SM Teo Chee Hean at the Inaugural Professor Chen Charng Ning Distinguished Lecture Series

SM Teo Chee Hean | 20 August 2022

Speech by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean at the Inaugural Professor Chen Charng Ning Distinguished Lecture Series on 20 August 2022.


Engineering a Better World for All

Mrs Chen Charng Ning and Family
Prof Cham Tao Soon, 
President Emeritus, NTU

Prof Louis Phee, 
Vice President (Innovation and Entrepreneurship), NTU

My old friend and colleague, Dr Lee Bee Wah

And to all of you here in the auditorium and watching online, what a wonderful feeling it is to have such a strong alumni and such a strong spirit in a class and in the university. 

I am pleased to speak at the inaugural Prof Chen Charng Ning Distinguished Lecture Series. I got to know Professor Chen when I was a board member of Nanyang Technological Institute, just before and just after the time when it became Nanyang Technological University. 

I knew Prof Chen as a passionate scholar and educator and widely respected academic, who inspired generations of Singaporean students and engineers. I had many interactions with him then, and I found him to always have a very natural distinguished bearing, and for always being a gentleman – very polite, caring, urbane and modest, and always considerate of others. Prof Chen’s chosen field of research, teaching and excellence was Science and Engineering, which improve our lives and create a better world.

I speak to you as a person trained as an engineer, but in some ways, unfulfilled as an engineer because I never got to practice real engineering. But, throughout my life, in all the things that I have done, I have always valued the training I had as an engineer. It has shaped the way I think and approach problems, and try and bring solutions to them using scientific knowledge and applying practical principles to try and address the issues that we face. 

Science and Engineering

Science and engineering are intertwined disciplines. Science involves examining, studying and understanding basic phenomena in the physical and natural world. Discovery is the essence of science. Engineering involves applying the knowledge about these basic phenomena to design objects, processes and systems to meet real-world challenges in society. Science is needed for engineering, while engineers need to explore the frontiers of science to solve engineering problems or develop new technologies.

The culture of a society is also determined by what some of its best people study and the disciplines that the leaders of that society have studied and been imbued with. In some countries, it is History and the Classics, which form the bulk of the people who run the country and who lead the country. In some countries, it is lawyers who form the bulk of the people who run the corporates and who lead the country. In some countries, it is engineers and scientists. And you can see the different character and characteristics of those countries, in the way that they tackle the big issues that are before them. 

I think that for us in Singapore, we are a good blend of all of these. We have lawyers, we have engineers, we have scientists, we have doctors, we have people who have studied the humanities. In this new world, this is what we do need. 

Whatever discipline that we study, it is really a humility of understanding that what we use as our discipline to see the world is but one way of seeing the world. 
As a physicist, you try and understand and describe the world in terms of physics. As a chemist, you try and understand the world in those terms. As a geographer, you try and understand the world in those terms. As a writer or an artist, you try to understand and describe the world in terms of your art. But it is like trying to describe what an elephant is, and you feel different parts of the elephant and you say this is a tree trunk, it’s a rope, it’s a wall. But actually, it is all of it. And the more we study, the more we delve into our own discipline, the deeper we delve, the more humble we should be – that ours is not the be-all and end-all of knowledge, but that the sum of knowledge is what we all know and all that we have yet to discover. 

I think that that's the essence of learning, studying in the university – to study your own discipline, but to also know that the world is made up of many disciplines, and we need all of them in order to understand the world and to tackle the issues of the world.

Exploring the vastness of the universe 

For science and engineering, it has broken new frontiers. I studied in university 50 years ago. It is so exciting now to see the images from more than 13 billion light years away of our early universe. These were from the James Webb Space Telescope that was launched in December last year, replacing the Hubble Space Telescope, which was itself an engineering marvel in its own time. The James Webb telescope, with a mirror seven times larger and with greatly improved infrared resolution and sensitivity, allows us to look back even further out and further back in time into our universe.

Venturing into space has also allowed us to have a new perspective of our world, to look back at our own world, and see how small we are, and how precious we are in this cold, dark universe. 

NTU has been at the forefront of Singapore’s satellite endeavours in space. NTU’s 10th satellite, named SCOOB-I, was launched on 30 June this year and is now successfully orbiting the Earth. This nano-satellite has several engineering innovations for nano and small satellites including a solar spectral sensor; a small high resolution Earth imaging camera; and an attitude determination system and a new solar panel developed by NTU’s Satellite Research Centre (SaRC). None of these are groundbreaking on its own right, but to put these into nano satellites and small satellites is quite an achievement. 

I hope to see more young scientists and engineers inspired to enter this field of engineering and make breakthroughs in satellite engineering in the rapidly expanding space industry.

Exploring the depths of the earth

But engineering also covers our own world, and like probes sent into outer space, engineering has also allowed us to drill deep, dive deeper into the inner space of our Earth and oceans, to places that humans have not reached before. This has allowed us to probe our Earth’s sediments, crust and upper mantle. The deepest hole in the world was the Russian Kola Superdeep Borehole, drilled in 1990 to a depth of 12,262 metres. 

There is still much to be done – we know more about the surface of the moon than about the Earth’s ocean floors.

Ocean exploration has proven the theory of plate tectonics, created the field of paleoceanography and redefined how we view life on earth by revealing an enormous variety and volume of life in the deep marine biosphere. It has also helped mankind to reconstruct earth’s history, just as looking out into outer space helps us to understand the universe’s history, because the deep seabed offers a more continuous geologic record than formations on land, which are affected by erosion and redeposition by wind, water and ice. 

These innovations also open up new possibilities such as deep geothermal energy, which we are exploring, or minerals from the deep seabed, which some of our companies are exploring. 

We have in Singapore the Technology Centre for Offshore and Marine, Singapore, or TCOMS, and it has an ocean basin with a depth of up to 50 metres, which allows for simulations of ocean depths of up to 3,000 metres. It is connected to a petascale supercomputer for digital modelling. I’m glad to see that we have young Singaporean entrepreneurs, both men and women, who have been using TCOMS to go into new fields. For example, to make it easier for robotic inspection of oceanic structures to be done safely without having to use divers. TCOMS allows our researchers and companies to better understand complex marine environments as well as to validate and enhance the design and performance of their solutions.

Apart from TCOMS, NTU here also has the Earth Observatory of Singapore which conducts fundamental research on earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and climate change in and around Southeast Asia. This enables us to build better capabilities to understand, mitigate and respond to natural hazards, disasters and climate change, and improve the resilience of agriculture, urban communities and infrastructure in our region. Anyone who wants to develop a major project will have an interest in this subject. Anyone who wants to insure such projects also will have a major interest in such subjects. 

Exploring the world at nanoscale

From outer space and the inner space of our oceans and our crust, we can also go nanoscale. 

Nanotechnology allows us to precisely manipulate matter on an atomic, molecular and super-molecular basis to exploit the unusual physical, chemical and biological properties that matter exhibits at nanoscale. This will allow us to build materials which can be stronger, lighter, more durable, more reactive, more porous or to conduct heat and electricity better. In this way, we can design new products. The simplest in application would be lighter cars, aeroplanes and vehicles which will be more resource-efficient and reduce carbon emissions. But, the possibilities are quite boundless. 

The E6NanoFab at NUS is a micro-nanofabrication research centre that combines nanotechnology and microelectronics. We also have a very good Centre for Advanced 2D Materials which creates cutting-edge materials based on graphene and two-dimensional crystals. These are the materials of the future, which our world will be built on. 

Biofilms are another exciting area, and this is a subject of research at SCELSE, here at NTU, the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering. SCELSE has engineered a light-responsive bacterial biofilm that can mitigate “biofouling” of water purification membrane filters. This has a significant impact on improving our water purification technologies.

So from the universe to our deep oceans, by going really really small, we can also aim really really big and have a really really big impact on our future and our world.

Exploring the essence of life 

The combination of many disciplines, previously considered quite separate, has also spawned exciting new breakthroughs. Biomedical and bio-engineering is behind some of the most modern and groundbreaking healthcare techniques and devices, including Singapore’s own Mona Lisa robot assisted prostate biopsy system. 

By combining medicine, physiology, biology, bio-informatics, mechanics and engineering, biomedical engineering helps to improve treatment protocols and outcomes, while making healthcare more targeted and effective. New innovative fields such as stem-cell engineering, genetic engineering, tissue engineering and bio-printing also allow us to push the boundaries to improve healthcare. 

We saw this bear fruit in a dramatic way during the COVID-19 pandemic – the creation of mRNA vaccines within such a compressed timeframe was possible only because of investments in R&D and the training of experts in genetic and biomedical engineering over many preceding years.

Exploring the Science of Cities 

Professor Chen’s own area of research, and where he played a leadership role, was Civil and Structural Engineering. Professor Chen was founding Dean of NTU’s School of Civil and Structural Engineering. His national contributions included being the founding Chairman of the Building and Construction Authority. 

As I said at the very beginning, I trained as an engineer, but in some ways I am an unfulfilled one. When I wanted to study engineering, I had never actually met an engineer in my life. I knew that I had a neighbor who was an engineer with the Public Utilities Board - the electricity department. So, I went to knock on his door and said, “I want to study engineering.” And I still remember he talked to me, and he had a pendulum clock in his hall in order to measure the variation of the frequency of the electricity supply compared to his pendulum clock which he used as the reference for measuring the variation of frequency in our electricity supply, which would then manifest itself in the electric clock. So the pendulum clock to him was more reliable than any other thing that we had in our electricity supply system. 

So, I went to study engineering. I should tell you that my real interest was civil engineering because I was fascinated by it and am still fascinated by all these wonderful structures, dams, bridges, highways, which one can see, touch and feel, and which have an impact on human life and improving the human condition. 

I ended up studying electronic engineering – small little things. But in those days, the small little things were quite big little things. I don't know how many of you have actually felt and touched a transistor. Transistors were then about the size of your nail, each one with three little legs coming out of it. And we had ferrite core memory. You could see each bit of the ferrite core. So that is a bit revealing of how many decades ago I studied engineering. But although engineering has evolved over the years, the principles largely remained the same. 

I studied electronic engineering, automatic control systems and system engineering, and subsequently software engineering. And those principles remain the same. Whether you are trying to programme a computer on the front face of the computer using machine language, an assembler, or the high-level languages that we use today to design massive computer systems, the thought process and the engineering behind it are similar. 

I would say that in the field that Professor Chen was in – I now broadly call it the Science of Cities – the change really has been in the way that we look at how we deal with cities and our problems.

Today, there are 4.4 billion people, or 56% of the world’s population who live in cities. By 2050, another 2.5 billion people will be added to this 4.4 billion and they will form 68% of the world’s population living in cities and urban areas. The Science of Cities is therefore key to how the majority of humankind will live, and also key to the future of our planet. 

Cities are enormously complex.  For hundreds of years, the basic approach to try and understand and design systems in cities was reductionism – reducing complex systems like cities into smaller and simpler parts so that they are easier to study, analyse, build and control. Instead of studying cities as a whole, their complex problems are sliced and diced into functional areas like transport, housing, public health, employment, and so on. 

But now, with a greater ability, especially with sensors and computing, we can more and more look at cities as systems. Systems engineering helps us to make sense of complex systems, and improves our understanding of the science of cities. In doing so, we can take a more holistic view of the interdependencies and implications of all the interactions in our cities and the decisions we make. And this really is quite a major breakthrough. In the operation of cities today, many cities now essentially have a command and control operations centre for the city, where you bring in information sensors, feedback from residents, some real time feedback from residents about what's happening and bring in all the agencies involved in order to manage the city, minute to minute, even second to second, and all the complex interactions in the city to run the city better during normal times and to respond better during crises.

Through urban science and civil and environmental engineering, we are able to plan, build, rejuvenate and create more resilient, sustainable and liveable cities, to enhance the lives of citizens. 

Singapore’s Engineers

Singapore is one of the most livable cities in the world. It is our engineers and professionals in the construction and built environment sectors who have contributed to the building of world class infrastructure in Singapore, including airports, seaports, land reclamation, coastal protection, roads, MRTs, schools, hospitals, and commercial and residential buildings. Many of these construction projects are challenging due to our lack of space and lack of natural resources. 

We are so small. We cannot use a slash and burn agriculture technique where you go to a piece of land, you slash the natural vegetation, you grow on it, and when it becomes fallow, or when it becomes less fertile, you abandon it, go to another piece of land, slash and burn and grow again. In some countries, this principle is applied to cities as well. When a city becomes so complex and unmanageable, they say well, we can’t solve the problems, let’s build another city, transfer our people there, build it again from scratch while we try our best to figure out the problems of the existing city. 

We have nowhere else to go. This is all we have in our precious little island. So, we must husband it very well, rejuvenate it, take care of it in an exquisite way. 

Many engineers involved in our infrastructural developments were graduates of NTU and NUS. Over 8,000 undergraduates and more than 3,000 Masters and PhD students have graduated from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) at NTU, established under Prof Chen. The School of CEE has also collaborated with various government agencies and industry partners on many R&D projects and contributed to the elevation of our construction industry. And if I may be honest, our construction industry still has some way to go to achieve greater efficiency, particularly labour efficiency. The School has been working with BCA to establish a web-based 3D geo-data modelling and management system which will help the digitalisation of underground construction, which is another new area of possibility. It is not just going up, but going down, in order to increase the space that we have. Through a NRF project on Underwater Infrastructure and Underwater City of the Future, the School has developed new technologies that could be deployed for the construction of seawalls or coastal protection structures. By working with JTC, NTU has developed bendable pavement and fire-resistant coating materials. The School is also working with NEA to explore ways to make beneficial use of the waste disposed at the Semakau Landfill. 

Our tertiary institutes including polytechnics have played an important role in nurturing our engineers, supporting our economy, and building our nation. Our universities have among the best engineering schools in the world, and all of our students are receiving world-class engineering education here at home. And this is quite remarkable. 

We need to understand science and engineering so that we can deal with the problems that we have in an objective way. If we are unable to understand science and engineering, and we don't understand what is happening, then the solutions that we propose, the solutions that we want to adopt will not be practical, not be affordable, not be achievable, and in the end will not just fail us in our own cities and countries, but also fail us on a mass scale as humankind. So we need science and engineering to help us to solve these problems that we have. 

We now have new challenges, not least climate change. Prof Chen was involved in coastal engineering and coastal protection. This has now become a very very important subject for countries all around the world. 

Most of the cities that I talked about earlier are near the coast, for practical reasons- for transportation, and the weather is better. So many of them are susceptible to flooding from sea level rise, from inundation, and from storm surges if the weather patterns become more extreme, as they have become in recent years. So we have to deal with it. 

Many of the cities are also expanding into less livable areas because the most livable areas are occupied by the first people who came to the city. So now people are setting up and living in the floodplains of the rivers, or on hillslopes and hillsides which they would not have chosen to live in before. These pose new challenges, particularly when we are faced with the threat of floods, avalanches, and landslides, with more extreme weather. These are all issues and problems which we need to solve and address in the coming decades. 

We have to build, run and operate our cities in a more resource efficient way so that we don't make the problem of climate change worse. We have to build them in a resilient way so that we can absorb the impacts that climate change is going to impose on us. We reduce our emissions and we protect ourselves against the new, more extreme weather. 

Here in Singapore, we intend to do that. For land reclamation, about a decade ago, we already raised the land reclamation platform requirements by 1 metre more than what we had before – and what we had before was already higher than the highest ever recorded tide in Singapore. So we are preparing for the future. We have done studies of the whole of Singapore and divided them into different hydraulic areas. We are studying in detail now what needs to be done to protect each of them, from sea level rise, storm surges and inundation both from inland flooding as well as from the sea. 

By doing so early and doing so in a systemic way, looking at it as a whole system, we can create many new synergies. We can design our new cities, not just to be livable, but hopefully to be lovable as well. I'll give you a few examples. 

Punggol New Town is bounded by the Johor Strait in the north and two rivers to the east and west which became impounded to be freshwater reservoirs. And there was a need to equalise the water level between the two reservoirs. Our original plan, like good engineers, was to just connect it with a pipe, a big pipe. But what we eventually decided to do was to connect it with the Punggol waterway. And that really creates the character of New Punggol Town. The waterway is beautiful and the residents there really love it. To walk along it, to see it from your apartment, to enjoy it to the full. You can canoe there, you can jog along the banks, you can do so many things. It is much better than the pure engineering solution which is to join it with a pipe. 

So, what we have been able to do is to look at the solution as a more complete solution, and to look at our problems from an interdisciplinary point of view. 

Look at it from the aesthetic point of view, see the problem as a whole and not just in its compartments, and to understand that what we do and what we plan for is only one part and the knowledge that we have is only one part of the solution. When we bring in residents and people who are living there, what we think they would like, we come up with a better solution which is practical, addresses the issue at hand which is to balance the water level in the two reservoirs, and creates an attractive feature that is now the centerpiece of the town. This is what we must be able to do. 

The way we manage airports and build and run airports is another good example. If you think of the problem as moving cargo and moving people, you will end up with an airport terminal building that looks like a cargo complex. And indeed, some airport terminals do look and feel like cargo complexes and the passengers who flow through them do feel like cargo. Those obviously, are not the most successful airports in the world. 

Cargo and people are different. Those airports which are designed and operated with an understanding of human behavior, human needs and wants are the most successful airport terminals in the world. When you are moving people and you are moving cargo, you can say from an engineering point of view, what's the difference? In fact, moving people is an advantage because they're self-mobile. You don't have to propel them with a propulsion system. But they are completely different when we bring in all the different aspects and we create a much better solution. 

If we plan ahead, and we plan properly, we can actually come up with some really good solutions. The lowest lying areas in Singapore are along the east coast. I used to be the MP there, in the Joo Chiat and Tanjong Katong area, and those areas got flooded terribly all the time, and they are probably only about half a meter or a meter above sea level. When you have a super high tide, actually you get inundation. Even today, without sea level rise, the east coast is under some kind of threat and we have all kinds of flood alleviation schemes. The next time you are in Opera Estate, go and visit Opera Estate Primary School – there is a big detention tank underneath there to protect the Opera Estate. 

But how do we protect the whole of the East Coast against inundation? Well, one solution is to build sea walls and that could address the problem. But if we think ahead – 50, 100 years for Singapore, we can come up with a much better solution. The solution that we are exploring today is to build a set of islands off the east coast which will then leave a stretch on water in between those islands in the east coast. Those islands will provide, if we reclaim them to the correct level, the flood and surge protection to the East Coast because you can control the water level in between. 

You don’t just have to spend money on building sea walls; maybe you can get a good return also on the investment nationally, because those islands I think will be prime property. You can build on them, you can develop many things on them - housing, recreation, and wonderful things for the new generation of Singaporeans, and not just build sea walls like protecting yourself in a fortress or castle. 

You can do these things, only if you think holistically, think boldly, and you think ahead. Those are just some of the challenges that here in tiny Singapore, we face for the future and which we have the capacity to solve, for which we have the people to address these issues. If we find good solutions, we can share them with others in the world. 

Some say that all the exciting things in Singapore have been done 20, 30, 40 years ago, and there is nothing left to be done; the roads are built, the trains are built, the houses are built. But there is so much more to do here in Singapore. Singapore is an example to the issues and the problems with 68% of the world's population - 6.9 billion people - will be facing the future. 

Today, we pay tribute to Prof Chen for his outstanding contributions to engineering education and research. I would also like to acknowledge the contributions of all our engineers in Singapore, and our professors, particularly those here in NTU and the leadership who have contributed to the training of our engineers. As the world continues to face increasingly complex challenges such as pandemics and climate change, we need good engineers more than ever before - good engineers who appreciate the disciplines beyond engineering and understand humanity and how we can make cities not just livable, but lovable.  

Let us uphold Prof Chen Charng Ning’s legacy and continue to apply science and engineering to bring ideas to life, create solutions to real-world challenges, and turn our dreams into reality. Let Prof Chen’s life’s work and example inspire more, like yourselves, to push the frontiers of what we know and what we can achieve.

Thank you very much.

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