Speeches/Interviews

August 06, 2019

Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Industry Reception for the Inaugural Singaporean Researchers Global Summit, at Regent Hotel

Prof Tan Eng Chye, NUS President

Prof Ho Teck Hua, NUS Senior Deputy President & Provost

Colleagues and Industry Representatives

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Good evening. I would like to share three things today. First as a policy from MOE, we actually need a strong core of Singaporeans in all of our universities. The reason being, we only have six universities. While we have one National University of Singapore, the truth is, all six are national universities. We are not like bigger countries where some universities are private universities, with a large proportion of foreign faculty, as well as foreign students. For all of our universities, we are predominantly serving Singapore students, and we would also like to have a strong core of Singaporean faculty.

2. As of now, if you look at tenured faculty, about 50 per cent are Singaporeans. But if you look at the pre-tenure pipeline, it is not as strong. And we really need to build it up so that we can continue to have this core of at least 50 per cent Singaporean faculty. It applies to science (STEM) subjects, and it also applies to social sciences and humanities. With regard to social sciences and humanities, I have a particular concern, because, unlike STEM, the language of social sciences and humanities tends to be a bit more local. Science, regardless of what you research, tends to revolve around the same language. But when you look at social sciences and humanities, often the research, the understanding, and the conversation have to revolve around the regional context, or even the local context. And the truth is, in Singapore, many of the things we do here, whether it is economic policies or social policies, are watched by many around the world. People are very curious about the perspective of Singapore.

3. In education, for example, we rank high in PISA scores, but we also have a very reputable education system. So when we implement certain policies or approaches, people are interested to know what Singapore is actually doing. Thus, research on Singapore is actually widely watched throughout the world. So, we have to have a multi-pronged approach to attracting Singaporean academic and research talent.

4. One major initiative that we have is what we call the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme or START. It is a scholarship for young academics, and we award it as early as post ‘A’ Levels; we also award it when you are doing your post-doctoral degree. START will help you to get started at different entry points. We have been giving out maybe 10, 15 awards a year, and that helps us build up that pipeline of local scholars and academics. Of course, the other way is to harvest successful young Singaporean academics who are based around the world, and hence we have today’s event.

5. The second thing that I want to say, is that we want to support good research. For STEM subjects, we have the National Research Foundation (NRF), and that is very strong. For social science and humanities, we have the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), but beyond that I think we can do a bit more. This is because for social science research, we need to overcome some of the more intangible impediments to good social science and humanities research.

6. For example, we want our ministries and agencies to come up with research questions too, because we are all dealing with very complex problems today. These issues range from demography, climate change, economic conundrums, trade etc. If ministries and agencies that have to grapple with the trade-offs and tackle these issues can also pose questions, I think we can develop a good partnership between the government and academia. Collectively, we can work together.

7. Two, agencies can also make data available if we want to solve certain research questions. Agencies actually have a lot of administrative data. We do not have a habit of making these data available, but I think there is now a genuine desire to make them available, even matching data across agencies, and you can derive a lot of good insights from these data.

8. Ministries have been briefed, and we are all quite keen to work with academics on this. But first of all, we must have good research questions. If you knock on the agencies’ doors and say can I have all your data, you are not going to get it. But if you say, I have a question that I want answers to, for example, “good PSLE results may not lead to good earnings in your 40s”, we may be able to work together on it. Between IRAS and MOE, we could pair up the data together and do a research project together. I think there are a lot more serious questions that we can dive into.

9. Then on the universities’ end, we have to understand that because some research is done in our local context, maybe it is not always publishable in the top tier journals. I do sincerely believe that good local research is publishable in top tier journals. But what if it is not? Our local universities must have a system to recognise good research impact. And I think we are all working on it. So these are all the little things that we have to do to make it work for us.

10. Just to add the icing on the cake, we are starting an enhancement of the START scheme. And this is called the Inauguration Grant. The $200,000 Inauguration Grant is for Singaporeans who are committed to be appointed as Assistant Professors on the pre-tenure track and who are in the early stages of their careers, to get them started and do some good research work. So we are going to start this as an addition to the START programme.

11. So all in all, these are the two things that I wanted to say. There’s a third thing, which is, we are going to have our National Day this weekend. So, I would like to wish everybody - happy national day. It is good to have all of you back, I know some of you attended the National Day Parade preview, and this year is quite special as it is the Bicentennial National Day Parade at the Padang. So Happy National Day, and do consider joining us, so we can develop that good core of Singaporean academics in our national Universities, and we all do our best to support good research.

12. Thank you.