Applied Social Sciences in a Complex Social Landscape – Speech by Daniel Goh


(Delivered in Parliament on 8 May 2017) 


Speech on the Singapore University of Social Sciences Bill


Deputy Speaker Sir, as a social scientist by vocation, I was pleasantly surprised that the Government announced the renaming of SIM University as the Singapore University of Social Sciences. This is, of course, not a simple renaming, but a significant reorientation of Singapore’s leading private university catering to adult education as it comes under public stewardship to become our sixth autonomous university. This reorientation will not just become a major milestone in our higher education field, but it will also have important consequences for Singapore society, as social science knowledge is brought to bear directly on the changing and increasingly complex social landscape. While I support the bill, I would like to raise four issues regarding the development of applied social sciences in Singapore.


Balancing Academic and Applied Social Sciences

The first issue is the balancing of academic and applied social sciences. Academic social sciences tend to be highly specialized, with the individual disciplines developing their own lineage of knowledge traditions and research methodologies. Academic social sciences are also more concerned with producing new theoretical knowledge of cause-and-effect. Practical solutions and policy implications are secondary concerns. Applied social sciences invert the emphases of academic social sciences. Applied social sciences are multi-disciplinary in structure and inter-disciplinary in approach, with the focus on applying existing knowledge to understand specific social problems and develop practical solutions.

Academic and applied social sciences need each other to do their work. Applications of theoretical knowledge validate and vindicate the knowledge and will show up gaps that become the puzzles to push the research frontier. Academic social sciences not only provide the theoretical knowledge for applied social scientists to work with, but also the tools of critical analysis for the scientists to evaluate solutions and policies in objective light.

The risk involved in the setting up of a whole university dedicated to applied social sciences is that the university could become a mere research arm for the civil service. To be effective, applied social sciences must be relevant to both academic social scientists and policy makers. There is a need to balance academic and applied social sciences in the university, even if the university should focus on applied social sciences. As paradoxical as this may sound, I urge the Minister to safeguard the autonomy of the applied social scientists from policy makers, even as we seek greater relevance of social research to social policy, and ensure the balance of academic and applied social sciences in the Singapore University of Social Sciences.


Beware the Diversity of Silo Universities

The second issue is a related one. With this sixth autonomous university, Singapore will have an enhanced and diverse higher education field. But a closer look at the diversity reveals yet another risk. The three older universities, National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University, are academic in orientation. There is also a division of labour between them. NUS has the full suite of academic disciplines and more, with cutting-edge residential and liberal arts colleges in University Town. NTU is focused on the technological sciences, while SMU specializes in management sciences. The three newer universities, Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore Institute of Technology and now SUSS, offer applied learning. There is also a division of labour between them. SUTD focuses on application of design to technological innovation, SIT specializes in applied learning in the industries, and SUSS zooms in on applied social sciences.

There is a discomforting symmetry in this diversity. My worry is that our higher education field will evolve into six silo universities, all functionally differentiated and not relating to each, each becoming a great echo chamber in itself, six blind men feeling the different parts to know the strange elephant. Already as such, in NUS, I am a lot more networked with international scholars than I am with my peers in the other five universities.

In developed economies with advanced tertiary education sectors, there is a balance between competition and complementation among the universities. A highly differentiated university sector means that the universities will appear to complement each other at the highest level of planning for the education of our workforce and compete for the same pot of research funding. However, the departments and research centres in each university will have little incentive to interact and network with their counterparts in other university. There will be little competition of ideas, which is what makes for a thriving university sector.


Community-based Research

This problem of becoming a silo university will affect SUSS more because its subject focus is the social landscape in Singapore. This landscape is becoming increasingly complex. Let’s take the institution of the family as an example. It is no longer tenable in sociology to speak of a single form of family, that is, the modern nuclear family underpinned by marriage and functionally set up for making and growing babies to become good citizens. Individual choices, new forms of partnership, new ways of childbearing and childrearing, dissolutions of marriages have led to a plurality of families and complex new social problems.

In such a complex social landscape, applied social sciences have to take the lead in research and knowledge production and the nature of this leadership has to be different to that of academic social sciences. The theoretical knowledge offered by academic social sciences are no longer adequate in themselves and its insularity from society means that academic social scientists are likely to be unaware of the emerging trends in the social landscape.

But for applied social scientists to take the lead, SUSS would need to be highly networked with communities in the social field and the knowledge production must reside in the relationship between the university and the communities. In academic social sciences, the research problems and analyses take place in the university and the social field matters only as the site where data is collected to be brought back into the university. Applied social sciences work with communities to define research problems and data and analyses are often generated in collaboration with community partners. Results of the research are not just published as findings, but are applied as practical solutions to be continuously evaluated.

The risk, again, of setting up an entire university dedicated to applied social sciences is that the university would see itself and be seen by the government and society as the center of expert knowledge about social problems. Applied social sciences have had many decades of development in Anglo-American universities and one of the problems that have been identified is precisely this problem of applied social sciences becoming too academic and losing its community grounding. One of the ways to mitigate this is for the university to work with community partners to set up community-based research centres.

This would necessitate at least two changes to the structure of research funding. First, fewer research grants would be attached to academic research teams based in the university but more grants would be given to community-based research centres. The administration of these grants would have to be more flexible and adapted to specific needs on the ground. Second, instead of solely using academic impact measurements to evaluate the performance of research, for example, publications in journals and citation indices, social impact measurements will have to be developed to take into the account the relevance of applied social science research.


A Thriving Social Science Eco-System

The fourth issue is less institutional and more about the quality of the social scientists who staff the teaching positions and drive the research work. I believe that we need to prioritize quality first and foremost over other considerations, including the question of nationality that has come up in this House before. What Singaporeans deserve are the best professors in the world to teach them to become the best social scientists they can be and to conduct the most cutting-edge research to help solve our social problems.

Decades of experience of applied social science research in Anglo-American universities show that immigrant and local-born professors perform equally. Nationality matters insofar as there would be a natural commitment on the part of Singaporean professors to the country and society. One expects this commitment to be a long-term one grounded in family and community life here. Therefore, all else being equal in terms of quality or potential for quality, let us privilege Singaporeans. But quality should come first.

On the quality of our social scientists, especially with regards to growing a critical mass of excelling Singaporean social scientists, the Government can help by supporting the setting up of an Academy of Social Sciences and disciplinary associations. Presently, the eco-system connecting locally based social scientists is very weak. The dearth of associational life has driven many of us to join the national associations of other countries, for example the American Sociological Association. We also need an Academy as our representative body to advance the governance and standards of research and teaching in the social sciences. The establishment of SUSS presents us with a good opportunity to grow the intellectual eco-system for social science.


Recognising SIM University Alumni

Beyond these four issues, I have a more immediate practical matter to bring up. The question that some SIM University alumni have with the metamorphosis of their alma mater to SUSS is whether their certificates could be reprinted under the SUSS banner. Some have argued that this should not be, as education in SUSS would be of a higher quality than in SIM University and thus it would be an unfair upgrade for the alumni. This is a view that seems to echo the popular stereotype and condescension of SIM University as inferior. It is precisely because of such popular myths that we should not unfairly stigmatize SIM University alumni. Already, the change to SUSS is being read as an upgrade from an inferior species to a superior creature.

Without the hungry caterpillar, there would not be a beautiful butterfly. We should not deny the contribution of SIM University alumni to the making of SUSS and deprive SUSS of that important history and a body of proud alumni. The one most important single line that connects SIM University and SUSS is the emphasis on lifelong learning. I would like to suggest that SUSS extends their excellent Alumni Continuing Education Plus Scheme allowing graduates to enjoy up to two free modular courses to all SIM University alumni. Upon completion of one module, alumni could then get a reprint of a consolidated degree certificate under the SUSS brand.

Deputy Speaker Sir, this bill marks a new chapter for our higher education sector and a new era for social scientists to contribute their knowledge making to the betterment of society. I have raised four issues with the unprecedented establishment of an entire university dedicated to applied social sciences. I sincerely hope that we would successfully navigate these issues and come out on the winning side, which would be a big win for Singapore society. I also hope that we would do the right thing for the SIM University alumni who have done their part in the making of SUSS. Madam, I support the bill.