Christopher Magee Interview: Impressions of Singapore

Introduction: Christopher L. Magee, Engineering Systems Division, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently concluded an assignment in residence in Singapore.  Prof. Magee (pictured) has agreed to share interesting aspects of that assignment with Global Economic Intersection readers, by way of an interview by Managing Editor John Lounsbury, which follows.

Question 1: What was the nature of your assignment in Singapore?

Prof. Magee:  The government of Singapore is launching a new university, the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), that is scheduled to take in its first freshman class in April, 2012.   MIT and Zhejiang University (China) are collaborating with Singapore to organize the new university.

Question 2: That sounds exciting.  How many people get the opportunity to do this sort of thing – I mean organize a major university from the ground up?

Prof. Magee:  I do not have any overall statistics but can say that of the approximately 75 faculty from various universities I have talked with, none have had the opportunity before.  So there is some excitement about doing this with many people involved.

Question 3: What are some of the key challenges that the project faced?

Prof. Magee:  The goal of the new SUTD is to establish a world class university center that leads in education for both research and for design.  There are some synergies between the two domains but also some conflicts.  Research-intensive missions and design innovation can pull in opposing directions at times but the fundamental synergy of research and design (or science and engineering) is at the heart of modern technological progress.  Most universities are not as effective at cross-disciplinary work as is desired to ideally support this mission.

Editor’s note: A paper, entitled “Beyond R&D: What Design adds to a Modern Research University”, will be published in the International Journal of Engineering Education in 2012.  It covers the synergy between research and design as well as other aspects of SUTD. The authors are Christopher L. Magee, Engineering Systems Division, MIT; Pey Kin Leong, Singapore University of Technology and Design; Chen Jin, Zhejiang University; Jianxi Luo, Engineering Systems Division, MIT; and Daniel D. Frey, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Systems Division, MIT.

Question 4: Are there other challenges for the project?

Prof. Magee:  There are numerous challenges with starting “a world class university” from scratch including attracting outstanding faculty and students.  Moreover, the vision for this modern research university is global.  That means that the technical mission must span cultural differences.  The new university must embrace “western culture,” “eastern culture,” “national cultures,” “global culture”, “cross-disciplinary culture” and “innovation culture.”  The involvement of a leading western university and a leading Chinese university with SUTD is designed to tackle some of these cultural issues head on.  These challenges are also discussed in the paper due out next year.

Question 5: Can you comment on any of the educational process differences you see around the world?

Prof. Magee:  Relative to the U. S. University system, the systems I have seen in Europe and in Asia are much more top-down. Examples of what I mean by top-down include:

•    Faculty in general are seen as unapproachable by students (not true in UK);
•    Senior faculty have real power that junior faculty cannot resist;
•    Leading administrators make binding decisions that the faculty overall cannot resist; and
•    Governmental ministries have much more say as most universities in the rest of the world are government funded (including tuition for students) and this can lead to less flexibility and innovation in the educational sphere.

The advantages to the US of these differences are not uniform but in general the US university system is much more capable of nurturing technological-based innovation which is the fundamental economic driver in the current world.

Relative to K-12, the US is far more varied and dependent upon local funding. The US also has less attention given by voters (and parents) overall to educational issues (this is particularly true relative to Asia).

Question 6: If you were given the opportunity to say in a few words what the U.S. needs to change in its educational system, what would that be?

Prof. Magee:  Relative to the critical K-12 issues faced by the US, I would recommend much more Federal funding to local schools with minimal Federal oversight.  I would like to see individual states encouraged to go far beyond current aspirations as there is no reason for every state to be tied to the same goals.  Some of our states should move to have much more qualified teachers of math and science and not wait for everyone to agree.  It would be nice if some states could move to higher teacher salaries (in exchange for “pure pay for performance”).  I think success in some states would  lead fairly soon to national improvement just as the changes led by New England states in the  early 19th century  spread across the country. I believe this earlier “education revolution” was fundamental to the economic success of the US in the late 19th and 20th centuries. I believe we need another one now to maintain our leadership for the 21st  century.

Relative to Universities, having a competitive system that has a strong private university foundation is a basic US strength. Finding ways of opening up new opportunities so the universities do not get complacent is also important because success (which the US research university system is enjoying) can be a pathway to overconfidence and weakness. Although I do not know much about it, the recent efforts by New York City (see Stanford University news) to attract a new technologically strong University might be a good example that should be followed by other cities and states.  I believe increasing the funding for technologically-relevant research and raising the level of competition to get such funding are both good ideas.

Question 7: This is shifting focus slightly – Do you have any thoughts regarding how the economic benefits of new innovations in technology and design will be distributed around the world in the next 10-20 years?

Prof. Magee:  The economic benefits flowing from technological-based design and innovation have been steadily broadening over the past century.  Although the US has been a major contributor and beneficiary of technological-based innovation, other countries in Europe have long played key roles. In the past decades, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries have played an expanding role and there is no reason why larger roles will not be played by the “Asian Giants”- China and India. As long as the US pays sufficient attention to its own educational and enterprise-forming capabilities, it will continue to contribute and benefit greatly from technological-based innovation. However, similar to changes in wealth over time, the US will necessarily have a smaller overall fraction of the innovation economy as time goes by.

Question 8: The impression of many in the US is that the Far East has a great economic dynamic and is just exploding with growth.  Have you seen evidence that would support this?

Prof Magee:  It would be quite difficult to not see the dynamism in places like Singapore and Hangzhou.  Construction cranes alone are hard to miss and the numbers of them are far greater than are present in any western city.   Bustling shopping areas and highway modernization are further clear signs of rapid growth.

Question 9: Shifting focus again – We have been reading a lot of reports about how the U.S. has declined to a very low ranking in the world for wealth distribution.  How does that compare to your observations of poverty as you have traveled?

Prof. Magee:  I have no real evidence of different wealth distributions but will note that Singapore has health care for all their citizens and does so for far less than what the US spends only taking care of 80% of its citizens.

Question 10: We assume you mean the per capita healthcare costs in Singapore are less than the US?  Do you have any observations that might give insight into how “good” (effective) healthcare is in Singapore?

Prof. Magee:  Oh yes, I meant per capita.  A point of reference is that Singapore spends less than 4% of GDP on healthcare, whereas the US is over 16%.  A good blog reference as to how Singapore manages to keep healthcare costs down and results high is available here.   Although I only used the system modestly, the services I sampled were clearly of very good quality.  The last time the World Health organization provided a ranking of global healthcare systems was in 2000.  At that time Singapore ranked sixth in the world and the US ranked 37th.  By all accounts Singapore has efficient and effective healthcare.

Question 11: In recent years some unofficial estimates of population of Singapore have been shrinking.  The official estimates have continued to show growth near 2% per annum.  You have remarked about the real estate development visible in Singapore.  Do you have any thoughts on why commercial growth could be continuing at a fast rate when population is growing slowly or possibly even contracting slightly?

Prof. Magee:  I was aware that the birth rate for Singapore based citizens was falling (not as low as Korea) as in almost all developed countries. However, I had not seen overall population figures nor thought about economic growth despite population growth saturation. There could be several reasons. First, Singapore companies are hiring strongly outside of the country.  (See Hiring Spree in Singapore.)  Secondly, there are a number of people who are not full-time residents of Singapore who maintain apartments and sometimes even homes in Singapore.  Singapore is a city-state and should be compared to similar political entities, like Hong Kong and Macao.  I have no further insight into the political economy of Singapore, but it seems to be an attractive international city with the advantages of being a financial center, social and politically stable and having very attractive surroundings.

Question 12: You have had a unique opportunity to view a dynamic part of the world.  Do you have any concluding thoughts that would summarize how your personal perspectives have changed as a result of this experience?

Prof. Magee:  I would simply emphasize that people in many parts of the world are fully capable of viable and useful societal innovations. I often hear from others that such innovations are not applicable to the US for reasons such as the comparator country is much smaller, or more homogeneous or different in some other way. What I know from technological innovation is that study of other technological domains catalyzes breakthrough thinking not by direct transplantation but by a more complex and interesting process that the cognitive scientists have labeled “analogical transfer”.  US states, cities and even the country can benefit by close study of Singapore as part of our (needed) next wave of societal innovation. Such study does not obviate the need for our own innovations but can instead enable them.

Conclusion: Thank you Prof. Magee.  We appreciate all that you have shared with Global Economic Intersection readers.  The world is changing faster than ever and “eyes on the ground” reports and opinions are quite valuable.

5 replies on “Christopher Magee Interview: Impressions of Singapore”

  1. While we shall all enjoy good stories like this, be careful.
    (1) Nothing in Singapore would have any relevance to the rest of the world, because it’s too small. It’s a city with ~2-3M people. Would any New Yorker listen when Sarah Palin talk about her success in Alaska? 5 minutes maybe. But not longer!
    (2) Singapore enjoyed a period of special status because of China’s screw-up (1949-1976). Now China is back, rendering Singapore almost irrelevant now, 99% irrelevant in 1 decade. The Singapore government (which is really Lee’s dynasty, not a democracy per se) has been trying really hard to regain its footing, with all kinds of efforts, like this brand new university thing. Will it be successful? Yes, to a small extent. Will it matter to the rest of the world. No!

    America: Pay attention to China – That’s where the real game is!!! Do not be easily distracted.

  2. Comment submitted by e-mail:

    John and Chris:

    Thanks for a great article. To me, it is incredibly important for Global Econ forums to portray what is happening worldwide. And all we hear is bad news.

    My sense is that Singapore has figured things out. With about as diverse a set of cultures as any country in the world, they understand that “free democracy” for them would not work. Why? because they know they know they are only a small island, so they have to make things work.

    One thing not touched upon in the article was how senior people are paid – government. corporate, and business. I believe the income inequalities are far lower than in the US.

    Again, thanks for a very good article.

    From Elliott Morss

  3. Elliott,

    Income inequality? No country has it like the U.S., because no country is a “Land of Opportunities” like the U.S.! So income inequality is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly not the reason behind the U.S. decline!

    You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong! The root cause of America’s ills is political (i.e. democracy, as we know it today), not economic (i.e. capitalism, which is fine, but imperfect)!

    — Frank

  4. Ever heard of Tsukuba University in Japan ( It was created by the Japanese Government a few decades ago in a way similar to this Singapore thing. Is it something in Japan today? Yes! Will it ever pass the 9 imperial universities ( No! Will it ever pass Tokyo Institute of Technology (Japan’s MIT). No!

    Singapore has top-2 already (Singapore National – Harvard, and Singapore Tech – MIT). Why do they need a 3rd one? For a good reason to herself, but not to the rest of the world.

Comments are closed.