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Yvonne Guo
In order to celebrate the launch of the France Alumni in Singapore platform on 14 January, the Embassy of France invites you to discover each week the profile of a Singaporean student, who has studied in France, regarding his/her journey. This week, we meet Yvonne Guo, Doctoral student at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Please introduce yourself in a few words

My name is Yvonne. I’m Singaporean but I studied 5 years. I did a Bachelor degree and a Master’s Degree at Sciences Po. I started learning French when I was 13 years old. After my A-level, I decided to go to France because I did not want to do like everyone else, that is to say go to an English-speaking. I wanted to have a different perspective on the world. I was very interested in politics and thought Sciences Po Paris was the perfect place to study. The third year, I did an exchange at the University of Beijing and the 5th year in Switzerland at St Gallen. Now I am doing a PhD at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore).

 Portrait Yvonne Guo

Why learning French? Why France? What did you learn from this experience?

At 12, we take in Singapore a national exam (ed.: the Primary School Leaving Examination or PSLE) and based on the results we can choose a third language. My parents advised me to choose French because they thought it was the most useful. I also had the image of a beautiful language and an interesting culture. At 17, I made an exchange program as part of this learning. I spent a month in a host family in Lyon. I discovered Paris, France ... I was afterwards very pleased and motivated to go study in Paris. I was really curious about discovering a different culture.
I arrived in France in 2006, in the run-up to the French presidential elections. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was one of my professors at Sciences Po and many other candidates came to the school to take part in debates, and I had the opportunity to meet President Jacques Chirac at the Elysee. It was really thrilling and exciting. I went to the rally of François Bayrou and I took a course on electoral polls. I really liked being at the heart of all those political events. In Singapore, some restrictions exist: election polls are governed by strict rules during the election period and we can not create associations of political parties in universities. In France, the political debate is often much more intense: the National Front is even present at Sciences Po now! I followed the Singapore elections as a journalist just before leaving for France, so I could see the differences between the two systems.

It was a great challenge to take the demanding course at Sciences Po, in French, alongside the best students from France, and it was not easy at first. I even failed some courses during my first year, but for me it was part of the learning process. The path is more important than the destination.

In the third year, I went to Peking University, where I took Philosophy and Chinese history courses. I know Beida’s debate tradition, but considering the current political climate, I was surprised by the level of openness of the teachers. In fact, the rule for some teachers is that it was possible to discuss anything in class, as long as they do not publish what they say. While some teachers told us about democracy, criticizing the party line, I also had the opportunity to meet those who were more conservative, who were speaking of Chinese military doctrine. I am very pleased that Sciences Po gave me the opportunity to go abroad during my studies, first in China, and once again in Switzerland during the 5th year. I really enjoyed this very globalized and international climate.

In short, I think that studying in France helped me to think critically and not accept superficial observations but look for deeper prospects. I use the French language in my research; it provides me access to more documents. I also realize interviews in French.

Can you tell us more about the PhD you realize at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy?

After returning from France, I applied for several research positions and was accepted as a research assistant to the Dean of the LKY School. I really enjoyed this experience and I decided to pursue a doctorate in public policy. Our program is different from European programs since it required two years of courses before actually beginning our research. My topic of study is Switzerland and Singapore as financial centers. I’m interested in their paths, similar in terms of development, but very different in terms of political system and their reaction to international pressure regarding financial transparency. I conducted interviews in Singapore, Paris and Switzerland. I also taught last semester at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

What are your plans for the future?

In the long term, I hesitate between staying in the academic sector or working in the industry or for the government.
For now, I am co-editor of a book on Switzerland and Singapore called "Singapore and Switzerland: Secrets to Success Small State" due out at the end of the year (2015). It is a compilation of the works of a dozen specialists who come from the academic secrot or working in their respective fields. In the 80s, Singapore often referred to Switzerland as a development model, but today we see that these two small countries have taken different paths to success. So we can not say that a centralized system is necessarily better than a decentralized system or vice versa: each country has a model that works in its case.

I also write a series of articles on the 50th anniversary of the independence of Singapore for a French magazine called Presidency Key Brief (PKB), dedicated to French and European policy makers. One of the project managers invited me to contribute to a few articles on the development of Singapore. I write in particular about the development of Singapore as a cultural and artistic center, with a focus on the National Gallery, whose main architect is French. We also wish to mention the Singaporean multinational companies which have been successful abroad, such as the Ascott Group, the largest international operator-serviced residence owner that is well established in France. The aim is to talk about Singapore by finding an angle that will interest the French and European leaders.

Do you have a memory, a story about France that you want to share?

As I said, I loved the French debate tradition. I miss it a lot! Since I got back to Singapore, I conducted several projects to increase the political awareness among Singaporeans. For example, with the Association of Sciences Po Alumni in Singapore, we organized a dialogue involving two senior French officials and two senior Singaporean officials to compare civil service systems in both countries. With some friends, during the Singapore parliamentary elections in September, I also developped a survey on the policy choices of Singaporeans.
When I was at Sciences Po, I watched every day Les Guignols (a satirical latex puppet show). I wish there was in Singapore the same self-critical spirit, and such a political awareness and commitment among citizens.
I also remember how being formail is important in France: my first day in Paris, I took a bus and asked the driver for my direction. He looked at me and at first said, "Hello!", not wanting to answer me before I greet him back. I was very surprised but I see the usefulness of such rules, as in Singapore, the standard is that you can walk into a store without anyone greeting you.

I consider myself francophile, French culture really became part of my identity. I’m not just Chinese or Singaporean. I still have great interest in what is happening in politics and society in France. France has many strengths, and I think the French often underestimate themselves: there is pessimism, fear of decline, but for me it is a beautiful country and I think it is a great difference between the international perception of France and how the French see themselves.

Finally, what do you expect from the alumni community?

I was president of the Association of Singaporeans in France and I still keep in touch with my friends back in France. I am now an active member of the Association of Sciences Po Alumni in Singapore which has about 200 members. Every year, we organize various events, including outings, conferences and champagne tastings. Singaporeans who studied in France have a great bond with the country and think that this platform is a great opportunity to maintain that network. I wish that this platform could be joined not only by former students in France, but by all Francophones and Francophiles in Singapore, which would be even more interesting.

Finally, I would recommend to all young people who are considering overseas experience to consider a stay in Paris. It is a very rich city that brings a lot, especially on the intellectual and cultural level. For me it was an experience that changed my life, made it much richer than before, and I will always be proud to be part of this French alumni community.