– I read in an interview that you wanted to be a police officer when you were young. Is that true? What or who made you change your mind?
It is true. As a child I dreamed of becoming a police officer because I liked the uniform. In fact, later, as I grew up, it remained my dream. I had the opportunity to get a taste of the police profession, as I was recruited into the Singapore Police Force during my years of compulsory national service which we have in Singapore. My experience there was very formative. I learned to perform under pressure, I met important people, and gained the skills I need to lead. However, being colour blind made it difficult for me to progress in the armed forces, so eventually I decided to explore other options. A professor advised me to pursue a PhD in mathematics, which eventually led me into academics.
– You might not be a policeman... but you are a knight, aren’t you? In July, you were awarded the highest order of merit of France, the National Order of the Legion of Honour, founded by Napoléon Bonaparte. Would education be the “weapon” of the modern‑day knight?– I am deeply honoured and humbled to have been awarded the title of Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour by the French government in July 2022. This is a huge acknowledgement of the National University of Singapore's continued pursuit of excellence. We want to continue to strengthen our cooperation with French institutions and players of their national industry, in the field of education and research, as is our plan, of course, with our other European friends. In Singapore, education has always been seen as an effective catalyst for social mobility. But the value of a university degree has taken on a whole new meaning. This is why, in response to the changing world of work, our country has placed great emphasis on lifelong learning in recent years. In line with Singapore's ambition to develop a workforce that is both competitive and a lifelong learner, the National University of Singapore has also developed an education reform built around three pillars. The first is a common curriculum that builds a certain intellectual versatility. The second is flexible pathways that allow students to tailor their learning to their own tastes, strengths and aspirations. And the third is interdisciplinarity, which provides the opportunity to acquire a broader spectrum of knowledge in multiple sciences.
– Singapore is a superpower when it comes to education. Can they serve as an example for the West?– The post‑Covid world is characterised by being extremely complex and quite uncertain. But universities have a unique opportunity to shape the future. They can do it, for example, by identifying themselves as drivers of innovation and creativity. As a business that creates new opportunities. One that supports lifelong learning and development. And one that contributes to social welfare. It's important for us to learn from each other's successes and experiences, but also to develop our own unique approach that benefits the communities we serve.
– But what are your key methods for achieving this? And is it enough to just copy them?
– Let me share some key ideas that have put the National University of Singapore in a good position. One of these is a highly adaptable, flexible and dynamic interdisciplinary — cross-disciplinary — approach to teaching and learning. Over the past two years the university has set up the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (in December 2020), the Faculty of Design Engineering (in January 2022) and the NUS College (in July 2022). Students who have enrolled in these new institutions enjoy much greater freedom to develop intellectually and immerse themselves in the sciences. Another idea is the realisation that entrepreneurial education is important. Education can be a life-changing experience when it is truly engaging and entrepreneurial in approach, one that instils a mindset of risk‑taking, courage and innovation. Today, the National University of Singapore's flagship NUS Overseas Colleges programme, launched in 2001, sends students to entrepreneurial hubs around the world for up to one year. 3,600 students have already completed the programme, and have launched almost a thousand start-ups since. And last but certainly not least, I must stress the importance of lifelong learning. In 2018, our university became the first in the world to take the bold and radical step of enrolling students for an eligibility period of twenty years from the start of their studies. We did this in order to integrate lifelong learning into our students' education seamlessly. At the same time, we launched the NUS Lifelong Learners programme — or NUS L3 in short — which gives our graduates ready access to practical, industry‑relevant courses to further their education or to retrain. So far, our university has given more than 450 thousand students the opportunity to continue their studies this way.
– The National University of Singapore is consistently ranked among the best universities in the world, most recently at prestigious number eleven. What is your “secret ingredient”? What makes a good university?
– We are delighted to be consistently ranked among the best universities in Asia and even the world. This is a serious recognition of our future‑centred approach to education and research. Our aim is to keep up the excellent work and do even better. We see ourselves as a talent management organisation committed to developing active and resilient graduates through our interdisciplinary, practical and lifelong learning initiatives. At the same time, we also strive to bring together a solid core of researchers with a broad range of skills to deepen the application and communication of our research. We also want to go beyond that in improving lives, making a positive impact that Singapore and society as a whole can only benefit from.
– What goals have you set as rector of the National University of Singapore? No. 1 university?– One of my top priorities in the coming years will be to ensure that we continue to produce graduates who will be future‑proof through a life‑changing educational experience. That's why we have reconsidered our whole approach to education, with much greater emphasis on hybrid methods on campus and beyond. We employ practical and interdisciplinary learning, we integrate work and research into our studies, and give our students the opportunity to gain experience both globally and regionally. I also want us to be at the cutting edge of international research in a number of areas. We have also set as our goal to incubate more successful deep‑tech start‑ups — to support them at the start, and to become a key player in the innovation and entrepreneurship system globally. And beyond all this I also want to instil a culture of proactivity and forward thinking. This includes ensuring that our organisational structure is flexible and resilient, and that our departments and staff are equipped with the right skills to meet the challenges that arise. In summary, if we achieve these objectives, they will bring the National University of Singapore one step closer to realising our vision of a leading university on an international level, in a position to shape the future.
– How did the National University of Singapore cope with the Covid pandemic? Was your transfer to digital education seamless?
– There is no doubt that learning itself has come a long way in our post-Covid world. The National University of Singapore has been experimenting with using technology to enhance education since 2011, and in 2013 began exploring hybrid learning: a combination of online and classroom-based classes. The pandemic has accelerated the pace of this transformation, which is a good thing in hindsight. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, we moved all our lessons into the virtual space, either live or pre‑recorded. At the same time, we encouraged everyone to use online channels such as forums and various digital conferencing platforms to hold live discussions.
– Will this be the future of education, or will traditional methods prevail?– The world of digital education will depend to a large extent on how technology evolves, for example in adaptive learning, educational materials, virtual and augmented reality or learning analytics. Our idea is to utilise the benefits of technology, such as “digital educators”, to our advantage. With this we would realise our dream of a National University of Singapore without borders: a reality, where you can study and work anywhere, anytime, and via any device.