Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) at the Award Ceremony of the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme (START)

Published Date: 26 July 2016 12:00 AM

News Speeches

University Presidents, Provosts, Principals

Colleagues, Parents, and Award Recipients

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. We are gathered here today to confer scholarships to 20 young Singaporean men and women, under the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme (START) Award Ceremony.

2. They are pursuing a range of disciplines – I was quite amused looking at the range, such as Land Economy, Psychology, Sociology, Physics, Engineering, Mathematics, History, and Theatre. What is unique about this scholarship is that they are also at different stages of development and training. We have five undergraduates, ten PhD students, four post-doctorate students, and one who is just starting his career. Whichever phase you are in – congratulations! I hope today’s ceremony marks the beginning of their promising and meaningful academic careers for all of you.

3. This year, START has been expanded to include the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)’s awards. Three new awards: SUTD Graduate Merit Scholarship for PhD studies; SUTD Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship; and SUTD Faculty Early Career Award. I thank all the Universities for supporting the START scheme. I would specially like to thank NTU.

4. When we think about the purposes of different professions: civil servant – to serve the public; lawyer – to uphold justice; doctor – to save lives; engineer – to build things. What does being an academic mean?

5. To answer that question, let us take a look at the world we live in today. It is a world of accelerated changes, increasing complexities, mounting challenges and flourishing opportunities.

6. Technology is advancing at exponential pace. New drugs and treatment promises to cure hitherto incurable diseases. Material science is delivering materials more durable, flexible, and lighter for a range of industrial uses. Digital technology enables us to communicate, transact, work and play in ways which we still cannot imagine.

7. Technology in turn makes the world smaller, and we are in an era of tremendous economic opportunities. Digitization, coupled with global logistics, broke down borders, such that a start-up enterprise can immediate aspire to go regional or global. This must be good for a small country like Singapore. Further, global fund flows ensure that capital goes to the best idea, whichever corner of the world they are being hatched. Intellectual property protection, which is progressively evolving into a global system, giving certainty and assurance to the inventor-entrepreneur.

8. But a globalised world brings challenges too. Urbanization continues to gathering pace, in China, India, Africa, Latin America. People are on the move, looking for a better life in the cities, stressing urban infrastructure, and necessitating better, more sustainable and forward-looking city planning.

9. A connected world, communications technology and global immigration – all these are affecting how people look at themselves, the region around them and the world. People are grappling with a new sense of identity. Am I first a citizen of my country, or a member of my regional community, or a follower of a global religion? Depending on the answer, who governs my life, where do they get their legitimacy to govern – and hence Brexit?

10. And hence politics becomes more complicated too. Government has to confront new realities and challenges. And just to cite one policy area - traditionally, being Government is often about how much and who to tax, and how much and who to distribute benefits to. Today, globalisation has widened the income gap all round the world. How does Government address this, without undermining the enterprise of business, without assaulting aspirations and self-reliance of people?

11. Amidst all these is the question of the young. It is a generation that will experience unprecedented opportunities, as well as unprecedented competition within and across borders. And education is the best gift for the young.

12. Back to the question – what does being an academic mean? It means putting yourself in the middle of all these questions I just raised, and more. A university is where academics of diverse fields and expertise gather and addresses all these issues. It is the frontier of scientific knowledge to solve mankind’s problems. It is a centres of progressive thought of new policy ideas suited to 21st century. It is a crucible for experimentation, incubator of new business ideas for the young and inspired to seize opportunities of the day. And in its most simplistic form, it is a school, for the young to be mentored, to learn to have unsafe ideas in a safe place.

13. There is no other work place that comes close to such a noble mix of objectives and missions. And that is the privilege of being an academic.

14. Hence in an earlier speech at SMU, I described Universities as a brain trust of talent and expertise across many fields. Actually I must confess that the phrase came from Professor Tan Chorh Chuan. Talents that are top of their game in research and knowledge discovery, in working with students to start enterprises, in working with industry to improve their competitiveness, in working with Government to shape polices, in teaching and guiding the young.

15. They think, analyse, confer, discover during normal times. But often when the situation calls for it, many step up to assume major leadership or public responsibilities.

16. To fulfil all its objectives well, the paths within a University to recognise different talent needs to match the diversity of talent it needs. There is some perception that University is all about research and publication. It is an inaccurate perception. A University is much much more, and such a perception if exists, needs to be corrected.

17. Diversity of talent is critical to the success of a good University. Talent can be injected. It should also be grown from within the institution; because these are often the ones, the talent who would best understand and uphold institutional culture in the long term.

18. That is why START is such an important initiative, to provide support for young, talented and passionate Singaporeans to pursue academic careers at our universities. Many before you who have walked this path contributed immensely in Government, diplomacy, medical science, industrial harmony and nurturing the young. In time, I hope that our young scholars can follow the illustrious footsteps of some of your predecessors.

19. Predecessors such as Professor Tommy Koh and Professor Chan Heng Chee, lecturers in law and political science respectively. Both became top diplomats, and helped enhance Singapore’s international standing. Professor Koh, amongst many of his accomplishment, chaired the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. Today it still has deep implications for us. Professor Chan Heng Chee continues to be active in academia, chairing the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at SUTD.

20. Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, who used to serve as a faculty member of Department of Medicine at NUS, is now NUS President. At one point, he was the Director of Medical Service in MOH, and led the public health response to the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic.

21. Professor Freddy Boey, Provost of NTU adapted his research into innovative medical devices that have advanced the quality of medical care for our patients.

22. Professor Hang Chang Chieh (not here today) has used the technology in military and aerospace industries to build intelligent control systems in consumer products that has reduced energy use.

23. One of the noblest missions of an academic is to educate the young. Here, we have an excellent example in Professor Leo Tan. As the Director of the Singapore Science Centre, he promoted science to generations of students, probably including myself. He played an active role in the establishment of NIE in 1990 and was appointed Director of NIE in 1994. During his term, he transformed NIE in terms of organizational structure, nurture a culture of excellence, established a Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice, and the Learning Sciences Laboratory. These initiatives deepen our expertise and knowhow in teaching considerably over the years. His passion and drive is a key reason why NIE could achieve global pre-eminence today.

24. Being an academic is sometimes thought of as a global enterprise. After all, research is a universal language and I think for some subjects - math, physics, languages - this may indeed be so. For others though, you must have a deep appreciation of the place, its people and history. Such disciplines include political science, policy studies and perhaps even urban planning and architecture. That is why the eminent professors I mentioned just now, can contribute so significantly to Singapore, because they saw the context of their work to our country.

25. As Singaporean academics, you bear a special responsibility because your work has, not just a global meaning - appearing in journals and media across the world - but also a very local impact. In your teaching, and increasing in traditional and social media - you influence society and the norms of our nation. This is an important measure of the meaning of academia - and one that I hope will give you inspiration and optimism.

26. On that note, congratulations again to all award recipients and I wish you all the best in your academic journey. Thank you.

Share this article: