SYDNEY - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong disclosed on Thursday that the pool of foreign students in Singapore's universities has shrunk.
They now form just 16 per cent of enrolment, compared with 18 per cent last year,a decline that is in line with the Government's promise to cut the foreign student population to 15 per cent by 2015.
Mr Lee, who is on a five-day visit to Australia, made the disclosure to businessmen in Sydney when asked whether Singapore aimed to become a hub for overseas students.
But while Singapore wants to be a centre for tertiary studies attracting good foreign students, it also wants to ensure its universities remained essentially Singaporean, he said.
"We would like Singapore to be a vibrant centre where there are lots of outstanding education institutions, something like Boston, or perhaps Sydney," he said.
It would allow "Singaporeans to pursue their tertiary education" alongside "a diverse and distinguished group of students from around the region and around the world".
The lattergroup tends to "bring with them their backgrounds, their experiences, their different cultures and enhance the experience for Singaporeans and for each other", Mr Lee said.
But a balance had to be struck between the desire to foster diversity and quality, and the need "to keep the Singapore character of the institutions", he said.
Hence, his pledge last year to gradually curtail the proportion of foreign students at local universities by giving all the 2,000 places to be created by 2015 to Singaporeans.
Mr Lee was speaking at a lunch event hosted in his honour by the Asia Society Australia in Sydney. About 200 Australian businessmen attended, as did New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell, with whom he held brief discussions just before the lunch.
One topic they discussed was casinos, as Sydney is debating whether to allow a second one to be built after The Star, which has been in operation since 1995.
Quizzed later at the lunch event, Mr Lee stressed that he did not want to get involved in Sydney's debate, but was willing to share Singapore's experience.
He said Singapore allowed two integrated resorts from the start, not one, because "having crossed the Rubicon" in deciding to have casinos, it no longer was a matter of principle, and two made more business sense than one.