Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills)

10 Sep 2016

Mr Lee Tzu Yang, Chairman, SUTD Board of Trustees
Members of the SUTD Board of Trustees
Professor Thomas Magnanti, President, SUTD
Professor Chong Tow Chong, Provost, SUTD
Faculty and staff of SUTD
Distinguished guests
And of course, the stars of today - Graduands

Small, Beautiful and Unique

Today marks a new milestone in your life, and it is my honour to be here. Congratulations to all of you.


If you survey carefully the ecosystem of an ocean, or the competitive landscape of an industry, or the geopolitical make-up of the world, you will realise that it is varied and diverse. We tend to notice big things; we have a bias to big things. In the ocean, we notice the sharks and the whales; in the industry we notice the likes of Apple, Alibaba, Shell, General Electric and Pfizer – big companies; in the world we notice US and China – and the newspaper reports about them all the time. But the big players co-exist in a much more complex, inter-dependent environment of where players of all sizes thrive and play their part in the ecosystem.

In the oceans, one of the smallest creatures is the Zooplankton – a tiny shrimp-like creature that plays a vital role in the food chain and carbon cycle. There are tens of thousands of species between the Zooplankton, the whale and the sharks that fascinates us and keeps the ecology in balance.

In industries, you need not be big to be outstanding. Start-ups with small revenue bases can become unicorns. In Germany, it is the mittelstand – German equivalent of SMEs – that forms the backbone of their economy and the story of their productivity.

Take Lego for example. It started as a small carpentry workshop in early 1900’s in Denmark. In the 1940’s it started producing interlocking plastic blocks as a toy. The concept grew in popularity steadily in the ensuing decades. The company nearly went bankrupt in mid-2000’s as children got tired of the toys, so Lego sold away its theme parks, re-focused on its core products, and made its toys fun for children again.

Lego never wanted to be a big sprawling giant conglomerate. It made toys, and grew by doing it well. Today, it is a company of about $7 billion in revenue and 13,000 employees – big, but not gigantic, and an exemplary story of innovation and focus.

In the community of nations, it is quite hard to find a good example of a small country that has done well, but luckily we live in Singapore. Singapore is an inspirational story of a small country that did well. I doubt we can ever be big unless something historically drastic happens, but we can stay united, innovative, and relevant to the world.

Earlier this week I was at the roundtable discussion at NUS - Professor Chan Heng Chee was there with me - on the value of a humanities and social sciences education. Many students were pragmatic and asked about the kind of careers they can embark on after studying the humanities and social sciences. I shared with them that almost 90% of graduates got full-time jobs after graduation. This is not the standard experience in other countries. Our humanities and social sciences graduates can find good jobs because the Singapore economy is broad and deep enough to need talents from diverse disciplines, and we are poorer without talents from the humanities and social sciences.


I give all these examples because of the parallels with SUTD. It is one of our newest, smallest universities, but it can be an integral and vital part of the higher learning ecosystem in Singapore, and the only one in the Eastern part of Singapore. It can be like Lego, growing steadily by being focused on its unique strengths. It can be like Singapore, with impressive breadth and depth in know-how and capabilities within the confines of being small. In other words, SUTD can be small, unique and beautiful.

SUTD’s uniqueness is by design and conceived at the outset. First, it is a blend of the best of East and West through its partnerships with Zhejiang University and MIT. These partner universities have contributed valuable expertise through curriculum design, pedagogy, and visiting faculty, to help kick start SUTD.

Second, you have built a strong and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum combining technology and design. We are familiar with what technology means. Design is less intuitive. It is not merely aesthetics. Rather, it involves the thoughtful creation of solutions to a problem with the end user in mind.

A good example is Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, which I served many years with on the Board of Directors. It was designed with the patients in mind – with intuitive layouts so people do not get lost in the usual maze of hospital corridors, logical clustering of services, improved lighting and ventilation, and therapeutic landscaping, which are user-friendly and environmentally-friendly. This hospital received the President’s Design Award (Design of the Year) in 2011.

Another proud recipient of the President’s Design Award is the SUTD Gridshell, an extension to SUTD’s former Dover Campus library, and which integrates form and functionality. Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and the SUTD Gridshell are developments with good, scientific Feng Shui, achieved through the thoughtful science of design.

Third, SUTD is unique in its partnerships network. Ground-breaking research is also taking place within these grounds. This is not just good research – it is also relevant and important to Singapore, enabled through SUTD’s many partnerships – with the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), JTC, ST Electronics, and many others.

Earlier this year I visited your iTrust lab. It collaborates with companies like CISCO, National Instruments, NEC, StarHub, on top of several government agencies, to do cutting-edge research in the cyber security of physical systems, which is becoming increasingly important as Singapore builds a Smart Nation.

Another exciting research partnership SUTD has is with Gilmour Space Technologies. Just recently, they broke new ground by successfully launching a self-made rocket in Australia, powered by 3D printed fuel.

So although SUTD may be the smallest kid on the block, it has stepped up boldly to the Goliath-sized task of creating an environment that encourages collaboration, risk-taking and hands-on creativity, and training a new breed of engineers and architects.

Your achievement has been recognized by industries and also internationally.

A few days ago, QS published this year’s university rankings. SUTD was not on the rankings. However, we must remember that ranking is not the be all and end all – in the same way that we always explain to students, your grades are not the be all and end all. Singapore is a small country and every one of our universities is a national university. QS or Times are rankings with criteria developed by commercial companies, using their own criteria, and need not necessarily reflect our national priorities. Before this ceremony we all stood up to sing the National Anthem because this is a university in Singapore and all universities in Singapore are national universities; we all have our national objectives. The universities need not have a good ranking in order to discharge their responsibility as a national university. Conversely, a university can have a good ranking, but yet not be a good university for Singapore. Even as a small university without ranking, you can do very well and become an outstanding institution for Singapore.

One of the important measurements, for students especially, is employment outcomes – are you able to find good jobs? And you have. Last year, your seniors, the pioneer graduands of SUTD, were well-received by the industry. Many of them went into new jobs in technology and design; many of these were related to our Smart Nation efforts, where there will be numerous exciting developments in future. They enjoyed high employment rates of 85%, and median salaries of $3,600 – highest amongst all the Autonomous Universities. Today, over 70% of you have already secured a job before graduation, or will be pursuing further studies. Some of you have decided to venture out and start your own businesses. There is no doubt your skills and knowledge are valued in the larger world outside of campus.

Internationally, reputable institutions and organizations are coming forth to forge educational links with SUTD. These are top institutions all over the world, like Stanford, Berkeley and the European Innovation Academy – institutions with much longer histories, and are testament to the value that SUTD brings.

I have no doubt that upon the strong foundations of today, SUTD will grow to be a world class institution in Asia. It will offer an education valued by industries, because of the acute awareness and sensitivity of its graduates to process flow, ergonomics and customer needs. It will reap immense rewards from its multitude of collaborations with industries and foreign institutions, drawing synergies from all their strengths. We are of course especially thankful to MIT for providing the initial partnership and confidence booster for SUTD.


It is a tradition for speeches during Commencement to offer good advice for our fresh graduates. In previous commencement speeches at other universities, I have spoken about being passionate about what you do, the importance of learning for life, learning to do your job better instead of merely chasing paper qualifications, breaking out of stereotypical expectations, and learning how to build personal networks. Today I will offer a different advice – something very relevant to SUTD – keep your pioneering spirit burning.

I decided on this, because this is what everyone at SUTD has done – being pioneers of a new university that was initially uncertain of its success, its acceptance by industries, and if its new approach would even work. Everyone here today took a risk – albeit a calculated one – with this new school, and you worked together to put these uncertainties to rest. Your faith and belief in SUTD has been vindicated, and I am sure many of you feel a strong sense of fulfilment.

This is what being a pioneer is about, and it is also what makes life worth living and meaningful. From time to time, we have to take a leap of faith and plunge into uncharted waters in order to reap rich rewards. We had a pioneer generation that built the Singapore of today. But we need another pioneer generation – that of a new era where technology, industries, geopolitics and demography are changing so rapidly. As graduates of a new university like SUTD, I hope the pioneering spirit burns bright in all of you. Even for SUTD, your pioneering journey is still ongoing and I am sure there are more leaps of faith ahead.

Part of the pioneering spirit is also to remember and show gratitude to those who led us through risky and uncertain times. Mr Philip Ng was the founding Chairman of SUTD, and led the Board capably for seven years. He brought all his business acumen and organizational management skills to bear in SUTD’s years of infancy. This August, he stepped down and handed over the baton to another corporate veteran, Mr Lee Tzu Yang. Thank you Mr Philip Ng for your immense contribution, and I look forward to working with Mr Lee Tzu Yang in the years to come.


Last year, when the pioneer batch of SUTD graduated, I am sure everyone – parents, faculty, MOE management – was quietly proud when they saw the graduands confident and enthusiastic, entering industries and deployed to good positions. Their distinction and success in the workplace in turn encouraged new intakes into SUTD. Hence, last year, SUTD received record high applications.

Today, you will carry on that tradition. Ultimately, it is the students, and how you embark on your lives and careers that build up the university. SUTD will in turn build up your juniors in knowledge, skills and experience, and lend its brand name to its new graduates as they step out to the job market. The virtuous cycle of student achievement and institutional strength is what keeps us all moving forward.

I am excited to see what you will achieve. SUTD can only get better and better. Being small, unique and beautiful, the world out there expects you to be different, and I think you are. Congratulations once again, and I wish you all the best.

Source: MOE