Chinese International Students in Singapore

A Review of “Foreign Talent”: Desire and Singapore’s China Scholars, by Peidong Yang.

Peidong Yang’s exciting and timely dissertation on Chinese international students in Singapore provides us with a comprehensive examination of the experiences of young people as they embark on an educational and cultural sojourn in the island-state.  Yang rightly observes that it is desire that fuels the Chinese students to leave their parents, their villages and their home country in their (early) teens in order to fulfill their own and their family’s ambitions of an overseas education.  For some, Singapore is the bridge that allows them to head for the holy grail of higher education − the United States − for further study.  For others, their experiences in Singapore lead them to think about issues of citizenship and nation.

Yang points out that the element of desire for Chinese students to study in Singapore is not one-sided. Here he describes how the Singapore government actively pursues and recruits top Chinese students from their homeland.  Singapore is a unique nation where it actively looks overseas for workers and students in order to fuel its diversified and growing industries.  Known as “foreign talent”, the government provides potential foreign workers and students with incentives to come to Singapore.  Foreign students who are recruited to study in government-funded institutions from secondary school to university are provided with generous scholarships.  However in return, the students are bonded to the government to work in Singapore for a minimum of 3 years and sometimes more.  Currently a quarter of Singapore’s population consists of foreign talent.  As the narrative of the dissertation unfolds, we learn that the presence of the foreign talent in Singapore has created tension among the locals which is both observed and felt quite distinctly by the Chinese students themselves.

Yang’s dissertation contains a wealth of empirical evidence.  His interviews with the Chinese students in Singapore are pure gold.  Yang is able to capture the voices of the students well.  Their frankness comes out very clearly in the project.  These stories make this dissertation not only rich in qualitative data but a joy to read.  Yang skilfully frames his informants’ voices by a thorough and well-written introduction that sets out to explain the motivation behind the theme of his doctoral journey.  Being a former Chinese international student in Singapore himself, Yang treats his informants’ stories with dignity and respect.  By using an ethnographic approach, Yang offers us insights into the development of the Chinese students’ thinking about their own transience.  As Yang succinctly explains: “because flexible citizenship is far from taken for granted for these subjects, I found their discourses pertaining to it more nuanced, shot through with tensions between aspirations for a boundless flexibility and attachments to sociocultural specificity, oscillations between denunciations of the familiar which motivate the project of flexibility on the one hand and conflicted re-/evaluations of the imagined that constantly problematizes the desirability of normative flexibility on the other” (pp. 184-5).

Yang neatly divides his sections into a before, during and after (future) template.  Part One of this dissertation, for instance, supplies us with the necessary background to understanding Singapore’s desire for foreign talent and the little known processes behind the recruitment of the young Chinese talent the island-state desires.  This section also provides information on the Chinese school system which is incredibly informative for those of us who want a contextual understanding of these students who leave for Singapore.

Part Two explores the experiences of the Chinese students in Singapore.  Rather than emphasizing the educational experiences of the Chinese students, Yang quite rightly narrates the cross-cultural experiences the students encounter during their stay in Singapore.  The interviews reveal students who are confused at the everyday tensions of being foreign in Singapore.  These experiences are supported by excerpts from Singaporeans in official tabloids and from online forums complaining about how the presence of foreign students spell hardship and missed (education and work) opportunities for Singaporeans.  For many Chinese students cultural shock is very much part and parcel of the Singapore experience particularly since the majority of Singaporeans are themselves ethnic Chinese.  Here Yang explains that issues such as differences in national experiences (e.g. Singaporean men are conscripted into the military, enforcement and civil defence as part of what is known as “National Service” when they are in their late teens) becomes a barrier for mutual identification despite co-ethnicity.

Part Three of this dissertation takes us to the future aspirations of the Chinese students interviewed for this project.  The desire for the United States as their next destination for study and perhaps work and permanence, is almost unanimous.  This section also contains more interesting ethnographic material that allows the informants in this project to have a clear and unadulterated voice.  One of the key elements Yang presents here is the attitude of Chinese international students.  While studies on the socio-cultural experiences of international students have often focused on the hardship they face in transience, Yang presents a more positive assessment of international students.  He explains: “One noteworthy character of the discourses of these ‘foreign talents’ is the confidence and optimism they exuded. Having by now accumulated a certain amount of useful capitals (among others: a globally recognized education; bilingualism in arguably the two most important languages in today’s world; cross-cultural experiences and awareness; work experiences in Singapore-based international corporations), my informants seemed to speak of transnational mobility in a taken-for-granted manner” (p. 196).

Yang’s dissertation is also very important to studies in migration and cross-cultural relations.  There has been too much focus in “east meets in the west” encounters in the humanities and social sciences that “east meets in the east” social and cultural relations have been sorely overlooked.  For instance, current work on the language abilities of international students almost always highlight the difficulties students from non-English speaking backgrounds have communicating in this language in their host nations.  Yang points out that the Chinese students’ difficulties with language was not because of their lack of knowledge of the English language but rather the hybridised creole version spoken in Singapore known as “Singlish” (Singapore English).  Yang’s work is very encouraging because it shows that young up and coming scholars are beginning to branch out beyond the canon and do vital and necessary research in areas otherwise gone unnoticed or taken for granted.  I look forward to seeing more of Yang’s stimulating and pioneering work in the future.

Catherine Gomes
School of Media and Communication
RMIT University, Melbourne
catherine.gomes@rmit.edu.au

Primary Sources
Ethnographic interviews
The Straits Times
Temasek Review

Dissertation Information
University of Oxford. 2014. 282pp. Primary Advisor: David Mills

Image: “Pandas” by Chng Choon Hiong.  Used with permission.

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