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The Dragon Economies

The Dragon Economies: Is Higher Education in South East Asia breathing fire?

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The world is changing, rapidly. As global mindsets shift and we face a new decade, are the Dragon Economies still breathing fire?

Travelling through Hong Kong and Singapore this autumn, Paul Gentle finds out.

Your perceptions of how universities work in South East Asia will clearly have been shaped by your own experiences. Depending on where and when you’ve encountered them, your views will have been influenced by the context of your destination.

Autumn 2019 felt like a crucial time to have been in Hong Kong and Singapore: two of what were the leading ‘Dragon Economies’ of previous decades, each now facing new challenges that reflect changing societies.

Mindsets are changing, younger colleagues are stepping up to the challenges of engaging leadership, mentoring thrives in a vibrant professional services culture.”

My work with the University of Hong Kong was the fifth and final visit to the Faculty of Science, supporting a compelling narrative of engaged, distributed leadership across a world-leading set of academic departments. It was a rich, rewarding experience to be able to support the Dean, Professor Matthew Evans and his talented colleagues in a multi-layered programme which is making real impact. Mindsets are changing, younger colleagues are stepping up to the challenges of engaging leadership, mentoring thrives in a vibrant professional services culture. There’s a strong sense of working together in service of the greater good.

How sad it is to see the backdrop against which this pioneering work is currently set: a city riven by tensions, and where the local geopolitical landscape has been graphically redrawn since my last visit only six months before. Boarded-up café windows on university campuses, walkways lined with Lennon walls and pavements sprayed with graffiti all speak to the way that our world can change when we feel that our values are threatened.

I’d been warned to stay within walking distance of campus, to avoid the risk of being unable to go by metro in case of security closures. In any case, no services were running any more after 10 pm, an effective curfew on late-night movement across the city.

University and school students have been among the most active in demanding change: a reminder of how upcoming generations will spearhead radical solutions to global challenges such as the climate emergency, and how they’ll expect universities to enable them to do so.

Back in the Faculty, people’s care and concern for their fellow citizens was evident. It was as though colleagues were finding the time and space to be kinder to each other in the face of a challenging environment. I also sensed a strengthening conviction that here in the Sciences lies a transformational narrative that contains the seeds of how the human species can respond to global challenges, with spirit and determination.

The end of my week was marked by making it successfully to the airport before weekend protests could disrupt it. Deep care for the people I’d worked with and hope for their happiness in these troubled times stirred within me. Down the coast of the South China Sea, a new city state waited for me in the Equatorial night.

Singapore

Singapore seemed from my first morning there to be rethinking its identity out loud.”

Curiosity spiked my visit to Singapore. I’d never been to this prosperous island city before, and I was vigilant for any clues that might tell me how things were. In a fulcrum position between its core trading partners China and the United States, and keen to strengthen its leadership as the hub of South East Asia, Singapore seemed from my first morning there to be rethinking its identity out loud. 60 or 70 container ships moored out in the Straits whispered of a kind of limbo.

The newspaper was big on Singapore’s commitment to sustainability, zooming in on tree planting work in the North-West of the island nation, and advising its readers on the carbon footprint of all the various modes of transport between there and Kuala Lumpur. There was also a running story on sluggish growth driven by uncertainty over trade agreements between the two rival economic giants.

Throughout the city, I was amazed and inspired by the quality of design which almost overwhelmed me: architecture, public art, commercial aesthetics, and a strong sense of an ‘experience economy’ all struck me as powerful signs that Singapore’s GDP per head is much closer to that of Nordic countries than to Hong Kong or the UK. Money was being used for the public good, it seemed; and so much of what I experienced was imbued with humour and wonder.

Singapore’s commitment to becoming a creative nation is strongly embedded in its institutions, both public and private, which clearly understand their niches.”

Visits to three universities confirmed what I’d been hoping to find, yet with greater intensity. Singapore’s commitment to becoming a creative nation is strongly embedded in its institutions, both public and private, which clearly understand their niches. Each institution seems able to articulate its distinctive educational offer with boldness and differentiation. In a small nation, the opportunity to break away from league table conformity and play to a strength-based mission seems to work.

In the institutions I visited, I heard time and again that many of their students applied only to a single university, attracted by its ethos, and by how its transformative promise appealed to them.

It struck me how much we could learn from Singapore’s approach to distinctiveness.

This doesn’t mean, though, that there are no tough challenges to resolve. For all the policy drivers around innovation, I picked up from some conversations that it can be difficult to persuade students really to think outside the box. And although the Singapore government would love its graduates to become active change agents in South East Asia as a whole, many are reluctant to leave home, except to study in Western countries.

There was a cautionary note from one senior leader, who disclosed ‘We shouldn’t believe our own PR. Students buy into what we stand for and the educational experience we offer. But companies do not say the same thing. They want graduates to be more confident, and more human, in tackling problems and finding solutions.

Underlying this challenge, I was told, is a deep-seated fear of failure.”

Underlying this challenge, I was told, is a deep-seated fear of failure. Universities have not yet done enough to help students overcome this inhibitor, which will ultimately dampen risk-taking and entrepreneurship.

Fear, passionate belief, dreams of changing the world: whatever the regional flavours these might take on, they are what make us human, and make us need to reach out to one another.

Doing more of this across borders could be just what our own country needs, as we face disruptive challenges of our own.

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last ten years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in Higher Education.

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