Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the Award Ceremony of the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme, Wednesday, 5 August 2015, at 7.00 pm, at Nexus, University Hall, National University of Singapore

Published Date: 05 August 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

University Presidents, Provosts, Principals

Colleagues, Parents and Award Recipients

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Good evening. I would like to thank the universities for your support, and we thank NUS for hosting this inaugural award ceremony.

A Singapore Character

2. In a few days’ time, we will be celebrating our 50th year of independence, so this is our Golden Jubilee week. This is a week for us to reflect on what brought us here in the last 50 years and what will take us forward into the next 50 years. When we look back, I think there are many things that have contributed to our success over the years - good governance, strong education foundation, our sense of identity, the conditions in the world that allow us to thrive and some amount of good luck. But underpinning this are other key traits - integrity and incorruptibility, industriousness, strong ethics, and indeed many of these key traits can be captured in one word: Character.

3. A Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Character is destiny”. This is true for individuals, and equally true for a society. In the last 50 years, our pioneers have showed resilience and character. To secure our destiny in next 50 years, we must hold on to, and grow, that character. Not just any character, but our “Singapore Character”.

4. What is this Singapore Character? It is shaped by our collective memories, and our shared hopes and dreams. In our shared short history, we have shown Character borne of:

  • the determination to do our best,
  • to pursue excellence,
  • hard work and thrift,
  • an emphasis on meritocracy and on creating opportunities for all,
  • integrity and incorruptibility,
  • our racial and religious harmony, and
  • our sense of fairness and justice.

5. During Our Singapore Conversation, we heard our aspirations, the aspirations of fellow Singaporeans - Opportunity, Purpose, Assurance, Spirit, and Trust. These are our shared aspirations for the future.

6. So what kind of Character must we have, as a society, for us to reach this future?

7. I believe we must preserve the elements that brought us to where we are today, and at the same time, strengthen other aspects.

8. What are the elements that we need to preserve? I spoke about the determination to do our best, to pursue excellence, to undertake hard work, to be thrifty, the emphasis on meritocracy and creating opportunities for all, integrity and incorruptibility, racial and religious harmony, and a sense of fairness and justice - the core elements of Singapore’s Character.

9. What do we need to strengthen? A number of areas. For example, we must broaden the definition of success from grades, money, status, to other aspects - community, meaning and purpose. We must also nurture the sense of empathy and a healthy respect for diverse views, to build trust, togetherness, and the spirit of community.

10. Based on our shared history, and our shared hopes for the future, I see Singapore Character as having the following facets:

  • Choosing to do what is right, not what is easy.
  • Possessing that rugged instinct to survive, despite the odds.
  • Putting our people first.
  • Having a sense of rootedness and the heart to build a better home.

11. This is not an exhaustive list. This is meant to trigger conversation and I would be happy to hear your thoughts too.

12. Why is having Character in our society important? Because success calls not only for skills, talent, or even experience, but character. This is true in the past, and will remain true in the future. Looking to the future, we have tough choices as a nation, as the trade-offs sharpen for both the people who make policies and the society they serve.

13. In this, as in the past, we have to be guided by values and a strong moral compass. We must act with honesty and integrity, choosing to do what is right by the people, rather than what is easy. It is only with this integrity and incorruptible spirit that we can build trust, and make things better for all. We must also continue to have that survival instinct that has brought us so far.

14. As a small country, we must never lose our sense of vulnerability. You just look around the world today. Larger countries with long histories, such as Greece, the birthplace of modern democratic ideals, and corporate giants, that used to create the jobs and branding for their country, like Nokia, have been felled by accelerating forces of change in the world.

15. So, we must not be complacent. We need to adapt, embrace change and turn it to our advantage. As a people, Singaporeans have not only endured and survived change, but learnt to embrace and master it.

16. We can do it once more, together. We are the new pioneers; be resilient in the face of new challenges.

17. Ultimately, Singapore is founded on the singular belief in making the lives of our people better. We are independent so that we can shape our own destiny, and we must continue to put the people first in all that we do.

18. We want to build a society, not just a business or an economy. To safeguard the well-being of the people, there must be the courage and humility to change where circumstances change. We must not be followers of ideologies, but be clear-headed about what works, and what will not work, so that we can do the right things.

19. We must also know and remember where we come from to preserve our strength and unity. We must remember that the path that we took was never easy. We must remember the sacrifices of our pioneers in the pursuit of better lives for all. We must never forget these or let ourselves slip into complacency. And we must love our home, what we grew up with, our values, culture and history.

20. If we do, we will always seek to give back, and make sure that this place will survive and thrive for the years, decades, and centuries ahead.

21. This year has brought our Singapore Character to the fore. There have been situations that required us to pull together, to care for one another, and to remember the sacrifices that have been made to bring us here.

22. Singapore Character has been foundational to Singapore’s success. We care for one other, we have a quiet strength. It is a Character that has grown out of Singapore specifically. We don’t have Character that draws on the great natural wealth or long history. We have Character that grows out of the ingenuity, dedication, resilience, compassion of one another - and that’s how our character has formed.

23. We need not be boastful about this, but we should recognise it, and recognise that this is a part of us that we treasure, that we want to see live on in Singapore.

The Role of Universities

24. Now, you must be wondering why I am talking about the Singapore Character at this event? Because our universities and academics have an important role in fostering the Singapore Character.

25. Singapore Character is continually formed:

  • Through every relationship;
  • Throughout our lives;
  • Through good times and bad.

26. Institutions of learning, especially, have a special role to play in moulding the character of a nation. They embody and reflect the values of our society, serving as repositories of the national culture and ethos. Institutions of learning must themselves have this Singapore Character.

27. University is not just a place to absorb knowledge or discover knowledge, for knowledge’s sake. University has to have a different sense of purpose. This applies to all our education institutions, be it our ITE, polytechnics, or our schools. They should be places for us to continually rejuvenate our thinking, discover and create, and kindle our passion for learning.

28. But beyond these, they must also serve to help us:

  • find and act on ways to be of service to others,
  • to shape ethics, values, and sense of empathy,
  • in other words, to grow their Character.

29. Our universities can develop a Singapore Character in the following ways:

  • Focus on holistic education that develops, not just the academic knowledge of our students, but the whole person.
  • Keep Singaporeans resilient by equipping them with the knowledge and skills to face future changes; support lifelong learning and innovation and develop deep skills in 21st Century Competencies.
  • Our universities must also engage society and serve as a space to build the community spirit and nurture a commitment to serve others - nurture a strong Singaporean core with a passion for Singapore. This core helps be our compass and anchor as we chart our way into the brave new world of the future.
  • To develop confidence in our identity, as a nexus between the outside world and Singapore. This will allow us to continue to look outwards for ideas and to stay open to the world, adapt ideas to our conditions so that this can be useful for Singapore.

30. Let me give a specific example, our National Institute of Education (NIE), which trains our teachers. NIE studies and researches education systems and pedagogical innovations from around the world. But we must adapt these ideas in the Singapore context and this requires a deep understanding of our unique social, historical, cultural, and socio-economic circumstances. In other words, we need a Singapore Character in NIE.

31. Now, how does an institution like NIE make an impact? Not from the number of papers it publishes or the number of papers cited, but really, the ultimate impact of NIE is on students across all schools. If our students succeed, if our schools succeed, NIE would have made an impact. Its research work and teaching of our students help to contribute to that success, and I am very glad that NIE is doing this. What I said about NIE is true not just of NIE, but practically every area of academic endeavour.

32. If you look at our research work in the sciences and technology, the amount of research that we do in medicine, science and technology, is a fraction of what the whole world is doing. What would allow our work and our institutions to stand out, be distinctive? I believe it can be distinctive and can stand out if it is relevant, first, to Singapore and it contributes to that success, as the success of Singapore will demonstrate that it has significance. When that happens, it will also be relevant to the world and we can make our contribution to the world that way. So, whether it is in the area of science and technology, or in the humanities, I believe the same principles apply.

33. To do that, we need the people at the core of our universities to have the heart for Singapore, and a love for home. It is essential for our universities to continue to have a strong Singapore Character. As teaching or research talent, our academics can do a number of things, such as:

  • Give voice to your generation, like poet and English Literature Professor Edwin Thumboo. He expanded our mental and cultural horizons. He gave a voice to our people, through poems like Ulysses by the Merlion.
  • Help build the nation, like Professor Lee Seng Lip, a civil engineer. He was involved in icons like Changi Airport’s control tower and the Marina Bay Sands, and he did R&D work that aids land reclamation projects.
  • Be a pioneer, like the late Professor Wong Hock Boon. He founded Singapore’s first paediatrics department in 1962. He did pioneering work in paediatrics, and raised the level of paediatric care in the country.

34. Often it takes a home-grown Singaporean to have this Character, to have this deep understanding of our society, but not always. We can find kindred souls from elsewhere. I am happy that we have friends from around the world with a heart for Singapore, in the past and the present. In our universities and institutions, we have many friends, academics and professors who share our conviction, our values and who are a part of our university.

35. The most famous example that Singaporeans can relate to is the late Dutch Professor Albert Winsemius. Professor Winsemius was fully committed to Singapore’s success. He had courage, humility; he was prepared to pioneer. He had a very clear goal in mind - the success of Singapore, the success of our economy and opportunities for our people.

36. I met his son recently (he himself is a distinguished professor), who told me that, even into his old age, Professor Winsemius would continually scan the news for Singapore when he was back in Holland, and be happy when he learnt we were doing well - that is a heart for Singapore.

37. So, a part of our Singapore Character must be the ability to find, recognise, and embrace these kindred souls. We must continue to seek the best both from home and from abroad, look for ways to interact with, learn from, exchange ideas with the world, and learn from the best that the world has to offer, even as we bring out the best in ourselves and our people.

38. So, I hope this Singapore Character flourishes in all the award recipients. Gain, apply, share, and grow knowledge, with a strong core of values and understanding of the society we serve with our work. Your legacy would not be measured by the output of work, but by the number of lives you touch - for the better.

39. I hope that you will couple the love for discovery with a passion for teaching and serving others.

Investing in the Singaporean Core

40. The Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent scheme acts on our hope to build the Singapore Character. Through you, we continue to grow our Singaporean core and our Singapore Character in our universities. You can not only teach, but also guide, mentor, inspire, and be role models.

41. So, my heartiest congratulations to all our award recipients. I hope you see this as a step on a journey of lifelong learning and lifelong discovery. The most valuable part of this award/scholarship is not the scholarship, but the mentorship by our top professors and researchers. They will guide you in research, and share the demands and opportunities of an academic’s life, so that you can better adapt, succeed, and make a contribution. So, make full use of this opportunity.

42. I would like to commend our academics for serving as mentors, and NUS and NTU for taking the lead to groom Singaporean talent through this scholarship.

43. I hope that in the coming years, all our institutions will strongly support this national effort to nurture future generations of Singaporean academics. MOE is committed to providing strong support for all the institutions to do so.

44. In addition to this scholarship, I am also pleased to announce that as part of the effort to grow the Singapore core, all Singaporean students doing PhD or Masters by Research in our Autonomous Universities and supported by the Ministry of Education’s research scholarships will receive CPF contributions from their universities, starting from this month. Along with this, they will also receive increases to their stipends. These will help lower the opportunity cost for them while they are doing their postgraduate research programmes.

45. Through the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent scheme and enhancements to the Research Scholarship, we want to better support aspiring academics and our research talent pool. We do this in recognition of the importance and contributions of academics and researchers to our society and importance of building the Singapore Character in our institutions.

46. We hope it will help Singaporeans who are passionate about a career in academia to seize this opportunity to learn from others, to develop yourselves to join our universities and go on to teach and inspire learning in others. We hope the students who benefit will reflect deeply on how you can give back to others.

47. Once again, my heartiest congratulations and all the best in your journey. Thank you.

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