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

09 Sep 2017

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
The graduating class of 2017

My heartiest congratulations to all graduands and your families. You have come a long way to achieve this significant milestone. Today, we gather to celebrate not one, but two graduations. The first is of course your graduation, and the second, the graduation of SUTD. Let me talk about the graduation of SUTD first.


When SUTD first started in 2009, we decided that as a new university, SUTD would benefit from a formal collaboration with an internationally renowned university. It was with the same consideration that we started the Singapore Management University back in 2000, when it forged a partnership with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. And so the SUTD-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) collaboration was formed.

In the following seven years, SUTD and its students benefitted immensely from the partnership with MIT. The University adapted and improved upon the know-how of MIT, developing a unique structure, an innovative pedagogy, and a design-centric curriculum.

For example, SUTD has the unprecedented structure of a University without the traditional faculties headed by Deans, but instead, it has pillars of competencies that foster interdisciplinary learning. This is, in fact, something MIT wanted to do but was unable to because of deep seated legacy. Another example is the robust and highly manoeuvrable Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) originally designed at MIT, which was improved upon and modified by SUTD into one that was able to harness swarm intelligence. MIT is now using the improved vehicle and is now collaborating with SUTD to further improve it.

Over 90% of SUTD’s undergraduate course materials were co-created with MIT, and these continue to be updated and enhanced. Numerous joint research initiatives were launched, in areas like sustainability, design science, and product design and development, pushing the frontiers of human knowledge in these important and relevant areas.

At the same time, MOE and SUTD worked together to build up the university. Faculty was strengthened; the endowment fund was significantly built up under the tireless efforts of the Board of Trustees; management and governance structure solidified; a new campus with state of the art facilities and valuable heritage was developed; and linkages with industries was forged and nurtured. The alumni is being built up progressively and nicely.

To see how far SUTD has come, let’s look at a few simple statistics. In 2013, SUTD received 2,144 applications. In 2017, this has increased by 60%, to 3,503. Over the same period, intake of students has increased, from 265 in 2013, to 424 this year. Over the same five years, research funding has increased from $82 million to $300 million, almost four times more. These include research collaborations with organisations such as the Ministry of Defence for the Temasek Laboratories and ST Engineering, in areas such as unmanned vehicles, engineering systems, cyber-security and urban systems. Industry collaborations have grown from nothing to 71 projects, of which 14 were started this year. Internships per year have gone up from 191 to 439, and the number of hosting companies have increased from 110 to 700.

SUTD graduates have also received highly positive employer feedback. The 2015 and 2016 Graduate Employment Survey results showed that over 90% of SUTD graduates have obtained employment within six months of completing their final examinations, and earned a median monthly starting salary of $3,650 in 2016. This is actually the highest amongst graduates from all the local universities. This is not unexpected, for reasons which I will explain later.

SUTD has therefore delivered a stellar report card. The time has come for the university to graduate from its formal collaboration with MIT. Whatever SUTD has learned from the collaboration, it will continue to build and improve upon. As alumni members of this collaborative world of universities, SUTD and MIT will continue to work together in many areas; in research, students and faculty exchanges. I met MIT Provost Professor Martin Schmidt recently; the mutual desire to continue to collaborate as fellow alumni members was clear and strong – just that henceforth, we will work together without a formal legal agreement.

I thank all the faculty and staff of MIT and SUTD for all your efforts during this formative years of formal collaboration. We are also deeply appreciative of employers, for their support and recognition of SUTD. Most of all, we thank parents and students for putting faith in this budding university, which has grown to be a very special bright spot in our higher education landscape. Congratulations to SUTD.


Now let me talk about the second, and more important, graduation today, which is your graduation. Some of you may continue your studies, but most will commence your careers.

Many young working adults think that they need a portfolio of jobs. I hear that many jump from one job to another for two to three years, and they think that they will become more employable and sought after. This might be a big mistake. Some people jump from one job to another because they are being headhunted, and that is because they have special skills that the market knows about and which it values. If you are not in that position but simply change jobs frequently for the sake of doing so, you will just make your CV look quite bad. Most employers don’t like job hoppers, because they have no confidence that they can invest in your skills and capabilities.

What young working people should do is – if I may borrow marketing jargon – be clear of your USP or unique selling proposition. Ask yourself if you can complete the sentence: “My special expertise is …”, or as a professional, “I am known in the market for….” You have to try to complete those sentences.

It is alright if you cannot answer that question, as you have not even started your career. But you must start to identify it, and work on it, by staying and learning on the job. It is not about having a portfolio of jobs, but being able to demonstrate that all your learning and working experience adds up to a deep, specialised and valued skill. That is what we mean by SkillsFuture. Otherwise, to make a superhero reference, you are like an Avenger with no super power, and will be out of the team.

Fortunately, you are in SUTD, which has equipped you with a strong and good foundation to develop special skills in design. Design shapes how we go about our everyday lives. For example, Apple’s success is less a result of superior technology, but more because of its ability to make visually pleasing and simple-to-use products.

At Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, they simplified service delivery for the elderly by placing all geriatric-related specialist care on one floor. Our Family Justice Courts deal with difficult family disputes, and they use design-thinking to reduce anxiety of family members, by making the layouts of rooms pleasing and conducive, and by providing play corners for children in an otherwise very serious and sombre atmosphere.

SUTD is a small university because it has decided to focus on a niche, which is technology and design thinking, in an interdisciplinary setting. Employers recognise this, and that I believe is the reason why the median starting salaries of its graduates are higher, because what is rare and purposeful is always more valued.

Here, design is incorporated into every facet of the university experience. During admission interviews, the faculty looks out for applicants who not only have good academic grades, but also those who appreciate and enjoy design thinking. During the course of your study, you are subject to a design-centric curriculum, covering the entire value chain of design from ideation, implementation, testing to prototyping and production. Students participate in projects throughout their three and a half years here, and these range from short design challenges to complex projects that cut across subjects and terms.

As you graduate today, do not forget to continue to search for your niche, develop your USP, and build upon the foundation that you already possess and which employers recognise. It will shape and fulfil your professional lives in very meaningful ways.


I will end my speech with a few of your stories.

Tan Shun Yu, who is graduating today, went on two overseas programmes during her time here. One was to MIT for the Winter Independent Activity Period where she learnt about reverse software engineering. The second was an exchange to Zhejiang University under the SUTD Asian Leadership Programme, where she worked on a mobile app project with a Chinese company and struggled with understanding technical terms in Mandarin but managed to overcome it. Those were great cross-cultural experiences.

Hafiz and Keith who are present among you today, set up OMNi- – a start-up producing smart helmets, together with students from the other pillars. The helmet incorporates an optical display system with a rear camera and GPS, which empowers motorcyclists by providing them with greater situational awareness. With support from SUTD, OMNi- has received funding and mentoring to grow their idea. OMNi- has also won several awards that helped them to secure funding and validate their idea.

Another group of students – Ryan, Iffah, Kenneth and Hui Wen – worked with a social enterprise, ‘My Nonna’s’, to redesign a café at SUTD to make it more wheelchair-friendly. This café now has kitchens that allow those on wheelchairs to cook and prepare meals.

Whether you are a corporate executive, social worker, start-up entrepreneur, or professional – design is a cross-cutting skill that will serve you well, and help you make a meaningful impact to your organisation and to society. The education at SUTD trains you to synthesise the inter-disciplinary connections between technology, design, and the humanities, and enables you to understand, analyse, and address problems and challenges. Make the best of it, and do yourself, your family and SUTD proud. Thank you.

Source: MOE