Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's Speech at the SUTD East Coast Campus Opening on 8 May 2015

8 May 2015


Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

Good afternoon. I am sounding like your Professor already. Very happy to be here today to open SUTD’s East Coast Campus. SUTD is a valuable addition to our tertiary education system. Over the years, we have increased the number of spaces for Singaporeans in publicly-funded universities. Right now 30% of the cohort goes to university; we are pushing it up to 40% within five years. But this is not just about numbers because we have learned from other countries who have too many graduates chasing too few jobs. So in Singapore, we design our education system to offer students many options that cater to their different strengths and interests, but to equip them with marketable skills so that when they graduate, they can readily find jobs. SUTD contributed to this by offering one more important pathway for our students to choose from.

SUTD has developed a unique curriculum and approach. It equips students with deep skills in technology. It emphasises solving real-world problems. It goes beyond teaching knowledge to teaching ways of thinking, how to analyse problems, how to come up with new possibilities. Design takes centre-stage as it cuts across the curricula of Architecture, Product Design, Systems Design and IT. Those are the ideals. That is your mission and that is what we hope to see for our investment in the university and in you.

SUTD has partnered with world-renowned partners. MIT has played an important role in SUTD’s development. It has helped to develop the curriculum and faculty and students on both sides frequently visit each other and collaborate, including collaborating in research and they have jointly established an International Design Centre. I am very pleased that the MIT EXCO values SUTD as a collaboration partner. Last year they held their meeting here at SUTD which is the first time in 150 years of MIT history that the EXCO has met outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. We also partners with Zhejiang University, one of the top Chinese universities which has provided SUTD students with opportunities for exchanges to gain a first-hand perspective of Chinese society, Chinese industry, and the China market.

So I am confident that with your unique education and your rich experience, SUTD graduates will play important roles in shaping Singapore’s future. For the last 50 years, Singapore’s development has been built on a strong foundation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Looking ahead, we will need strong STEM capabilities to continue to upgrade our economy, and to become a modern, forward looking and technologically advanced society. 

STEM was important in taking us from Third World to First. In the early days of industrialisation, we emphasised STEM education to produce people with hard skills to become engineers and technicians, so that we could develop the expertise in shipbuilding and electronics, build and run our ports and airports, maintain our water and grow our electricity supplies, and therefore create many good jobs and improve the lives of Singaporeans. As the economy developed, STEM education continued to be important because STEM education equipped people with the problem solving skills and the analytical discipline to be deployable across many sectors of the economy, not necessarily in technical jobs, but also in management, finance, or government. There were other jobs available but we decided if you were educated in STEM, you will not be out of a job. If you do something else and the world changes, you may find yourselves stranded. So channelled people towards STEM, we invested in this. We made sure that our students received good education in maths and science in the primary and secondary school levels and in the post-secondary education whether in the ITE, Polytechnics or Universities. We weighted our whole education system heavily towards STEM. We strongly encouraged students to master STEM subjects, rather than softer fields of study. You may ask me which are the softer fields of study but I think I shall be polite today and leave it to you to imagine them.

This approach bore fruit and that is why we are here today. For the next 50 years, we need strong STEM capabilities to be what we should be – a vibrant, exciting, advanced society. Recently I launched the Smart Nation programme to make Singapore a nation where technology and innovation strengthens our community and society, and enables people to live meaningful and fulfilled lives. There will be many opportunities for STEM graduates to make your mark and shape how we live, work and play. We are also upgrading our living environment – building greener homes, connecting our waterways and parks, expanding our public transport networks, embarking on complex engineer projects like the High Speed Rail link between Jurong East and Kuala Lumpur. All these require expertise and skills in engineering, technology and design. 

As a small country, we will always have constraints to overcome and we will have to overcome them through ingenuity and technology. For example, we have limited land so we are always searching for new ways to create space, whether building upwards or digging downwards, like we have done with the Jurong Rock Caverns. Maybe one day we can imagine one day floating pontoons which will be cheaper than reclamation and expand the space we have. Such things do exist. With our population growth slowing, we need fresh ideas to help our workers, companies and economy become more productive. We will always need resources like energy and water. We are not blessed with an abundance of them but we can through our diligence and imagination ensure that we have an adequate supply of them. For example in water technology, membrane technology, we are a world leader and we are continuing to work at it. An SUTD team has developed modified membranes which are much better at desalination because they have a salt absorption capacity 200 times better than current carbon-based water treatment systems and this will make water desalination much more affordable and it can make a big difference not only to Singapore, but to many other countries too, because many counties in many parts of the world all facing water shortages today. So there will be no lack of challenges and there should be no lack of jobs for SUTD’s graduates.

We have almost all the ingredients in place in SUTD. A beautiful campus – very few new universities can boast of 400-year-old buildings on campus, fewer still can say they were donated by Jackie Chan! You have a good faculty, a good curriculum, and you have many bright opportunities ahead. But the most important ingredient of all is talent – people. As our economy has developed, and many other options have opened up, it has not been so easy for us to convince students or graduates to consider STEM courses or STEM jobs. It is partly because the job market sends clear signals on which jobs are in demand, at least clear short term signals that if you go this way, tomorrow you will have a few more coins in the pocket. 

For example, in real estate when the property market is hot, in finance when the stock markets are booming, or in the professions like law and medicine. But it is not just market signals, it is also partly a generational change, where students who have grown up in a more developed economy take science and technology more for granted, and pursue interests in other areas unlike students growing up in the poor environment who see science and technology as a way out of poverty and have a compulsion to master it and get ahead. So at Silicon Valley, the parents are all scientist, mathematicians, IT engineers, married to mathematicians, scientists, IT engineers. Their children go and do mind expanding liberal arts. Nothing wrong with that but if everybody does that I think the balance have shifted and we have to maintain the right balance. We see this trend in Singapore too among students, scholarship holders, even in my Cabinet. Most of the older generation of ministers had engineering or science degrees, other than the few lawyers, and of course ESM Goh who was an economist. But today, many of the young ministers studied economics and social sciences. So the fashion has shifted partly by need but also preferences. I think we need the balance – we need more than engineers to be a rounded, complete society, but we must not neglect hard sciences in the pursuit of higher satisfactions in life.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the opening of the SUTD East Coast Campus on 8 May 2015.

So I am glad that the trend is showing some signs of reversing and that STEM courses and jobs are getting attractive again. I was very happy to hear from you Chairman, Mr Phillip Ng just now that the intake quality into SUTD is good and the intake numbers are gradually going up and this year we will get the high four hundreds of students which is something close to what we are aiming for SUTD. May I reassure all of you who have come this way that you are on the right path. Why do I think it has happen? Well, partly the technology revolution, partly the excitement in Silicon Valley, where the entrepreneurial spirit and the buzz has rubbed off on our people. 

Last month, I visited the LTA Youth Hackathon, I was very encouraged to see young people enthusiastically coding and designing apps to make our lives better and a few weeks ago when I spoke at the Founders Forum about our vision for a Smart Nation, there was a lot of interest from Singaporeans because people are excited at the possibility of changing lives and the world through science and technology. The pot of gold is one motivation but the imagination that perhaps the next big thing I invent would change the world, I think that is what keeps people going, slogging and finally making it happen.

So SUTD must ride this wave and champion science and technology. Technology is in your name so you must live up to it. I will do my little bit which is why I shared my little Sudoku solver program online. Thank you, now I know where the IT people are seating. There was a purpose to it; to generate buzz and to send young people a clear message – tech is cool. Even if you have grey hair you can still try to be cool. After I did that one young Singaporean working in Silicon Valley emailed me, to tell me that he thought our biggest barrier to being a Smart Nation is engineering talent. He suggested that the best metrics to measure success is how oversubscribed the computer science classes are in college. He said in Berkeley there are 1,000 students who have signed up for the 101 course, so much so that the students were told not to go to the lectures because of overcrowding. So I replied to him that I agreed with him that the people are critical. You must have the talent go into STEM. So perhaps the best measure for our success is how popular SUTD and STEM courses in other universities are.

I would like to thank the pioneer trustees, staff, faculty, and all the students who believed in the vision of SUTD, and worked tirelessly to make this university a reality. Soon we will see the fruits of your labour, at least the first harvest because the pioneer batch of students, the class of 2015 is graduating this year. I hear that many have already had job offers from companies like Apple, Keppel FELS and Singtel. You are off on a good start. Set off your journey in life, and aim high to make a difference to Singa¬pore. Already, you are making a difference. I am told that a group of students designed a wearable device called a FingerReader which that helps the visually-impaired to read printed text. I am also told for this year’s Chinese New Year light up down in Chinatown, SUTD students designed and built the goats which could light up and move around.  Well, goats are for fun, but if you can do fun things well and with style that attitude and skill will help you to tackle many more serious problems too.

I congratulate SUTD on your new campus, and look forward to you taking full advantage of the facilities to prepare yourself, to seize the many opportunities ahead, and change our and your own lives for the better. Congratulations!