Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the ASTAR Scholarship Award Ceremony

Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the ASTAR Scholarship Award Ceremony

1. A very good afternoon to all of you from A*STAR, our special guests, distinguished scholarship recipients and family members. Today, we are holding this ceremony in a slightly different way, and in a very different context. Nevertheless, we are holding steadfast to our mission to develop an R&D ecosystem in Singapore that we can all be proud of – one that will deliver solutions to improve our lives and create opportunities for our people.

2. You have heard the stories that Dr Loh Xian Jun from Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) shared earlier. You will notice that the efforts to build our systems, our networks, and our people will continue notwithstanding the current challenges. Instead, we will strengthen our efforts because of the current challenges. I will talk more about this later.

3. In order for us to have an R&D ecosystem that we can all be proud of, we need to get three things right: systems, networks, and communities. Let me share with you how we have built our systems, networks and communities over all these years.

4. For a well-functioning R&D ecosystem, we have to start with the basic premise and ask ourselves: what is our definition of success? Success, to me, is not just about delivering solutions to known problems in peacetime. Success must also mean delivering solutions in crisis situations like COVID-19. Success does not mean solving only known problems; it must also mean having the capabilities to deal with problems that may not have emerged at this point in time.

5. So, the question and the test for us is: how agile is our system? How agile are we to come together to respond to crisis when the need arises? What Dr Loh has said is also close to my heart – survival depends not just on the strength at a point in time; survival depends on our agility. On this count, we have not done too badly, but there is certainly room for us to improve.

6. You would have heard the story of the Fortitude Kit, a diagnostic test kit that can detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus quickly in less than two hours. You have probably also heard of the cPass – the first-in-the-world serological test that allows the rapid detection of neutralising antibodies in COVID-19 patients without the need of a containment facility or specimen; the Resolute test kit, which halved the processing time for tests from about four hours to less than two hours; and the ARTC’s work to develop a UV-disinfecting mobile robot, which Fraser Property has adopted since.

7. All these did not come about by chance. In order for such solutions to be translated into actual processes and products that we can use, it requires a lot of hard work behind the scenes. We started building these component-building blocks many, many years ago. Through every crisis and every difficult moment, we add new building blocks. But it is not just about the individual building blocks that make up the system that we have today. It is how these various systems come together to build the larger ecosystem that gives us the products and solutions that we are able to develop in a COVID-19 situation.
8. Learning from the COVID-19 situation, we will continue to go forth and develop new building blocks to prepare for the next crisis, because we must never be complacent. We organise ourselves not just to answer to the last crisis or the known problems. We must organise our systems to rise to the challenges that may come with the next crisis, and we must be able to respond to even the problems and challenges that may not yet be well-defined at this point in time. That is the test of how well our system can perform and needs to perform. So I encourage all the A*STAR scholars, that as you go forth in this journey, besides your own individual knowledge, part of your role is to help us build this vibrant system that we can all be proud of, a system that can deliver the solutions when called upon and whenever the need arises.

9. Having said that, any R&D ecosystem cannot be done in isolation. Singapore is a small country, we have finite resources and finite manpower. What we need to do is to make sure that we do not be complacent and think that we can have all the resources, people, or ideas to solve all the problems that we may want to solve. Instead, we will need to make sure that we continuously develop networks with the rest of the world, and to leverage other people's talent, ideas, resources to complement what we do not yet have. For example, in this fight with the COVID-19 virus, our people have worked closely with research networks all around the world. Another example is that even in peacetime, we build up our Global Innovation Alliance network with many universities and cities across the world.

10. Our philosophy remains that we must remain connected to the rest of the world in order for us to cross-pollinate ideas and exchange ideas with others, so that we are never alone in trying to find any solution. We will always be able to benefit from sharing our ideas with others and learning from others.

11. For many of the A*STAR scholarship recipients, you will have the opportunity to travel far and wide around the world for your studies. But it is not just for the academic rigour that we have sent you to different parts of the world, from local universities to overseas universities. We also hope that you will build up the networks with the research institutes in these countries that you are going to, and one day, you will be able to call upon them to continue that knowledge exchange throughout your lifetime, so that we can build a stronger system within Singapore as part of the global community.

12. The third success factor for us is to be able to build communities and not just individuals. We must not stop developing our individuals. Over the last 20 years, we have given out more than 1,600 A*STAR scholarships. In the coming 1 to 2 years, we have committed another 700 R&D traineeship positions in local universities and A*STAR research institutes. That is a significant commitment. Many of you may still remember that Philip Yeo said many years ago that it took us about a million dollars to invest in one scientist, and that was just the start.

13. But it is not the money that is most important to us. If we have the talent, we will find the resources to support our talent to go to as far as they can go. But what is even more important than developing individual talent, is for us to be able to build teams of talented individuals that come together to resolve and overcome many of the challenges that are confronting us.

a. For example, you heard the stories of how people with different scientific backgrounds, different domain knowledge, have come together to put together solutions for the fight against COVID-19. We would not have been able to do so unless we have a system that allows these different individuals to come together to interact and seek new solutions together.

b. Another example is the story of Dr Rosa So Qi Yue, a National Science Scholarship recipient who has been working on AI-based solutions to COVID-19, such as a video and audio analytics system that could detect the wearing of masks, and flu symptoms such as coughing.

c. You have also heard the stories that Dr Loh shared earlier on how people from different departments have been able to come together, due to their prior friendships with one another, to work on projects and find new solutions.

14. I have always found that the most exciting ideas come from the interface of different knowledge areas. This is why I would encourage you to go forth and do research, or to study and deep dive in very specific domain areas. At the same time, I also encourage you to spend some time to understand some of the adjacent areas of your scientific research, and to build new relationships and new friendships. That will certainly strengthen our ability to come up with new and innovative solutions in time to come.

15. Now, I want to give you my commitment. I know that things are tough now. Many countries might be short on resources to invest in their people. But Singapore takes a different approach. We believe that the development of our people should not subscribe to a feast and famine strategy. We will continue to invest in our people consistently – that is how we have built up the pool of research talent in Singapore over all these years. We continue with our investments through all the difficult moments to make sure that there is a sustainable pipeline of talent for the future.

16. Scientific talent cannot emerge suddenly overnight. It requires many years of hard work, many years of consistent investment for them to be who they are, and for them to be able to form the teams that they can be. And this is our commitment to our people – so long as we have the talent, we will do all that we can to find the means to support them. In time to come, we hope that those who have benefited from this system of support will also lend your support to the next generation to give them the same, if not greater opportunities for them to also fulfil their potential.

17. This is what makes Singapore special. Our success has never been defined by how well we do for ourselves in this generation alone. Our success has always been defined also by how well we enable the next generation to do even better than us. If each and every generation of Singaporeans maintain this sense of solidarity and across the different generations, we will emerge stronger from this crisis and we will emerge stronger every generation.

18. On that note, I wish all the scholarship recipients the very best in your onward journey. Regardless of where you go for your studies, it is not just for the academic rigour. It is also to help us build our systems, networks and communities that will take our country forward, and create more opportunities for Singaporeans.

19. Thank you.

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