Discipline over Exceptionalism: Singapore-based Scholars, Regional Sensitivities and the Appeal of Anglophone International Relations Approaches.

AuthorChong, Ja Ian

A supposed bastion of so-called "Asian values" in the 1990s, Singapore's academics generally acknowledge a need to look at "non-Western" approaches and authors in their study of International Relations (IR). Yet, their self-reported practice conforms with Anglophone, largely North American, norms when it comes to sources of intellectual inspiration and efforts to undertake the professional tasks of research and teaching. The position of Singapore-based scholars towards IR, broadly construed, seems generally more consistent with former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung's appeal to basic, universal values with a sense of context than former Singapore Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew's assertion of Asian exceptionalism normally associated with the city-state. (1) Scholars of IR in Singapore, a majority of whom are male and adopt qualitative, positivist approaches to security issues in Asia, demonstrate an affinity for non-paradigmatic approaches to the field. Yet, a plurality sees "realism" as useful for analysing the contemporary world, and a small majority views Singapore foreign policy as "realist". (2)

The IR field in Singapore developed more because of scholars who have ended up in Singapore due to the serendipity of the job market, or Singaporeans who wished to return home, rather than by design or any grand intellectual project. Pressures to publish to international standards represented by the Anglophone world, administrative responsibilities and academic freedom concerns appear to shape, even limit, knowledge production more than other issues. These conditions suggest that despite sensitivity to local and regional conditions, the study of IR in Singapore tends to follow academic norms established elsewhere, particularly those reflecting the current intellectual dominance of North America. They are also based on the preferences and interests of individual scholars rather than self-conscious collective efforts to follow or develop a specific native school of thought. Whatever local scholarship can contribute will probably come from drawing conceptual insights from the recovery and testing of evidence collected in nearby East and Southeast Asia and bringing them into conversation with theoretical claims and methodological approaches developed elsewhere. More systematic success in dealing with the strictures of working in Singapore may be the way for scholarship from Singapore to truly make its mark on Global IR, but the prospects are uncertain at best.

Scholars, Pedagogy and Challenges

The state of the field survey was conducted among Singapore-based scholars of IR between October and December 2020. On top of the usual areas of IR, international security and international political economy, the survey included scholars whose work falls broadly within international studies. They included scholars whose research and teaching cover international political sociology, international history, foreign policy analyses, global political economy, international political theory and comparative politics that includes an external angle. The survey was sent to 105 individuals, covering most, if not all, scholars in Singapore whose work pertains to IR. Of these, 45 responded, a response rate of 42.9 per cent. Among the respondents, 38 (84.4 per cent) were male, six (13.3 per cent) were female and one (2.2 per cent) opted not to answer, reflecting the gender bias present in Singapore academia more generally. Additionally, 34 (75.5 per cent) were in tenured or tenure-track positions, with the remainder in teaching or research roles in academic departments, policy schools and research institutes, while all 44 (97.8 per cent) who taught did so solely in English.

IR scholars in Singapore demonstrate a clear preference for studying their own region, followed by global and comparative work that crosses regions. They also draw influence from those they respect, seen as having similar expertise and with whom they can communicate. A high proportion of respondents work on Northeast and Southeast Asia (62.2 per cent each), with those researching global and cross-regional issues coming in a distant third (28.9 per cent). More than two-thirds report that their largest academic influences are other scholars who work on similar issues (68.9 per cent), followed by those who study the same geographic area (46.7 per cent) and are well-respected (46.7 per cent). This is followed by scholars who speak the same language (24.4 per cent) and those who adopt similar theoretical frameworks (22.2 per cent). Other influences come from a range of disparate sources.

Pedagogically, most respondents believed that both undergraduate and postgraduate students should receive exposure to conceptual and methodological approaches common in the subfield in ways that relate to empirical developments in the global, regional and local settings. Within these parameters, 40 (88.9 per cent) felt historical events and contemporary issues on the world stage were key for undergraduate instruction, followed by disciplinary theories, methods and debates (77.8 per cent) and historical events and contemporary issues in Singapore and Southeast Asia (73.3 per cent). For postgraduate students, 97.8 per cent of respondents felt disciplinary theories, methods and debates were key, 73.3 per cent felt it was historical events and contemporary issues on the world stage and 57.8 per cent viewed historical events and contemporary issues in Singapore and the wider region as important. A slight majority (53.3 per cent) believed that doctoral training should be conducted within a traditional political science department, while 28.9 per cent believed that IR should be taught as a standalone topic for doctoral students. Almost half (48.9 per cent) of respondents felt that it was somewhat important for their students to gain exposure to local thinkers, while 20 per cent believed this to be very important.

The biggest challenges to conducting research that Singapore-based IR scholars reported were institutional and political. The main challenge respondents reported is being burdened with administrative and teaching duties (38.1 per cent), which takes time away from research. This is unsurprising since academia in Singapore tends to come with heavy administrative duties. The second biggest challenge reported was a political atmosphere that reduces space for thinking and debate (21.4 per cent), a common concern in electoral authoritarian Singapore. Civil society actors and independent media have reported increasing restrictions on expression in recent years, which easily crosses over into academia. (3) The third main impediment is the lack of funding opportunities (14.3 per cent), which may seem strange in Singapore but is unsurprising given long, complicated grant application processes and strict restrictions on the use of research funds once received. Other challenges to research seem divided across a wide range of issues, ranging from bureaucratism to time constraints, group think and not having sufficient time for research to name just a few.

Here, it may be useful to note that research and teaching on IR-related topics in Singapore occurs in a variety of contexts. Academic departments at universities such as the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU) focus on disciplinary-based academic research, as well as training at the bachelors, masters and doctorate levels. Policy schools like the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at NTU engage in disciplinary-based academic research, policy work and the teaching of masters and doctoral students. There are also think tanks such as the East Asian Institute, the ISEAS--Yusof Ishak Institute, the Middle East Institute and the Institute of South Asian Studies which largely concentrate on area studies and policy-related research, although individuals may also contribute to discipline-based scholarship.

Realist Recalcitrants, Positivist Proclivities

IR scholars in Singapore display a tendency towards realism, even though they also claim not to be driven by paradigmatic debates. Among the surveyed scholars, a plurality (46.7 per cent) reported not using paradigmatic approaches or general theories, while the next largest categories were realism (24.4 per cent) and constructivism (17.8 per cent) with the remainder being split among a variety of approaches. This is seen in Figure 1.

Yet, 34 per cent also reported realism as being the most useful approach for understanding international order, while 19.1 per cent believed that constructivism is best positioned to do so, as seen in Figure 2. Notably missing from this discussion are theories, concepts and methodologies developed from experiences outside Europe, North America and Oceania or broadly reflect Global IR sensitivities. This despite efforts such as the concerted push for a "Chinese school of international relations" by China-based scholars, which included Chinese- and English-language writing as well as the founding of a journal to advance that end. (4) Interestingly for a former colony, there seems to be little interest in applying post-colonial approaches...

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