Published on 20 Feb 2023

50 years of Physics in Singapore: A Celebration of KK Phua

On 3rd February 2023, NTU Physics and the Institute of advanced studies (IAS) at NTU held a one-day symposium “50 years of Physics in Singapore: A Celebration of KK Phua”. This symposium surveyed the history of the physics community in Singapore from its early days in the 1970s to the thriving cross-island enterprise it is today. One of the key champions of physics causes in Singapore was Prof Kok Khoo Phua. KK Phua started doing theoretical physics in the early 1970s at Nantah before moving to NUS when Nanyang University and University of Singapore combined in the 80s and then founding World Scientific Pte Ltd. The symposium celebrated his early contributions in energising the physics community and also the diversity of physics activity in Singapore.  

Prof KK Phua is the Founding Director Emeritus of IAS NTU, Adjunct Professor at NTU and NUS.

The workshop featured a diverse crowd of speakers: from early pioneers of theoretical physics in Singapore to present-day workers pushing the frontiers of quantum science and technology. Right from the beginning, Prof Lai Choy Heng provided a lucid and personal account of the evolution of physics research in the 70s and 80s. He explained how a high energy physics community centered around the particle physics theory group nucleated with vibrant discussions even in pre-internet days. These discussions included many of the speakers at the symposium including Prof Balal Baaquie, Prof Oh Choo Hiap, and Prof Kok Khoo Phua. All of whom recounted a collegial atmosphere of physics discussions, helmed by an energetic KK Phua who pushed and encouraged his colleagues to produce world-class physics activity in Singapore.

Prof Lai Choy Heng (left) and Prof Balal Baaquie.

Prof Bernard Tan described the early history of physics in Singapore that started as early as 1929. He described the impact of the Institute of Physics Singapore symposia and international conferences that KK Phua played key roles in. Prof Kok Khoo Phua described the formation of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Singapore and its various programs throughout the years.

Prof Oh Choo Hiap (left) and Prof Bernard Tan.

Many of the pioneering speakers also recounted how physics research received a boost when additional research instruments were obtained in the early days. Computing tools and an ESCA lab helped form the initial seeds for computational and materials science research directions respectively. These early starts, as Prof Andrew Wee explained, formed the beginnings of the intense materials science research in Singapore. Indeed, from its humble beginnings, as Prof Antonio Castro-Neto detailed, Singapore has grown to become a “graphene island” with some of the highest intensity graphene research done in the world.

The diversity of physics research in Singapore also extended to quantum frontiers where, as A/Prof Kwek Leung Chuan described, now even includes work on quantum computers as well as innovative science and mathematics curriculum at SUTD (Prof Ricky Ang). At NTU, work has deepened in photonics where the optical properties of materials can be manipulated (Prof Shen Ze Xiang) and light flow morphed in meta-materials (Prof Zhang Baile).

Top row (from left) Prof Andrew Wee, Prof Antonio Castro-Neto and Assoc Prof Kwek Leong Chuan.

Second row (from left) Prof Ricky Ang, Prof Shen Zexiang and Prof Zhang Baile.

In addition to the talks, the student poster session featured student research from all around the island. Two Best Poster prizes were presented at the end of the symposium by Prof KK Phua – a fitting reminder of the thriving physics community in Singapore that extends from the pioneering generation of Singapore physicists to a new generation of fine investigators. Congratulations to our poster winners Wang Yuzhu and Xiong Ying!

Watch the video recordings here:


Written by: Nanyang Asst Prof Justin Song (NRF Fellow), School of Physical & Mathematical Sciences, NTU