Speech by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, at the NTU Alumni Night 2010, 23 October 2010, at 7.30pm, at the Nanyang Auditorium, Nanyang Technological University

Dr Su Guaning, President of NTU,

Distinguished NTU alumni and guests,

Ladies and gentlemen.

It gives me great pleasure to join you at this special occasion. This year, Alumni Night is held in conjunction with the 55th Anniversary of Nanyang Technological University (NTU). As we celebrate the achievements of this institution, we also pay tribute to its outstanding alumni who have made a significant difference to society and country.

Tradition of Giving

This year, there were more than 8,500 new graduates from NTU, the largest graduating cohort to date. The Class of 2010 set a record as more than 70 per cent contributed about $97,000 to NTU. This spirit of giving augurs well for NTU.

We want to encourage alumni to contribute back to the parent institution. In his National Day Rally, PM announced that the Government will provide higher matching grants for endowed donations raised by universities, at a rate of 3 : 1 for new projects and 1.5 : 1 for existing programmes. In all, the Government will invest about $4 billion over the next 20 years, of which $2 billion will be set aside in a Singapore Universities Trust.

This signals strongly the Government’s commitment to quality tertiary education for Singaporeans. It also underscores the move towards endowment income contributing to a larger share in funding the universities’ activities, including better programmes and environment, more financial support for deserving students, and the development of new peaks of excellence in the higher education sector.

Alumni Networks

NTU has a large alumni base of 144,000 members to draw upon. But in cultivating alumni members to view themselves as interested stakeholders, size alone is not the key consideration. Some U.S. universities much smaller than NTU are highly successful examples who have alumni that give of their time, expertise and financial resources to continually build up their alma mater.

In the top U.S. universities, the majority of alumni give back financially. Harvard and Yale, enjoy alumni giving rates of more than 40%, of varying amounts. Iconic large donations from alumni also frequently make the news. For example, in the last 3 years, Columbia, Cornell and Tufts have received single donations of more than US$100 million each from their alumni.

Besides contributing financially, alumni also give generously of their time. Every year, at Princeton University, more than 15,000 alumni volunteer their time to serve their alma mater. They serve on various university committees and boards, assist the university in interviewing prospective students, and act as student mentors. Through the generous gift of time and resources, these dedicated alumni have contributed to Princeton’s success today.

U.K. universities too are now going along this route. Both Cambridge and Oxford plan to raise more than 1 billion pounds each. The proportion of donations from alumni account for more than 30% of all donations for Cambridge and Oxford, and more than 25% on average for U.S. universities. In comparison, the proportion of alumni donations in NTU and NUS account for about 5%. For SMU, alumni donations form an insignificant portion (less than 0.1%) of their total donations, as SMU is a relatively young outfit, with only 7 batches of graduates.

Strong alumni networks do not arise out of chance, or simply through a shared history. It takes concerted effort, over many years, to cultivate good alumni relations. Earlier this year, the Engagement Strategies Group (ESG) surveyed alumni from the top 100 U.S universities. Called the “Mood of Alumni”, the survey explores alumni giving behavior and alumni perception of their alma mater. One of the main patterns that emerged from the survey was a growing disconnect between universities and their alumni. While most respondents rated their alma mater highly on reputation and academic standing, many felt that their alma mater does not value its relationship with them, and does not keep them connected in a meaningful way. So even in the U.S., where the tradition of giving back to the alma mater is well established, individual universities have to spend time cultivating their alumni or risk losing their allegiance. Universities in Singapore, relatively young compared to these more established institutions must therefore focus their efforts in this area too.

This lack of appreciation isn’t the only reason why alumni are disinclined to give. Many also felt that they have paid enough already for tuition. Others believed that their alma mater does not really require alumni support. One can argue this is particularly so in Singapore, where the government heavily subsidizes university education. However, government funding and tuition fees alone can never fully meet the needs of a university with ambitions to provide the best education for its students, conduct the best research and be part of the success of the country—in other words, a university that wants to become great. Without strong community and alumni support, many of the programmes, research initiatives and scholarships may not reach their full potential.

As alumni of NTU, you are key stakeholders of the University. I am pleased to note that NTU has a vibrant and supportive alumni network. NTU’s local alumni networks are strong. There are a total of 26 local NTU alumni associations in Singapore, who organise regular activities to encourage bonding and closer interaction between alumni. The overseas alumni network has also been strengthened over the last few years. In China alone, NTU has 22 chapters, with the latest to be launched next month in Henan, Sha’anxi and Guangxi. NTU also has alumni chapters in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, with USA chapters in the pipeline.

NTU Leadership Changes

I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge President Su Guaning’s efforts to strengthen NTU’s bonds with its alumni. It was announced earlier this week that Guaning would not be renewing his term of office after it expires in mid-2011. Guaning understood the importance of gaining alumni support to help NTU achieve greater heights. He invested in building the internal capacity of NTU to reach out to the alumni, including those from Nantah. It was also due to his vision of a strong China agenda, that NTU today has 15,000 alumni in China. Thank you Guaning, for laying the strong foundations for the next President, Bertil Andersson, to build upon. I hope that the alumni would also give their warm support to Bertil.

Nanyang Alumni Awards

As NTU celebrates its 55th Anniversary, I am pleased to note that the University has produced eminent alumni with a heart for service to society and mankind. Tonight, we honour three special individuals with the Nanyang Distinguished Alumni Award. They are: Mr Chai Chong Yii, former Senior Minister of State for Education; Dr Teh Hoon Heng, a notable Mathematician accorded the Academic Achievement Award by the President of France (in 1997); and Dr Chee Kheng Hoy, Deputy Chairman of the Agriculture and Primary Industries Committee of the Associated Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia, and a world expert on rubber tree diseases.

NTU will also be presenting the Nanyang Alumni Awards to 31 recipients, the largest group of awardees to date. I hope the Nantah Spirit will continue to flourish and grow among its alumni, lighting your passion to contribute to the University and also to society.

Congratulations to all the award winners! I wish NTU the very best as the University continues its progress, and a happy 55th anniversary.