Speech by Minister for Education Mr Lawrence Wong at Gift Agreement Signing Ceremony Between National University of Singapore (NUS) and SEA

Published Date: 29 March 2021 03:00 PM

News Speeches

Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, NUS Chairman
Prof Tan Eng Chye, NUS President
Mr Forrest Li, Sea Chairman and Group CEO

Distinguished Guests, Faculty and Students, Ladies and Gentlemen

1. I am very happy to join you today, to witness the signing of this gift agreement between Sea and NUS.

2. These are of course unprecedented times. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on countries everywhere. No one can tell how long the pandemic will continue. We would of course like to be able to resume our usual activities, but unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. There are still many COVID-19 cases all over the world, which means that the virus will continue to mutate. The new mutant virus variants can be more infectious, more deadly, and more resistant to the current batch of vaccines. So please don't an expect an "all clear" from COVID-19 anytime this year.

3. Of course, at some point, the pandemic will pass. Will there then be a return to the pre-COVID-19 normal? If you look back at history, that has happened before. For example, after the Spanish Flu pandemic killed more than 50 million people worldwide, the world bounced back very quickly. It was indeed a return back to normal and we experienced the golden age of the 1920s. But we should also remember that while history can be a useful guide, it doesn't always repeat itself. This time, there is a good chance that we will not be returning back to how things were before COVID-19. At least not entirely.

4. One major reason for this is because of rapid technological change. These technological changes started even before COVID-19, but the pandemic has accelerated the trends and the transition to a digital world, and it will permanently change the way we live, learn and work. For example, in schools we had one month of full home-based learning last year. Now, we are not returning back to pre-COVID normal. But we are regularising home-based learning as part of the day-to-day experience of students, so we are moving towards blended learning. For workplaces, many have become used to one hundred per cent default working from home. But now we are not moving back to going to the office entirely. Instead, we are moving to a hybrid, more flexible work arrangement where you combine both remote working as well as going back to the office. All of us as individuals must have made greater use of digital technologies and digital tools for work, for e-commerce, for all aspects of our lives in the past year, compared to all of our lifetimes. So, things are changing, even for businesses. In the past, some businesses could afford not to go digital. I think no one can take such an attitude these days. Even the most traditional companies are taking advantage of software.

5. Recently, a good friend of mine gave me a present. He said, "I know you love to play the guitar, so I'm giving you this amazing gift". It was a tuner. I was puzzled – I have been playing the guitar for forty years, and I am not short of guitar tuners. You don't even need a tuner to tune a guitar by ear. He said, "no, this is different." It was a tool, where you press a button and it tunes the guitar by itself. Even as mundane a thing as tuning a musical instrument, you can find gadgets and software to solve the problem. So the point is, in area by area, barriers have been crossed, and a new normal now exists.

6. The pace of technological change will continue to accelerate, because we have faster chips, massive data sets, and cloud computing. All this is fuelling a major AI revolution in the world. Even as we enter this new AI age, it's worth remembering that we are witnessing another major revolution in bio-engineering. The mRNA vaccines we are using today provide a small glimpse of the tremendous potential and the vast applications that can be used to improve our lives. These revolutions in computing and biology will have profound and transformational changes on our way of life.

7. We will do everything we can to prepare Singapore and Singaporeans for this new world. That's why we are not just focussed on the immediate task of controlling the infection. We are also looking ahead at what we need to do over the horizon. The Government has set up various initiatives. We have put in place an Emerging Stronger Taskforce and launched several Alliances for Action. These are industry-led coalitions to enable us to act on key growth opportunities. We are building up our capabilities and imagining new possibilities that will future-proof our businesses and livelihoods.

8. Education is a major part of this strategy, because as you heard just now from Prof Tan and Forrest, people are our only resource in Singapore. So we are fundamentally re-thinking existing structures and methods to better meet today's and tomorrow's demands. NUS itself has been at the forefront of this, restructuring and improving the way it organises itself for better teaching and learning. We are doing more to equip our students with a broader range of skills and core competencies. At the same time, we are continuing to ensure that we build up the interest and capabilities of our students in STEM. The good news is that more and more students are showing interest in coding and programming. They obviously understand where the world is moving. I think now, compared to say ten years ago, we have a lot more interest amongst parents and students for programming at a very young age. So we will expand our intake for ICT at the tertiary level, including for degree and post-graduate programmes, to meet the aspirations of our people, and also the growing needs of industry.

9. Partnership between academia and industry is crucial in all of this. As Forrest said just now, it's a powerful partnership. The traditional way of thinking about academia and industry is that they are two separate sectors that do not often overlap. Universities do their education; they confer the degrees, and companies will then recruit the "finished products" for work. Or we think that universities are the ones that undertake basic research, and then companies use this research to develop commercial solutions. But we know that such thinking is completely outdated. For example, technological progress is never a simple one-way linear progression from science to application, or from researcher to industry. It doesn't work like that in the real world. It's often a two-way street. In fact, it's an iterative dance between researchers, scientists, practical inventors, and business leaders. And we can see many examples throughout history of how such breakthroughs happen, from the development of the transistor to steam engines and powered flights, and even more recently, to breakthroughs in CRISPR and genetic engineering. It's really that whole ecosystem at work. Likewise, learning cannot just happen in the lecture halls or classrooms. Projects outside the classroom are equally, if not more, important in imparting valuable skills and giving students exposure to tackling real world problems.

10. That's why our universities recognise these benefits and they have been very proactive in bringing on board more industry partners, both for teaching and research purposes. In fact, Sea and NUS have collaborated before to develop a Work Study Degree. Both entities worked hand-in-hand to co-design and co-deliver the curriculum. And the participants of this programme are full-time Sea employees, and the classes they take are interspersed with structured on-the-job training. So it creates a constant stream of opportunities to apply their learning in a real-world context.

11. From MOE's perspective, we are heartened to see this close collaboration between NUS and companies like Sea. The agreement that is being inked today is significant, not just because of the monetary contribution, but because it reflects a further deepening and strengthening of the partnership, to do more together. We heard just now that Sea's gift will be channelled in several areas to support education, to nurture future tech talent, to grow research in fields like AI and Data Science, and to support promising projects. I think that's very fitting because, as highlighted earlier, the movement to digital life will be broad, and will come quickly. So this contribution will certainly complement the Government's efforts and investments in all our rapidly emerging technological areas.

12. The gift from Sea, however, is important not just for economic reasons. I think the crisis has prompted all of us to reflect more deeply on what's really important to us, and the kind of society we want Singapore to be. We want a fairer and more equal society, a greener and more sustainable nation, and an inclusive and more united Singapore. These objectives are achieved not just through Government policies. The private sector must be involved. Businesses must do their part – to be good corporate citizens, to strengthen the culture of responsibility for one another, and to ensure that our society and economy grow in a sustainable manner.

13. Sometimes we worry that as AI becomes more developed, robots and machines will take over the role of humans. But the smarter a machine becomes at calculating and providing answers, the more it forces us to think about what is uniquely human about us, beyond our ability to calculate and to reason. What's more important is along the way, we learn to cherish the things in us that are most human – qualities like compassion and generosity, duty and honour, and our ability to transcend our own needs, and to care and look out for one another.

14. These are the human qualities exemplified by this gift from Sea today. We are glad that you are taking the lead and showing us how companies in Singapore can do well and do good at the same time. Thank you for giving back generously to NUS today. Thank you for helping future generations of young Singaporeans maximise their potential and fulfil their aspirations.

15. So, my heartiest congratulations once again to NUS and Sea for this milestone agreement. We are excited to witness the positive impact that this new collaboration will bring in the years to come. Thank you very much.

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