Conversations with Dr Norshahril Saat

By Sherry Tan and Wong Yi Hao

Dr Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches mainly on the politics of countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, and has a strong interest in Middle East politics. As a researcher, his job is to publish books, write and comment on political developments. 

I got my PhD from the Australian National University but previously I was a graduate of the National University of Singapore (NUS). I majored in Political Science and did my Masters of Arts in Malay Studies.

Apart from being an academic, I am also quite active in the community as I do voluntary work. I am the Chairman of the Malay Heritage Foundation and I also sit in many other advisory committees. I have a strong passion for politics, which explains my career, as well as for culture and heritage.

I have a strong passion for traditional music too. I was in the school band in secondary school and junior college, and I did my National Service with the Singapore Police Force (SPF) band, playing the tuba. After that, I taught myself to play a few instruments. One of them is the Arabic guitar, Gambus, which is used in Malay traditional music. The same goes for the Chinese flute which is also used in Malay music. So, apart from the serious, political nature of my work, I have a soft side — music. 

I maintain a strict regimen by dividing my day into three aspects. One aspect is reading — I will read in the evening before I sleep. After reading, you need to reflect on what you have read. Normally on my way to work, I will reflect on my readings and maybe have a discussion with my wife in the car. A typical day at the office would involve writing — that is more of my academic life. On weekdays, most of my time is spent in the office doing work. I also enjoy speaking to people, and this is part of my research as I have to understand how people think. On weekends, I spend most of my time with my family, unless there is important work or community work to do. I also do part-time teaching in NUS and SUSS on social sciences such as politics and society.

I cover political events in Malaysia and occasionally get phone calls from the media to write opinion pieces and give interviews. I have also written a few books. Some people say it is a boring life, but I try to intersperse it with other things like community work, family life and music.

There are many types of academia. I am in the social sciences. Of course, if you talk to scientists, it is a different field altogether. As a social scientist, what I enjoy is creating knowledge and making findings. Just to give a snapshot of what I mean by a good social scientist: it is trying to define societal problems, understanding the factors that contribute to them and seeking solutions. 

What gives me pleasure as a social scientist is that complexity is part and parcel of the social sciences. Some will try to dismiss issues very simplistically: “A” causes “B”. However, I think it is very complex: “A” plus “B” plus “C” plus “D” equals to “E”, “F” and “G”. Different combinations lead to different outcomes.

The second part of academia which I enjoy is teaching. Nowadays, education is not about the top-down approach. I enjoy teaching at universities because I learn from students. I find students from our local universities ask very good questions in class that spark me to think about the community. 

As the Chairman, I advise on the day-to-day running of the museum which is the Malay Heritage Center. You might want to read up about the foundation’s vision statement which is to safeguard Malay heritage for all. We understand in our society as we globalise, interest in heritage may be declining. So, how do we safeguard important assets of the community? The role of the foundation is to showcase heritage for all Singaporeans, not only Malays. I think that it is very important for Singapore’s multiracial identity. We have a few programmes for schools. We organise talks and festivals, and we publish books. I oversee all these projects as an advisor. 

All these are voluntary and they include the Political Films Consultative Committee (PFCC) and the Malay Programmes Advisory Committee (MPAC). The MPAC advises the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) on the nature of Malay television programmes and current affairs. Another committee I am involved with is the Malay Oral History Committee which advises the National Archives of Singapore and collects oral history for future generations. Personally, I have used oral interviews with people who have passed on, like Zubir Said, and I have written a biography on Singapore’s first president, Yusof Ishak. 

We will never know what will happen in the future and we have to keep on making sure that we are relevant. I am very happy with my work now. Writing, teaching, learning about political situations, analysing and sharing knowledge with young people have always been my passions and I think they will persist. I am not sure whether I will continue doing what I am doing in the future. I will adjust along the way depending on circumstances.

Social sciences teach you to think logically and systematically about society. You cannot simply point to a problem and say, “Oh, the cause of this problem is only this factor”. There are multiple factors interacting with one another and that’s why I think social scientists are important. 

Strengths of people trained in the humanities and social sciences comprise languages, writing abilities and ground sensing — skills that allow you to look at issues more holistically. I am not saying those not trained in social sciences do not have these, but these are our strengths. We are very good policy makers. There is a future in social science and I am proud to say that. 

I think now the biggest challenge to academia is that now universities emphasise more on publications, and my biggest worry is that it becomes a numbers game. My personal philosophy about academia is that your work must be relevant in discussing the day-to-day problems of the people. It must have a policy element to it. You can talk about wonderful theories or thinkers in Europe, for instance, but they might not be relevant to our problems. They might not be able to help us solve our problems. That’s why personally, I prefer to go down and talk to people, listen to their problems, and then go back, reflect, and write.

Follow your passion. What drives you is your passion. I do not believe in the hierarchy of occupations. I am more inclined to think that you should follow your passion, make sure you be a maestro and get the correct guidance. You should not decide your passion until you have explored the various fields.

I was very lucky because my parents gave me the freedom to explore. They never imposed any ideals on me. Wherever they saw my potential, they supported me. I am very touched. Moral support from parents is essential.

We have been proactive in engaging young people. I get invitations to speak to schools. I’m very proud to say that I’ve spoken at so-called “elite schools” and “neighbourhood schools”. I have had a fair share of discussions with both and they’re equally good! I think our neighbourhood schools equally produce very sharp, critical students. 

I’m also part of the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Programme where I expose students to writing research proposals. It’s a year-long programme and I take in students who are interested to write about Malaysia and Singapore politics. I expose them to basic social science and writing skills. This is a MOE Gifted Education programme, but I think we can replicate it in non-SBGE and non-IP schools as well. 

I really want to engage young people because they are the country’s future and it’s good to expose them early on to critical thinking of problems. We need good people in different fields, and all of them need to be critical and analytical. If you end up being a civil servant, you have to be a good, analytical civil servant because you need to advise the government on good policies, to be the eyes and ears on the ground. It’s good to expose young people to different ideas and to learn from other countries.

I found my passion a bit later during Junior College when I took subjects like Geography, Malay Literature and Economics. Geography has two components of Human Geography and Physical Geography, and Human Geography deals a little bit with politics and society. I did well for those subjects because I was really comfortable, and when I entered university it became easier and so there’s no regrets! I think I excelled more in university life because it was more focused on what I wanted to do. I think you have to treat this as a rite of passage. It’s a way to discover your strengths. 

I always tell people that my sociological understanding of Malay politics in Malaysia comes from my study of Malay Literature. Malay Literature is a reflection of day-to-day problems of life — problems of magic, politics, socioeconomic problems, upliftment of women.

As for work, academia is very stressful! There is this pressure to keep up to date and publish. Publishing is not easy. You may think that your ideas are fantastic, but if your editors or publishers feel that your ideas are not good, they will reject them. The challenge gets bigger with longer pieces: You put in effort, your heart and soul, day and night for one week, on an opinion piece which is about 800 words long. You send it to a newspaper, they might not like it, so they return it to you. You have to find another newspaper to send it to. Other newspapers might not like your idea too and the whole thing just gets squashed and goes down the drain, you know? 

The challenge gets even bigger with writing a book. You write 80,000 words, but no one wants to publish it. When the commercial element comes in and editors think your work is not good enough, that nobody will buy the book, they will not publish. It’s not easy, it’s very stressful — you have to keep up with developments, and you really have to sit down, reflect and come up with quality work. You have to convince people to publish. 

If there is one piece of advice about writing I can give, it’s to never fear rejections. I remember when I wrote my first article, it was heart-breaking because I put in so much effort and thought it was a fantastic piece of work, but the reviews came back saying that it’s not good. The reviews brought my morale down, but I thought I should keep trying, so I revised the work and sent it back. I was rejected again. Did I stop there? No. I said “I’ve put in so much effort, a little more can improve it and I’m sure it can be published,” and in the end it got published in a reputable journal. So I think you have to keep on trying. This is part and parcel of academic life. 

Writing books is the same thing — never fear throwing out what you have written. You may have written 2000 or 3000 words but later when you read it again, you think that it’s not good, just put it in the recycling bin and never think about it again. What I’ve learnt is that I shouldn’t put it in the recycling bin right away, I have a separate “Junk” folder and amazingly, some of the things that I think are not good at one point, that I put in the “Junk” folder, I revisit and get them published elsewhere. 

I want to reiterate that for young people, you need to widen your social circles, talk to people with different experiences and whom you feel you have not reached out to. For example, there should be partnerships among “elite” and “neighbourhood” schools and madrasahs on courses like climate change, culture, heritage and music. If you broaden your social circle, you can get different views understand them, and have empathy. 

Social circles involve more of a horizontal level of networking, but I think vertical networking is also important. It is where you try to understand the life of the less fortunate, and talk to them and understand some of their problems and issues. If you talk to them and understand how they feel, I think you can get a better sense of their problems. I think what we need in our society is empathy for other people’s lives. That’s my advice to young people all the time!