President's Inauguration Address

​​​It is my honour and privilege to receive the opportunity to lead this university at this point in the history of NTU and Singapore. As I stand before you today, I cannot help but think about my own journey that has brought me to this point in time. I come from a background where neither of my parents had the choice to attend university. However, I was extraordinarily fortunate to pursue my education in some of the very best universities and to lead some of the most impactful and globally recognised institutions in the world.  

This journey was possible, first and foremost, because of my late mother who, despite the end of her own education at the high school level, instilled in me the importance of education and made enormous personal sacrifices that provided me possibilities that she never had. This was also possible because institutions and governments provided opportunities and support that emphasised potential, performance and pure merit over privilege, preference or politics.  

I was given a merit scholarship by the Government of India without which I could not have attended university.   

I was able to get admitted to one of the best undergraduate universities in India, the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, because the only criterion that qualified me for admission to the programme at that time was my academic performance and not personal connections, or social, cultural or financial status.  

I was able to travel to the United States with a one-way air ticket purchased with borrowed funds, with less than $100 in my pocket, and with a half-filled suitcase, to pursue my Master’s degree because Iowa State University, a public institution, welcomed me with full scholarship with no conditions and no consideration to my race, colour, religion, background, or social status. I was able to complete my doctorate degree in mechanical engineering in a record of two years at MIT because all that mattered to them was what I did, and not who I was.  

The University of California at Berkeley, a publicly-funded institution, sponsored me for my permanent residency and green card. My colleagues at Berkeley worked hard and ensured that I was welcomed to stay in the US, eventually to become an American citizen, because they strongly felt that I had much to contribute to the United States.   

Brown University, one of the Ivy league schools in the US, appointed me as a young faculty member in 1983, the first India-born faculty member in engineering to be hired in its 220-year history and permanently tenured me in less than three years, before my 30th birthday, without any regard to my youth and inexperience, or the often-perceived need to sustain bureaucratic processes. This rapid adjustment into academia was made possible by the Ronald Reagan White House which selected me for the Presidential Young Investigator Award.

These experiences have instilled in me values and perspectives that have shaped me as an educator, scientist, leader and, above all, a human being. 

Many years later, the President of the United States nominated me and the United States Senate unanimously confirmed me to be the Director of the US National Science Foundation, as the first Asia-born engineer or scientist to lead the largest government funding agency in the world for supporting basic research in all fields of science and engineering. It did not at all matter to President Obama or to the US Senate that I was not born in the United States.  

My own journey over the past several decades has revealed to me how policies and practices of institutions and governments can have a profound effect on the lives and careers of individual citizens.   

My journey would ultimately bring me here to NTU and Singapore, a country where the grand vision and policies of the government have dramatically improved the lives and livelihood of her citizens and have transformed the little red dot from a third world country to one of the most advanced nations in the world in just a few decades.  

I am grateful to the Singapore government, the Ministry of Education, and Nanyang Technological University for offering me the honour of leading this great university. This is an honour that I accepted with great pleasure but also with great humility and responsibility.

My first trip to Singapore was in 1983 when this little city-state was in a very different place than today. In more than a hundred visits to Singapore since that maiden journey, I have had the pleasure of watching the spectacular transformation of Singapore into a knowledge-based economy and increasingly as a focal point of finance, culture, commerce, trade, education, research and innovation.   

I was privileged to have had the opportunity to interact with many visionary leaders from government, academia and industry in Singapore over the past three decades in various advisory and operational roles, and to play a small part in the establishment of policies, educational programmes, research centers, and campuses that have contributed to the impressive transformation of Singapore.   

I have also been fortunate to witness firsthand the remarkable rise of NTU into a globally recognised research university, since I first set foot on this campus in 1991, the year it started as NTU. Nanyang University, or Nantah in short, was founded in 1955 on this very campus. Then came the Nanyang Technological Institute in 1981, before the establishment of NTU 10 years later. The pioneering spirit of the Nantah alumni and the transformation of NTU into its current status and stature as one of the leading global research universities in Asia and the World speak to the rich legacy of our predecessors, and alumni, more than 220,000 of whom currently live in about 130 countries around the globe.   

The university has also benefited enormously from the impactful leadership of the NTU Council, the Board of Trustees, Chairman Koh Boon Hwee, and the first three presidents of NTU, Professors Cham Tao Soon, Su Guaning and Bertil Andersson, with visionary leadership, long-term planning and support from the Ministry of Education and Singapore government.  

To all of them and to the academic and administrative leaders, deans, chairs, faculty, staff, students and alumni, I offer my profound gratitude. I extend a special note of gratitude to Professor Bertil Andersson for working with me closely for six months to ensure a smooth leadership transition, for all his efforts on behalf of the university, and for his friendship.

Since my appointment as the Fourth President of NTU was announced last July, I have had the pleasure of interacting with many members of the NTU community through my listening tour, visits to centres, colleges, schools and laboratories, private meetings, leadership retreats, dinners and social events.  I have also met with leaders and colleagues from a number of organisations around Singapore. On the basis of all these interactions and with strong input and involvement from my senior leadership team, the University Leadership Council and the Board of Trustees, I would like to articulate my vision for NTU in four key areas.

First, vision for NTU as a great global research university.

Twenty years ago, when I was invited to join a group of colleagues to advise the Singapore government on the future of engineering education at NUS and NTU, we were challenged to address the question: What is a great global research university? Our responses to that question are even more relevant today to NTU and to other universities. Where do I see NTU as I think about a great global university?

A great global research university aspires to greatness and excellence in education, research, creativity and service, and recognises the interdependence of each of these on the others.

It is populated by students of the highest ability, who are inspired and challenged to learn and research, but who also have ample opportunities to explore and engage in a wide range of options within the university. 

It has administrative staff who enable the university leadership, faculty, researchers and students to realise their fullest potential.

It prepares students for a lifetime of inquiry and contribution.

It sets the highest standard for service to its region, nation & the global community.

It serves as a catalyst for economic growth as well as an enabler of talent and skills development for citizens of its city, its region and the world through innovation and entrepreneurship.    

Alumni from such a university are expected to play leadership roles in industry, government, academia and society.

While NTU has made stunning progress in just a few decades, I envision NTU taking further steps and making major strides to realise the foregoing aspirations and to set an example for others to emulate and follow. While we compete vigorously with our peer institutions around the world for global recognition and stature, we will also work closely with our sister institutions in Singapore through collaboration, coordination and leveraging of the resources of one another: The National University of Singapore, the Singapore Management University, the Singapore University of Technology and Design, the Singapore Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Social Sciences.  

In order to further accelerate NTU’s rise as a global university, we will find new mechanisms to recruit and retain the best talent to NTU. To add to our recent successes fostered by such talent attraction vehicles as the Nanyang Assistant Professors Programme, NRF Fellows Programme, and various scholarship schemes, today we are announcing the launch of a new programme: The NTU Presidential Post-Doctoral Fellows Programme​. This new programme, developed by our new leadership team along with input from NTU’s colleges and schools, will support 12 post-doctoral fellows every year at NTU, each for a period of two years from a rigorous global search.   

Second, vision for NTU as a UNIQUE global leader and pioneer, and a testbed for transformative innovations and practices that are widely adopted across Singapore and around the world. What do I mean by this?

NTU’s main campus which is the size of 240 soccer fields is located in a beautiful and lush tropical environment. It is already among the most eco-friendly university campuses in the world. NTU has received 54 Green Mark Platinum Awards (LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified) for 95% of the buildings on this campus frequently named among the world’s most beautiful. Our carefully-planned and sprawling campus is ideally suited to serve as a testbed for a variety of innovations that will benefit our university community, Singapore and the world at large. Through Centres such as SCELSE and the Earth Observatory of Singapore, NTU has emerged as one of the global leaders in areas such as environmental sciences and as a regional resource for researching, monitoring, predicting natural hazards such as volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, forest fires, and tsunamis, and for minimising the damage resulting from such disasters.

Recently, Nikkei in Japan and Elsevier in the Netherlands jointly released a report of organisations around the world whose research in the area of artificial intelligence published in scholarly articles and patents were the most cited during the five-year period of 2012 to 2016. NTU was placed second in the world only to Microsoft, and was the top academic institution for these citations in artificial intelligence.   

NTU faculty, staff and students have emerged among top research leaders in Asia and the world in many key areas that are now shaping the early stages of what many policymakers refer to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 on a global scale:  AI and machine learning; robotics; 3D printing and advanced additive manufacturing; Internet of things; autonomous systems and mobility; augmented and virtual reality; personalised medicine; cyber security; blockchain; renewable energy; and environmental sustainability.

This revolution is characterised by the unique convergence of the physical, the digital and the biological worlds. Unlike the previous three industrial revolutions, Industry 4.0 is projecting a pace of technological and societal change that is unprecedented. Such changes will impact nearly every aspect of human endeavour and day to day life in the years to come. For the first time in human history, the individual citizen of the world has an opportunity to connect with the cutting edge of this revolution to both send and receive real-time data and information using mobile technology.  

While the technological revolution we are witnessing today will reshape the 21st century human condition in many positive ways, there is also understandable nervousness about its potential downsides. Here are a few examples of the issues, concerns and challenges:

•History has repeatedly shown that intended positive outcomes of new technologies are also inevitably accompanied by unintended consequences through misuse or abuse by humans. Given the stakes for the global population of about 9 billion people within the next few decades, how can we optimise the benefits and try to circumvent the negative impacts of these technologies?

•Whether Industry 4.0 results in a net positive or net negative outcome for the world and for humanity will depend not just on how we develop and deploy new technologies, but equally it will depend on how human behavior interfaces with technologies and whether scientific advances lead to improvement in the human condition.

•Previous industrial revolutions destroyed jobs by the millions, but eventually they also created more jobs for global citizens, sometimes over a period of several decades. But, given the unprecedented pace of change, the concern this time around is that any significant time delay between job destruction and job creation will result in societal unrest. It is also likely to exacerbate inequality in income, opportunity and education in many societies around the world, especially given the rapid shifts in demographics associated with urbanisation and aging population. So, at NTU and other leading institutions, how do we prepare our students, alumni and fellow citizens for a lifetime of re-skilling and skills development and improvement, so that appropriate, relevant and continually changing employment opportunities are realised?

•When machine intelligence begins to approach or match human intelligence in a decade or two, what does it mean to be human? Will machines ever understand and make decisions based on uniquely human characteristics such as ethics, love, respect, passion for the arts, music and humanities, empathy, sympathy, compassion and dignity, all of which are heavily influenced by local cultures, customs and life experiences?

•What does it mean to be an educated person in the 21st century? What competencies do an NTU graduate need to acquire to be a successful and productive citizen of the hyper-globalised world in the 21st century?  

As American biographer and journalist, and former President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson, said: “Innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to computer processors”.

In order to address these issues, our new leadership team working with the faculty, staff, students, trustees and alumni, is developing a strategic vision and a measured action plan.  

Today, we are announcing the creation of the NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity (NISTH). This new Institute will synergise and coordinate campus-wide activities at the intersections of technology, natural sciences, social sciences, arts, policy, regulation and governance, business, medicine and ethics, across College and School boundaries across the entire university in a seamless manner under one umbrella.   

It will serve as a forum for discussion groups, research projects, symposia, educational activities, policy development and as a vehicle for a new era of exploration of how humanity will interface with technologies to enrich the human condition. This Institute will also work with a variety of industries, government organisations and non-profits.

I am also pleased to announce that we will launch an NTU Digital Arts Prize to recognise global artists and technologists with extraordinary creativity. This global prize will be awarded biennially at NTU through an open call and selection process involving distinguished judges from around the world.

Talking of NTU serving as a testbed to innovate and deploy new inventions, we announced last month that the University is being transformed into a Smart Campus and will eventually be one of the largest Smart Campuses in the world during the course of the next several years. Our goal is to have NTU campus and community work together to testbed and deploy new technologies, policies, and practices that can inform and assist Singapore to become a Smart City and a Smart Nation.   

As we announced last month, this will involve NTU campus becoming a pioneer in the use of digital technologies for learning, living, working, playing, team-building, banking, shopping, commuting, parking,  accessing healthcare, and much more that will enhance the quality of life for all members of our university community. It will involve the use of machine learning, real-time data analytics, autonomous and electric vehicles, various last-mile commuting options, and sustainable use of resources.  

Starting this year, every undergraduate student at NTU will have core courses on digital literacy, and a new undergraduate degree programme in the area of artificial intelligence and data science will also be introduced. Over time, we will explore ways in which these opportunities will be extended to our alumni and others.

Third, vision for NTU as a transformative leader in education

Advances in technology have led to unprecedented new opportunities for accessing archival and current information for formal education, teamwork, effective pedagogical outcomes, and life-long learning. NTU has a unique opportunity to be a global leader in exploring innovative new ways in which learning outcomes can be significantly enhanced by recourse to technology, not only for the members of our university community, but also for all Singaporeans and beyond. Here is why.  

NTU already has some of the latest infrastructure, from The Hive, “flipped classrooms”, to continual assessment modes, to on-line and newly developed course material, to learning-by-doing “maker spaces”, to group interactions for learning, to mini- and micro-course modules. 

Just yesterday we opened a brand new Green Mark Platinum building, The Arc, the second learning hub built to support technology-enabled  learning to improve learning outcomes, and designed for students of different disciplines to interact and exchange ideas.  

In addition to opportunities for students on campus, overseas exposure is also an integral part of an NTU education. Our vision is for our alumni to have continuous engagement with NTU through course credits for skills development, micro-Masters, learning new fields and to serve as career mentors to their juniors.   

NTU is also unique in that the National Institute of Education, which trains every primary, secondary and pre-university school teacher in Singapore, is affiliated with us and is located on our campus.   

The National Institute of Early Childhood Development for pre-school teachers will also be part of NTU next year. This gives NTU a unique opportunity to have a profound impact for “cradle to grave” intellectual development for all.

And finally, our vision for NTU to engage with global industry 

Great global universities serve as catalysts for innovation and they are also engines for local economies by developing tools and technologies, attracting industries to the campuses, and producing talent for industries.  

In the past several years, NTU has attracted major Corporate Laboratories, such as Rolls Royce, Delta Electronics, SMRT, ST Engineering and Singtel, and Joint labs, institutes and centres with such organisations as Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, Volvo Buses, Blue SG, BMW and Siemens.   

NTU’s unique portfolios in many cutting edge technologies, along with our start-up ecosystem fostered by NTUitive, uniquely positions us to engage and work with industry in new and unique ways. We will be announcing major new industry partnerships with leading global companies in the next few weeks to come.  

The new senior leadership team members at NTU have recently formulated a powerful new vision to crystallise the many possibilities for industry engagement at NTU, and we plan to roll out all of these in stages over the next few years.

In closing, let me express my profound gratitude to all of you for the opportunity and privilege to lead this great university with a rich legacy, impressive achievements, and potential for even greater accomplishments. My thanks are due to the entire NTU community for the warm reception you have given me over the past few months and to the organising team for this very memorable occasion.  

I am grateful to my wife Mary for her affection, dedication and help in all my personal and professional endeavors and for supporting me throughout the demands and challenges of my various leadership activities, and to our wonderful daughters, Nina and Meera, for their love and support. I also thank my sister, Chitra, for her devotion, affection and support.

I very much look forward to working with all of you as we collectively enhance and realise the full capacity and potential of this university which is poised to reach much greater heights.  

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