Speeches/Interviews

September 24, 2020

Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Education, at the Virtual Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme (START) Award Ceremony

University Presidents and Provosts,
Colleagues, Parents, and Award Recipients,

1. Let me start by congratulating all of our 17 individuals who are receiving your award under the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme, or START. Congratulations also to your family members and academic mentors who are here today, and who have been supporting you throughout your journey.

2. Under normal circumstances, we would be having a physical ceremony and be able to meet face to face to celebrate your achievements. Unfortunately, we are not able to do so this year, but I am glad that we can still connect virtually and have an occasion to recognise all of your achievements.

3. Universities have been around for a long time, but the idea of an academic career combining teaching and research took off not that long ago in America. Prior to this idea of an academic career where you can teach and research at the same time, the idea of universities that was more prevalent in Europe was one in which the roles were quite separate. In England, you had Oxford and Cambridge, and they were originally more of teaching colleges focusing on undergraduate teaching. In Germany, you had universities that focus more on research. But it was in America, where ideas of teaching and research were combined in many universities.

4. It started in Johns Hopkins where the model was having the freedom to conduct research, but an obligation to teach. So the Americans, starting from Johns Hopkins, developed this university model combining high quality teaching with world class research. Other universities in America gradually took on this combined role, and over time, universities everywhere started playing a bigger role in societies where they not only teach the next generation, but also look at continuing education and adult learning, and producing first class research to contribute to fundamental breakthroughs and discoveries.

5. So we now see universities bringing together a rich environment of knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination. Not surprisingly, many advancements over the past century in a host of different fields, be it medical research, genetics, physics, engineering, social sciences and humanities, are due to pioneering work done in universities.

6. Universities are not ivory towers. Instead, they have become towers of excellence that transform our lives. Universities contribute to the health and well-being of the nation and people that they are in, and that is the reason why over the last few decades, countries everywhere have sought to invest in their university sectors and build up their universities.

7. We have also been in this journey to strengthen our university sector, even as we go about nation building. It is much harder for us in Singapore because of our size, and because of our short history – we are a little red dot, we have no natural resources except for our own people, and so building a strong university sector is certainly much harder compared to big countries in Europe, America, China or India. But despite these disadvantages, we have been quite successful in developing a strong university sector in Singapore that is world class and internationally recognised. You only need to look at the university rankings that are published every year to see this. But really, our aim is not to chase after rankings. We have independent external validators come in to assess the quality of teaching and research that is done in our universities. They will say that what we do here in Singapore is comparable to some of the best universities in the world.

8. To have achieved that in such a short period of time is truly remarkable and credit goes to the university leadership, administrators, and researchers in our universities. We have found from our experience that the key ingredient of building quality universities is not just about government funding or infrastructure. The key ingredient lies in our people. It requires exceptionally talented scientists and scholars who are committed to educational excellence and making discoveries. That is why our universities must always remain open to the best talent from all over the world, bringing them into Singapore. But at the same time, we also need to grow our own timbre and have a strong Singaporean core of academics anchored in our universities – that's the reason we started the START scheme.

9. As START awardees and future academics in our universities, all of you have a special responsibility in influencing and shaping the future generations of Singaporeans, and also in tackling the challenges of today and tomorrow through your research. It may sound very intimidating to some of you who are starting on this journey, but I would like to assure you that many Singaporeans have been through this path. They have made their mark, and they have contributed in many ways.

10. For example, during this COVID-19 period, we have had researchers and scientists across all our universities playing very important roles.

  1. In NUS, Assistant Professor Shao Huilin and her team are developing a point-of-care rapid diagnostic test kit for COVID-19 that will only take 30 minutes and allow easy access to analysis. This is for testing, and we also have research teams developing vaccines.

  2. In NTU, Professor Shirley Ho is currently studying how media and assumptions of social norms affect Singaporeans' buying behaviours – we all went through that during the circuit breaker, and this could provide insights into the planning process for the supplies of goods and services in the future.

  3. In SMU, Professor Paulin Straughan is studying how the well-being of older adults can be better supported from the impact of COVID-19.

  4. And in SUTD, the Director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Mr Poon King Wang and his team are creating a system that will help workers in job sectors disrupted by COVID-19 quickly find job opportunities in less affected sectors of the labour market.

  5. I am also very pleased to learn that one of this year's recipients, Dr Zheng Kai from SUTD, has completed a study that shows how sneeze particles are transmitted in and between buildings based on wind flow studies. This will help us make more informed decisions on the kinds of ventilation systems we should provide in buildings to reduce the transmission risk of COVID-19.

11. These are just some examples of research that our academics are doing in our universities, focused particularly on the challenges of COVID-19. There are many other challenges beyond COVID-19, and our academics in our universities are trying their best to tackle them, often in partnership with industries.

12. I hope that with the support provided to you under START, all of you embarking on this academic journey will have the chance to grow professionally, build your networks, and equip yourselves with the best practices and ideas for innovative research and teaching.

13. We look forward to all of you playing critical roles in the coming years as START awardees and academics, to help develop, enrich, and build up our university sector in Singapore. All the best as you embark on this meaningful and rewarding journey. Congratulations and thank you.