Reflections with Professor Tan Eng Chye

By Teow Junhao and Brendan Loon

Professor Tan Eng Chye is a Professor of the National University of Singapore (NUS). It is the nation’s largest university, with a community of about 50,000 people–38,000 students and 12,000 staff–spread across the main Kent Ridge campus, and the two smaller campuses in Bukit Timah and Outram. For Professor Tan, one of the most interesting aspects about a university is how the institution brings together highly capable individuals with academic and intellectual qualifications across all fields–from A-Z, from music to medicine. There is a diverse spread of expertise, knowledge and capabilities; and there is almost always somebody to explain almost anything in depth. He is honoured for the opportunity and privilege to lead NUS, reminiscing that had he not taken the suggestion of his professor, his career might have turned out quite differently. As a young man, he had wanted to become a police officer. This, however, proved difficult due to his colour blindness, but an affirmative word from his professor brought him thereafter into academia through a PhD in mathematics.

Helming a university is quite a different experience. A university has several important features. Firstly, the university is about education. At NUS, we pride ourselves on educational innovations. In particular, a key focus going-forward is producing high-achieving future-ready graduates.

A second unique aspect of a university is research. Here, we want to be able to do research that not only advances knowledge, but delivers positive impact for society.

A third is entrepreneurship. NUS has established a distinctive track record in cultivating an entrepreneurial ecosystem. As entrepreneurship is closely linked to innovation, this is a related area that we have focused on as well in the last 20 years. We want to sustain our entrepreneurial ecosystem, and continue to flourish as an important hub that nurtures high-impact entrepreneurs for Singapore and the world.

The University is a very invigorating, very exciting place because you have many people of diverse talents coming together. What I want to focus on is creating more pathways and opportunities for our talented community to interact, share, and exchange ideas and insights. Such platforms could be physical or virtual, local or globally connected.

The University, at its most fundamental level, is really about people and ideas.

I am really honoured to be the fifth President of NUS, and 23rd leader of this proud and storied University.

NUS has done very well, particularly over the last 20 years. Today, we are acknowledged as one of the top universities in Asia and the world.

But the world is changing, and we must be bold and imaginative enough to seize new opportunities, only then can we do better, and contribute with greater impact to shape a better future.

I see one of my main roles as engaging the NUS community, and helping to enhance the foundations of NUS so that we can take strides forward to become a truly great university ­– an institution which inspires all Singaporeans, and which plays a role in helping to make the world a better place.

I’ve been an academic since 1989 and this year marks my 30th  year in academia. In fact, I joined NUS 30 years ago around this time, between May and June.

As a fledgling academic, my concern then was learning to teach well and to produce high-quality research. I became an administrator only about 10 years later.

As an administrator, the considerations are very different, as are the challenges. What becomes very important is the question of how you can get good people to share your vision, and to help you achieve common goals. That I think, still remains the key challenge in management and leadership: getting people who are committed, who are willing, and who have the right qualities to lead in different areas.

I am fortunate that my predecessors have built up a rigorous culture of excellence, and also that we have, on the whole, committed staff and personnel who want the University to do well, because they understand the larger mission at stake. This is a key factor of why we have been able to rise in terms of our position in Asia and in the world.

Singapore is also uniquely fortunate in that the government plays a key supporting and enabling role. For example, in 2006, the government allowed public-funded universities to become autonomous. That expanded the horizons and opportunities for the universities to compete on the global stage. Higher education remains a key priority for the government, and we are strongly supported, not only with resources, but with a framework that encourages innovation and diversity. This has allowed the autonomous universities not only to thrive, but to develop new capabilities which have in-turn expanded opportunities across education, research and enterprise for members of our NUS community.

Like many people, I strive for work-life balance. Family and friends are important to me.

I try to spend time with my family, even though everyone has busy schedules. My children are largely grown up, and a few have started working. We try to gather and spend time together as a family. Here, I must acknowledge the support of my wife, who has played a pivotal role in our family. Without her, I don’t think I would have been able to focus as much of my attention on my role in the University.

Naturally, friends are important too. I do meet up with my friends regularly, although, like many people, I wish I could have more time with them! All of us are busy, and in addition, part of my role requires travelling. For example, our partnerships with oversea universities is an important element of our global footprint.

It is always a constant balance managing between work, family and social life.

Singapore is very fortunate in that we have very strong fundamentals. We have a very good primary and secondary school education system. We produce secondary school graduates who are well prepared for the demands of higher education.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) rankings are two examples of international calibrations, which basically affirm that Singapore has done well in terms of primary and secondary education. Due to the strong intakes, the universities are able to design programmes and experiences to lift students up to a much higher level.

If you look at our universities, the across-the-board quality of our graduates compares very favourably, probably exceeding that of many other developed countries. And that’s something we should be proud of: we may be a small country, but the international recognition given to our graduates speaks positively about our system as a whole.

We have a system that works well, in large measure. There is always room for improvement, of course, and we should not hesitate to make refinements and enhancements where needed.

One example would be that there is sometimes an over-emphasis on exams or assessments as indicators of learning aptitude or potential, leading to possibly overlooking other equally important aspects – curiosity, imagination, or strong social skills, for example. I think the government and the universities are mindful of this, and are working to adjust the balance, in a holistic way. We are constantly calibrating and re-calibrating, with the aim of expanding opportunities to maximise potential and outcomes.

For NUS, this carefully considered approach in fostering a more engaging attitude towards learning can be seen in our course modules.  Although people may not realise this, about 40% of our courses do not have any final examinations. This encourages our students to learn steadily throughout the module, and also allows for more opportunities for application of understanding through projects.

All students also have a grade-free year to choose any subjects or courses they have an interest in, and have the flexibility to use their grades only if they wish to do so. If the student chooses to transcribe the module as a Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory (S/U) grade, this is perfectly fine: this becomes part of their NUS learning experience. Of course, if they do well, they can keep their As!

Such approaches reflect how our belief that education is not just about trying to absorb knowledge and skills; it is equally important to allow our students time to reflect, assimilate, and integrate their learning, so that they can apply what they have learnt in unique ways and diverse circumstances.  

In my view, the university becomes even more important. This is because the university is often at the forefront of knowledge and skills, in terms of how the world is changing.

If you go to companies these days, they would want ‘ABCD’: A for Artificial Intelligence, B for Blockchain, C for Cloud Computing, D for Data Analytics. These are emerging skills that companies need.

Universities are often the organisations at the forefront of such capabilities, because our professors are pushing the boundaries in these domains. We are also in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where we are witnessing the unprecedented convergence of the digital, physical and biological realms. Distinguishing between what is real and what is virtual might become quite a difficult challenge in the future. It may not be too long before we have robots that can pass the Turing Test–and then it would be difficult to tell the difference between the robot and the human. These technologies are advancing at a tremendous pace.

My concern is, “How do I actually prepare our graduates to be very adaptable?”. At NUS, we aim to innovate and transform our education so as to produce highly capable, future-ready graduates. We have embarked on these new challenges by being the first university in the world that guarantees a 20-year involvement in our students’ education.

The moment a student is admitted into NUS, he or she has a further 20 years to pick up skills and knowledge that he or she may need or want; this is one way we are encouraging our students to think long-term, in terms of lifelong learning.

If you consider that most of our students will graduate between the ages of 22 to 24, and for now, you’re likely to work until age 67. It is even possible that the retirement age be extended to 70, or even 75. So, you have a good 40 to 50 years of working life after university, which is why we have made a commitment to welcome you back to refresh and upgrade your skills and knowledge.

Given the rate of change in the world, no university would be able to give you all the knowledge and skills required for the rest of your working life, within the four years of a bachelor’s degree. The world is evolving such that the key to economic dynamism, societal prosperity and individual achievement will be highly reliant on continual learning: lifelong education will be the critical pathway going forward. So, in NUS, we are working hard to integrate lifelong education into our educational framework, and for the University to be a leader for lifelong education not just in Singapore, but in the world.

The key here is to be adaptable and open.

For educators, things have also changed greatly. Students 20 years ago and students today are very different. I’m sure students coming into NUS even five years from now would also be different, with new ideas and expectations. 

I have found that teaching and learning is actually two-way street, between the teachers and the students: if the students’ learning and learning habits change, then the teachers must also change their approach to teaching.

For students, it is important to tap into the knowledge and experience of your teachers and mentors. It can prove invaluable. I would also strongly encourage a holistic development ­mindset – do not just focus on gaining knowledge, but work on other aspects of your personality, such as communication skills, leadership, and character traits such as perseverance and resilience. Learn to move beyond your comfort zones, and seek out new opportunities.

That’s an interesting question, because I did not expect to become a professor in the first place. I wanted to be a policeman–but I’m colour-blind, so that career path was ruled out.

For my career in academia, I have to thank one of my professors (Prof Chong Chi Tat) who encouraged me to do my PhD and become a professor. He basically said to me: “You’re pretty good in Mathematics. How about doing a PhD in Mathematics and joining the Department?” That was when the idea was first planted in my mind. He was a good mentor, and because of his example, I have come to appreciate the value and impact a mentor can have.  

Similarly, I think our students can benefit from good mentors. Mentors can help prepare you, and expand your horizons. Because I was fortunate, and benefited from being mentored, I want to encourage people of all professions to think about mentoring, about guiding others. if you can play a role, and help fulfill someone’s attributes and abilities, society will benefit greatly.

Especially in Singapore, where we are always coming up with new refinements and innovations to stay ahead of the competition, maximizing potential through mentorship could help to uplift society as a whole. If we mentor well at scale, that could be transformative.

I encourage students to think of mentoring in positive terms. Bear in mind the mentors themselves have to invest significant time and energy on those they are mentoring. But the effects could be positive, and life-transforming in the best instances. At the very least, it is a useful instance in learning how others understand and work out options in varying situations.

Today, I have many administrators reporting to me, and indirectly – through the way I work with them, and guide them – I consider it an informal way of mentoring. One of the more unique ways I do this is through a morning nature walk. I like to take morning walks, and since NUS has a lovely campus, every week I would walk around campus about 2 to 3 times, from 0730 to 0830, and cover about 5 to 6 kilometres. On these walks, I usually invite one of my heads of department or directors to walk with me. These sessions offer an opportunity for informal chats: I learn more about their work, projects and concerns, and I get to share my perspectives and ideas. It is an informal way of sharing and mentoring.