With globalisation posing new challenges, the search for talent is no longer confined to specialists well-versed in a particular field. To stand apart from their peers in the cutthroat job market, graduates have to be erudite and possess an analytical mind, academics were told at a conference this week. Instead of churning out specialists geared to industries, liberal arts colleges offer a multicultural education aimed at developing students' critical thinking. Sponsored by the ZeShan Foundation, The Coming-of-age for Liberal Arts Education in 21st Century Asia-Pacific conference at Lingnan College featured talks by business leaders who told their audience how a liberal arts education had shaped their careers. While liberal arts education has a long history in the west, it did not catch on in Asia until after the second world war. Peter McCagg, dean of international affairs at International Christian University, the only liberal arts college in Japan, said the rigid education system in Asian countries, which advocated rote-learning and reverence for authority, posed obstacles for the development of liberal arts education. 'Liberal arts education focuses on discussion, interaction and risk-taking which can be frightening for some in Japan,' he said. 'The traditional Japanese education system is not very liberal at all. The major aim of it is to get people to follow their leaders. They don't want to rock the boat. They don't want to say anything controversial as, according to their thinking, nails which stick up will always get hammered down.' Richard Davis, chair professor of history at Lingnan University, agreed that Asian students had to 'unlearn' a lot of habits before they could reap the benefits of liberal arts education. 'Chinese students think answers are more important than questions,' he said. 'American students are the opposite. They tend to understand better that history is something that has no right or wrong answers. History is something that you are engaged in. Teachers are not supposed to be authority figures and they might not have a lot of answers.' Professor Davis said adopting small-group teaching was the key to the success of liberal arts education in Asia. 'Students are more eager to express themselves in a small class. We have to draw them out and expose them to things they think are hard.' While small class sizes could help students become more assertive, the small scale of liberal arts colleges also set them apart from mainstream universities which sought to expand at any cost. David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College - a private residential liberal arts college in California - said liberal arts colleges were all small institutions in the US. 'They account for a small piece of the overall education sector,' he said. 'Liberal arts colleges produce around 4 per cent of baccalaureate degrees in America. The sector is small and they want to remain small. If they are big, they will lose their values.' Citing the results of a survey conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999 on liberal arts colleges in the US, Professor Oxtoby explained how their small scale facilitated closer relationships between students and teachers. 'There are 200 residential liberal arts colleges in the US. Each institution has 500 to 3,000 students. Virtually all students live on campus and 98 per cent of students in Pomona live on campus. Average class size in Pomona is 14 to 15. Colleges also encourage faculty to live closer to campus. The residential nature of the colleges was important as it allowed students to interact with each other both in and outside class.' Disciplines on offer included social sciences, arts and business, and liberal arts colleges encouraged students to develop their own value systems through inquiry-based learning. 'Liberal arts education nurtures creativity by making students work outside of their comfort zone. It challenges them to deal with uncertainty and challenge the status quo. By inspiring their curiosity across disciplines, we can instil in them a lifelong thirst for learning,' he said. A beneficiary of the liberal arts education at Wellesley College in the US, Chiang Lai-yuen, chief executive officer of Chen Hsong Holdings Limited, was one of three business executives invited to share how liberal arts education had shaped their life philosophy. Ms Chiang, who graduated from the college with a double degree in economics and English 20 years ago, said the wide-ranging programmes had nurtured her dedication and analytical mind which helped her blossom in the business world. 'We were required to take religion and political science classes,' she said. 'There was no way to escape them. The assignments were also challenging. Some were about literature analyses which required us to study the background and reasons behind why an author wrote a particular work. Such assignments helped train my judgment . 'Liberal arts education does not aim to prepare students for their careers . The things I learned from Wellesley affected how I formed my life values.' Professor Oxtoby said that liberal arts education had enjoyed increasing recognition in the US. 'Liberal arts colleges are serving as a model for larger universities,' he said. 'In fact, many universities in the US and around the world are trying to remake themselves along the lines of liberal arts colleges. An example is the University of Michigan, which is a very large research university. It has a separate honours college where honours students take smaller classes and discussion classes with professors.' While liberal arts education was gaining momentum in the west, Professor Oxtoby said it had yet to enjoy wide recognition in Asia. 'Fewer than 15 per cent of the degrees in the US are in the area of science, maths, engineering and technology. But in China, India and Singapore, the number can be more than 50 per cent. There are very different emphases on education in different parts of the world.'