‘Different Places and Different Ways of Seeing’ –The Value of Global Academic Collaboration: A Conversation with Brenda Yeoh of the National University of Singapore
UNC Global Affairs
Brenda Yeoh and Peter Coclanis (Photo by Walker Winslow)
Professor Brenda Yeoh from the National University of Singapore’s Geography department—ranked fifth in the world— visited Carolina in late September to meet faculty in the Department of Geography and give a public talk. She also sat down for an interview with UNC’s Peter Coclanis, Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute in the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs, to explore her career and the importance of global engagement. Coclanis first spearheaded the UNC-NUS partnership after visiting Singapore as a Fulbright Scholar in 1992. NUS is now one of UNC-Chapel Hill’s strategic global partners. Below is an abbreviated version of the full interview.
UNC-NUS Strategic Partnership
- Since 2003, 1,165 undergraduate students have participated in study abroad or exchange between the two universities.
- The partnership, originally established between the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), has grown to include 7 schools and academic programs between the two universities: Kenan-Flagler Business School, Honors Carolina, and Adams School of Dentistry at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Faculty of Science, University Scholars Program (honors), School of Computing, Business School, and Faculty of Dentistry at NUS.
- UNC Associate Professor of Geography Christian Lentz pursued his research and strengthened institutional ties during a spring 2023 residency at NUS.
- NUS and UNC are two of the four leading global schools of dentistry in the DentAlliance, formed in 2020.
Coclanis: How do you view the importance of global partnerships, specifically the partnership between NUS and UNC?
Yeoh: Collaborations can never be forced; it takes motivated individuals and supportive institutions to create the environment necessary to overcome distance and work together. With institutional support, researchers can come together to work on projects and introduce new ways of thinking, opening up tremendous possibilities. Researchers that have area-centric projects can find value in collaborating with professionals at those universities to strengthen the project with innovative approaches.
Partnerships that enable this type of collaboration are incredibly valuable, which is why our partnership with UNC is so important. It is essential to draw on the experience of different places and different ways of seeing the same sort of subject matter, particularly in geography.
Coclanis: What drew you to geography? Can you tell us about your educational and professional trajectory?
Yeoh: In many ways I was an accidental academic. I wanted to become a doctor, but the National University of Singapore had a quota for girls pursuing medicine at the time and my family did not have the resources to send me elsewhere. So, I took on a government scholarship in the humanities that enabled me to study geography at Cambridge. The scholarship was a teaching scholarship, so after completing my undergraduate degree in the UK, I came back and taught in Singapore for eight years.
I was then drawn back to the UK, partly for personal reasons. My fiancé was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford and I lobbied NUS for a scholarship of my own. I feel very
fortunate to have received, not one, but two scholarships to pursue my academic career. This second one was a scholarship to pursue a DPhil at Oxford.
After completing my DPhil, I started my career at NUS diving deep into research. It certainly wasn’t my plan to go into administration, but lo and behold, I was appointed into the position of Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. I served in this role for seven years, but I was also still involved in many funded research projects. It was a challenging balance leading a very large faculty (with 16 departments) while also maintaining responsibility to the funding bodies and raising children on top of my professional commitments. Taking on research, a full-time administrative job with young kids is not something I would necessarily recommend, but I believe I was successful by co-opting a support team and trusting the team to do much of the fieldwork (although I still did weekend fieldwork!).
Coclanis: What has been the topical focus of your research and studies throughout your career? And how does it connect to modern-day Singapore?
Yeoh: I did my DPhil in historical geography, researching colonial cities like Singapore and the politics of space. Once I started having kids, I couldn’t spend the same amount of time in the archives, unearthing miracles from the dusty tomes. So, I changed my focus to migration issues, which is, of course, at the core of Singapore’s history and future, because we are a society of immigrants.
I began working on lower-wage migrant workers and became very passionate about the lives of domestic migrant workers and the struggles that they undergo bringing up their own families in transnational settings.
It’s the excitement of the research that keeps you on. With migration studies, there is so much potential to make this world a better place in terms of being able to meet different kinds of people, but of course migration also brings all sorts of tensions and tends to be seen through an economic lens as opposed to a humanized one.
Coclanis: NUS has become one of the top-ranked universities in the world. How has NUS grown and changed since you’ve been there?
Yeoh: If you look at NUS in the eighties up to the early nineties, it was largely a teaching university focused on fueling the Singaporean economy. The arts and social sciences were seen as irrelevant to strengthening the economy, but things have changed quickly. The first thing that comes to mind is government investment in research, specifically in STEM fields. The social sciences took more time to acquire funding, only recently starting a social science research council, but it is now a well-respected area of study.
Recent NUS presidents, deans and faculty members have been committed to internationalizing the university, increasing its global reach and partnerships. From encouraging students to study abroad to encouraging faculty to form transnational relationships with other universities, NUS has acquired diverse perspectives and is now a strong global research university.
Brenda S.A. Yeoh is the Raffles Professor of Social Sciences in the Department of Geography in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore. Professor Yeoh served as the dean from 2010-2016. She read geography at Cambridge and went on to complete her doctorate at Oxford University. She leads the research cluster on Asian Migration at the Asia Research Institute, NUS.
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