Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at the Closing Ceremony of the Asian Undergraduate Summit, NUS University Town

Published Date: 03 July 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Rector, Euleen Goh

NUS President, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan

Colleagues, friends, guests

Ladies and Gentlemen


1. Thank you for inviting me to this event.

2. First, I want to congratulate the NUS University Scholars Programme (USP) for hosting such a difficult conference – the Asian Undergraduate Summit (AUS) 2017. It is not easy to organise a conference for a few hundred undergraduate students, from nine other universities spread over six countries, and over two separate legs of the conference – one overseas, and one here in Singapore. I am sure your hard work is well-appreciated.

Universities and Cities

3. We live in a time of great change. This is what we tell our students because each batch of students start university life amidst great change. What is different for this batch of students today, is that change is more rapid and exponential, compared to the past. This is driven by technology, and we know this will change your education experience, work experience, and it will also change the city, country and society.

4. Today I thought to link education with living in a city. I’ll start by telling the tales of two cities. We all know how technology is changing the world, and how that is affecting our economies and societies. In the process, some cities have fallen by the wayside. But others are thriving under the new circumstances. I will cite the examples of two such cities.

5. And both have benefitted from the presence of their universities. Because universities can also have a transformative effect on their host cities. They can be one of the critical foundation stones upon which entire economies and communities can grow and flourish.


6. The first city is Bordeaux in France, which I just visited last week. I was representing the Ministry of Defence at the Paris Airshow, and made a side trip to Bordeaux, where the Republic of Singapore Air Force conducts fighter pilot training in the vicinity.

7. We all know Bordeaux for its wine, but it is far more than that. Once a polluted industrial complex, there are now new green spaces, improved modern infrastructure, and a vibrant culinary scene – the last of which pairs naturally with wine. People from all over the world go there for food and wine tourism.

8. But more importantly, as the mayor of Bordeaux, Mr Alain Juppe, explained to me, Bordeaux is now a centre for innovation and enterprise in France. Over the past twenty years, the city has reinvented itself both physically and economically. Close proximity to Bordeaux’s universities, such as the University of Bordeaux and other top specialised engineering and business schools, played a big part in the transformation.

9. The city leveraged the research facilities and technology incubators of the universities to establish Bordeaux as a French Technology Hub. The city has therefore successfully attracted and sustained a dynamic cluster of start-ups.

10. Furthermore, under the leadership of Mayor Juppe, Bordeaux successful applied for, and turned its entire old city centre into a UNESCO Heritage Site. But being a Heritage Site does not mean the place is frozen in time and left to deteriorate. On the contrary, as I was jogging around the old town in the morning, I saw teams of rubbish trucks and automated road sweepers clearing the trash and cleaning the streets. A modern tram that taps electricity from the ground, rather than an unsightly overhead catenary, runs through the old city. Shops were contemporary and diverse. It was a mix of old charm and modern chic.

11. France has a problem in youth unemployment, which is about 25% nationwide. But young people are flocking into Bordeaux, to study, to network, start new companies, create jobs, and enjoy its lifestyle and environment. They in turn add further to the energy and life of the city.

12. While I was there, I stayed at a small hotel near the old city, and the staff were all young people. The night before I was to go home, they asked me what time I would like to have breakfast the next day. I told them it’s ok, I will skip breakfast, because I had to wake up at 430am to catch a flight. They said around the clock, someone was always on duty to see to the needs of guests. So, breakfast would be ready by 430am!

13. This is not the France that is commonly caricaturised – with a 35 hour work week and workers going on strike and protesting all the time.


14. The second city is a famous example, which is Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, America.

15. Pittsburgh experienced massive job losses and urban decay after the United States steel industry was downsized in the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1982 alone, over 150,000 steel mill workers were laid off – that’s larger than the Singapore Public Service. Its population also fell by 6% between 1980 and 1990 as young people left to look for jobs.

16. While the steel industry went, the local universities, in particular Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), reinvented themselves and then the city. Instead of offering courses that catered to heavy industries, they began to explore new high-technology sectors such as biotechnology, IT, and clean energy. By the 1990s, CMU was leading a complete transformation of Pittsburgh from a declining Rust Belt town into a thriving IT and innovation hub.

17. CMU launched hundreds of start-ups, created thousands of jobs. Many went through CMU’s Greenlighting Startups initiative, which was a campus-wide network of resources for commercialising ideas. They form the core of an ecosystem of over 1,600 technology companies in Pittsburgh today. It launched the Swartz Centre for Entrepreneurship in 2016, a new hub that offers unique paths of education, engagement, and collaboration across different disciplines and communities, to provide more holistic support for entrepreneurs.

18. Big tech firms are also drawn by the wealth of talent that has now settled in Pittsburgh. Google converted a 100-year-old unused industrial factory into its new office. Uber hired robotics researchers from CMU to refine its self-driving car programme. Facebook’s research facility there deals specially with its state-of-the-art Oculus virtual reality platform.

19. Economic vibrancy has breathed life into a city that was once left in despair, by transforming its streets, re-growing its population, and providing it with new purpose. Unemployment has remained low, violent crime is declining, and the city waterfront has been redeveloped with cycling paths, sports venues, and residences. Pittsburgh was recently ranked as the top place in America for recent college graduates to kick-start their careers.

Lessons for a Vibrant Region

20. Today’s event is one of eleven universities and nine cities – you are collectively from Bangkok, Ho Chi Min City, Hong Kong, Incheon, New Delhi, Shanghai, Surabaya, Yogyakarta and Singapore. What can we learn from the tales of these two cities?

21. The first is to recognise that our fate is in our own hands. Circumstances may change but it depends on us to transform and re-position our cities.

22. The second is to recognise the profound impact of universities on the fate of cities. Because a university is the centre of knowledge discovery and teaching, and of translating knowledge into new ideas, new businesses, and new jobs. It is also a magnet for young people, with all your hopes, dreams and energy. A university therefore can be a tremendous generative and regenerative force for economies and societies, and help us stay resilient in a rapidly changing world.

23. That is why our universities are active in research, and constantly evolving their curriculum and course offerings. To be a university without change defeats the purpose of being a centre for higher learning.

24. In recent years, Singapore’s universities are also putting greater emphasis on inculcating an entrepreneurial spirit amongst their students. NUS set up the Overseas Colleges in entrepreneurial hotspots such as Silicon Valley, Beijing, and Stockholm, where enterprising students experience the fast-paced life of a start-up for up to a year, in addition to classes.

25. Similarly, students on the National Technological University’s Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme have to attend and organise entrepreneurial events at their host companies. The Singapore Institute of Technology’s Enterprise Immersion Programme is also a robust and hands-on entrepreneurship programme.

26. The third lesson is that between cities and universities, the more connected we are, the more we learn from one another, and the more successful we can be. There is a network effect between centres of learning. If we can work together, maybe beyond transforming cities we can transform a region like Southeast Asia or ASEAN.

27. I am glad that our universities recognise this, and are making good progress in providing their students with overseas, especially regional, opportunities, which broaden students’ perspectives and give them insights into our diverse and vibrant region. Meetings such as the Asian Undergraduate Summit provide an excellent platform for networking and collaboration, even well after the Summit ends.

28. If each of our universities can add vibrancy to our cities, just as they did for Bordeaux and Pittsburgh, and if each of our cities can collaborate within a network, Southeast Asia and East Asia will be able to fulfil its potential to be one of the largest economies in the world by 2030.

29. Thank you.

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