Bilveer Singh: Fast-paced, informative and entertaining NUS political scientist

An academician who reported directly to the Prime Minister’s Office on security issues such as terrorism and radicalisation due to his deep knowledge and understanding of the region.

| Singapore | 14 Aug 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Associate Professor Bilveer Singh
Associate Professor Bilveer Singh

“I think if you have done something well and it is worthwhile remembering, that is naturally great. In my case, I am basically a teacher. So I think it may not be history that will remember or judge me, I think my students will.” These were the first words of Associate Professor Bilveer Singh when he was interviewed for this piece.

An immediate interpretation one can draw from the above view is the importance Bilveer places on the type of knowledge, values and character that he wants to imbibe in his students. Bilveer is extremely dedicated and focused on nurturing and developing generations of people trained in statecraft and politics. His impact has been huge and his influence has been immense. Many of Singapore’s statesmen and political thinkers have been moulded either through his tutelage or by reading his publications.

The Department of Political Science at National University of Singapore (NUS) takes pride in Bilveer’s career which spans three decades. He has also won 10 teaching excellence awards in NUS.

“I think this year would be my 31st year in the academia and the 35th time that I am teaching this module on Singapore politics because I sometimes teach the same module twice a year. So just imagine the thousands of students who have gone through my hands and I actually have influenced them to think about Singapore’s politics passionately.”

Bilveer was on his way to a potential career in the military where he was an instructor for the Officer Cadet School. However, he decided to continue his studies in the hope that a university education would then improve his chances of attaining a higher rank with the military. After his studies, he was headhunted by the Singapore foreign service and the intelligence agencies due to his multilingual proficiencies, especially Malay, and they already had jobs lined up for him.

PUBLICATIONS: Some of the books authored by Assc Prof Bilveer Singh
PUBLICATIONS: Some of the books authored by Assc Prof Bilveer Singh

A chance encounter with a professor while collecting his certificate changed his life forever. As the top student in the Honours class in 1981, he was offered a scholarship to do a Master and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme, as well as eventual employment as a senior tutor. This, in essence, sealed his life as an academic in political science. The same professor also had a specific topic for him to specialise in – the Soviet Union. Bilveer eventually completed his Master and PhD on the Soviet Union.

He quipped: “That is how I got my job. I became Singapore’s first Soviet specialist.”

However, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union changed everything. Bilveer then focused specifically on Indonesia, which he also studied while working on Soviet-Asian relations. He has been an Indonesian specialist since 1990.

Bilveer’s belief in the value of education and the impact of a teacher on his or her students, mirror his life where his teachers from secondary school onwards constantly pushed him to excel despite his slow beginning. He has adopted this practice by constantly pushing his students to explore and confront their comfort levels.

“My job is to produce good students, sharp minds. That is all. I produce good students, thinking students, good citizens, loyal citizens, people who, in time of crisis, will not run away but stand up to be counted and make the difference.”

One of Bilveer’s boldest moves in his academic career was to make the decision to teach ‘Government and Politics of Singapore’. At that point in time, it was a sensitive topic for discussion. However, he felt that it was an important module for young Singaporeans to understand Singapore’s politics in a more intimate and informed manner. He managed to pull it off, largely due to his own deep understanding of the topic and his knowledge of governance.

Bilveer now also teaches such topics as foreign policy and citizenship education. He has also been involved in changes in NUS on modules on nation building and governance, not just relating to Singapore but the wider Southeast Asian region as well. His rationale for doing so is that society has become highly complex and Singaporeans need to know the world better so that they can really make a difference.

Despite not choosing a career in intelligence, Bilveer was appointed Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in 2010. He reported directly to the Prime Minister’s Office on security issues such as terrorism and radicalisation. One key reason for his appointment was his deep knowledge and understanding of the region, particularly Indonesia. This knowledge, arising from decades of work and research, and resulting in numerous publications and papers, provided the opportunity to Bilveer to serve his country. It is an opportunity which he aptly stated as a “great honour for a scholar.” He continues to remain an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Centre.

Bilveer’s work and contributions, particularly relating to Indonesia and Singapore, are highly regarded locally and internationally. Equally impressive is the fact that he is highly proficient in Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia. Apart from being called upon to share his views at various local and international forums and by the media, this proficiency has allowed him to contribute literature in these languages as well. He regularly teaches in Bahasa in different Indonesian universities, including the National Defence University, where he is currently an Eminent Professor. He has 10 books in Bahasa Indonesia – all dealing with security issues. This quality has naturally made him a much sought-after personality since he deals with the important issues of politics, regional security issues, Islamist terrorism, role of great powers in Southeast Asia and the domestic and foreign policies of Singapore.

Describing his most important publication, Politics and Governance in Singapore, Bilveer stated: “…this is the handbook on Singapore politics. It is on politics and governance in Singapore; it is an introduction that anybody can read.”  The book has become a key textbook in Singapore schools.

Bilveer is not just contended with writing for the purpose of education. That is important but he has also made it his mission “…to put books by Asians on the global academic shelves. At the moment, books in the academic world are dominated by the West.”

He tries to restore a balance in this respect in the world academic order. He exposes his students to diverse readings of different writers from different cultural backgrounds.

“I think it is important to bring out books from our region and by Asian authors and make them available to our students. I write about stuff that should be part and parcel of the students’ normal intake. That is why I work and write like there is no tomorrow.”

“I have known Bilveer for about 30 years. He was my lecturer at NUS when I was an undergraduate in Political Science. He was one of the key lecturers who enthralled me with his fast-paced, informative and entertaining lectures. Frankly, he had a big influence on my own decision to subsequently become an academic in national security studies.
Bilveer has certainly inspired succeeding generations of students with his infectious passion for research that influences national debates on security issues affecting Singapore. He remains an inspiration to me!”

– Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna Head of Policy Studies S Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University

Academic knowledge aside, Bilveer strongly believes in the virtues of honesty and integrity. These apply to his work, students and in direct dealings with the government. Quite naturally, this has resulted in him courting controversy with his views as he firmly believes that ‘shading’ history is wrong for if you do, “…somebody will ‘unshade’ and bring out the truth tomorrow. Historians will.” His belief also stems from the fact that he directly influences and impacts the lives of future leaders who will hold key positions. It is vital for him to maintain a high level of integrity and openness. Students are highly impressionable and susceptible to various influences and the people who have that influence need to influence in a proper and positive manner. At the same time, they need to practice what they preach.

When asked once more on how he would like to be remembered by his students, if nothing else, Bilveer remarked: “That I told the truth, that I drove them onto a highway of passion, daring them to ask difficult questions and never shunning away from adversity. In short, I want them to become highly responsible yet caring individuals.”

And the truth be told – Bilveer has indeed left an indelible imprint on his students and the academic world in the last three decades. And he will certainly continue to do so in the many decades to come.

Bilveer Singh with his wife Gurdial Kaur, ecstatic when reunited with Spikey (dog) after nine years
Bilveer Singh with his wife Gurdial Kaur, ecstatic when reunited with Spikey (dog) after nine years

[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]


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