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GOH Keng Swee




GOH Keng Swee

Doctor of Letters
honoris causa

Pro-Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests, fellow graduands, ladies and gentlemen:

May I first say how greatly honoured I feel to receive an honorary degree from your University. Like previous graduands selected to speak on behalf of fellow graduands, I harbour a feeling that more worthy graduands have been passed over. But on this occasion, my sentiments have more solid reasons than theirs. I can plead in exculpation that when I accepted your invitation to speak, Mr Vice-Chancellor, I had no knowledge that I would find myself in the company of Mother Teresa and Mrs Corazon Aquino. Their services to mankind are renowned throughout the world and the message they can convey will have a much more momentous significance than anything I can say.

Let me confess at the outset that I am a specialist by inclination, training and experience and not a happy generalist who can take a broader, even philosophical, view of human affairs. My interest centres on how developing countries can lift their populations out of the wretched poverty which had been their misfortune to endure. More recently, I have been concerned with how the acquisition and spread of knowledge can contribute to a successful outcome. So my natural choice of subject is "the functions of universities in developing countries".

In approaching the subject, we must remember that universities are a creation of European civilisation. The civilisations of Asia and the Middle East did not produce such institutions of higher learning. Why this came about I will leave to those learned in ancient civilisations to examine. It may be sufficient to state that universities conferred on European countries a special advantage in the progressive development of their societies which was not available to the contemporary societies of the Orient. Let me take you on a quick journey through the centuries during which universities shaped the transformation of European societies.

The first university, set up in Bologna, Italy, late in the eleventh century, did not have the lofty purposes ascribed to higher education in later history. In medieval Europe, university faculties limited their teaching to three areas, namely theology, law and medicine. Their graduates filled positions in the ecclesiastical establishments, helped to keep the king's peace and cured the sick.

In the course of centuries, the accumulation of wealth made possible a concentration of the keenest minds of a country in university residential communities. The special methods of intellectual enquiry led to major advances in mathematics and these advances made possible progress in various scientific disciplines. British universities showed preeminence in these fields so that by the late eighteenth century, the dissemination of knowledge was widespread. One natural outcome took the form of an extensive desire to discover new and better ways of doing old things. Technical novelty and experimentation became an everyday occurrence, so much so that Dr Samuel Johnson complained "the age is running mad after innovation"1.

We should note, however, that the series of inventions which formed the heart of the process we now call the Industrial Revolution were not introduced by university professors but by people engaged in the business of production. The names of James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright, James Watt and George Stephenson have been engraved in economic history. However, the advances in scientific discoveries achieved in British universities did enable Britain to improve on the new technologies.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Britain had become the world's workshop and through her economic preeminence attained the position of the world's unrivalled superpower, a status guaranteed by naval supremacy and enhanced by her worldwide imperial possessions. Victorian England distinguished herself by more than material wealth and power. The period saw an enormous intellectual ferment and produced outstanding thinkers.

What did the Great Victorians think of universities? This is how one of them, Cardinal Newman, put it. University education, he said, "aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, giving enlargement and sobriety to the idea of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political powers, and refining the intercourse of private life"2.

This self-confident assertion fits well with the buoyant mood of the age. In one way or other, Cardinal Newman's views influenced writers on the subject even up to this day and even in developing countries. This may seem odd given their elitist overtones unfashionable in today's mass societies. Be that as it may, this could be a convenient point to turn to the universities of the Third World.

The literature on the subject is scanty. Third World academics write mostly on their countries' institutions. For overviews of international experience we have depended on paper submitted to international conferences or on western scholars. The former seldom illuminate and the latter source is not abundant as books on the subject can hardly command a wide readership.

The difficulties of writers are made greater by the large number of developing countries in the Third World, more than a hundred of them. While the advanced countries do have differences among themselves, they are sufficiently homogeneous to associate themselves into effective groupings like the OECD, NATO and the like to promote their common interests. Third World groupings have not reached such levels of cohesion. A contributory cause could be their enormous variation in size, living standards, forms of government and general levels of education.

As a result, generalisation about the purpose of higher education becomes an impossible undertaking. At one extreme, we have instances where no effective government exists and people's main concern is to keep alive, as for instance, in Somalia. We have to move a long way from starvation levels, before discussions on education serve any practical use. Consequently, the focus of interest falls on those countries which are making sufficient material progress in terms of living standards and economic growth.

In Asia there are countries in which universities had been established by the former imperial governments, some as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century. But it is only in the last four decades or less that independent governments had been established. We should not forget that the problems of high education have to compete for money and attention with many pressing problems of the day. Therefore adverse commentaries are not unexpected. Let me quote some.

"Ambiguity seems to characterise the goals of the universities...the university frequently does not know what it is doing, and how well it is doing it...despite these perennial ambiguities, the expectations from the products of universities are always great"3. In other developing countries, falling standards since independence feature as a common complaint as is the intrusion of politics in many aspects of higher education. Other celebrated topics are the brain drain, graduate unemployment and suspect examination systems.

Even the function of universities in producing intellectual skills required in modernisation has been questioned. One writer puts it this way, "With the greater emphasis placed on manpower and the creation of skilled manpower, there is a tendency to see the university primarily in economic terms. This error is often compounded by the belief that the development of higher education would somehow lead to economic growth and political stability." This expectation will lead to disenchantment of the contribution of universities in developing countries4.

While taking note of these cries of despair, we should not accept them as the final judgement. These countries have had only four decades to come to grips with the enormously complex issues of higher education. In fact the frank admission of setbacks can stimulate a new appraisal of the situation and introduce new policies. Better this than a pretence that everything is fine.

I believe that universities in some Third World countries can play a critical role in the uplifting of their societies. This uplifting, in its initial phase, will not take after the grand manner prescribed by Cardinal Newman. His prescription made sense in a country that had reached its pinnacle of power and wealth.

Since developing countries find themselves in a totally different position, they should define the aims of higher education to meet their more modest needs. One possible formulation could be along these lines. The wealth possessed by rich countries was created by the application of science and technology to the production of goods and services. The use of this knowledge aims mainly at improving processes of production. The principles on which such knowledge is based can be learnt in universities, polytechnics and research institutes.

If these propositions are granted, the mission of Third World universities becomes more clear. The knowledge needed to create wealth in developing countries already exists in rich countries. This knowledge grew there in the course of long evolution since the Industrial Revolution and their use in production sometimes led to a great deal of waste through trial and error. Developing countries can avoid much of this waste as they do not need to re-invent the wheel. So they do not need two centuries of effort to get rich. In the early stages, developing countries can send their best students abroad but eventually their own universities must teach these subjects.

This necessarily compressed sketch of a new role for universities must raise many questions. Are the goals set realistic and attainable? Are there actual examples of such processes at work in developing countries? The answer is there are at least four good examples - the four small dragons - South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. If the view I express here seems novel it could be because not many scholars have drawn attention to the link between accumulation of knowledge and the accumulation of wealth.

The clearest demonstration of how this link operates can be seen in Taiwan. Between 1950 and 1988, Taiwan suffered a brain drain of more than 110000 students, mostly to the United States. More than half of them studied the natural and applied sciences such as engineering, medicine and agriculture. Most of these remained in America after graduation and worked in American corporations. For instance, they constitute some 20% of semi-conductor engineers in Silicon Valley.

Since 1979 the government of Taiwan carried out a series of bold measures to reverse the flow of talent and in eleven years succeeded in attracting more than 19,000 to return. Meanwhile, Taiwan's own tertiary education institutions expanded in student numbers and teaching quality. By 1989 enrolment of engineering and technical students in her 117 institutions exceeded 173000. Taiwan's success in high technology industry and her manufacturing versatility have been widely acclaimed. Her achievements did not rest on cheap labour but on the acquisition and application of knowledge.

Hong Kong and Singapore followed a slightly different path to prosperity. Higher education did not fuel economic growth as it did in Taiwan and South Korea, but expanded to provide the professional skills needed. Without this contribution from the universities, the development process might well have stopped at an early age.

The experience of the People's Republic of China confirms the reality of the link between the accumulation of knowledge and the accumulation of wealth. Since 1952, China's universities have concentrated on teaching the hard sciences and their applications. Nearly two-thirds of students enrolled in universities study these disciplines. In 1990, 196000 engineers and 30000 natural scientists graduated from her 1070 tertiary institutions, twenty times the number in 1952. When the reforms of the 1980s allowed a measure of free choice in production, the resulting upsurge in output was a natural outcome.

But the People's Republic ran into trouble of a kind not encountered by the four small dragons. There, rising incomes were not confined to the business sector but reached the academic community. This has not happened in China and produced some strange outcomes. Professors are encouraged to moonlight and many do so. But in the liberal arts faculties, such opportunities do not abound. Discontent among a significant section of the intelligentsia can hardly be avoided. Hence, recruitment of good brains becomes a major problem.

In the course of time, these matters will be addressed by Beijing and major reforms of their universities will then take place. These reforms obviously have to go beyond bread and butter issues such as the pay of professors. I cannot help feeling that when the time comes, Beijing will have a close look at how your university functions and they will have much to learn from your experience.

This encounter may provide you, Mr Vice-Chancellor, with a unique opportunity. As a scholar of Chinese history, you may be able to persuade them that Cardinal Newman's views on the liberal university conforms to a remarkable degree with the beliefs of the traditional Chinese scholar on the role of the educated man. The road to modernity in higher education may need a reinforcement of their traditional values, not a break with the past.

1 Chronicle of the World, ECAM publishers, p714.

2 Peter Scott, "The Crisis of the University", Croom Helm, 1984, p49.

3 Zainal Abidin Ahmad, "Reflections on the Purpose of Universities". Paper submitted to the Conference on the Role of Universities in Developing Nations, November 1980, Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi, 1987.

4 S Gopinathan, "Cosmopolitanism and Indigenization - Third World Higher Education" in The Policy Impact of Universities in Developing Regions, Fred Lazin, Samuel Aroni and Yehuda Gradus, editors. New York: St Martin's Press in Association with Policy Studies Organizations, 1988.

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