SUTD Class of 2020 Commencement - Speech by Mr Philip Ng

30 Oct 2021

SUTD Chancellor, Dr Tony Tan
Fellow recipient of the Honorary Doctor of Letters, Mr Sam Goi
SUTD President, Professor Chong Tow Chong
Ambassador at Large, Professor Chan Heng Chee
Faculty and Staff
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen
Class of 2020.
I am deeply honoured to be conferred an Honorary Doctor of Letters today….. something I would never have dreamed of when I dropped out of Singapore University’s medical school in 1978 and then went on to do an Engineering degree at London University.

I thank God as it is only by His Grace that I was able to embark on a wonderful journey with SUTD and had the privilege of helping this university get off the ground.

I am most grateful to Dr Tony Tan for his guidance in our foundational years. I also thank MOE for its unstinting support as well as the SUTD Board of Trustees and all its committees.

It is with gladness that I share this great honour with Mr Sam Goi, my fellow trustee on the Board. Sam is a valued partner who worked energetically to help SUTD garner support from philanthropists, entrepreneurs, business owners and captains of industry.

Over the past 12 years, SUTD has steadfastly nurtured technically grounded leaders to serve societal needs through technology and design. Today, SUTD provides a world-class education producing graduates well-received by industry and who add value to the progress of Singapore and elsewhere.

The globalised and connected world is perennially confronted by complex, ever-changing issues and problems. Intentional and intelligently designed solutions powered by technology will always be sought. In weaving together an interdisciplinary curriculum, a unique design philosophy and a strong collaborative culture, SUTD is well placed to contribute to national and global problem solving. 

I am pleased to learn that SUTD alumni and students conceived and realised many innovations with practical applications in recent times. For example, 

  • SUTD alumna and GovTech software engineer, Janice Tan, was part of the team that developed the now ubiquitous TraceTogether contact tracing app.

  • Artificial intelligence start-up Bifrost, founded by SUTD alumni Aravind Kandiah and Charles Wong, was commissioned by SMRT to build an AI algorithm using its synthetic data engine for safety checks on trains passing through its depots.

  • Adam Lim from the Class of 2021 and his course-mates designed a device for SCDF controllers to pre-emptively identify low air levels in firefighters’ breathing apparatus by remotely accessing real-time air consumption rates.

SUTD also made a mark in research and was named as one of the top 5 most influential scientific research institutions in telecommunications. Professor Tony Quek, Head of the Information Systems Technology and Design pillar is featured in the Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researchers list in computer science for the fifth year running.  

These achievements demonstrate that SUTD is, indeed, living out your vision by harnessing science and technology to bring about improved outcomes and inspire a better future for all.       

I would like to put forth a challenge to the SUTD community to feature more actively in shaping Singapore’s built environment. Today, architects, consultants, developers and contractors are called to not just build more sustainably, but also be stewards of the environment and of the planet itself. 

Worldwide, there are sustainability rating systems that measure the environmental impact of building projects. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED developed by the US Green Building Council is the most common certification programme. Singapore’s analogue, the BCA Green Mark Scheme, requires all new buildings to be constructed to the minimum certification level. Higher levels of certification such as Gold, GoldPLUS or Platinum are achieved by greater degrees of architectural and green design detailing and provisions.

In our bid to excel in these sustainability ratings, we should ask ourselves some fundamental questions. Are we reducing energy, water consumption and our carbon footprint in one part of the building lifecycle but creating more waste and introducing effluents and pollutants elsewhere? Are we unwittingly allowing the public relations value of green certification to drive the way we design and construct buildings? 

Certification systems such as LEED and BCA Green Mark emphasise a feature-based assessment that can encourage inappropriate design choices. The more design and architectural features, the higher the building scores in the greenmark system. Features such as sun-shading fins, triple glazing and double architectural skins ultimately add to the cost of construction and incur higher maintenance, cleaning, and replacement costs.

Secondly, we do not control how building occupants use their premises post-construction. If occupants do not go about their daily routines or operations sustainably, there will still be a lot of waste and carbon generated every day in spite of how green we build. Can we not better the outcome of the lived reality through deft use of technology to impact the behaviour of occupants and users?

Finally, in our pursuit of environmental sustainability, should we not consider the adverse effects in the end-to-end value chain and not just the benefits in our locale? Industrial production of widely used green building materials like aluminium and lithium electric vehicle batteries generate substantial toxic by-products. The cost to the environment and to people is real but because the mining and processing of the minerals are done thousands of miles away out of sight, we often ignore this. Another issue is the volatile organic compounds released from construction materials such as aluminium-based composites into the air. We must be wary of creating new problems here or somewhere else even as we grapple with decarbonisation.

A holistic scrutiny and a proper audit of the entire construction value-chain is necessary if we are serious about the stewardship of our environment. Only then will we get to the truth of this important matter. All of us in SUTD, whether we are technologists, scientists, engineers, designers, or researchers, must want to operate in truth in our desire to create a better world for ourselves and future generations. SUTD together with the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities is in a good position to start an informed discourse among technical specialists, policy analysts and urban planners. It will make a big difference.    

In closing, I should clarify that the Singapore Government is, in fact, the largest benefactor of SUTD besides being the main investor. Government has boldly envisioned a vibrant and relevant institution that bears the hallmarks of the Singapore brand and is highly committed to its growth and endurance. I remember well when the partnership with MIT was struck in 2010. Then President of MIT, Susan Hockfield and then Provost, Dr Rafael Reif, told me that their motivation as well as that of their faculty at MIT to participate in the start-up of SUTD lay in their confidence that the Singapore Government would see through the birth of a new university to its maturity. The partnership was sparked by dissimilar interests - an aspiration by MIT faculty to forment a revolutionary higher education endeavour and Singapore’s desire to broaden offerings in non-traditional engineering studies. 

Be it in higher learning or business or industry, partnerships may not be forever precisely because interests are dissimilar between partners. As long as the original idea that was sown continues to be watered, fruit shall be reaped over and over again. Our Government has always shown commitment to see through projects and institutions it inaugurates for the long run. Thus, I have every confidence that SUTD will bloom and flourish.

To the class of 2020, my congratulations on your graduation. COVID-19 postponed this ceremony, but I am sure that you have already commenced one of your life’s purposes to create A Better World by Design.

To friends and colleagues at SUTD who journeyed with me through the early years: Tom Magnanti the founding President, Tow Chong, Heng Chee, the Associate Provosts, pioneer staff and faculty, my grateful appreciation. And I thank God for my wife Vy-vyen, our children and family for their love and support always.

Thank you very much.