Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Launch of Prof Arnoud De Meyer's Book, "Building Excellence in Higher Education: Singapore's Experience", at the Singapore Management University

Published Date: 21 February 2022 06:00 PM

News Speeches

Dato' Kho Hui Meng,

Ambassadors of the European Union, and the Kingdom of Belgium,

Professor Arnoud De Meyer,

Professor Cheong Hee Kiat,

Distinguished guests,

Good evening.


1. Thank you for the invitation to join you at the launch for the book authored by Professor De Meyer, on the history and future of Singapore's higher education sector. Congratulations to Prof De Meyer!

2. Professor De Meyer contributed much in shaping our higher education landscape.

  1. As the founding Dean of INSEAD's Asia Campus in Singapore, he saw Asia's growing importance in the 1990s and the role that INSEAD could play in developing and tapping on talent and networks in the region.
  2. As the fourth and longest-serving President of SMU, he spearheaded initiatives that reflect his deep commitment to innovation and transformation. This includes an emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurial skills to prepare students for the future, and internationalising the SMU brand to nurture students as global citizens.

3. The book launch is timely. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the disruptions to education and created opportunities for us to lock in the gains to transform education, particularly higher education.

4. Taking a leaf from Prof De Meyer's book, I will share three thoughts on how we must position our universities for the future. I would particularly like to draw on one phrase from the book – "fit for purpose". Singapore's education system is constantly evolving, because the circumstances are constantly changing. Any education system that does not evolve with the times will become obsolete. In order to evolve, we must ensure that our systems and processes are fit for purpose.

Governance Models and Leadership Teams That Are Fit for the Times

5. First, governance of the higher education sector and the development of leadership teams must be fit for the times.

6. As our higher education system evolves to meet our economic needs and keep pace with the aspirations of our citizens, our universities have also become large and complex organisations.

  1. Our oldest universities, NUS and NTU, have grown in size, function and stature over time. Today, they are world class research-intensive comprehensive universities overseen by boards comprising industry captains, as well as leaders from people and private sectors.
  2. New autonomous universities (AUs), SMU, SUTD, SIT and SUSS, were set up to respond to changing economic needs and aspirations, and significantly broadened the diversity and porosity of pathways. Today, they are peaks of excellence in our landscape. In total, the six AUs are over 100,000 strong at any one time.
  3. The Government has invested heavily in keeping education affordable for all. We provide generous support to the universities to build up sizeable endowments to achieve self-sustainability, and to ensure that no Singaporean is denied a place in university for financial reasons.

7. Our universities' governance systems and leadership teams must therefore keep up with the complex task of leading and managing large numbers of staff and students, wide ranging disciplines, and sizeable budgets.

8. To begin with, leadership and stewardship are key.

  1. Our institutions have benefited from excellent leaders at the helm, with vision and foresight. We must continue to find ways to diversify talents and skills to run the universities well – from research, to teaching and management.
  2. The conventional system of relying heavily on a stream of talent from pure academia, or pure researchers, or pure teaching staff, is no longer adequate. Instead, we need leadership teams with complementary leadership skills in research, teaching and management. There must be multiple pathways of success within the ecosystem, for staff across the research, teaching and leadership tracks. How we attract and nurture diverse talents in our universities will be a key challenge and opportunity for us.
  3. Talent and expertise could also come from outside academia. The universities must co-opt talent who can bridge academia and industry, deepen links with the rest of the ecosystem, and validate academic research with real-world applications.

9. From foundational research to applied learning, our universities have different niches and strengths. New, innovative models of organising faculty have also emerged over time, not just in Singapore but across the world. We must pay attention to how others are evolving their system and draw lessons for ourselves to meet our changing needs.

  1. Take for example the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), which does not have a tenure track, nor is it structured with traditional faculties. Instead, academic staff are organised according to clusters, and professors are encouraged to collaborate, share resources, and teach progammes across relevant disciplines.
  2. This better equips faculty and students to tackle multidisciplinary challenges of today and tomorrow, and allows for the development of programmes to meet new and emerging needs. There are examples from other parts of the world where faculty specialise in teaching, research and management. This is because universities today are no longer monolithic institutions. They are complex organisations with tens of thousands of people, a large faculty, sizeable endowment and budget, and that is why the skillsets to lead and manage universities are one order of magnitude different from the past.

From Institutes of Higher Learning to Institutes for Continual Learning

10. Second, our Institutions of Higher Learning must evolve into Institutes for Continual Learning, to keep pace with the world.

11. We must dispense with the thinking that front-loading education can prepare us for the rest of our lives. Instead, I've always hoped our students will be EELS – Eternal and Engaged Learners.

12. Our vision is to have a pervasive culture of lifelong learning, starting with nurturing a curiosity for and joy of learning, from young.

13. This calls for a more agile education and training system – one that allows Singaporeans to have multiple points of re-entry into the education system, to continually acquire and master the skills needed to meet changing needs. Maybe I should correct myself – re-entry is not exactly the right word. We hope our students will never leave the education system. In a lifelong system, there is no exit and no re-entry. We just keep learning throughout our lives. It also means different learning journeys. Universities will need to engage with different modes of pedagogy and andragogy, marshal digital technology, and the motivation of working adults to learn. As Professor De Meyer pointed out, singularly academic or on-the-job training will no longer be sufficient preparation. The challenge is how do we bring forth these two concepts of both learning and working at the same time. We cannot apply the pre-employment training concept to the continuing education training concept because the challenges and opportunities faced by our adult learners are fundamentally different from those faced by our young students.

14. We are not starting from scratch. SMU, for instance, is already well-poised for this transformation. It has a distinctive pedagogy centered on experiential and collaborative learning, and offers a wide range of professional and continuing education programmes to those seeking to upskill and reskill. As a university in the city, the city also becomes its living lab, with opportunities to partner with companies. SUSS also uses a flexible, modular, blended approach with significant online provisions; adult learners benefit from their "learn today, apply tomorrow" orientation.

15. Imagine if, in the future, students never quite "graduate"– they leave with a Bachelor of Business Management, but return in their 30s to pursue a graduate certificate in digital transformation, and in their 40s for an executive course in leadership and people management.

16. So I agree with Professor De Meyer that the concept of "alumni" will become a relic of the past.

Technology-Enabled and Technology-Enriched Learning

17. These transformations will be enabled and enriched by technology. The pandemic accelerated new possibilities – for example, through adaptive and self-directed learning, and virtual tools for collaboration and communication at any time and place. If we can do this well, we can truly realise our vision that learning is an activity that anyone can undertake anytime and anywhere. That is our holy grail, not just for young students but for adults.

18. In a technology-dependent learning environment, the responsibility for learning design shifts from educators to students. Individuals must take charge of their learning. This can be a game changer – unlocking a new paradigm of access for adult learners who have very diverse needs. Our universities have started, and must continue, in this direction.

Closing the RIE Cycle

19. The third thrust to prepare students for a fast-evolving workplace, is closing the Research, Innovation and Enterprise, or "RIE", cycle. This means a closed cycle where research informs industry solutions, and where leading industry skills and knowledge also reach the labs and classrooms. The cycle must be compressed, for us to remain at the cutting edge. I've always said, whoever can close the learning cycle from academia to the frontier of business and loop back to academia most quickly will be the champions of tomorrow. The competitive advantage for us as individuals and as a nation is no longer size or resources. Instead it is the speed of evolution – how we close the RIE cycle as fast as possible so that we can outpace the competition.

20. Professor De Meyer raises three useful suggestions for this:

  1. First, academics must shift their focus to interactions with industry, to enhance the flow of R&D results to commercial applications.
  2. Second, university departments can adopt concepts from industry, such as design thinking and agile methodology, to speed up the translation of R&D into innovation.
  3. Third, young Singaporeans must be encouraged to develop curiosity about countries in our region. ASEAN countries are among the fastest growing economies in the world, with many exciting opportunities. For Singapore, we cannot go global without going regional. I would add one other observation – there are also fast-evolving practices on how large organisations organise themselves to compete in a complex and uncertain world. And this is where our universities can learn from organisational developments and transformation that are happening beyond universities.

21. I am heartened to see that our universities are on the same page.

  1. They have been working to shorten the RIE cycle, by forging new partnerships and tightening the nexus between academia and industry. This helps to ensure the continued relevance of academic offerings and university faculty to the prevailing issues of the day.
    1. For example, corporate labs established in universities enable faculty, researchers, and students to work alongside companies on research with direct relevance for the industry.
    2. Pedagogical innovations such as SMU-X, which was pioneered by Professor De Meyer, have also drawn students closer to industry and society. Students are given opportunities to work with companies and social organisations to tackle real-life, multi-disciplinary problems, before they even graduate.
  2. The universities also prioritise overseas exposure for students, particularly to the ASEAN region, and have provided remote opportunities to overcome travel constraints. At this moment in time, we have both a challenge and opportunity. Due to the disruptions in travel over the last few years, whoever can resume connections and intensify those connections with the external world most quickly will have an advantage in the post-COVID world. I have every intention for our universities and Singapore to be at the leading edge of this effort.

22. MOE will continue to support the universities to ramp up efforts in these areas, and we look forward to an even more diverse and vibrant university ecosystem, for lifelong learners.


23. In conclusion, we will build upon current strengths and step up existing efforts to re-orient our institutions to a continual learning landscape. We have a system with strong governance, with continuing investment in education and R&D, and collaboration with partners within and outside Singapore. This underpins the success of our universities today. These are evergreen principles to hold on to.

24. For Singapore to succeed, Singaporeans must adopt the mindset of Learning for the rest of our lives and Learning throughout Life. Our universities will support this bigger societal shift. For our universities to succeed, we must always challenge ourselves to make sure we are organised well and fit for purpose, as Prof de Meyer has said. No university, no management system can remain static, invariant and unchanging in the face of evolving circumstances and challenges. The faster we are able to evolve our leadership and management team to draw on diversity of strengths, the better we will be able to overcome challenges and seize opportunities that come with the challenges. On that note, I thank Prof De Meyer for your years of contribution to Singapore and our higher education system, and I look forward to working closely with all of you to bring our universities to the next higher plane.

25. Thank you.

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