my presentation is the idea that liberal arts experiments are doing three things in East Asian countries and cities such as Singapore, China (Shanghai) and Hong Kong: 1. calibrating education systems to respond to economic shift in global demand for new skill sets and competences, while departing from traditional focus on technical know-how and rote-learning; 2. developing education and learning networks through internationalization and transnational collaborations in order to plug into global knowledge economy, at both institutional and state levels; and 3. cultivating new kinds of citizenship – especially among the young generation – for a new ethical milieu, whereby cosmopolitan openness and social responsibility are now cornerstone values for securing more hopeful futures.

I show specifically through the case of Singapore’s liberal arts initiative between NUS and Yale University some contradictory dynamics around citizenship production at the interstices of the state, educational institution, and young people themselves, transpiring within the space of the campus. I ended the presentation with some thoughts about the need to recognize multiple articulations of citizenship subjectivities, and the importance of paying heed to the notion of “curated youth agency” to examine vibrant forms of citizenship produced by students as possibly ongoing products required to sustain emerging state/institutional agendas, rather than straightforwardly against them.

The slides of my presentation are made available here for viewing:

Transnationalization of Higher Education: private higher education and liberal arts in Asia

I recently gave a guest lecture at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore to a group of sociology of education students (on 10 March 2017). This was part of a series of invited lectures on topical issues in critical education. Past lectures included critical pedagogies in Singapore (Mark Baildon), talent war and migrant labour (Yasmin Ortiga), and Singapore school curricular policies (Charleen Chiong). My lecture contributes to this series through a focus on “transnationalization of higher education”, with a focus on what the “transnational” in scholarship around higher educational change means as well as underlining the under-studied youth question in extant literature. I used the case studies of private higher education and liberal arts experiments in Asia-Singapore to illustrate my lecture content.

My lecture slides can be viewed here:

Articles from 3-year research on Singaporean youths and private higher education

With the final major empirical piece from my doctoral research entering publication, I would like to summarise and highlight the papers that emerged from this project, entitled Restructuring of Education, Youth, and Citizenship: an Ethnographic Study of Private Higher Education in Contemporary Singapore, 2013-2015.

This three-year study explores the ways in which Singaporean youths are creating meanings and identities as citizen-subjects through their participation in private degree education.

The role of private higher education in the reproduction of cultural and economic capital has not been addressed in existing scholarship on contemporary higher education in East Asia. Within Singapore, private institutes has a longstanding role to play within the state vision of creating a flexible and economically ‘viable’ workforce. Across the 1990s, private institutes began to burgeon as part of the state’s internationalisation strategy, alongside an increased privatisation of higher education in the city. By the 2000s, the private institutes have already become a significant presence in the Singapore higher education landscape. In the latest round of university restructuring, the state is beginning to acknowledge that the private sector plays a complementary role to the public universities in terms of meeting the growing demand for higher education (MOE, 2012). What might these shifting dynamics tell us about contemporary state and educational restructuring in Singapore? More importantly, what can we glean from the lives of an increasing number of youths who are part of this emerging private higher education landscape?

Using a single private institution as the ethnographic locus, my research addresses these questions by drawing on the perspectives of students who are between ages 18 and 25 and pursuing their first undergraduate degree at the institute. Drawing on Foucauldian notion of governmentality with a pragmatist interpretation of social practices, my study contributes to geographical scholarship on education and youth by (i) arguing for a bio-political analysis in higher educational student life, (ii) advancing a concept of value/s to study the actual production of neoliberal (‘learning’ and ‘caring’) subjects, and (iii) challenging an elitist notion of cosmopolitanism attached to higher education. These arguments are explicated across four key publications in different peer-reviewed journals – Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Environment and Planning A, Antipode, and Social and Cultural Geography. These are accompanied by a critical essay that uses Singapore to explore geographical issues about education and youth, published in multi-volume reference works series. The articles are:

Cheng, YE (forthcoming) Educated non-elites’ pathways to cosmopolitanism: the case of private degree students in Singapore, Social & Cultural Geography.

Cheng, YE (2016) Critical geographies of education beyond ‘value’: moral sentiments, caring, and a politics for acting differently, Antipode, 48, 4, 919–936.

Cheng, YE (2016) Learning in neoliberal times: private degree students and the politics of value coding in Singapore, Environment and Planning A, 48, 2, 292-308.

Cheng, YE (2015) Biopolitical geographies of student life: private higher education and citizenship life-making in SingaporeAnnals of the Association of American Geographers, 105, 5, 1078-1093.

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


Batam Fieldtrip

5.30am. My mobile phone’s alarm clock went off. It’s an extremely early morning, especially for a Saturday. But it is a long day ahead. On 10 September, a group of Yale-NUS College students enrolled in Urban Studies courses took the 6am bus to Harbourfront so as to catch a morning ferry to Batam. The itinerary included around 6-8 sites, each to tell some stories about Batam’s urban development, its economic linkages to Singapore, and the social life of Batam’s inhabitants.


We embarked on our first task to look at oil rigs and ship yards. So we boarded small boats, each holding about 15 of us. The excitement of it all. It was raining.


Our next destination: Funtasy Island, a project that has been in the plan for just 20 years. Advertisement has already started, yet nothing seems to be ready. We saw only coastal bungalows under construction and man-made beach utilised by stray dogs having fun chasing each other.

14322221_10154398214210396_5994938750405803235_n   14329894_10154398213710396_9032889107184589873_n

We visited government subsidised housing provided for employees and their families, each family comprised of parents and on average 3 children, living in a one room flat. And these are considered the lower-middle income group.


We observed a divided Batam city. Built and managed housing on the one hand; informal settlement on the other hand.


We obtained an ethnographic portrait of one of the families living in the informal settlement. They earn an income from subcontract, informal work performed in the house, by the women who sort out bottle caps, while the men take charge of delivering them to a (recycling?) plant to sell them off.


We spotted Batam’s children and how they play in a space that clearly does not integrate the concept of childhood leisure, as well as their shrewd ways of overcoming problems.


We explored and rested our feet inside a built shopping mall, except that the only shop was the hipster cafe we bought coffee from.

14329902_10154398223505396_5044457536042124449_n   14237625_10154398224065396_2264412701695622977_n

The students also visited a fishing village. But it is perhaps no more a fishing village given that we learned most of the young adult men and women are finding work elsewhere. Those who stayed behind engage in their own economy involving vegetables, fruits, and snacks market.  The fishing village is also perceived as “eye sore” by the official now that a brand new hotel is built just within 1 km or so away.

14333182_10154398222125396_3125575789875598835_n   14237676_10154398222810396_5661946295441275331_n

We ended our evening at a waterfront development, modeled after Dubai’s “The World”. Largely aspirational, the idea was to revalue the waterfront and create a Sentosa (or MBS?) space to attract tourists. Yes, we paid ticket fees to enter.


And there was foam party that evening. They had the cosmopolitan, progressive, circuit party music. They had the foam. But the the less-than-100 crowd in the foam is not quite what I imagined foam parties to be about.