Convocation 2008

Published on : 21-Jul-2008


Mr Chancellor,
President S.R. Nathan and Mrs Nathan,

Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence,
Dr Ng Eng Hen,


Chairman and Members, NTU Board of Trustees,


Our distinguished university partners from around the world,

Professor Chua Nam Hai and Professor Jose Encarnacao,
Honorary Doctorate recipients,

Distinguished guests,

Graduates and family members,

Alumni and friends of the University,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning and welcome to the 2008 Convocation of the Nanyang Technological University!

This year, we graduate 7,313 graduates including 4,881 Bachelor degree graduates and 2,432 Masters and Doctorates.  The Class of 2008 boosts our alumni strength to 120,000.  I congratulate each and every one of our graduates for their achievements.

I am particularly pleased this year to acknowledge four distinguished international personalities joining our alumni ranks as Honorary Doctorate recipients. They are:

The Honorable Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India,

Professor C N Yang, Nobel laureate in Physics 1957,

Professor Chua Nam Hai, Andrew W. Mellon Professor, Rockefeller University,


Professor Jose Encarnacao, Professor of Computer Science, Technical University of Darmstadt and Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics

Entering my sixth year as President of this distinguished University, I must thank our Chancellor, President Nathan, our Education Ministers, Mr Teo Chee Hean, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Dr Ng Eng Hen, Chairman Koh Boon Hwee and the Board of Trustees for their guidance and for giving me this opportunity: to build a great university here in Singapore, on the historic Yunnan Garden campus, building on the Nanyang University and Nanyang Technological Institute heritage, while looking very much towards the future to play a prominent role in Singapore, the region and the world.

Ancient civilizations were marked by meteoric rises, shining peaks, gradual and sometimes dramatic decline, and for the fortunate, more rises. The rise and fall of dynasties in China were typical of such cycles.

Heritage is a blessing if tapped appropriately.

Confucian ethics and value system sustained the imperial dynasties as one dynasty replaced another.  But the most significant intellectual movements of the 20th century in China repudiated this heritage as historical baggage preventing China from modernization.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic, after the experiments of the Great Leap Forward and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, the reforms of Deng Xiaoping from 1978 truly brought China into the modern age.  This was achieved with pragmatism, without an overpowering ideology.  We all know his famous sayings – whether black or white, a cat that catches mice is a good cat, 无论是黑猫还是白猫,捉得着耗子就是好猫。And, crossing the river one stone at a time摸着石头过河。

Today, searching for guidance and bearings amidst the complexities of modernity, the people of China has rediscovered traditional studies and Confucian literature.  There are even old style schools with traditional Confucian scholar robes as uniform co-existing with the modern metropolis that is Shanghai.

There is a lesson for us there.

We celebrate the heritage of the founding of Nanyang University, the struggles of our forebears and the passion of the common people who founded the university.  This is a story to inspire countless generations of future students.  We also celebrate the founding of Nanyang Technological Institute, the establishment of outstanding pragmatic and industry focused engineering programmes.  While celebrating our heritage, our sights must be firmly on the future.

We are in the process of creating a Singapore university, fortified with spirit and passion, tempered by pragmatism. We draw from our heritage, playing a big role in Singapore’s future by educating graduates and conducting research on the most important topics of the future - topics such as biomedical sciences, environmental and water technologies, clean energy, digital media.  We turn out technology-savvy, well rounded, forward looking and articulate graduates, leading edge researchers, even, I hope, future Nobel laureates and entrepreneurs like Bill Gates.  The short form I have used for our approach is the “Multi-Cultural Research University”.

The Chinese heritage from Nanyang University has given us considerable advantages reaching into China, building bridges and networks.  Today, we offer six Masters programmes conducted in Mandarin Chinese, bridging East and West. They have helped established an outsized reputation for NTU in China.

These bridges bring Singaporeans and others to China including an increasing number of young NTU graduates.  The bridges we have built is open to all.  For example, among the Class of 2008 is a US Army officer, a West Point graduate, Daniel Vallone who came to NTU on a Fulbright Fellowship to join our Masters of Arts programme in Contemporary China.  In an interview with Zaobao, he affirmed his belief that Singapore, and NTU in particular, was the best place for Americans to study China.

But we cannot rest on our laurels.  In multi-cultural, multi-religious Singapore, we should be deeply engaged with all the three major ethnic groups and the roots of their culture.

Building on our well established base with China, NTU is now developing a multi-cultural thrust to complement our research-intensive drive. While enhancing our links with China we shall also reach deep inside India, Malaysia and Indonesia, building bridges with these countries vital for Singapore, developing cultural and educational links as strong as those we have built with China.

Dean Jitendra Singh joined us as Dean of Nanyang Business School in September last year.  He came at a propitious time when the Financial Times had just released its Top 100 MBA rankings in which NBS placed 46th, the first time any Singapore school entered the top 50.  He set down to work right away and has now made three great new hires and started on his strategy to make NBS top 25 in the world.  Seldom have I seen such energy in anyone.

Dean Singh also brings with him extensive knowledge and contacts in India. Together with Board of Trustees member Haresh Shah, they are my primary advisors on the strategies of entering India to build new bridges for Singapore to go to India and for Indians to come to Singapore.  They have already made a successful trip to India where they met high level captains of industry and government leaders such as Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries and former President Abdul Kalam of India, our Honorary Doctor of Engineering graduand. Thus the second prong of our Multi-Cultural approach is playing out.

Such multi-cultural developments reinforce each other through cross-cultural studies.  Our Nanyang Business School researchers have already built up a world renowned base in Cultural Intelligence.  We have now added to the strength with recruitment of two outstanding psychologists from University of Illinois.  While all universities have legitimate claims to be multi-cultural, we aim to stand out in the strength of our engagement, the depth of our understanding and the focus of our efforts.

The other important part of our heritage is that of a Technological University.  We have achieved much, building on the foundation of Nanyang Technological Institute.  Today, we remain industry focused even as we climbed the ranks of research-intensive universities. Many companies are setting up labs with us on campus.

We have had a Nobel boost on research since last year when Provost Bertil Andersson arrived.  I am pleased to report a considerable rise in research achievements as a result of his efforts.

Perhaps the most noteworthy milestone was the award of the Research Centre of Excellence entitled Earth Observatory of Singapore to NTU along with government funding of $150M.  We have recruited prominent earth scientist Professor Kerry Sieh from the California Institute of Technology to NTU.  He has also recruited outstanding neotectonicist Paul Tepponnier and volcanologist Chris Newhall to join the Centre in a “dream team”.

I am also pleased to report considerable success in competing for research funding.  Last year, in the opening round of the CRP competition of NRF, NTU won two and a half out of six handed out.  This year we were pleasantly surprised when three out of four CRP awards came to NTU.  This is credit to the faculty who had worked hard over the years building up their research portfolio, as well as astute guidance from Provost Andersson.

As we pursue research, we must not forget that university exists for our students. Looking ahead at the development of Singapore as a knowledge intensive economy in rising Asia, we must transform our educational processes.

I announced last year the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission for Undergraduate Education.  The Commission has submitted their final report after extensive study and consultation with all stakeholders including students and alumni.  An Implementation Committee has been appointed to study the deep implications of the Report and recommending the initial implementation starting in Academic Year 2009.

The spirit of the Blue Ribbon Commission will be applied as we develop the Premier Engineering Programme endorsed recently by the International Academic Advisory Panel.  While the details are still being worked out, let me share some thoughts, as an engineer, on how I see this programme going.

Engineering is the synthesis of knowledge into tangible outcomes that benefit society.  In the industrial age, engineering involves learning the body of knowledge in the specialized discipline and how to apply it in practice.  This approach served us well in the past.

Today, engineering has changed in advanced knowledge-based societies like Singapore.  Industries demand high value added through breakthrough technological contributions.  They demand business leadership and solutions based on a sound understanding of the technological products.  Systems thinking and analysis play important roles.

Engineering education must change with the times.

First, there must be a broad based education including verbal and quantitative skills and the humanities.

Then, students must understand at a deep level the science that lies at the heart of today’s technologies and future discoveries.

Along the way they need to acquire good appreciation of the complexities of modern finance and business, the enabling environment of industries.

Finally, the complete engineer rounds off his education by systems thinking, practice oriented laboratories, projects and internships.

An engineer educated broadly, grounded in rigorous science and the engineering and systems approach will be successful whether he or she chooses to design systems, conduct research, start businesses or manage money.  It is noteworthy that our Chairman Koh Boon Hwee and Chairman Wong Ngit Liong of NUS both credit their success to engineering.

An important part of implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission agenda is the Residential Campus.  With land bequeathed to us from the Nanyang University heritage, we can accommodate all students on campus with the right financial model.

Our Board of Trustees has formed a Campus Master Plan Committee chaired by Trustee Edmund Cheng, Deputy Chairman of Wing Tai Holdings, to develop a campus that will be a vibrant, lively cultural and scientific hub, a draw for students from all over Singapore, faculty from all over the world and residents from western Singapore.

Because of current high construction costs, we are taking a breather on campus construction while planning takes place, avoiding the highest cost part of the property cycle.  The outcome in due course will be a breathtaking campus with an exciting mix of residential, educational, cultural and recreational facilities.

Let me conclude by recapping my journey since coming into NTU.

It has been exciting to develop an already very good university into a world class Multi-Cultural Research University.  In 2002, Dr Ng Eng Hen, then Senior Minister of State (Education), gave us the initial boost by recommending the establishment of three new schools and expansion by 6300 undergraduate students.  Today, that task is almost complete.  His mandate gave us the wherewithal to establish the broad education that is demanded by today’s economy.

In 2006, NTU became an Autonomous University.  We built on what we had to position ourselves for take-off.  The establishment of the National Research Foundation gave us the fuel, to intensify research while enhancing our education, and to recruit some of the best faculty from around the world.

As we build the Multi-Cultural Research University, we come back to the students and alumni, a continuum and the basis for our take-off. After the ceremony today, the graduating class of 2008 will lay a plaque commemorating their passage through our halls, and in turn giving back to the University with a Class Gift.  I am pleased to announce the giving rate has gone from strength to strength.  We had 8% when we started this tradition in 2005, 21% in 2006, 27% in 2007 and a record 36% this year.  Although we can’t yet match the best-in-the-world alumni giving at Princeton, an astounding 60%, we continue to strengthen our base – the alumni community each year.

I look forward to working with the government, our partners, alumni, students, faculty, administration, benefactors and supporters in the years to come, in our quest to achieve the vision of becoming “A Great Global University founded on Science and Technology”.  Thank you!

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