Speeches

January 05, 2018

Speech by Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), Mr Ong Ye Kung, at National University of Singapore’s Lunch to Honour Professor Tan Chorh Chuan and Professor Tan Eng Chye

State President Mdm Halimah Yacob,

Emeritus Senior Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong,

Deputy Prime Minister Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam,

Minister for Finance, Mr Heng Swee Keat,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. A Happy New Year to everyone. I am very happy to be here today with all of you at this momentous occasion to honour two very remarkable educators, two sons of Singapore, and two friends of mine: Prof Tan Chorh Chuan and Prof Tan Eng Chye.

2. Chorh Chuan served as NUS’s President for the past nine years and has worked with four Ministers for Education, if you include his term as Provost and Senior Deputy President. During his time at NUS, Chorh Chuan led the university with undiminished energy, passion, and commitment through its transition from a statutory board to an Autonomous University in 2006 and raising NUS today into a high-ranking international University, as well as a national university. He oversaw significant milestones such as the launch of the Duke-NUS Medical School in 2005, and Yale-NUS College in 2011. Timely initiatives such as the University Town, the Roots & Wings programme and the global BLOCK71 Network, which aims to be a global connector and the heart of Singapore’s technology start-up eco-system, were also introduced.

3. I would like to share three anecdotes that really allowed me to know Chorch Chuan better. At the recent MOE (Higher Education and Skills) Work Plan Seminar, we were trying to persuade our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) to embrace SkillsFuture and develop courses for their students and alumni to provide opportunities for skills upgrading. We had tremendous consensus and many of our IHLs, including NUS, had many wonderful ideas. Chorh Chuan agreed that our IHLs need to prepare our students for work and to seize opportunities but added that it is important that our universities uphold a campus or even a Singapore culture where we exercise critical thinking and take an evidence-based approach to solve problems, which is an enduring life skill that is important for our students. This shows how Chorh Chuan, while being soft-spoken, always thinks deeply.

4. To give another example, during the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) meeting, there was a discussion on the need for research to have translational impact. While Chorh Chuan agreed with that, he reminded the council that research is also a curiosity-driven, bottom-up process. And if we have good people participating in that process, we can deliver the occasional breakthroughs with global impact and reshape how we understand the world.

5. At our very first meeting two years ago, Chorh Chuan had already informed me that his departure is imminent. He had explained to me that at his age, he has one more bound in his career, to go somewhere else, to do something different and make a breakthrough. I am very happy that Chorh Chuan will embark on his new journey at MOH as Singapore’s first Executive Director of the Office for Healthcare Transformation and the Chief Health Scientist. May your wish come true, and may you have more exciting breakthroughs in your career. Congratulations, Chorh Chuan.

6. I would also like to extend a warm welcome to Eng Chye, who will be taking over as NUS’s 5th President. Like Chorh Chuan, Eng Chye is an NUS alumnus and a home-grown talent. I have known him to be a wise, decisive and firm leader. In 2016, Eng Chye handled the NUS orientation incident with skill and wisdom. He did the right thing to weed out the bad behaviours of some over-enthusiastic students without snuffing out all the fun, laughter and spontaneity of young people. Through this incident, Eng Chye displayed courage to do the right thing and was able to balance competing priorities and interests, which are key attributes of a great leader.

7. Whenever I visit NUS, he will always be the one talking about better ways to educate students. As a champion for educating people and nurturing the young, he pioneered many initiatives to innovate teaching and enhance learning, including the University Scholars Programme, the Grade-free Scheme for freshmen, and the use of education technology to enhance pedagogy.

8. Recognising the importance of foundational analytics skills and interdisciplinary learning in today’s more complex job market, Eng Chye was also behind NUS’s big push for students to take compulsory quantitative reasoning classes and double majors. True to his style of not shying away from bold ideas, Eng Chye also took the lead among universities in Singapore to establish the NUS Lifelong Learning Initiative for Alumni, which enables NUS alumni to take two modules over three years for free.

9. I am sure Eng Chye has more ideas in store for NUS, to keep the University nimble and responsive to changes in our education, research, and employment landscape. Congratulations and all the best on your new role, Eng Chye. I am sure he will bring with him lots of new ideas, education experience, and robust research to NUS. Welcome, Eng Chye.

10. Eng Chye will have the benefit of having Professor Ho Teck Hua as Senior Deputy President and Provost. Teck Hua had a very successful career at University of California, Berkeley, but he chose to return to his home, Singapore, to serve NUS. He demonstrated that doing the right research on Singapore can generate strong interest from the international community. For instance, his research on the relationship between the colour of a taxi and how likely it would be involved in an accident showed that local research can also have implications beyond our shores. Teck Hua’s research finding was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was subsequently reported in the Economist, BBC, and the Asian Scientist Magazine, to name a few. Young academics now know, when it comes to social science, that local research on topics relevant to Singapore can command international attention. Teck Hua is now working with MOE on exciting research topics such as exploring the relationship between academic grades, the disciplines you choose, your future career and resilience to economic disruption and I look forward to his findings.

11. Since its founding in 1905, NUS has been Singapore’s flagship university and has remained true to its national role of bringing up excellent young Singaporean men and women. NUS has retained its pioneering spirit of innovation and enterprise, and continues to serve the country actively across the areas of education, research, and community engagement. I am confident that with the exceptional leadership NUS has had and will continue to have, NUS will be able to scale even greater heights and strengthen its position as a leading global university, while fulfilling national objectives, as a national university.

12. Thank you.