August 14, 2018

Speech by Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, at the Award Ceremony of the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme (START)

University Presidents, Provosts, Principals

Members of the Social Science Research Council

Colleagues, Parents, and Award Recipients

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Thank you everyone for being here with us today. I would like to thank Nanyang Technological University (NTU) for hosting this year’s awards ceremony.

START Scholarship

2. Let me start by congratulating our 14 START Award recipients this year. You have a long but interesting and rewarding journey of exploration and discovery ahead of you, as many of your senior academics here can attest to.

3. I want to especially recognise 13 of our START Alumni, a few of whom are with us tonight.

4. Dr Michelle Chiang was an Overseas Post-Doctoral Fellowship recipient in Aug 2015. She started working at NTU as an Assistant Professor in English in Feb 2018. She is currently teaching modules in Film Theory, Theatre of the Absurd, and Singapore Literature at NTU. She is also working or finished working on two projects. The first, which was completed, is a book on audience reception and virtual reality. I heard the book has been published and is available in the US, UK and online. The second explores end-of-life narratives and how we experience and perceive time. Through this project, she hopes to raise the awareness of the importance of initiating end-of-life conversations, even while treatment is being prescribed. I think this is something that is quite needed in Singapore.

5. Another START alumni is Dr Chong Kwek Yan, who was awarded the NUS Overseas Postdoctoral Fellowship, and did his Postdoctoral stint at the University of Queensland in Australia. Today, Dr Chong teaches undergraduate and postgraduate Biology-related modules at NUS. He is working with the National Parks Board to investigate the relationship between vegetation, hydrology, and carbon stocks in the Nee Soon swamp forest. He is also working with the Housing & Development Board to develop an index for measuring biodiversity in townships in Singapore.

6. Both Dr Chiang and Dr Chong are good examples of young academic talents that we are consciously nurturing. They are already contributing back to their respective Autonomous Universities (AUs) through teaching and research.

7. The focus of their research work is not for publication in international journals per se, but are also projects that can improve lives in Singapore and create an impact, which I am sure will also be publishable and attract positive peer reviews.

8. We live in an uncertain and complex world, characterised by globalisation and technological changes, and rapid political, social and economic transformation. In this process, we find universities, being at the forefront of knowledge, playing an increasingly important national role to help fresh solutions to new problems.

9. How should research evolve in our AUs to become more impactful? Let me offer a few thoughts.

Ingredients to Impactful Research

10. First, there is great value for research to be relevant to Singapore. I do not mean we become parochial and do research only on Singapore and solving only our unique problems, because that will not do justice to the international reputation of our AUs.

11. Our research community needs to be cognizant that the world is curious about Singapore and what this little red urban dot is doing to tackle contemporary challenges. That is why for decades, China looks to Singapore as a reference point as it pursues reforms and opens up and transforms its society. As a small and open city, the problems we encounter are often harbingers to global challenges. The solutions we derive are often valuable pioneering attempts. Singapore is therefore an important reference for the world. Research that aims to tackle a major long term challenge Singapore faces, or use our city as a test laboratory, can potentially be impactful regionally and internationally.

12. Second, we need to continue to develop the research ecosystem. Professor Subra Suresh once mentioned that he had been to many universities but it was at NTU and in Singapore that he saw unprecedented opportunities to do new things. This is because of the research ecosystem in Singapore.

13. An important part of the ecosystem is the highly regarded education system.

14. Our system provides a rigorous foundation and instils values in students from young. Students are competent, and pursue their aspirations in a multiple paths system. Good students contribute towards good universities, and this provides AUs with a strong base to do good research work.

15. Further, researchers in Singapore benefit from an unparalleled network of corporate laboratories which help to define the direction that research should take. Examples of some of these mission-driven research include the Urban Computing and Engineering Corporate Lab at SMU; and waste management and water treatment at Sembcorp-NUS Corporate Laboratory, and other corporate laboratories established with Keppel Corporation, Rolls Royce, Alibaba, BMW, etc.

16. Singapore is also rich in quantitative data. Although our data pool size cannot be compared to those of much larger countries, the data collected in Singapore is comprehensive and of high quality, and lends itself to many practical applications.

17. Thirdly, we must have a robust talent development strategy. This must include the development of a core of talented Singaporean researchers, which is the purpose of the START awards. At the same time, we must maintain an open attitude to global talent attraction. A good initiative is the Nanyang Assistant Professorship through which NTU was able to develop a research niche in Artificial Intelligence. Other AUs have their own initiatives to develop talent. For example, NUS has its Senior Tutor Scheme where it seeks to identify high potential PhD students and encourage them to do their PhD overseas and attract them back to Singapore to contribute.

Social Science and Humanities Research Fellowship

18. Fourth, research increasingly needs to be inter-disciplinary in nature. True innovation is often sparked by the interaction between disciplines. Real life problems are rarely single dimensional, but multi-faceted.

19. One interesting example is a project by HDB and SUTD to recreate the kampung spirit in our current built environments. The project, led by Assistant Professor Chong Keng Hua, employs both data analytics and behavioural studies to project the demography of HDB towns and predict residents’ responses to initiatives in their living environment. The research team is working to collect data through sensor networks, surveys, and user feedback. The research work will provide a framework for town planners and architects to design community areas that better encourage social interactions and foster stronger communities.

20. Hence, besides Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) research which tends to require more funds, we also need to place emphasis on social science and humanities research. Today, I am pleased to announce the launch of the Social Science and Humanities Research Fellowship - or SSHR Fellowship.

21. The SSHR Fellowship is the first talent development scheme by the Social Science Research Council to support promising, early-career Singaporean researchers in conducting high-quality research. Successful awardees receive a research grant of up to $1 million for up to five years to conduct research in any social science and humanities discipline that is relevant to Singapore or to Asia. I hope the Council will put some weight on proposals which are inter-disciplinary in nature.


22. I mentioned earlier of the rising importance of universities. With that, academics are also taking on even more impactful roles in society. You provide insights and offer the initial spark to solving challenges for the future. You teach and inspire the young to continue to quest for knowledge and develop competencies and skills. Whatever causes one may feel passionately about, being an academic is to have the opportunity to make a big difference upstream, at the conceptualisation, ideation and prototyping stages.

23. To all the recipients of the START Awards tonight – wherever your academic journey takes you, I hope that you will bear in mind the important role you play as future participants in academia. May you continue to keep Singapore close to your heart and give back to our nation and community through your research, teaching, and service.

24. Thank you.