Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) at the DUKE-NUS Medical School Graduation and Hooding Ceremony

Published Date: 03 June 2017 12:00 AM

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As Thomas said, there is a very long list of distinguished people here today, so I shall keep it a little simpler.

Professor Thomas Coffman, Dean of Duke-NUS Medical School.

Past and present leaders of the school who have built up this school.

Graduands, parents, ladies and gentlemen, faculty. Good afternoon.

1. I am very happy to be here today to witness the graduation of so many different kinds of “doctors” - 47 MD, five MD-PhD, and nine PhD students. Congratulations to all of you.

Duke-NUS’s Achievements

2. The Duke-NUS collaboration is a partnership between two outstanding Universities and both, strong players on their own. It is a special project for both partners. For Duke University – it is its first overseas joint venture, and the only overseas collaboration on medical education.

3. For NUS – it’s our first entry-level graduate medical school, and it is a unique institution within our higher education system. What is more unique is the teaching model. Because not many schools or faculties can be located next to the industry it serves, but Duke-NUS is located next to the Singapore General Hospital. So the conversations between medical care and medical school are strong at the outset, and by deliberate design.

4. The graduates of Duke-NUS therefore are both medical professionals as well as clinician-scientists, who will intertwine professional practice with medical research.

5. The result is a university model which serves, I think, as a good reference for all institutes of higher education. Practitioners from SGH come here to teach; students learn through practice at SGH, and the University and SGH work together to conduct research, advance medical science, and treat patients better. There is therefore a fluidity between students, practitioners and faculty. Here, education is therefore informed by the latest research, research grounded in the realities of hospital operation, and hospital operations form part of, and are enabled by, education.

6. I would like to acknowledge the work of the College’s leadership. Thank you Professor Sanders Williams, the founding Dean, Professor Ranga Krishnan, who succeeded Sandy, and Professor Thomas Coffman, the current Dean, for building the School up into what it is today. Thank you Sandy, Ranga and Tom.

7. I also want to thank Duke University for having been such an excellent partner all these years. Duke has invested deeply in this enterprise, supporting the School in curriculum development and facilitating student and faculty exchanges, amongst other initiatives. Phase Three of the collaboration begins this year, and we look forward to many fruitful years ahead.

Doctors in Singapore’s Changing Healthcare Context

8. Let me now turn my attention to the graduating Class of 2017. You have chosen a great vocation. I am confident that in the years to come, you will continue to invest your talents, energies and time to improve yourselves and become even better doctors. Medicine is also a big investment by the government and places that are highly sought after by aspiring doctors.

9. Over the past few years, the Government increased the number of places for medicine quite significantly, first by opening Duke-NUS in 2007 and then the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in 2013. So the number of places has almost doubled since 2007, over the past ten years.

10. But notwithstanding, there are many more people wanting to study medicine than the supply of places we have, and admissions remain highly selective. Selection is not just based on academic grades, but also other qualities, such as character and the desire to serve.

11. Medical professionals therefore have a transformative impact on the communities they work in, and on the lives of the individuals they serve. Candidates are, as far as we can determine, the people with both the best minds and the best hearts for the job.

12. In my time at MOE, and I have been in MOE for almost two years, I have come across many disappointed applicants, and received many appeals from highly qualified applicants who were turned down by our medical schools.

13. So given that this is a very small, and very rare privilege, today I ask you to reflect on the responsibilities that you will bear as graduates of the school. I met some of you recently, and you have expressed some worries – is this a good time to graduate? Are there enough jobs out there? Is there a glut of doctors given that we doubled the places?

14. Let me assure you that most graduates, regardless of their discipline, all ask the same questions, regardless of what faculties they come from. But Singapore is ageing, and so are societies in the region and around the world. So the need for doctors remains unabated. I would think securing good jobs is a matter of your enterprise, your hard work, adaptability and resourcefulness. But the practice of medicine is changing, in two ways. I am not an expert, but this is what senior practitioners told me:

15. First, the types of expertise will shift in tandem with the change in demography. Palliative care is one area where there will be greater demand. The development of new systems and infrastructure to enable community-based care is another. We need doctors who can step up and serve in emerging areas of need, such as family medicine and geriatrics.

16. Second area of change, is that the general population has become a lot more educated. Patients and family members now demand a different level of service. In my case, when I fall sick, I google my symptoms, I find out as much as I can. And with half-past-six knowledge, I’ll go see the doctor, and sometimes argue with him. Very bad advice, but that’s what we do. Doctors are also no longer just expected to heal; often you are also expected to soothe, to engage, to explain, to persuade, and to involve patients in the decision-making process.

17. Increasingly, an effective doctor is one who can build relationships of care and trust with their patients and communities. These relationships are important.

18. As for the skills that you need to build these relationships – they can and should be honed, but are fundamentally a natural manifestation of your own authentic values and beliefs. What makes a good doctor is your humanity and compassion – it’s not something that comes out of an IV drip or from the steel of a surgeon’s scalpel.

Impactful Research

19. As important as it is to groom excellent doctors, to be a truly great institution Duke-NUS must also advance the medical field through impactful research. I mentioned earlier that Duke-NUS is in a unique position to draw synergy between education, research and practice.

20. For instance, take the recent Zika outbreak in South America, and the subsequent transmission to Southeast Asia. Professor Shee-Mei Lok was one of the first in the world to map the structure of the Zika virus in 2016. Last November, her team also discovered an antibody which could potentially neutralise it.

21. Professor Wang Linfa’s teams that work on emerging infectious diseases have also advanced our understanding of the dengue virus. They are now focusing their efforts on developing vaccines and treatments.

22. These are examples of research that address serious tropical diseases that Singapore has been grappling with, and make a tangible improvement to our public health. At the same time, they are of important relevance to the rest of the world, especially as global temperatures rise and mosquitoes proliferate into new territories. No surprise then, that much of this work has received much international attention.

23. The impact of research can also be realised through commercialisation. It allows researchers to extend the benefits of their discoveries to a much wider audience.

24. Take Professor David Silver, who identified the way DHA is transported to the brain, and in the process uncovered a novel method to deliver small molecule therapeutics across the blood-brain barrier. The technology was licensed to the company Babynostics, which he co-founded, and which develops clinical nutrition products and treatments for babies and mothers. May I know where is Professor David Silver sitting? Oh, there he is.

25. If I may make a suggestion to David, I think there is another area in which you can make an impact. That is to help us answer this question: With all the different brands of infant formula out there, with big differences in price but small differences in DHA level – do they really make a difference to babies when they grow up? I hope

you can help us unlock this puzzle in our great milk powder debate in Singapore. I assure you the impact will be quite immense.


26. The professors are not the only ones making waves in this school. To prepare for this speech, I asked the School for some examples of the achievements of the graduating class. I received a very long list.

27. Annadata Venkata Rukmini studied the response of the pupil to different wavelengths of light, and went on to develop a screening tool for eye diseases. Potentially, this will allow for diseases such as glaucoma to be screened directly in polyclinics.

28. Emma Du Wei researched the effect of anesthesia on patient outcomes in the third year of her MD degree. She was so good that she won both the AM-ETHOS Duke-NUS Research Fellowship Award and the Khoo Student Research Award. I hope she will continue to build on this in the years ahead.

29. Francine Tan Chiu Lan evaluated a diagnostic algorithm and discovered that it cuts down the number of consultations and time needed to diagnose patients for chest pain. The algorithm is being used at the National Heart Centre and Francine is part of the team analysing its outcomes. I met her just a few weeks ago at a Duke-NUS alumni dialogue session, and discovered that her background is in psychology, economics, and business analytics. I am sure she has drawn on the skills and experiences gained in these fields to enhance her practice, as well as the many community projects that she has been involved in. I’m sure that this is true for the rest of you too.

30. You have accomplished wonderful things during your time here, in research, patient care, and the many community-based projects that Tom mentioned earlier. I hope that you will continue to engage in these activities even after graduation. Join the alumni association, give back to the medical community that guided you through your journey, give guidance to students who will be going through the journey that you have just trodden. Keep the passion burning, and make your mark in whichever field of medicine you venture into.

31. Once again, my deepest congratulations to the graduating class of 2017.

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