Speeches/Interviews

July 24, 2018

Speech by Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung at the A*Star Scholarship Award Ceremony

1. I am very happy to join you here today for this scholarship award ceremony. We have 112 scholars here today. So, let us put our hands together and congratulate them.

2. But before I talk about the scholarship - once in a while, people ask “There are so many changes happening - technology is advancing, industries are being disrupted. Does Singapore have a new economic strategy?” Actually, we do, but it is not new. We have been working on this for a long time, using science and tech to break new grounds, grow new industries, create new companies, disrupt ourselves, and really raise competitiveness and productivity in a significant way.

3. Why do I say it is not new? This is because before A*STAR, we had the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) that started in 1991. In 2002, when I was still in MTI, we changed the name to A*STAR. I think that was mostly a change in name but it did not mark a big change in strategy. I think the major change in strategy happened when we launched RIE or Research, Innovation and Enterprise, and that gave rise to RIE 2015 and now RIE 2020. In 2006, there was a significant restructuring of the university sector when universities started becoming autonomous. That was actually quite major because the universities started being able to dictate their own research agenda, bring in talent, invest in research and contribute to RIE. We have thus been implementing this economic strategy for many years, and have been patiently building this up for over a decade.

4. The close observers of Singapore will realise this. We are making gradual improvements all the time. Today in research, we can see the kind of progress that A*STAR has made. In the university sector that I am in charge of, you can see rankings going high. Rankings is not everything but is indicative of the kind of research effort that has been going on in our universities, especially in the STEM area. And then you start to see results not just from research but also from the innovation end, when you see licenses being assigned, patents being filed, patents being licensed, patents being assigned, start-ups being spun off. I think we are at the cusp of seeing another wave of outcomes, which is on the enterprise end. So whether it is in A*STAR, or in the universities, start-ups are being established. Some are doing very well. They are in a range of areas, such as consumer services, fintech, and biomedical, and we’re seeing them creating employment, raising funds, venturing overseas, and setting up overseas operations.

5. At the same time, as we build up our reputation in science and tech, and demonstrate that we can do Research well, Innovation well and Enterprise well, we are starting to see investments of a different sort coming into Singapore. I think it is harder now to find a MNC opening a manufacturing plant hiring a thousand people, but we are seeing many more high-tech companies setting up corporate labs – Rolls- Royce and Alibaba, for instance. Our home-grown Grab just started a corporate lab in NUS, and there are many others. Other companies such as PayPal, IBM, and Google have set up innovation centres in Singapore, doing work for the whole global operations but using Singapore as a testbed. And then there are others using Singapore to set up model factories, for instance, Amazon Prime using Singapore to deliver services in a different way as a demonstrative project. And I sincerely hope that, after working for so many years, we are on a new S-curve driven by technology, driven by science and thanks to the work of universities, A*STAR, and many other agencies and industries, we are able to bring this about.

6. A friend just emailed me before I came and he had questions about our education system. He was worried that we were not paying enough attention to science and tech, and I assured him that we are. Today, I think there is very strong interest in science and tech amongst our young. It is very natural for young students to be interested and fascinated with science, but we must also be mindful that every student and every child has different interests. There are also those who are interested in humanities and the arts and we should have an education system that allows them to pursue their own interest and what they are strong in. Knowing that a large number of them will be interested in science and tech, we will provide them with the opportunities to do well in that area. But we must also be very mindful that to do well, to be creative, to be innovative, STEM people need to appreciate humanities and humanities people must understand technology, because it is at the intersection of disciplines that we can have innovation and creativity.

7. I have a few stories about our scholars today. There is always a proud tradition of A*STAR scholars making their mark in their chosen field of study so let me give a few examples. One is Ms. Jenny Zhang who is this year’s valedictorian, so we will be hearing her speak later. Jenny is receiving a national science scholarship for her undergraduate studies and I understand that with her interest in Artificial Intelligence, she will be reading Computer Science at Imperial College, London. Jenny believes that AI has immense potential to improve the lives of many in a growing number of industries, from education to healthcare, so she sees herself making a difference in this phase. Let us wish her well in fulfilling her aspirations.

8. Some of the scholars today will be delving deeper in their chosen scientific field by pursuing a PhD or post-doctorate position with the help of the A*STAR scholarship. One such scholar is Ms. Nazihah Abdul Aziz, who will be pursuing her PhD at NUS. Nazihah graduated from NUS last year with a degree in Life Sciences, with honours, specialising in biomedical science. I am told she is already very familiar with A*STAR, as she completed her final-year project for undergraduate studies at A*STAR’s Singapore Immunology Network and re-joined in January this year as a PhD candidate. The Singapore Immunology Network is a research institute that is globally recognised for its expertise in immunology R&D for infectious diseases, cancer and immune dysfunctions.

9. Another example of an A*STAR scholar making their mark in their chosen field of study is Dr. Seh Zhi Wei, a National Science Scholarship recipient, who completed his PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford University in 2015. Creating a sustainable energy future while protecting the environment is a critical challenge faced not only by Singapore, but most countries worldwide and this is a challenge that Zhi Wei has decided to tackle head-on.

10. Currently a Principal Investigator at A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, Zhi Wei’s research focuses on the development of new materials for the storage and conversion of clean energy. His pioneering design of lithium-sulfur batteries has five times the energy density of the lithium-ion batteries currently used today, making them a very promising technology for the future. In recognition of the ground-breaking impact of his work in the field, Zhi Wei has received many international accolades. In 2017, he was one of the 10 individuals named in MIT Technology Review’s “Innovators Under 35” (Asia Pacific) list, which recognises young outstanding innovators. These are all very promising talent, as Singapore pursues our new but old economic strategy, leveraging science and tech for productivity, innovation, and for competitiveness. We need every single talent that we have.

11. Many years ago, I too received a scholarship, not in science and tech, but to do econometrics, and data and statistics. That changed my life and resulted in me standing here today. I finished my bond and was given another bond. By the time I finished all my bonds, I found that I enjoyed the public service. I left for the union and private sector for a while, but in the end, I returned to the public service where I feel most fulfilled, doing what I feel makes a difference to Singapore.

12. So, to all our scholars out there, I hope the scholarship will change your life, as it did for me. Do your best for Singapore, and Singapore too will support you to fulfil your aspirations. Congratulations and thank you very much.