Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the Raffles Dialogue Opening Dinner on Monday, 2 February 2015, at 7:10pm, at the Raffles Hotel

Published Date: 02 February 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

“Building Intellectual Capital”

Mr Wong Ngit Liong, Chairman, NUS Board of Trustees

Professor John Wong, Chairman, Organising Council, Raffles Dialogue 2015


Distinguished Speakers, and Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

1Pleasure to be in a room of experts, policy makers and scholars who share a common purpose – making the world a better place.

2Achieving this vision requires us to:

  • First, have good ideas and deep knowledge – this requires imagination and scholarship;
  • Second, have the will and ability to take action, especially collective action. Merely talking or dreaming about a better world will not get us there – we have to translate ideas and knowledge into effective action;
  • Third, use our resources wisely – we must steward our time, money, and public support, to get things done.

3Knowledge. Action. Resources. We can achieve much if we can have all three and align all three… in an ideal world. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a messy reality. This means we strive for greater human well-being and security with imperfect knowledge, limited resources and often, ineffective collective action. These are the 3 limitations that we have to contend with.

4First, imperfect knowledge. As a student, I enjoyed Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man very much. Bronowski traced the rise of man from the East African Rift Valley, through man’s remarkable progress in understanding and shaping our world, through his progress in science, technology and the arts. The ascent of man has been the story of one knowledge revolution after another – from the time when man learnt how to domesticate animals, to the agricultural revolution, the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Political and social institutions shaped, and were in turn shaped by, these breakthroughs in our understanding of the world.

5Today, the growth of knowledge is even more spectacular. We are in the midst of several simultaneous knowledge revolutions, from IT to digital science to nanotechnology to bioscience.

6Yet, the more we know, the more we know there is even more that we do not know. There remain significant gaps – for example, in understanding the causes of many diseases, and the effective treatment for these.

7Science, and the broader quest of knowledge, are never dull. It is in human nature to seek to understand. There is an old Chinese saying – that the sea of knowledge has no shore. Many of you have dedicated your lives to the mission of expanding our knowledge. You know that research work is exciting and important. I think one way we can overcome this limitation of imperfect knowledge, is to develop the talent to push the frontiers of knowledge. I am happy to say more about this a little later.

8The second limitation is ineffective action. While there is much that we do not know, there is also much that we do know. Even if we put our imperfect knowledge into effective action, that knowledge will go a long way.

9Shakespeare has a wonderful line on this:

“If to do were as easy as to know what were good
to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s
cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that
follows his own instructions: I can easier teach
twenty what were good to be done, than be one of
the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”

- Portia, The Merchant of Venice

32Thank you.

31So let us work together to build a better world by creating knowledge, using knowledge in action, and undertaking these collectively. To do this, we need to give the best possible education to our young, and create many more opportunities for them to be their best. I wish you all a most fruitful discussion.

30I hope that the “Singapore Academic and Research Talent Scheme” will give young Singaporeans who have a passion for teaching and research the jumpstart to join our universities, and play a part in nurturing the next generation of Singaporeans. I hope that they will be the future academic thinkers and leaders for Singapore, so that our universities will continue to contribute to education, research, and service in Singapore, and the world. And I hope they will have the good fortune to learn from and research with many of you, at occasions like the Raffles Dialogue, and many more.

29A distinctive feature of the MOE-AU Scholarship is that each scholarship recipient will be paired with the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, or Singapore Management University. The university will provide a comprehensive developmental programme to prepare him well for an academic career – not just in research, but also in teaching. An established academic will serve as a mentor in each institute and share academic guidance, career advice, as well as research expertise. This mentoring is the most valuable part of the scholarship – it will expand the horizons of future academics and help them appreciate the value of research and connects them to the top minds in the field.

28The development of talent is a long-term endeavour. Our aim is to offer over 1,500 scholarships at both the undergraduate and post-graduate levels, over the next 15 years.

27Second, to encourage younger students with an interest in teaching and research to pursue a career in one of our universities, MOE will front a new MOE-Autonomous University Scholarship. This will be offered to students who are about to pursue, or are in the midst of pursuing, their undergraduate studies, and who demonstrate a high level of proficiency, motivation, and interest in a particular field. If they do well, these students will be sponsored for postgraduate scholarships and take up academic positions offered by the universities.

26First, we will enhance opportunities for our young to pursue a career in academia at our universities. MOE will fund half of postgraduate talent development schemes offered by the universities to Singaporeans to groom future faculty, such as NUS’s Overseas Graduate Scholarship, Overseas Postdoctoral Fellowship, NUS’s Early Career Award, NTU's Senior Tutorship Scheme, and SMU’s Faculty Development Scheme. By growing the number of scholarships that the universities can support, we can expand the opportunities to many more talented young people with an interest in research and teaching.

25The world is going through several knowledge revolutions at this point. Looking forward, we must continue to build up our nation’s brain trust by investing in a Singaporean core that has the passion and ability to push the frontiers of knowledge, and to teach, for the greater good, in Singapore and the world. Building on what our universities have been doing, I am happy to announce that my Ministry will launch the “Singapore Academic and Research Talent Scheme” to support our universities in building up a strong core of academic and research talent. This will comprise two key initiatives.

24More importantly, many of our faculty members have also been excellent teachers – not only for the students in the universities, but also for our students in our junior colleges, polytechnics, Institute of Technical Edcuation, and secondary schools. You know how strongly I feel about good teaching in our schools and universities – just 2 months back, I announced the Research Fund to support good teaching in our universities, polytechnics and ITE. By inspiring our students to learn, to discover and to serve, good teachers help bring out the best in everyone.

23Over the years, Singapore’s universities have worked hard to groom Singaporean talent for a career in academia and for leadership in our universities, by having scholarship programmes like the Senior Tutorship Scheme. These programmes give young Singaporeans the opportunity to research deeply in the areas that fascinate them, and the chance to teach, to serve and to lead in the universities. They have produced some outstanding faculty and university leaders today, who are not only good academics but also important leaders in society who contribute to our society in many different ways.

22Dialogues like this one we launch tonight are one way to grow knowledge and understanding. Earlier, I also said that one way we can overcome the limitation of imperfect knowledge is to develop the talent to push the frontiers of knowledge. The Singapore Government will provide strong support to our universities to develop talent and build intellectual capital, so that they can play their part in this global quest for knowledge.

21In this regard, let me commend Prof John Wong and your team for initiating this dialogue and bringing together such an eminent group. NUS is celebrating its 110th anniversary of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, the oldest tertiary institution in Singapore. As you mature, you have become even more vibrant and dynamic. I hope that our universities can expand on these Global-Asia exchanges.

20In the coming years, I hope that Asia can make a significant contribution to global security and well-being. Almost half of the world’s population is in Asia – we are a potential source of problems, like the spread of the SARS virus, and we can also be a source of solutions. Education in Asia is improving, and we must seek to harness the talent and creativity of this part of humanity to add to the pool of global knowledge creators and actors.

19For all our limitations, much has been achieved, and much more can be achieved. In many parts of the developing world, innovative low-cost solutions to health and safety issues are multiplying. C. K. Prahalad’s book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, focuses business minds on the market potential of serving the poor. Indeed, many disruptive innovations are happening in developing countries, as enterprising businesses seek to serve the local markets. And the developing markets are big, in terms of the size of the consumer base. The open source in the IT arena shows how an inspiring vision can draw together the energy and creativity of people around the world. Yes, terrorists exploit the internet to commit evil acts, but the world has never better connected than now to allow people to do good.

18But above all, let us not work in isolation, where researchers live in ivory towers, and practitioners disdain knowledge and research. Rather, we have to see how to create knowledge, use knowledge in action, and undertake these collectively, if we are to make the most impact with whatever resources we have. We have to bring about a governance system that can bring together multi-stakeholders to create, spread and use knowledge.

17I believe that to create a better future, we have to start with seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Reality is messy, and anything worth doing will be fraught with difficulties. If we do not make the perfect the enemy of the good, we can make progress, step-by-step, sometimes small steps, sometimes big steps. If knowledge is imperfect or change would be too disruptive, we can start small and do pilots. If not many believe in the solution, we can work with like-minded people first, to each make a contribution. If resources are limited, let us be inventive and improvise. Necessity is the mother of invention. And the human capacity for imagination and invention counts as one of the rare resources that are without limits.

16By now, some of you must be thinking that this speaker is a pessimist, and a proponent of non-action. On the contrary, I am an optimist, and an advocate of action.

15The third limitation is that resources are never enough. I was trained in economics. The first lesson in any economic course is this: Wants are unlimited; but resources are finite. The central challenge is to allocate limited resources to maximise human welfare.

14Where issues of race, language or religion are concerned, it is even worse. These tap into deep instincts in the human psyche, and can be easily exploited. I am saddened by the many societies riven by conflicts because of these. The appeal of ISIS to so many, and the atrocities its adherents commit, are shocking. There are many threats to global security, but the most difficult ones to deal with are those where the actors are exploited by others in the name of their beliefs. The need to promote greater understanding and to prevent absolute beliefs – that only our beliefs matter and are right - we have to fight against that and the need to promote greater understanding is never more urgent than now.

13If collective action is difficult within a country, it is even harder across borders. Change has no constituency, because often, the gains are long-term and diffused, but the pains are immediate and concentrated on specific groups, who of course will seek to block these changes. I spent many years in the trenches, striving to promote economic and financial cooperation across borders, and dealing with responses to the global financial crisis. It is hard work. I see Mr. Pascal Lamy and Prof Mari Pangestu in the audience – they can share even more vivid stories.

12In some societies, public policy making becomes paralysed, when they do not generate the consensus for effective collective action. This may be due to ideological differences, or the vested interests of specific groups, or just plain politicking. In many instances, we think and act short-term, choosing immediate consumption over longer-term investment in a better future. I was recently at an education conference where a prominent scholar lamented how, in his country, the resources for education of the young are being sacrificed for the consumption of the current generation.


That is how each of us should behave, acting instinctively for the collective good.

11Getting a group of people to come together to act for the greater good is even harder. Prof Eva Harris, one of our speakers, has observed that the living cell in our body is a wonderful inspiration – each working for the collective good of the human.

10The doctors in this room know how much you advise everyone to exercise, but how hard it is for all of us to follow your good advice. Doing what is good for oneself, even for one’s own good, is hard enough.

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