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Not long ago, Singapore’s education minister, Teo Chee Hean, articulated his government’s long-held desire to build a “world class” higher education establishment as an underpinning for its “knowledge economy.”

Teo makes the argument that “in a knowledge economy, intellectual capital is a prized resource,” and points out that universities are the central institution in creating and maintaining a highly educated population. He aspires to make Singapore the “Boston of the East,” pointing out that the Boston area’s unparalleled network of academic, scientific and high-tech entrepreneurial resources have given it worldwide leadership in higher education and in industries such as biotechnology and informatics, which are so dependent on knowledge.

Singapore is not alone in aspiring to use the knowledge economy as a means of economic growth. For example, South Korea’s recently announced “Brain Korea 21” program has similar aims. Asian countries have invested heavily in higher education and research, with mixed results. The links between universities and technology industries at Hsinchu in Taiwan, begun two decades ago, proved to be quite successful. Japan’s Tsukuba University has had more mixed results. Peking and Tsinghua universities in Beijing have also linked with high-tech industries, and there is talk of merging the two institutions.

While these and other initiatives have yielded impressive results, none has yet produced the “Boston of the East.” There are some interesting reasons for this. One can build institutions, but it is more difficult to instill an intellectual environment of sustained creativity and academic innovation.

It is worth analyzing what has made the Boston area such a hub of academic and scientific strength over time with a view to suggesting how Boston’s example may be applicable in Singapore, and elsewhere in Asia.

* Scale. There are some 60 academic institutions in the Boston area. These rank from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the very top, but also include other “top 50” American universities and colleges. Scale creates synergy and possibilities for collaboration as well as competition among both academics and institutions. It contributes to an environment of ideas and intellectual vitality.

* Competition. The American academic system is highly competitive for students, research funds and prestige. The Boston area is an especially competitive environment. Institutions and individual academics seek to maximize their advantages.

* The private sector. The large majority of academic institutions in the Boston area are private. They are responsible for their own funding — and survival — and have almost complete freedom to chart institutional goals and manage their own resources.

* Academic freedom. The environment of intellectual and academic freedom that pervades American higher education generally and the top sector of the system in particular is a central factor in its success. Research can be conducted in any area without external constraint, and professors are free to express their views, on matters academic or nonacademic, unfettered.

* A vibrant metropolitan environment. Boston is itself an attraction for both students and scholars. Despite high living costs, the city’s cultural resources and its reputation as an exciting place to live lure people to the area.

How does all of this relate to Singapore and to Asia? It takes more than central planning and government funding to ensure a successful academic and high-tech future. A tradition of academic excellence is important, as is an environment of academic and intellectual freedom. Scholars work best in an atmosphere of freedom. Size is important, too. Small academic communities seldom achieve the highest academic pinnacles.

An environment that encourages but does not dictate university development or academe’s relations with industry and government has been key to Boston’s academic strength. Diversification is important, too. Not all post-secondary institutions can be Harvard or MIT. There is room for different kinds of schools, with different aims, patterns of funding, varying quality. A mix of public and private initiative helps as well, providing more avenues for funding and greater possibilities for diversity and the creation of niches. The possibility of failure provides an added incentive.

Most Asian countries cannot aspire to excellence in all fields of knowledge. Choices need to be made, and here a combination of academic, public and private decisionmakers may be the most effective way to determine higher education policy. A fine balance of institutional autonomy and a sense of the broader public interest is necessary for academic planning.

As Singapore and Asia think through strategies for participation in the knowledge economies of the 21st century, realistic approaches to higher education development are necessary. Universities cannot be bought “off the shelf.” They require both freedom and resources. They are at the same time national and international institutions, linked to local realities as well as to the wider world of research. They require freedom to flourish and yet must serve the public interest.

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