When Du Fei, a relationships manager at Citibank in Guangzhou, decided it was time he broadened his corporate skill set by obtaining an MBA, he eshewed the West for somewhere closer to home – a small nation in Southeast Asia known as "The Lion Country."
He graduated from the National University of Singapore’s MBA program last June.
"I wanted to change my career, so I decided to do an MBA. But I also wanted to develop my career in Asia," said Du. "I had three choices for graduate school: Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I thought Singapore was the most international city out of these, from which I could gain more experience [in the Asian marketplace]."
Du isn’t alone in his line of reasoning. The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), a non-profit organization of leading international business schools, reports that the percentage of Asian graduate students sending GMAT scores to Singapore doubled in 2009 compared to 2005.
During the same period, the percentage of GMAT scores sent by Asian students to Western countries traditionally renowned for graduate business degrees such as the US, Canada and the UK decreased.
Seizing market share
In recent years, Singapore has become an increasingly popular destination for Asian graduate students seeking MBAs due to its unique position in the Asia Pacific region. The city-state has an annual GDP comparable to that of other major regional players like Taiwan and Hong Kong, and is considered by many to be the most globalized nation in the Asian continent.
A large number of foreign companies have local branches and investments in Singapore, due to its geographically strategic location at the nexus of international trade routes. And unlike mainland universities, Singaporean programs have access to Chinese culture and business and to that of other Southeast Asian nations.
Jacob Cohen, dean of the MBA program at INSEAD, an internationally-renowned business school with twin campuses in France and Singapore, said that one of the main draws of this tiny republic was its function as a gateway to Asia.
"Singapore is a fabulously successful story. It’s growing very rapidly and is an international hub for business in the Asian region," Cohen said. "As a Western business executive, if you want to break into Asian markets like China, Korea, or Japan, Singapore is a great place to start from. A lot of students on our Singapore campus end up in companies, banks, and consulting firms all over the region. "
Over the past 10 years, the market for graduate business schools in Singapore has developed rapidly. Local higher education champions like Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) are lauded globally; the 2010 Financial Times global MBA rankings placing NTU’s MBA program as the 27th best in the world. The newspaper’s 2009 EMBA rankings classified NUS’s EMBA program as the 11th best in the international marketplace. A number of world-class business schools have also set up campuses in Singapore, including INSEAD, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and accredited European schools like ESSEC.
Professor Quek Ser Aik, vice dean of the graduate studies division of NUS’s business school, said that local Singaporean institutions such as NUS specifically prepare students for careers in the Asian region by incorporating studies of local business practices and philosophies into their graduate programs.
"We operate very much like a Western school, but we blend the East and the West very well," Quek said. "We take global business knowledge, but we train students to assimilate it with an Asian focus. Our students will be able to play pivotal roles in their careers with such knowledge, especially if they plan on working in Asia." Quek estimates that 50% of NUS’s foreign students stay on to work in Singapore.
Mainland China resident Zhu Zhen, a financial planning and reporting manager for B. Braun Medical China, and an alumnus of NTU’s MBA program, said that his time in Singapore exposed him to ideas and cultures he knew he would otherwise never encounter in China.
"Everything is so multicultural there. You get to meet Chinese, Indians, Malays, people from Western countries," he said. "I was able to talk with many of them there and learn how they think."
Zhu said he also appreciated the fact that his time at NTU gave him a multitude of networking opportunities – an advantage, he said, that was paramount in China. "The alumni chapter of NTU in Shanghai alone has about 200 to 300 members, so if we need help or contacts, we can find it very easily through this network."
NTU has made special efforts to accommodate the particular nature of business in the mainland. Zhu notes that the university ran a program specially made for Chinese government officials, which again paid dividends in terms of networking.
"Also, after finishing the program, they offered me the chance to apply for a Singaporean PR [permanent resident permit]. So if I really wanted to stay on there and change my career, I could do that easily," Zhu added.
Du said that one of the things he appreciated most was the opportunities NUS gave him to broaden his understanding of the global marketplace.
"During my studies [in Singapore], I organized travel events and case study trips to Indonesia, America, Beijing, and Shanghai," he said, adding that he also did a brief exchange program in Toronto, Canada. "I liked that we got more than just studying from books."
According to Cohen, an increasing number of students enrolled in INSEAD in recent years have been eager to start off at the Singapore campus. INSEAD, he explained, offers MBA students the opportunity to spend portions of their program at the university’s various campuses abroad.
"Ten years ago, when we first started [the Singapore campus], we had to convince people to go check it out because few MBA participants wanted to go to Singapore at the time," he said.
"Now it’s the other way around. We have more people applying to start their programs in Singapore than we can accept. We end up telling them that they need to start off on our Fontainebleau [in France] campus and then come to Singapore at a later time."
The school also has a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School. Cohen believes that students are attracted by the US and Singapore campuses as they represent an opportunity to understand different regions by experiencing them directly rather than via a textbook. "They want to be in a position where they can get into the Chinese market easily, rather than just sitting in a classroom in Philadelphia," he said.
Another advantage is the cachet attached to a Singaporean degree. Quek of NUS says that local MBA programs are respected globally due to the strong government and institutional commitment to higher education in Singapore.
"When our [international] students return to their own countries, they are highly regarded," he said. "So far, the feedback we’ve gotten is that as far as educational governance is concerned, learning is a lot more robust and serious in Singapore."
Of course, the country is not perfect. For those solely focused on doing business in China, it has few advantages over Hong Kong or programs on the mainland. In addition, some complain about the heat. Zhu of B. Braun said the tropical climate of the country did get dull after a while.
"It was just the same all year round," he laughed. "That’s not to say it was bad, though. After coming back here to China and living through a summer, I actually miss the weather there now."