Master’s Degree at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies

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Southeast Asian economies are among the fastest-growing countries in the world. Therefore, understanding the intricacies of politics, economy, and international relations of the region could provide a huge advantage for those seeking to thrive in careers in politics, public service, and business alike. That was the reason why Arnachani Riaseta decided to pursue a master’s degree in Asian Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. In this article, she shares some useful information as well as her own experience and reflections from the program.  

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Upon completing my undergraduate degree in International Relations at Bilkent University, Turkey, I knew I wanted to pursue a graduate degree on Southeast Asian Affairs. I had spent the first three years of my study obsessing about Europe and European Union (EU) Affairs, only to realize in my senior year that there were so much more exciting opportunities waiting for me back home in Southeast Asia.

For all its charm, EU’s economy was very unpromising at that time (0.25% economic growth in 2013, as compared to ASEAN’s 3.18% growth in the same year). My EU-based friends were not able to get any jobs, meanwhile the Indonesian government was encouraging foreign educated Indonesians to come home. Unfortunately, I had zero knowledge about International Relations in Southeast Asia. So in fall 2013, I started to search for a suitable crash course master’s program on Southeast Asian Affairs.

Singapore came up as an obvious option early on. It is the economic hub of the region, close enough to home (Jakarta), and I would not need to learn any new languages. After days of researching, two programs stood out as the champions: Master in International Affairs at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at the National University of Singapore, or Master in Asian Studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University. In the end, my choice landed on RSIS for one simple reason: it is a one-year master’s program, as opposed to LKYSPP’s two-year program.

Singapore is the economic hub of ASEAN
Singapore is the economic hub of ASEAN

Admission and Scholarship

Registering for a master’s program at RSIS is quite straightforward. All of the information you need for the registration are all on their website. Admission is usually open from September to January (classes start in July).

RSIS offers four scholarship options for its graduate program: 1) Lee Foundation RSIS Scholarship; 2) Bakrie Centre Foundation Graduate Scholarship; 3) Terrorism Analyst Study Award (recipients of this scholarship will have to conduct research at the RSIS International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research while pursuing their master’s program over two academic years); and 4) Student Research Assistantship (recipients will serve as research assistants to RSIS faculty members). Outside of these options, you can also apply for external scholarships, such as the Finance Ministry’s LPDP.

I applied for options 1), 2), and 4) in the registration form and wished for the best. In March 2014, I was accepted to RSIS and invited to apply for the Bakrie Centre Foundation Graduate Scholarship by the RSIS Admission Office. I submitted an essay to the foundation and was called for an interview shortly after. Thankfully, I was informed that I got the scholarship not long after the interview. The scholarship covers tuition, monthly stipend, plane tickets, and book stipend. It also has no strings attached.

Studying at RSIS

One of our classrooms
One of our classrooms

RSIS offers four master’s programs: Asian Studies, International Relations, International Political Economy, and Strategic Studies. It also offers a double master’s program in collaboration with Warwick University. The difference of each program lies on the core courses that students have to take. As I took Asian Studies, I had to take two core courses: Comparative Politics of Asia and the International History of Asia. I also had to choose several courses from a list of primary and elective courses. If you want, you can take elective courses from the other three majors, or even from other schools in the university, including Nanyang Business School, School of Public Administration, and School of Communication and Information.

I really enjoyed my study at RSIS – for one, I was never bored. Because it is a one-year program, RSIS packs nine dense courses into three trimesters (one trimester is 13 weeks). If you opt in to write a dissertation, you would only be required to take seven courses. I took the coursework (no-dissertation) track.

The courses at RSIS are taught by professors who are either academic experts in their fields, or accomplished practitioners – or even both! For example, I took a course on Non-Traditional Security in Asia from Dr. Mely Caballero-Anthony, who chaired the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, among others. Another distinguished faculty member is Dr. Soedradjad Djiwandono, who served as the Governor of Bank Indonesia during the financial and monetary crisis in 1997-1998. Befittingly, he teaches courses on Regional and Global Financial Crisis and the Indonesian Economy.

RSIS courses are intensive and often have small number of students, making the relationship between students and professors quite close. Here, we surprised one of our professors during his birthday.
RSIS courses are intensive and often have a small number of students, making the relationship between students and professors quite close. Here, we surprised one of our professors during his birthday.

So what is it like to study at RSIS? I will not sugar-coat it: it is challenging. The professors demand high-quality, well-researched, and well-argued assignments. The reading and writing assignments will take up a majority of your free time. If you do not complete your reading assignments before class, it is guaranteed that you would be super confused during class discussions. But if you do everything that is demanded of you, the discussions will become very insightful and eye-opening.

Expanding My Network

One unexpected benefit that I really cherish from my time in RSIS is how it expanded my network. Although located in Singapore, the majority of RSIS students are international students. I had classmates from China, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Poland, Czech Republic, Canada, USA, Sweden, the Netherlands, and many others. I also met fellow Indonesians who come from different backgrounds, including civil servants, journalists, and military officers.

Other than International Affairs, RSIS is also known in the region for its research centers on Security Affairs, including military studies and terrorism studies. This results in many opportunities for students to participate in international security-focused lectures and events. These are on top of the multitude of guest lectures and focus-group discussions held by RSIS all year round. Some of the guest lectures that I attended when I was studying in RSIS included lectures from General (Ret) Luhut Pandjaitan (at that time serving as a Senior Advisor to President Joko Widodo), Australia’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, and Dr. Rizal Sukma, who is currently Indonesia’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom.

RSIS also has an impressive roster of alumni. Some prominent names in Indonesia are Home Affairs Minister and former Chief of Police Tito Karnavian, and former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s two sons: Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono. RSIS’s Indonesia alumni also includes many leaders and future leaders in politics, public service, and business.

As a student, I was an active member of the RSIS Student Board, which organized student events such as movie nights, field trips, and sport events. From 2017 to 2019, I also served as the President of the RSIS Alumni Association’s Indonesia Chapter. These experiences provided me with opportunities to expand my personal and professional network further.

At RSIS Alumni Association event in Jakarta
At an RSIS Alumni Association event in Jakarta

Living Ulu

As Indonesians, you are probably familiar with Singapore’s Orchard Road and Sentosa Island. But if you study at RSIS, unless you live downtown, visiting these areas would seem like rare opportunities. RSIS is located in the Nanyang Technological University campus, which nests on the west-end of Singapore. Going from campus to Orchard Road takes approximately 1.5 hours with public transportation, while going to the airport would take you around two hours. Singaporeans call remote neighborhoods like this as “ulu”.

With friends from all over the world
We’re still friends till today!

Nanyang Technological University offers housing for graduate students, although not all students who apply can get a spot. I was lucky enough to secure a private en suite room in one of the Graduate Halls. My room overlooks a dense forest where the Singaporean Armed Forces practice shooting (the machine gun sound every morning has become an interesting highlight of my Singapore experience).

Many RSIS international students live in the Graduate Halls, and if you prefer, you can definitely form your own community of friendship there. For me, it was important to be friends with fellow students, either to study together or just simply to hang out after hours.

Achieving My Goal

All in all, I feel that studying in RSIS had not only helped me achieve my goal of getting to know Southeast Asia better, but it also opened up employment opportunities for me in the region. Its intensive and varied courses opened up my horizons in understanding the dynamic issues facing the region, while its international environment allows me to make friends with people from all over the world. Upon graduation, I was immediately able to start a career in a Southeast Asia-focused public affairs and government relations consultancy.

So, if this is a path that you are interested in, I would definitely recommend pursuing a master’s degree in Asian Studies from RSIS.

With a master's degree in hand, I was ready to start a career back home
With a master’s degree in hand, I was ready to start a career back home

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Photos provided by the author