Michael Fischer: Tembusu’s first Ngee Ann Kongsi Distinguished Professor

Michael Fischer is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities & Professor of Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been to the Caribbean, Middle East, South Asia and around Southeast Asia, researching and working in areas such as biomedical sciences and technologies, media circuits, and the interfaces of society with such sciences and technologies. From January to June 2013, he found himself in Singapore, as Tembusu College’s first visiting professor under the Ngee Ann Kongsi Distinguished Professorship.

During his time in India and Dubai, he had been observing start-ups in the biomedical sciences, which shaped his belief in the life sciences as being one of the new frontiers of how we think about ourselves and the world. His interest in the work done at Biopolis, Singapore’s newest investment into international research and development in the biomedical sciences, attracted him to be part of the Science, Technology and Society (STS) cluster at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), and spend a semester in Tembusu College, teaching classes in the Senior Seminar Biomedicine and Singapore Society with his wife, Susann.

Fischer was interested in Tembusu as it is one of a series of experiments in higher education across the globe, and the first by NUS to experiment with the concept of interdisciplinary and residential colleges (Cinnamon College, which incorporated the older University Scholar’s Programme, was regarded separately). He noted moving from teaching in disciplinary ways to fostering more creativity in the classroom as one of the agendas that educators across the globe are talking about – in part, due to changes towards new so-called knowledge economies, and the increasing competition as well as collaboration across national boundaries. To this end, he applied some of his pedagogical approaches which he had used at MIT – such as employing the use of role playing so that students can get a feel for the different interests at play in a situation – which, according to him, produced great results.

In fact, his time spent in Tembusu prompted him to study Tembusu itself anthropologically; in a yet-to-be published article, he describes Tembusu as a Mandala, a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism representing the Universe. This Sanskrit term for ‘circle’, as a political concept, has been used to describe certain societies which are organised unlike our usual notions of a strongly ordered and hierarchical state, but instead are structured loosely with less clearly-defined boundaries. As such, the ‘components’ that make up Tembusu are not sharply defined or delineated from one another, but function together nonetheless in a universal balance.

He notes that there are four interconnected and interdependent factors that constitute Tembusu: Research, Soft power, Classroom curriculum, and Public policy.

In terms of research, Tembusu’s faculty hail from various concentrations extending from the humanities to biomedicine as well as science and technology. Several Fellows and the College Master also hold joint appointments with the STS cluster at ARI.

Classroom curriculum in Tembusu is flexible and, to some degree, ‘experimental’ – it focuses on developing new and more effective pedagogies. The focus is, ultimately, on encouraging more creativity and participation by students.

Soft power plays a role in the encouraged conviviality between the faculty and undergraduates, as well as informal conversations. Certain spaces such as the dining hall have been designed especially for students and faculty alike to share conversations over their meals.

Finally, Tembusu’s awareness of public policy, or its contribution to governance and an informed citizenry, is manifested through such initiatives as bringing the nationwide debates on the 2013 White Paper on Population into the classroom, and such student initiatives as the Elephant in the Room panel discussions on issues like race and sexuality. Complementing these efforts are Tembusu Forums, under the sponsorship of Tembusu College Rector Professor Tommy Koh, with topics ranging from international relations to artistic freedom in lieu of racial harmony.

As for his time spent in Tembusu, Fischer remembers fondly his apartment which was well-situated near the Master’s Common Lounge, which he associates with, in his words, “the wonderful Master’s Teas – a place and time to meet really interesting writers, business executives, Indonesian ministers, and the like”. He enjoyed going down to dinner in the dining hall to spend time with students, and going to the first floor lounge for events like the Elephant in the Room – as well as the Multipurpose Hall, the Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium, and the much underused Reading Room. “The UTown Green and Tembusu College environment is a really wonderful, visually rich, and student-lively space that just feels good to be in,” he recalls. Though he has left the college, his contributions and presence continue to be felt.