July 20, 2018

Speech by Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung, at the National University of Singapore Commencement Dinner 2018

The Honourable Justice Dr Chao Hick Tin

NUS Pro-Chancellors

NUS Chairman and Trustees

NUS President

Distinguished Guests


Ladies and Gentlemen

1. First of all, I am very happy to be here to witness the graduation of the Class of 2018. Please join me to congratulate the graduates.

Introduction: Tribute to NUS Leadership

2. I would like to start by acknowledging some new members in NUS’s leadership. Mr Hsieh Fu Hua is not so new – he took over as the Chairman of the NUS Board of Trustees about one and a half years ago, in January 2017. Prof Tan Eng Chye and Professor Ho Teck Hua took up their current positions as President and Senior Deputy President and Provost of NUS at the start of this year. So it has been a period of leadership renewal for NUS.

3. I must say all three gentlemen are highly sought after for various responsibilities, but all three chose to serve NUS and to serve you. Thank you Fu Hua, Eng Chye, and Teck Hua, and I look forward to witnessing this world-class university achieving even greater things under their leadership.

Achievements beyond Rankings

4. Everyone here today would know that NUS has done well in international university rankings, emerging as Times Higher Education top Asia University, for the third year running. This is a strong affirmation of the outstanding contribution of NUS management, faculty, staff, researchers and educators.

5. But we all know that university rankings do not fully reflect the quality and impact of the work of a university. Our 11th International Academic Advisory Panel met last month, and advised that Singapore’s universities should look beyond rankings and take a ‘much more variegated approach’ in assessing how well we do.

6. Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, put it very well. He said that the current ranking mechanism encourages homogeneity, when the landscape is diverse and each institution actually has a distinctive focus and objective.

7. Former NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan has a very zen approach towards rankings, which I admire greatly. When NUS rose in rankings some years ago, Chorh Chuan would send emails to all staff and remind everyone that we did not exactly know what caused it to rise, but NUS would continue to perform its core duty of educating students well and conduct impactful research, and sometimes he would even release that to the media. Then, when NUS rankings fell, he would say that we did not exactly know what caused it, but NUS would continue to perform its core duty of educating students well and conducting impactful research. I think it is a very wise attitude – know your mission, strive always to do better, acknowledge the rankings but never be consumed by it.

8. I believe we know what the core objectives of a university are today – educating our students well, conducting impactful research that improves lives, and helping our people learn for life. And these may or may not be measurable by or translate to Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs. But I believe NUS has done very well in all three areas.

Educating the Young Well

9. First, NUS provides good education to our young, and this is best reflected in student employment outcomes and how the industries and companies value their contributions, the reputation of NUS, and the credibility of their education.

10. Courses that have traditionally enjoyed good outcomes have continued to do well. For example, the civil engineering course has consistently achieved an employment rate of 95% over the past five years.

11. For courses that see relatively weaker outcomes, NUS took active steps to improve them, such as by revising their curriculum to ensure that they remain industry-relevant; or combining them with a second major or minor to broaden the students’ skillsets. For example, through the introduction of data analytics as a second major for science undergraduates, students have another set of industry-relevant skills when they step into the workforce.

12. In particular, across all the Autonomous Universities, computing-related courses have become very popular, with very strong industry demand. For the AY2018 admissions cycle, MOE effectively lifted the administrative target for AUs to increase the intake of its computing-related courses. NUS has risen to the challenge very well, and is projected to admit around 900 students this year – an almost 40% increase from last year.

13. NUS also recognises that students perform best in courses they are most interested in, and they are most likely to innovate in what they are best at. So in a bold move towards supporting students’ interest, NUS implemented the bonus points scheme this year to nudge students to apply to courses that they truly want to pursue, instead of just choosing the course that matches their grades for entry. This scheme was well-received by students, as seen from the increase in admission numbers.

Impactful Research

14. Second, NUS has contributed significantly to Singapore’s knowledge-based economy and society through your research efforts. NUS, you are breaking knowledge frontiers and establishing yourself as the leader in various fields, such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and cancer research.

15. Beyond breaking new knowledge frontiers, we are also seeing discoveries being put to practical use. Over the past three years, NUS posted more than 100 commercial licenses. With the support of NUS Enterprise, more than 40 spin-offs and 30 successful start-ups have been created.

16. Some of these companies include Patsnap, a global database and analytics platform, Dexecure, a software start-up that uses proprietary technologies to automatically optimise high-traffic websites, and Medisix Therapeutics, an early-stage cell therapy company developing novel therapeutics to address T cell leukemia and lymphomas.

17. I recently visited the newly refurbished Innovation 4.0 building. It is work in-progress and houses research talent from all over the world, from both corporates and academia, translating knowledge into practical uses. It is like a candy store, full of practical ideas, translated from knowledge to practical uses. You can feel it has great potential to become a place buzzing with great ideas, great people, great businesses, and a strong enterprising spirit. One more thing I should not forget – we have started the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) for a few years, with NUS being a heavy user of the SSRC funds. I am confident with your leadership and with everyone working together, NUS Social Science and Humanities research will also rise to the occasion by improving the public discourse to various policy thinking, being a global leader in policy thinking and making, and providing insights into social sciences and the humanities.

Lifelong Learning

18. Third, NUS has established itself at the forefront of lifelong learning. I must particularly recognise the Institute of Systems Science (ISS) at NUS because it has contributed a great deal to NUS’s Continuing Education and Training (CET) efforts by offering lifelong learning courses to adult learners. What we are doing in Singapore is quite unique. I cannot think of another country that has put lifelong learning into university by design. We see many universities that do adult learning courses, but done as a ‘by the way’, rather than by design. That makes it very different. Today, it is the front and centre of a university’s mission, and Eng Chye emphasised that it is a fundamental shift. This is because for the longest time, education is about teaching students till you are ready for work, and you take care of yourself beyond that. Now, it is a 20-year enrolment, where you keep coming back to learn because things are changing so fast due to technological advancements and industry disruptions. And therefore, the whole calculus has changed. What does it mean to be a graduate? What is the body of knowledge and skills that you need before you step out to the workforce, considering that you are going to learn for your whole life? So very profound thinking is going on in universities all over the world, but I think in Singapore, we are at the forefront of that. So every year, I think curriculum is going to change and reviews are going to keep pace.

To the Students

19. I realised I made so many speeches, but I have not made any speech about the World Cup. And I thought I could talk about it today, what I learnt about it, and how it is relevant to our graduates today. With the World Cup tournament still fresh in our minds, I would like to talk about five lessons from the tournament that may be useful in our careers and our lives.

20. First, all teams built around a star player will not do well. No matter how good the player is, no matter how good his dribbling is, no matter how good his free kick is, because he is just one person, and once you figure out his repertoire, you can contain him. That is the modern game. And just like the modern organisation, we must involve teamwork and complement diverse talents in order to do well.

21. Second, the pattern of immediate past champions crashing out after Round 1 continues. Is this coincidence, or maybe it is a pattern with a deeper reason? Maybe, it is possible that players who have won the tournament before, you come in, you have higher status, you are able to influence the make-up of the team. But if it is true, ego may come in the way of performance and that is not good. This is something you can write in a case study discussion.

22. Third, even if you have to lose and suffer a setback, do it with style. The Japanese were 2-0 up against Belgium and lost 3-2. They were devastated and sad. But they congratulated their opponents, cleaned up the stadium, and went home. To me, they are also heroes.

23. Fourth, also the most fascinating one, the use of VAR has changed the game fundamentally. There was still controversy, but at least gross injustices like scoring with the ‘Hand of God’ are now a thing of the past.

24. Observing the on-going negotiation of the division of labour between the human referees and technology was fascinating. Different leagues adopted different standards but for the World Cup, they adopted VAR – Video Assisted Refereeing. This tells us as much; that there is a negotiation going on between machines and humans.

25. But what is clear is that machines will not totally replace humans. If this were to happen in football, it means that all the judgement, artistry, and controversy surrounding the job of the referee will be gone, which is not what fans want. In fact, far from destroying jobs, technology has created more jobs in the VAR room.

26. Exercise judgement, be human, be passionate, be an expert and very importantly, understand how STEM and humanities must come together. For a science graduate, appreciate the humanities and the arts. For a humanities student, learn to use technology and at least how it works. If you can marry STEM and the arts, machines cannot replace you.

27. Finally, it takes unique and special qualities to win. To me, France and Croatia are winners. For France, I think what is unique is the diversity of their players. The majority of the team are second-generation immigrants from different countries. For Croatia, less so, you run down the team sheet, the names of the players sound quite similar, but they thrived because of their spirit, unity of purpose, and discipline.

28. Apply this to Singapore in our nation building. We know how important it is for us to forge strength through diversity as a people, to be purposeful, not to be complacent and most importantly, to stay united.

29. The World Cup provides an opportunity to remind ourselves of these lessons, but you would have learnt them too from NUS and from your schooling years.

30. And when you do well, remember to give back to society. This is part and parcel of being united. It does not have to be in the form of money and donation. Often, what we need is your time and talent. Continue your volunteer work, extend a helping hand to a friend or a neighbour in need, or mentor a student in your alma mater. Make your mark not just in your career, but in your community, in your society, in whichever field you may venture into.

31. Once again, congratulations to the Class of 2018. Thank you.