NUS professor awarded prestigious 'Nobel Prize' for geography

Professor Brenda Yeoh was awarded the international Vautrin Lud Prize 2021.
Professor Brenda Yeoh was awarded the international Vautrin Lud Prize 2021.PHOTO: PROFESSOR BRENDA YEOH

SINGAPORE - A National University of Singapore (NUS) professor who specialises in migration issues has become the first Singaporean to receive an accolade widely regarded as the Nobel Prize in geography.

In a statement on Tuesday (Oct 12), NUS announced that Professor Brenda Yeoh, the Raffles Professor of Social Sciences and Director for Humanities and Social Science Research at the NUS Office of the Deputy President (Research & Technology), has been awarded the international Vautrin Lud Prize 2021.

The award is given to geographers for outstanding achievement in the field. It is named after Vautrin Lud, a 16th century French scholar, who is credited with naming the New World “America” after Amerigo Vespucci.

Since 1991, the reputable award has been presented annually to a single laureate by a five-member international jury at the International Geography Festival in Saint-Die-des-Vosges, France.

Prof Yeoh was awarded at the 32nd edition of the festival, which was held from Oct 1 to Oct 3. She joins other geography luminaries who have received the award such as Marxist economic geographer David Harvey and British social scientist and geographer Doreen Massey, who is known for her work on space, place and power.

At the festival, Prof Yeoh made a presentation on the exacerbating effect that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the precarity that transient migrant workers face, and how it has exposed the unsustainable nature of temporary migration for nation-states such as Singapore.

She also suggested that the pandemic has offered an opportunity to reconfigure temporary migration so it is more sustainable and equitable, such as by offering visas and contracts of longer duration and incorporating migrant workers into national healthcare and safety nets.

She said the award was a great honour and “a total surprise”. 

“I am deeply appreciative of being found worthy of this illustrious prize,” she said.

“It is a mark of NUS Geography’s international reach and important recognition that significant insights in geographical scholarship in the context of Asia (my field site) can be influential on the global stage.

“I thank the University for giving me support, encouragement and the opportunity to work on the salient issues related to transnational migration affecting our society, and I look forward to advancing research in this field.”

She noted that the pandemic has made border crossings even more difficult and dangerous.

“Crossing borders is also about intercultural encounters, about meeting one another in all our distinctiveness and differences... Migration research helps us think through these tricky issues so that we can learn to do things differently in making the world a better place,” said Prof Yeoh.

Currently the leader of the Asian Migration Cluster at the Asia Research Institute in NUS, she has published in 35 books and written more than 230 journal articles.

She has taught and researched at the NUS Department of Geography for more than 30 years since joining as a senior tutor in 1987.

Among other appointments, she currently chairs the Heritage Advisory Panel of the National Heritage Board.

On July 26, she was the only scholar from Singapore elected to the Fellowship of the British Academy - Britain's national academy for the humanities and social sciences.