Instead of focusing on perception, I’ll give you a list of the kind of universities that scholars typically choose to earn degrees at. Let’s just say I have a wealth of experience in this area as I have 3 degrees from 2 T1 university in America where I have rubbed shoulders with scholars all the time. Disclaimer: I’m not a scholar. I just have rich parents. No need to sugarcoat this.
Tier 1: MIT (seems to be the holy grail nowadays), Harvard (generally for the MPA as a finishing degree), Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Penn, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Imperial. No student from Singapore would choose any other university if they had an offer to study at any university in this set. These are schools that are off-the-charts in terms of popularity and there’s no debate about this. MIT was always my dream but I could only go as far as its neighbor. Not smart enough.
Tier 2: UC Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Chicago, Duke, UIUC, any Ivy League university not mentioned in Tier 1. CMU and JHU are less common but still considered very prestigious. I’d put UCL in this tier. There is an extraordinary number of scholars opting for UCL (perhaps it’s a safety) but they almost always do an additional masters from a Tier 1.
Tier 3: Any public Ivy. This includes schools like Virginia, the rest of the UC system, UT Austin, University of Washington, BU etc. These schools are unusual choices, which are often chosen for idiosyncratic reasons (i.e having family in that area, or wishing to get a more authentic experience).
Tier 4: Here’s where the local unis come in. Any school below this tier, including ALL Australian universities, will be at least weakly dominated by NUS/SMU/NTU in preference. Many would pick NUS for medicine or law over going overseas.
Note that the tier list does not reflect the quality of students. Every scholar I know were outstanding students. Admissions are random, especially for US universities. Sometimes you just miss at all your first 10 choices despite having all As. It’s not uncommon. Says nothing about how well you lead. If anything, being good at school only demonstrates your ability to do good work. Leadership is something very different.
In any case, here are several examples of politicians in Singapore who have done remarkably despite having done a first degree at lesser-known universities.
Lawrence Wong is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. Khaw Boon Wan went to the University of Newcastle. Teo Chee Hean went to the University of Manchester. Iswaran went to the University of Adelaide. Lim Swee Say went to Loughborough University. Mah Bow Tan, UNSW. Yeo Cheow Tong went to the University of Western Australia.