Para Limes

The Future of Universities

The Future of Universities

6 December 2020

Photo: Sidharth Bhatia / Unsplash
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many universities conducting their classes online. This shift has sparked a debate on whether students should pay full tuition fees and, more broadly, the changes universities should implement in response to the pandemic.

But there is a more pressing debate to be had: the need for universities to embrace interdisciplinary explorations in order to tackle the problems that we face, which are often complex and filled with uncertainty.

In a recent essay, our executive director, Jan W. Vasbinder, argues that the uncertainty that is brought by the pandemic has punctured a long-held assumption that we are generally in control, and the research done by our universities would eventually solve whatever problems may arise.

On the contrary, the increasing specialisation of university departments into disciplinary silos and the consequent funding model meant that problems are often defined within discrete disciplinary boundaries. This results in universities being ill-equipped to tackle these problems as they are not so neatly defined in actual context. Such a trajectory, as Vasbinder puts it, is a “reduced reality” and this illusion has “come to haunt us”.

He then goes on to elaborate the disconnect between the universities and real-world problems from the perspective of evolution, exploration, and exploitation. This is to trace back why universities went on the trajectory it did with a warning that if it does not evolve and adapt, universities—like many other things in evolution—will soon be extinct.

Vasbinder also provides sketch of the qualities a future leader should have and that universities should strive to inculcate these values in their students. Taking the Santa Fe Institute as an example, he explains how universities should collaborate with such smaller institutions in order to stimulate students to think and explore across boundaries.

Read the full essay here.

Sharon Siddique: Continuing the Postcolonial Debate

Sharon Siddique: Continuing the Postcolonial Debate

30 March 2018

Samuel Chong’s thoughtful commentary on post-colonialism begins with a great title: “Never Can Say Goodbye: Colonialism’s Enduring Grip”. How true. I agree with much of what he says, and will focus a few thoughts on what I don’t agree with, or which I feel can be elaborated.

The overhang of perceived European superiority is indeed a postcolonial frozen moment. Samuel cites my observation that “many Singaporeans know London and New York better than, say, the neighbouring Indonesian cities of Palembang and Pekanbaru. This was part of her point that Singapore is most comfortable as a global city than a neighbourly one.” We don’t gravitate to London and New York solely because they are European, but because they are global, exciting, futuristic, and developed. They stand at the vanguard of the future. It is difficult to argue with the fact that for most, London is a lot more exciting than Pekanbaru.

And yet, Samuel makes a good point that with Singapore “assuming the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018, it is an excellent opportunity to promote inter-provincial interaction rather than established inter-state ties.” This supports the old property axiom that property value is about location, location, and location. Singapore is physically located in Southeast Asia, and therefore an interest in the region is important to national security and the value of cultivating and being located in a relatively prosperous and secure environment.

Samuel is clear that “although there are many factors in why less-developed countries are as they are, how much can we attribute them to the impact of past colonialism and present neo-colonialism?” I would argue quite a lot, and my point is that we should not ignore that fact. For me, we can clearly focus on past colonialism and understand it in its purely historical context, and we can use the term neo-colonialism. But is neo-colonialism synonymous with post-colonialism? I think not, and this could be an interesting debating point.

Samuel also introduces some value judgements regarding post-colonialism: “Upon reflection, even if we recognise not being ‘post-colonial’ as claimed, was colonialism and its ongoing legacy truly a bad thing? Going forward, how much of the post-colonial identity should we remember or even embrace? Would this do any good to post-colonial states? Or would it be better if we actively purged ‘post-colonial’ notions from our history and cultural identity altogether?”

I am uncomfortable with this line of argument because it assumes that we are consciously aware of these options. And my whole point is that we are not aware of our position within the (post) colonial. His title reflects this conclusion. Colonialism has indeed an enduring grip on our mindsets largely because it is not consciously recognised.

Dr Sharon Siddique is an Adjunct Professorial Fellow at Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

Never Can Say Goodbye: Colonialism’s Enduring Grip

Never Can Say Goodbye: Colonialism's Enduring Grip

30 March 2018

Imperial Federation of the British Empire, 1886. Photo: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center / Flickr
When we see the term “post-colonial”, we take it to mean where colonialism is of the past and no longer affects anything. However, the world as we know it took shape because of what European colonialism created. It continues to create developmental disparities and shapes our cultural perceptions. We often overlook the continuing colonial influences in these areas, but it prompts me to wonder if sovereignty is enough to be considered post-colonial, especially if the West continues to exert such an influence and control over the economics and identities of these post-colonial states.

In the November 2017 edition of the Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue, Dr Sharon Siddique spoke about how colonialism continues to shape our personal, regional, and international views despite nation-states constantly pronouncing beliefs of being in a post-colonial era; nation-states are in a “post-colonial frozen moment” from which we have not completely moved on from.

Dr Siddique shared that the Singaporean identity, while unique, is the product of the British and Dutch carving up territories between themselves, resulting in Singapore “gradually losing its original connection in the Malay World”; could we then re-evaluate other nation-state identities in view of colonialism’s legacy?

Moreover, by thinking that Singapore’s history only begins in 1819 with Raffles’ arrival, we fail to see the bigger picture of colonial politicking and our traditional, pre-colonial ties to the greater Malay World in Maritime Southeast Asia. To counter this as well as help us understand our neighbours better, Dr Siddique proposed taking short trips to countries in the immediate vicinity, seeing them not as places in a different country but rather as part of a porous region that one’s home state used to be so intimately intertwined with before colonial borders were set.

Beyond this, colonialism lingers on in economics and cultural perceptions, questioning whether we are truly “post-colonial”.

In terms of Economics and Development, colonialism is a key factor in Dependency theory. Dependency theory postulates that impoverished countries are as such because of their “peripheral” status, causing valuable resources to flow out to “core” wealthy states, enriching the latter at the former’s expense. Economists, like Andre Gunder Frank, have argued that this uneven state of wealth distribution is not due to geography or governmental policies, but the “ongoing legacy of colonialism, slavery and resource extraction.”[1]

This legacy can be seen in how aid packages from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are criticised for being conditioned upon states adopting Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) like allowing large foreign (usually Western) corporations to enter the local economy and compete with smaller-scale domestic firms.[2] Critics like Halifax Initiative have viewed this interference in sovereign states as neo-colonialism – the practice of developed countries using capitalism and globalization to influence a developing country instead of overt measures like direct military or political control.[3]

In his article, anthropologist Joe Lugalla summarizes the problem by noting colonialism’s original capitalist motivation and arguing that SAPs drive growth by “integrating more African economies into the world economy – the very source of their underdevelopment, poverty and misery.”[4] Although there are many factors to why less-developed countries are as they are, how much can we attribute them to the impact of past colonialism and present neo-colonialism?

Popular representation is another field to examine. Despite the ongoing movement to recognise diversity, why is it that Caucasians are more likely to be seen as embodying prestige? The advertisements for Pears Soap in the late 1800s are classic examples of the notion of White desirability. While such messages are reviled today, the contrast between Whites and Blacks are still been used in advertisements today. Swedish-owned fashion retailer H&M attracted controversy in 2015 after having a lack of Black models in their South African posters; H&M’s response that their marketing plan was “one which intended to convey a positive image”, drew even more fire for implying that black models do not convey “positive images”.[5] Yet Europeans are not the only ones guilty of this. A Thai advertisement for skin-whitening pills and Chinese advertisement for detergent also generated outrage in 2016-2017;[6] the latter examples are interesting as non-Europeans are the ones perpetuating colonial-era racism.

On TEDxRotterdam, historian Frances Gouda talked about the history of Oriental leaders being represented as effeminate and espousing unmanly virtue in contrast to Europeans being rational so as to justify European superiority and colonial rule.[7] Similarly, on the lingering notion of European superiority, Dr Siddique mentioned that many Singaporeans know London and New York better than neighbouring Palembang and Pekanbaru. This was part of her point that Singapore is “most comfortable as a global city” rather than dealing directly with neighbouring provinces. With Singapore assuming the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018, it is an excellent opportunity to promote inter-provincial interaction rather than established inter-state ties.

Upon reflection, even if we recognise not being “post-colonial” as claimed, was colonialism and its ongoing legacy truly a bad thing? Going forward, how much of the post-colonial identity should we remember or even embrace? Would this do any good to post-colonial states? Or would it be better if we actively purged “post-colonial” notions from our history and cultural identity altogether?
[1] Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967), 173.

[2] Dori Borrelli, “Neocolonialism in Jamaica: History, Practices, and Resistance,” accessed January 6, 2018,

[3] Asad Ismi, “Impoverishing a Continent: The World Bank and the IMF in Africa,” accessed January 6, 2018,

[4] Joe L. P. Lugalla, “Globalization and Structural Adjustments in sub-Saharan Africa: A New Dimension of Neo-Colonialism,” accessed January 7, 2018,

[5] Bernice Maune, “H&M in Racist Debate over ‘Positive Image’ Tweet for Lack of Black Models,” Sunday Times, November 6, 2015,

[6] Oliver Holmes, “Thai ad with ‘White makes you Win’ Message Lambasted for Racism,” Guardian, January 8, 2016,; “Outrage over Racist Chinese detergent ad,” Channel NewsAsia, accessed January 8, 2018,

[7] Frances Gouda, “How the Colonial Past Influences the Way we see the World Today,” uploaded September 13, 2010 by TEDxRotterdam, video, 19:09,

Chong Yong Kang, Samuel was a Research Assistant for Para Limes in 2018. He has a strong interest in 20th century history.

Jan W. Vasbinder: The Dimension of Time

Jan W. Vasbinder: The Dimension of Time

24 January 2018

Gordon River, Tasmania. Photo: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner / Flickr
Time seems to have an intangible dimension. We cannot measure it directly, like the length of an object. Instead, we need an artificial device, a clock, to measure it. But what are we actually measuring, and why is this measurement so incommensurate with our sense or experience of time?

A clock creates intervals to which we can relate, but our brain cannot measure it. To two different people, an interval of an hour on a clock (that is 3600 ticks on a “60 beats per minute” metronome) may feel like a day or only a few seconds, depending on the context in which they experience the time. That day or those seconds—how do we determine their lengths in our experience of time?

The clock-time may tell us that the day or the seconds that we experience are exactly the same number of counted seconds. Our experience and sense tell us otherwise. The musician may use “60 beats per minute” to make sure that he got the tempo right, after which he will stretch or shorten the duration of some notes, or combinations of notes, to give meaning to the music.

Another example of time stretching itself out is what tennis-player Jimmy Connors described as transcendent occasions. Here, I quote from A Geography of Time by Robert Levine (1997):
“Tennis great Jimmy Connors has described transcendent occasions when his game rose to a level where he felt he’s entered a ‘zone’. At these moments, he recalls, the ball would appear huge as it came over the net and seemed suspended in slow motion. In this rarified air, Connors felt he had all the time in the world to decide, when, and where to hit the ball. In truth, of course, his seeming eternity lasted only a fraction of a second.”
So, what does time do to us, or what do we do to time?

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were on vacation in Tasmania. Life seemed to go a lot slower there than in Singapore. Amongst others, we took a boat trip down the Gordon River on the West coast of Tasmania. Along that river, life is even more slow: trees take hundreds of years to mature. The oldest trees around (the Huon pines) are 3,000 years old or more. At that pace and age, evolution takes a long time.

The vegetation in the rainforest around Gordon River is said to about the same as the vegetation that was there when Australia broke apart from Antarctica some 150 million years ago. There could still be some dinosaurs, if they had not gone extinct 60 million years ago by events that went faster than their speed of life. But the trees from which they ate still exist and now form an impenetrable rainforest that covers most of the West coast of Tasmania.

Why do I write this? I think an important question for me is how to conciliate clock time with perceived time. What determines the time frame that drives perception?

There seems to be plenty of evidence that there is something like clock-time. With clock-time as a ticking basis, an innumerable number of processes take place in all corners of the universe and in all products of evolution.

Some of these processes take millions of years to create a measurable impact. Others, like chemical reactions, metabolic processes, or brainwaves take milliseconds or less. Yet, for each of those processes, the clock ticks at the same speed. At least that is what I assume, not taking into account Einsteinian physics. We, and the environment we live in, are shaped by the interactions of all these processes.

Does the clock-time change in all these interactions? I find that hard to imagine. What I can imagine is that some processes are stimulated, and others are repressed by other processes with which they interact.

Could it be that such stimulation or repression plays a role in our perception of time and duration? If so, what happens when we find ourselves in a forest, like my wife and I did, that has evolved very slowly in 150 million years, and that has 3,000-year-old trees in it?

Can one imagine a measurement device in our brain that detects duration, and operates independently of the interactions that shape(d) us and our environment?

If there is such a device and if it is not independent, what is the meaning of the distinction between “now” and “before”? If, on the other hand, it is dependent, then maybe our perception of duration is just an indication that some processes are being depressed or stimulated.

Although I can imagine that happening in a prehistoric forest, I have no idea how.
Jan Wouter Vasbider was the Director of Para Limes, he is now a member of its Governing Board. 

The conference “The Complexities of Time” took place from 19–21 March 2018.