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The late Lee Kuan Yew, often referred to as the founder of modern Singapore, aspired to the city state becoming the education hub of Asia — or, in his words, the “Boston of the East”.
This vision, together with Singapore’s geographical location, a government very favourable to business schools from overseas and the fact a plethora of multinational companies have chosen the city state for their regional headquarters, have made it an Asian leader in business education.
While competition among business schools is fierce, especially from markets such as China and Hong Kong, Singapore remains ahead in terms of both quality of education and employment opportunities, says Vincent Chin, global leader of public sector practice at management consultancy BCG.
The city state’s business education roots reach back to faculty training in Australia and the US in the 1970s, which helped launch Singapore’s first MBA programmes in the following decade, notes a Singapore Management University paper.
By 2000, Insead, the elite business school ranked second in the FT’s global MBA rankings, had set up a campus in Singapore — the first by an international business school in Asia.
Ilian Mihov, dean of Insead, points to multiculturalism as well as the city state’s strong investment in the “knowledge economy” as key reasons for Insead picking Singapore as its Asian home.
Hong Kong was out of the reckoning for that honour, because the territory was in the process of being returned to China in the late 1990s, when Insead was contemplating destinations for its new campus. “There was a bit of a risk there,” says Mr Mihov.
While Hong Kong is valued as a portal to China, Singapore is perceived as a gateway to a broader portion of the Asian region. The number of multinationals that have regional headquarters in Singapore reflects this, and at the same time generates healthy employment opportunities for graduates.
George Ingersoll, associate dean of executive MBA programmes at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, cites this as one reason why the Californian university offers a joint executive MBA programme with the National University of Singapore.
NUS’s links to neighbouring countries have been “a huge asset for the programme”, says Mr Ingersoll. “They certainly have connections that go beyond what we would have been able to bring to bear.”
For overseas business schools, Singapore is known as a relatively easy market to navigate. Its “clear-cut business environment” means things get done, says Jochen Wirtz, vice-dean of graduate studies at the NUS Business School, without the need for deep knowledge of local customs and informal networks. “The official channels work,” Mr Wirtz adds.
The Economic Development Board, which in the 1990s laid the groundwork for Singapore’s first agreements with overseas universities to bring their graduate programmes to the city state, is central to the process.
In Insead’s case, the authority’s help in connecting it with government bodies such as the JTC, the state land developer, was key to the Singapore campus launch. “They have been extremely helpful,” says Mr Mihov. “In many other places they might have said ‘go find yourself the land’.”
Singapore’s status as a regional business education leader, however, is not guaranteed. Chinese business schools are increasingly competitive as students from China and overseas pursue business degrees in the world’s second-largest economy.
Ceibs this year, for example, snatched a spot in the top 10 of the Financial Times global MBA rankings for the first time since 2009.
Hong Kong’s close links to China also make Hong Kong an attractive centre for business education. Chicago Booth School of Business in 2013 moved the Asia component of its executive MBA programme from Singapore to Hong Kong in an effort to capture a growing share of the Chinese market. This was a blow to Singapore, which had hosted the programme for 13 years.
That said, China may have impaired its attraction to overseas institutions after regulators closed a fifth of partnerships between local and foreign universities during the past year, as the Communist party tightens its control over mainland tertiary education institutions.
But for BCG’s Mr Chin, Singapore’s real rivals lie in growing south-east Asian markets such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam or Thailand.
“If they get their act together, students will go straight there. Why go through Singapore?” he says, adding that the city state’s high cost of living — it tops the table of the 10 most expensive cities in the world, says the Economist Intelligence Unit — could erode its present advantage.
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