Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, At Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)’S 10th Year Anniversary

Published Date: 10 July 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Mr Lee Tzu Yang, Chairman, SUTD

Mr Philip Ng, Founding Chairman, SUTD

Prof Chong Tow Chong, President, SUTD

Prof Thomas Magnanti, President Emeritus, SUTD

Board members

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Thank you for inviting me. I have not walked the historical journey of SUTD, but I hope to walk the future journey of SUTD.

2. We set up this university in 2009. Before that, we only had three Autonomous Universities (AUs) – NUS, NTU and SMU. But post SUTD, we set up SIT and SUSS as well, making it a total of six AUs today. The establishment of SUTD therefore marks a turning point in the development of the university landscape here, when we begin to have universities with distinctive offerings and niche strengths, presenting students with many more choices.

Uniqueness of SUTD

3. So, how is SUTD unique? It is unique in its objective to equip Singaporeans with the right skills in an environment where technology is advancing rapidly, the world is more globally connected than ever, and the boundaries between disciplines are blurring, or they may not even exist. And with these objectives in mind, SUTD worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and ZheJiang University to co-create a curriculum with this unique emphasis on technology and design innovation.

4. The university, as you know, is organised in pillars, doing away with traditional faculties. Many Presidents and Chancellors told me this is a great idea. Teaching in SUTD is grounded in the needs of industries and focused on solving real-world challenges. This permeates all programmes at SUTD and throughout all levels of study. The Provost of MIT told me, if they could wind back the clock and build up MIT all over again, they would probably design it just like SUTD.

5. From their Freshmore terms (which is the first three terms), students are introduced to design concepts, under SUTD’s teaching framework called “Big-Design”. Students work in teams, undertake projects that are design-focused and which address real-world issues. And through these projects, they learn how to identify problems, pinpoint users’ needs, brainstorm ideas, create prototypes and develop solutions. And actually among all these processes, identifying problems is probably the most difficult.

6. During their time in SUTD, students would have completed more than 20 design projects and honed their ability to devise user-centric solutions to today’s complex problems. This culminates in their final year Capstone experience, where they are involved in the largest and most complex project throughout their studies, and these are predominantly commissioned by companies with real problems to solve.

7. An education in SUTD exposes students to many good skills and also to the world. All students are offered the opportunity for overseas exposure, particularly to ASEAN and East Asian countries. Through these immersion programmes, students can better understand the region and build relationship networks. About 600 SUTD students have participated in cross-cultural exchanges at Zhejiang University thus far, and worked with the University’s faculty and their industry partners on various design projects.

Achievements of SUTD

8. After being around for ten years, what are SUTD’s achievements? They are in four areas - teaching, entrepreneurship, adult learning and research.

9. In teaching, SUTD’s graduates are highly sought after by employers. Amongst all the AUs, SUTD’s graduates have the highest employment rate – at 94% - as well as starting salaries. Employers have consistently given good feedback about the quality of SUTD graduates. This is a very important achievement for a young university.

10. Many SUTD graduates are also budding entrepreneurs. I met Foo Zhi Chuen recently. He shared with me about his start-up, called MOVEINC, which is currently incubated at the SUTD Entrepreneurship Centre. Zhi Chuen believes that that all persons with disabilities should be able to move around freely and at a low cost. So he studied how persons with disabilities journey through our public transport system, which is a design thinking discipline, and then he used his design thinking skills to create a device that can be attached to wheelchairs, to help them navigate our trains as well as the buses more easily. This project is commendable both in terms of its creativity and social cause. I am confident SUTD will produce many more Zhi Chuens.

11. Last year, SUTD expanded its course offerings for adult learners with the launch of the SUTD Academy and thereby contribute immensely to our adult learning landscape. One of the signature programmes developed by the SUTD Academy is the ModularMasters programme, which helps working adults attain skillsets in emerging areas through bite-size courses. The modular programmes include cyber security and strategic digital marketing. SUTD Academy further collaborated with Apple to develop app development courses using the Swift programming language.

12. In research, SUTD’s approach is multidisciplinary, technology- and design-centric. True to its mission of serving societal needs, SUTD worked with companies, government agencies and institutions to develop solutions in areas such as robotics, the Internet of Things and cybersecurity.

13. For example, SUTD is working with the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to use data from sensors, surveys and behavioural studies to inform future town planning and housing design. SUTD’s Temasek Laboratories is also working with the Defence Science Organization to design and develop robot systems. SUTD has now secured over $346 million of external research funding between 2010 to 2018 – this is a validation of the value of its research.

14. In 2018, SUTD was named by MIT as one of the top emerging engineering schools in the New Engineering Education Transformation Initiative. This puts SUTD alongside renowned engineering education institutions such as University College London in the UK, Charles Sturt University in Australia, and University of Technology Delft in the Netherlands.

15. I mentioned a lot about engineering and design. But I should not forget that in research, SUTD, led by Professor Lim Sun Sun, also has a Humanities Programme, and also does active research in this area. I have a feeling that Humanities research here is also differentiated from other universities, by being a lot more quantitative and design-focused. So even in Humanities research, they are bringing something quite unique to the table.

Future of SUTD

16. What is then in store for SUTD’s future? In short, it will have to raise your ambitions, overcome more challenges, sharpen your distinctive strengths, and deliver even better results.

17. And I would say the key thrust of what you need to do, is to champion design as a discipline. Design is a horizontal expertise that cuts across all sectors and activities. It is about how we identify problems, bring together multiple disciplines, and take a user perspective to solve the problem, through a practical iterative process of prototyping, testing and improvement. Do, fail and re-do again. In this regard, SUTD will embark on the following.

18. First, SUTD will continue to build up its course offerings to promote design education. This year, SUTD will be launching a new Masters programme in Innovation by Design – a first in Singapore. SUTD is also developing a new Bachelor degree programme in design and Artificial Intelligence. The new programme aims to nurture a new generation of designers and innovators.

19. Second, SUTD will bring the concept of technology and design to specific sectors to drive further growth and progress. The university has identified four sectors - Healthcare, Aviation, Cities, and Data Science, which are closely aligned with Singapore’s economic growth priorities. And we are starting to see some exciting developments.

20. For example, in healthcare, SUTD partnered Duke-NUS to offer a Special Track to equip future clinicians with design-thinking and inter-disciplinary skills. SUTD also appointed clinicians from Changi General Hospital as adjunct staff, who offer their industry expertise, conduct guest lectures, mentor student projects and collaborate with SUTD faculty on design projects and research.

21. SUTD recently signed an agreement with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore to set up an Aviation Studies Institute focusing on research into air traffic management, economics and emerging aviation technologies. If we examine and we visit Terminal 4 and Jewel, we will notice that these are not just engineering feats, they are in fact crucibles of innovation, where many new ideas are tested and deployed.

22. SUTD is working towards contributing to the development of the new Terminal 5, by actively test-bedding ideas, creating prototypes, to bring research and innovation to life in the new terminal. So I urge SUTD to continue building and strengthening partnerships with all these major stakeholders, including Changi Airport, and make its mark in shaping the development of our economy.


23. In conclusion, I would like to congratulate SUTD on your significant achievements over the past 10 years. It is an important milestone for SUTD, and for the development of Singapore’s education sector.

24. I interacted with several Education Ministers from all around the world in the past months at international meetings. Every system in the world is juggling with competing objectives. One, you need to meet the aspirations of the young, who want to attend universities. Two, university fees must be affordable to the students as well as to the Government, and three and very importantly, graduates must be able to secure meaningful employment that are commensurate with the skills and knowledge that they have attained. We need to meet all three competing objectives, so that university education continues to be a force for social mobility and for human progress and societal progress.

25. In the US, affordability becomes a big problem, as university dropout rates and student loan default rates are high. The UK is trying to support more STEM education in the universities but is constrained by budget. Many countries are grappling with graduate unemployment and graduate underemployment, which is why in China, they’re implementing a big plan to turn many of their universities into applied learning institutions.

26. Singapore is not spared from this difficult juggling act. We need policies therefore, to keep our economy vibrant and diverse. We coupled general education funding with a significant means-tested bursary system to ensure that a lack of income does not become an obstacle to good public university education. And we must continue to introduce courses that are applicable and relevant to the industries. In this regard, SUTD is making an immense contribution.

27. And as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of SUTD today, there are many people we should thank and remember for their efforts. Dr Tony Tan, who was Chairman of MOE’s International Academic Advisory Panel (IAAP), and served as the advisor to the Committee on Expansion of the University Sector; he was the one who mooted the idea. As President of the Republic of Singapore, he was Chancellor of SUTD. After he stepped down as President of Singapore, we invited him to continue as the Chancellor, which he has graciously accepted.

28. And then there was Dr Ng Eng Hen, who was the Minister for Education, and who led the efforts in establishing SUTD. Mr Philip Ng, who took on the Chairmanship, and Professor Tom Magnanti and Professor Chong Tow Chong, who became founding President and Provost. There are also many founding Board members who have stayed throughout the ten years. Thank you very much.

29. There is also Mr George Yeo, who is sitting in the audience. Without him, you will not have four beautiful pavilions at SUTD. I must of course also thank current Chairman Mr Lee Tzu Yang, for accepting my invitation to Chair the Board of SUTD. Mr Lee at that time had just retired from Shell, and I know someone like him would have many retirement job offers, but he agreed to take on SUTD despite having so many responsibilities. For that, I am truly grateful.

30. I believe SUTD will grow stronger. I hope to see more outstanding leaders and innovators passing through your hallways, more exciting start-ups being incubated and brought to market, and more impactful research being produced, as you continue to stay true to your mission to better the world by design. Thank you very much.

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