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Profile: Singapore's new Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-12

THERE is nothing imposing about the building that houses the new Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on the campus of the National University of Singapore, nothing to suggest its lustre or the sheer legend of the man after whom it's named. Few students lounge around in the lobby, and fewer still swarm the antiseptic corridors engaging one another in the sort of animated arguments one expects at academic institutions. The overwhelming impression a first-time visitor gets is that of great stillness.

It's a misleading impression. The School - formally named after the nation's founding father on the occasion of his 80th birthday last 16 September - is fairly crackling with intellectual ferment. In a microcosm of Singapore's international character, its 15 faculty members and 66 students are drawn from 16 countries.

It confers master's degrees in public management and in public policy. Its immediate goal is developing excellence in public policy education. Its larger goal is to promote good governance and excellence in public service throughout Asia. And it does so through its rigorous degree programmes as well as mid-career executive programmes.

"That rigorousness translates into a clash of ideas, into a continuing emphasis on a multi-disciplinary approach in public policy," said Mr. Saqib Zafar of Pakistan, a mid-career civil servant. "Governments today are judged through the lens of the 'good governance' concept. Pakistan today is undergoing various necessary reforms for making the government more responsive to the need of the people. For bringing about those changes, necessary knowledge and an international exposure are required."

It is "students" such as Mr Zafar that the School wants more of, says its dean, Mr Kishore Mahbubani, the veteran diplomat and author, who assumed office in August when the university's existing graduate programmes in public management and public policy - started in 1992 - were expanded through the establishment of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan was among the leading players in ensuring the transformation, as was Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who announced the establishment of the School not long before he ended his prime ministership in September.

Their participation fetched the School S$25 million from the government. Private sector companies are coming in with handsome contributions. "We have a healthy financial base," Mr Mahbubani told The Straits Times, adding that, of course, "we'd still need to keep raising funds."

The idea always was that the School should become "a reference point in the principles and practices of good governance, not just for Asian countries, but also for other developing, transitional and newly industrialised countries," Mr Mahbubani said.

Professor Joseph Nye, former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, weighs in enthusiastically about the School's prospects.

"This will be a pioneering venture in Asia, and it builds on a firm foundation," Professor Nye told The Straits from his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The Kennedy School helped the NUS to build its program in public policy and we will continue to try to be helpful. The key to successful development is honest public service, and Singapore has a good tradition to build upon."

In order to suggest the strengthening of its programmes, McKinsey & Company is studying the School's curriculum through pro bono work. McKinsey will look at "best practices" of foreign policy and public policy schools around the world, including the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. McKinsey are also assisting the School with its strategic directions and are likely to make specific recommendations for curricula refinement. McKinsey's recommendation should cover a whole range of strategic thrusts, and would not be limited to curricula refinement. The recommendations would be made to Mr Mahbubani well before the formal inaugural of the School during a two-day conference next April.

That conference, titled "Managing Globalisation: Lessons from China and India," is being coordinated by Ms May Koh Ang Moi, who is coordinating the event. Ms Koh, now a research associate at the School, had worked for more than a dozen years in public health, including a long stint at the Singapore General Hospital. What made her decide to pursue a graduate degree at the School?

"The learning process engages you to look at issues from the public value perspective of a policy analyst - which is markedly different from the business perspective of an executive that most people would be familiar with," she said, adding that the School's curriculum was based on "three main pillars: economics, politics, and leadership and management skills."

But courses incorporating these three pillars must also factor in the career stage at which the "student" is.

Says Assistant Professor Caroline Brassard of Canada, who teaches development economics and empirical analysis: "As faculty, we take great care to ensure that the background - educational and professional - of each and every student be given proper attention, be they in the very early stage of their career or at mid-career level. This is also done through a highly participatory approach in class, which ensures that the key learning points are most relevant to the context in which our students will go back to, once they graduate."

"Therefore, our courses draw lessons from policies relevant to their home countries - in sectors such as education, health, transport, and poverty-alleviation policies - and present it in a comparative perspective, to deepen their understanding of the complexities of not only formulating, but effectively implementing these policies," Professor Brassard said.

Thus, the School offers two degrees: Master in Public Policy (MPP) is for younger individuals. Hence, it puts greater emphasis on quantitative and analytical skills. The Master in Public Management (MPM) degree is for senior or fast track officials. Hence, it focuses on leadership and management skills. Both programmes contain formidable Asian content, and use the case study approach that has been popularised by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, as well as by Harvard's celebrated Business School.

Pakistan's Mr Zafar has signed up for the MPM degree. South Korea's Ms Eun Young Lee sought new insights on regional development and social policy issues.

"Privatization and decentralization in the globalised world - the conventional role of central government is being challenged," she said. "Public policy should find the answer for a newly changed - and much more important - role of the government and public organizations. More fundamental speculation on governance philosophy and finding the right role in changing world, will give more dynamic and profound dimension to public policy. Asia is robustly developing now. This is very interesting time for public policy makers in the region."

Ms Windel Anne Lacson of the Philippines echoed that sentiment.

"We have learned in class that globalization brings as much threats as benefits. Its emergence has also created a feeling of insecurity to many," she said. "Public policy practitioners have a big role to play in promoting economic growth or economic stability - whichever is appropriate - in their respective countries amidst globalisation. At the same time that they are doing that, they also have the important role of providing social safety nets to their people, especially to the vulnerable groups, that will provide them some form of cushion to the blows brought about by the uncertainties of globalization."

Professor John W. Thomas of Harvard University, who's a visiting teacher at the School - and is the Faculty Chair of the Singapore Programme at the Kennedy School of Government - empathizes with Ms Lacson and asserts that the new institution is, in fact, proving to be an incubator for creating a new generation of public servants in Asia.

Asia, with more than half the world's population and with several of the fastest growing economies is playing an increasingly pivotal role in the world politically and economically, he said. To succeed in the new global environment of the 21st century requires a new type of government, one that is smaller, better trained, more efficient, and which understands how to play a very different role than governments did in the 20th century.

"The Lee Kuan Yew School has the opportunity to train future leaders of Asia and to give them the understanding and skills that they will need to play these new roles," Professor Thomas said. "Asia needs capable public leaders who are both visionary and analytic. They need to understand that good governance results not only from capable government but also from effective civil society organizations, a strong private sector, and working regional and international linkages. Public leaders must have the capacity to engage the energy and efforts of each of these sectors for the common good."

To train more such public leaders, the School is embarking on an active recruiting drive, which would involve placing advertisements in regional media.

In addition to the strong courses already offered by the School, potential students are also likely to be attracted by the affordability of the degree programmes. For example, Ms Zheng Ling of China was able to come to Singapore because tuition fees per semester for foreigners for the two-year MPP degree are S$2,560; for citizens and permanent residents of Singapore the fees drop to S$2,325.00. For the one-year MPM degree, the tuition fees per academic year are S$16,250 for Singaporeans, and S$16,720.00 for foreigners.

What kind of "student" does Mr Mahbubani want to attend the School? "Well, all good public policy schools look for a variety of students," he said. "Given our multi-disciplinary curriculum, we are all looking for young individuals with a good first degree and a few years of working experience. We are looking for diversity of backgrounds. They should also have an interest in pursuing a public service career either in government or non-government organisations or regional and international organisations. Corporate sector officials handling governmental affairs will also find our courses of interest."

Vietnam's Mr Nguyen Trong Kien, a youthful government official, fits the bill. "One of the important features of the program is that the curriculum focuses on the Southeast Asian context," he told The Straits Times. "This creates 'added value' for many students who mostly come from countries in the region. Besides, the students from different countries also have chance to learn the knowledge and diverse experience of each other. This helps them gain more practical experiences and widen their perspectives on the complexity of public policy."

Ms Janice Lai Lee Ling took leave from Singapore's Central Provident Fund to obtain a degree at the School. What were her biggest "take-aways" from the programme?

Her response: "Learning the art and science of policymaking - a process that is based on sound theories but grounded in organisation and political realities. And exchanging experiences, best practices and policy problems faced by the different countries in the region."

In conversations with School faculty and students, one is pleasantly surprised at the consistent level of idealism. For example, Mr Bijaya Kumar Mishra, a senior official in Indian Railways, said. "Public policy experts need to think and ensure that the inequality in our world is reduced to the minimum so that there is improvement of human capital and the country competes in the globalised world. I envisage for myself a pivotal role in the government at the highest levels of policy making where I can use my experience and knowledge gained at the School."

And here's what Malaysia's Mr Ting Kok Onn had to say:

"I believe that public policy practitioners can play a role in connecting the down trodden and the rich and famous in the society. There are situations where the public policy practitioners can help bring the downtrodden up to a certain level or help them or even chastise them to move faster. On the other hand, if the rich move too far ahead, we can remind them not to forget the people falling behind. It will be at their peril to ignore the downtrodden. In short, public policy practitioners will play the connecting role and this very vital as the market is increasingly becoming the way of life."

It's students such as Mr Mishra and Mr Ting who will most certainly be effective ambassadors for the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. In the world of academics and also of professional public policy, as in that of business, the best brands are sustained not just by advertising but also by word of mouth.

"But we need to build our brand first," said Mr Mahbubani, in a bow to the practical challenges that the dean of any new institution must tackle. "What we have going for us is the demand in the region for a School such as ours. Asian economies are going to continue to grow. What's not keeping pace with economic development is political development, better regulatory regimes, and clean and transparent governance. That's what we're hoping our graduates will promote."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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