Traditionally, scholars from China head west to receive their higher education. Going to Singapore instead is a very recent phenomenon among Chinese students that began to gain popularity in the 1990s. I consider myself lucky to be among one of the earliest batches of China's students to come to Singapore for their postgraduate education.
What led me to Singapore? Well, there are three major reasons. Firstly, Singapore's excellent universities offer an education comparable to some of the best universities in the world and at a much more affordable cost. Secondly, Singapore is just a few hours flight from my home, which makes it very convenient for me to travel to and fro. Thirdly, Singapore, in which more than two-thirds of the population is of Chinese descent, is an easy place for Chinese-speaking students like me to adapt to.
My first impression when I touched down at the Changi International Airport was "Wow, what an orderly, efficient, and clean place!" In fact, that impression has not changed much since! I still marvel at the way the country keeps itself at its best through the years. In fact, I have realized that Singaporeans are the most compliant people I have encountered so far! In a way, that makes Singapore one of the best places for foreign students like me.
At the National University of Singapore, where I spent three most memorable years, I enjoyed a very fulfilling life, both academically and socially. Campus life is very much like that at universities in China. Although I opted for off-campus accommodation, I spent most of my time on the campus and found myself very much a part of the campus community. Facilities for recreation are fantastic. Often, after a day's hard work, my colleagues and me would gather together for a game of table tennis or badminton, followed by a cool dip in the swimming pool.
The university takes good care of its foreign postgraduate students. Students from non-English backgrounds are given special coaching in the English language, something that has helped me very much. Having been educated in the Chinese medium in China, it was hard for me to suddenly switch to using English immediately. Fortunately, my supervisors and most of my Singaporean colleagues speak Mandarin. And in the laboratory, my supervisors and colleagues did their best to make sure I could understand what was going on, explaining everything to me in Mandarin. They recognized my problem and really took pain to assist me in whatever ways they could, even at the expense of having to go over some conversations again and again.
Other than the above, I also received tremendous help in my coursework, projects, and thesis writing. My immediate "supervisor" (a postdoctoral scientist working under my official supervisor) who had helped me all the way through my research project and taught me all the hands-on techniques painstakingly from scratch actually took the initiative to go through my whole thesis for grammatical errors and rewrote many portions of it for me before I submitted it to my actual supervisor for his review. Because of her generosity, I did not have to pay someone (like some of my peers did) to proofread my thesis for me.
My supervisors, however, insisted that I speak in English even though they might speak to me in either English or Mandarin. This was to help me improve on my English, they said. At the same time, they would correct my mistakes for me. It was really beneficial for me, and through them, my English speaking ability improved immensely over the years. Now, I can quite confidently do a presentation in English! I believe I would not have picked up the language so fast had I stayed on to do my postgraduate studies in China. The environment here is just right for me to learn English in a very practical way.
I guess this is exactly what makes postgraduate education here attractive for students from China. We are not suddenly confronted by an alien language, but rather, are allowed to pick up the language at a very comfortable pace, with the help of many "teachers" around us. Many Singaporeans are bilingual, speaking both English and Chinese fluently. The best part is they can switch from Chinese to English and vice-versa very quickly and they do not mind doing so to help foreign students like us understand them better.
The postgraduate courses at the National University of Singapore are very well structured. For a research-based course like the one I was doing, new students get to take various academic modules during their first year, alongside laboratory work. After completing the specified academic modules, students immerse themselves fully in their research programme for the remainder of their course. Throughout the course, students are free to attend seminars arranged by the university. Postgraduates also get a chance to travel overseas on full sponsorship to present their work.
Most of the research laboratories are very well equipped with the latest technologies, so much so that it took me quite a while just to learn how to handle the equipment! It was a good learning exercise, though, because I now feel competent to work in just about any research laboratory. In terms of information technology and Internet connections, computer clusters are widely available for students, although they are all "strictly for work." Alternatively, many students purchased their own portable units from the university at a reduced price.
In the past few years, many of my peers from China stayed on to work in Singapore after finishing their courses. Some even took up permanent residency. However, I must say that assimilation into the local society takes some effort on our part. Although ethnically Chinese, I found out that there are vast differences between us, the Chinese from China and the Singaporean Chinese. Although we could communicate in the same language, our way of thinking differs quite a lot. There are also significant cultural differences. As a guest here, we need to interact a lot with the locals to understand their culture. Personally, living with a Singaporean family for several years has helped me to understand their culture much better. In a way, I often feel that students should try off-campus accommodation with local families. It is a worthwhile experience. My host, for example, invited me to many local celebrations and explained to me in great details the origins of all the local festivals.
Overall, I have learnt a lot academically and culturally during my few years in Singapore. Living in a cosmopolitan city like Singapore is a great experience. Other than my Singaporean hosts, I also got the opportunity to mix with people from all over the world. In fact, sometimes, I feel that the country is like a mini United Nations. I have colleagues and friends from India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Africa, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia. Among the foreigners, English is the main language for communication, although over time I picked up a little of some other languages too. It has really been a remarkable experience for me.
For the international students, I think it is really worthwhile to consider Singapore as a place for higher education. Both the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University rank high on the "Asian Top Universities" list. There is a wide variety of courses to choose from. The tuition cost is quite affordable, even without a scholarship. As far as I know, most research-based students are sponsored by the university and/or the private sector and they receive monthly stipends that range from SGD1500 to SGD3000, depending on the discipline they are working in and who their sponsors are. In most cases, the stipend is adequate to pay for your tuition fees and some basic needs. For many aspiring postgraduate students, that's plenty good enough.