John Hopkins, UNSW and now Tisch: When will we ever learn?

I refer to the article “Tisch film school to close due to financial woes” (Straits Times, Nov 9).

Tisch to close

It states that “The Business Times reported in February that at the end of August 2009, Tisch Asia’s deficits amounted to $7.27 million, deepening from $6 million the year before.This was despite loans from the EDB totalling $11.68 million as at Aug 31, 2009, and $2.38 million in grants given to the school in its first 21/2 years, said the report.

Can’t tell you whether taxpayers’ money recoverable?

When asked if EDB expects to recover the money, Mr Tan said: “Details of the contract agreed between EDB and NYU are confidential. EDB is unable to provide additional comments.”

When a public agency refuses to disclose whether taxpayers’ money can be recovered, it is a lack of transparency. Without transparency, how can there be accountability?

Not the 1st time cannot tell you?

As this is not the first time that the same public agency has refused to disclose whether monies can be recovered, I thought it may be appropriate now to re-visit some past articles and forum letters on the closure of UNSW and John Hopkins.

UNSW closure

Despite a heated debate in the media and calls by the public for EDB to reveal how much of taxpayer’s money has been lost due to the UNSW closure, EDB chose to remain silent.

I find it somewhat embarrassing to first find out the amount by reading the Singapore media, quoting the Australian media.

Since Parliament was assured that UNSW “has to pay back the money because it did not meet the ‘agreed milestones’”, why did it take 2 months, and only when the question was tabled in Parliament, to disclose that $32.3 million was given to UNSW ?

The damage to Singapore’s reputation in the international media over the last 2 months could have be avoided, had this been disclosed earlier.

Perhaps the lesson for organizations when a project fails, in the context of media relations, is to accede to media requests at the onset, for more information on the timeline and events that transpired, rather than being riled into piece-meal rebuttals in response to foreign media reports. In this instance, it would appear that the rebuttal has only been reported in the local media. Therefore, the damage to Singapore’s reputation as a global school house, may already be done.

Not the first time

This is not the first time that such a similar embarrassment of not disclosing when something runs foul, has occurred. An almost replica of the sequence of “not telling”, but then in a sense, being compelled to “tell more”, happened in the Johns Hopkins-A*Star project termination.

Last year’s Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) report on the Auditor-General’s (AG) audit of EDB in the fiscal year prior, revealed that this is the first time that the AG has audited the EDB since its formation in 1961.

In particular, the audit found that a sum of $ 105 million allocated in “the EDB’s 2005/06 budget was not submitted to the EDB’s board for approval, the EDB board had also allowed staff to grant loans and to borrow without reporting back to the board, and there were a large number of observations in which the board had not established proper internal control procedures.

This raises the question of who checks on the AG? Why did it not audit the EDB for the last 46 years ? Why do we need to give so much money to attract foreign universities to set up shop in Singapore? How appropriate is this strategy for growing Singapore into a global school house?

Against this backdrop, we appear to have been stinging on educational spending for Singaporeans, as manifested by the following events reported in the media, in chronological order :

1. March 2007 – The PAP Community Foundation (PCF) announced plans to shut down five of the remaining 15 Community Children’s Libraries (CCL) to save $ 30,000 in operating costs per CCL. There used to be 46 such libraries in 2000, and all CCLs are likely to be closed eventually.

2. January 2007 – The Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) recipients increase from about 15,000 in 2005 to 35,000 in 2006. This dramatic rise of 20,000 more needy students getting help was due to its qualification criteria the year before being more stringent.

3. October 2006 – The question of spending on foreign students relative to Singaporeans is raised in the media – How may scholarships to foreigners relative to Singaporeans? Against this backdrop of spending on education for foreigners, less than 20 per cent of needy Singaporean students were successful when more than 1,000 applied for an annual bursary of about $ 1,500 from a local university in 2004, which sparked an outcry among some alumni in the newspaper forums.

4. September 2006 – The LKY School of Public Policy is the “World’s fastest growing public policy school” – 85 per cent of the students are foreigners on scholarships.

So, are we having the right balance, between spending on foreign universities and foreign students, relative to our own sons and daughters?” (“Foreign unis & foreign students – are we striking the right balance?”, theonlinecitizen, Aug 6, 2007)

John Hopkins closure

Business Times – 27 Jul 2006

JHU-A*Star break-up raises more questions

I REFER to media reports about Johns Hopkins University’s Singapore arm not meeting A*Star’s goals in their tie-up.

A*Star’s statement that Johns Hopkins University’s (JHU) agreement was terminated because it failed to meet eight out of 13 performance benchmarks may raise more questions. Its spokesman had, only days earlier, described the problems as a period of ‘transition’ – a decision taken by the leadership of the American university and the agency to replace the current ‘operating model of collaboration’ with a ‘new model of partnership’ still being developed.

It is interesting to note that whilst five of the performance benchmarks (KPIs) relating to recruitment were not met, output in the five KPIs typically associated with academic research far exceeded their targets.

For example, in the first year, the result was zero for training programmes, graduate students and visiting faculty, and a shortfall of 78 and 62 per cent for full-time faculty, and research scientists respectively. Even by the second year, the result was still zero for graduate students, with a shortfall of 50 per cent for training programmes, 66.6 per cent for visiting faculty, 92 per cent for senior investigators with international reputation, and 69 per cent for research scientists.

In contrast, the KPIs for number of post-doctoral participating in research, joint projects with other research institutes in Singapore, papers published, papers presented at top conferences, and conferences organised; far exceeded their targets by 20, 300, 260, 300 and 100 per cent respectively.

If you are not able to recruit the numbers you target, but fewer people are able to produce much higher outputs, then what is the problem? Perhaps what is more important now is to try to understand why it is so difficult to get researchers willing to come to Singapore. We need to find out how to make our research environment more attractive.

It is perhaps instructive to note that all three KPIs relating to commercial end-results, failed to produce a single patent, new technologies or new products. In this context, maybe there is a need for us to re-examine our fundamental strategies and approach.

If JHU, which is arguably one of the best in the world in its field, is not able to meet A*Star’s standards, are the goals realistic and achievable within the time frame stipulated?

In the final analysis, KPIs and agreements aside, it is a ‘no win’ for A*Star, JHU and Singapore, as Singapore has clearly stumbled in its maiden major medical research effort.

We should focus on learning from the experience rather than concentrate on apportioning blame. Otherwise, we may just be reinforcing the scientific community’s perception that Singapore’s environment is not conducive to creativity.

I cannot help but feel that the root cause of the problem may be a clash of two cultures – Singapore’s technocratic efficiency versus the American ideals of freedom, liberalism, diversity and creativity.

For example, JHU prefers to recruit young researchers as they may have more passion and are hungrier for a research breakthrough, whereas A*Star wants researchers with international reputation.

Unlike other American universities and scholarships, JHU does not believe in bonds for its scholars, like A*Star which has a history of even taking bond-breakers to task.

As one researcher I spoke to said rather profoundly, you need to be happy to be creative, so Singapore’s happiness ranking at 131 out of 178 countries has to improve.

Leong Sze Hian


Published July 28, 2006


DJHS did not deliver as promised

I REFER to the letter ‘JHU-A*Star break-up raises more questions’ from Leong Sze Hian (BT, July 27). The key question is whether the return on Singapore’s investment in DJHS has been satisfactory. The answer: Not satisfactory.

We reiterate that DJHS was established to achieve three goals:

establish a centre of immunology, experimental therapeutics and cancer research with an international reputation;

establish PhD training at DJHS in Singapore; and

recruit senior investigators with international reputation to appointments at DJHS and full-time residence in Singapore.

DJHS failed to deliver on its commitments on all three goals.

With reference to key performance indicators (KPIs), they were what DJHS reported to A*Star. By its own rating, DJHS did not achieve eight of the 13 KPIs.

The five that DJHS said had been achieved do not outweigh the eight that were not met. Whether the five KPIs, including the number of papers published, have been met is yet to be determined by A*Star, in the light of the sparse presence of full-time senior investigators based in Singapore.

Mr Leong asked whether A*Star’s goals for DJHS were ‘realistic and achievable within the time frame stipulated’. We would clarify that the KPIs were not imposed on DJHS but were arrived at through negotiation and mutual agreement. With reference to the issue of recruiting senior scientists as opposed to junior scientists, A*Star is fully supportive of nurturing young research talent. Hence our extensive National Science Scholarship programme.

But the agreement with DJHS explicitly required the recruitment of senior investigators to lead the research programmes and to mentor students and young scientists. We need good ‘generals’ to lead our own young ‘lieutenants’. Mr Leong said: ‘What is more important now is to try to understand why it is so difficult to get researchers who are willing to come to Singapore.’

A*Star has had no difficulty in attracting some of the best scientific talents in the world to relocate to Singapore. These include world renowned leaders in their fields as well as bright young post-docs.

By happy coincidence, we are able to quote from the latest issue of Time magazine (July 23, 2006): ‘For a serial kidnapper, Philip Yeo looks harmless enough. But to hear some people tell it, he’s a dangerous man. Over the past six years, Yeo has been roaming the world, trailing talented scientists in Washington; San Diego; Palo Alto, California; Edinburgh and elsewhere, and spiriting them back to his home country of Singapore – What distinguishes Yeo from other kidnappers, of course, is that his targets go willingly. They happily relocate to Singapore’s new 2-million-sq-ft Biopolis research centre.’ (see: magazine/printout/0,8816,1218061, 00.html)

With reference to the scholarship bonds, A*Star as a public entity that uses public funds, is obliged to the Singapore tax-payer to ensure that its scholars return and serve Singapore after completion of their studies. Johns Hopkins, as a privately funded university, may issue bond-free scholarships if it chooses to do so, but it should not expect A*Star to fund such scholarships on its behalf. A*Star is not aware of any other government entity that awards overseas study scholarships without requiring the recipients to return after completion of their studies.

Dr Andre Wan,
Biomedical Research Council
Agency for Science, Technology and Research”

Perhaps, the $64,000 question may be how world renowned educational institutions can survive in a country like Singapore, which has such a low ranking for Press Freedom and freedom of expression?

After all, there may be very low academic freedom as well, as evidenced by the closure of the Singapore Management University’s (SMU) Handa Centre for Global Governance and Human Rights, abruptly, even before its official opening event (““Why so afraid of “Human Rights”? (Part 1)”, Nov 3).

Maybe like what my old American professor used to say – “It ain’t money that makes great universities tick, its the freedom to think!”.

Leong Sze Hian

About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as the president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), Hotel Mumbai (associate producer), invited to speak more than 200 times in about 40 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of 2 countries. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.