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Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, at The Ngee Ann Kongsi 170th Anniversary and SG50 Celebration Dinner

11 Mar 2015

President of The Ngee Ann Kongsi, Dr Lim Kee Ming,

Members of The Ngee Ann Kongsi,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is a privilege for me to be joining you for Ngee Ann Kongsi’s 170th Anniversary and SG50 Celebration.

1. As a charitable foundation, Ngee Ann Kongsi’s role is deeply etched in Singapore’s history. Its contribution to education in particular has been significant, starting with what was then called the Ngee Ann Girls School in 1940, two years before the Japanese Occupation.

2. Indeed, when people think of the name “Ngee Ann”, the first thing that comes to mind is education: from Ngee Ann Primary School to Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and the many other educational institutions that you have supported over the years.

3. You are continuing this tradition with the launch today of the Ngee Ann Kongsi post-graduate scholarships for social sciences. It is a timely initiative.

Placing Greater Importance on Social Science Research

4. As we progress and mature as a nation, the social sciences have become increasingly important. We are no longer a developing nation, struggling to survive and with its young population focused on just getting a job and making ends meet. Our economy and society have been transformed, and most dramatically in the education of successive generations.

5. But with progress and social transformation, come new challenges. We must develop new ways to sustain a vibrant, fair and resilient society. The challenges are quite different from what they were a few decades ago:

- Our society is getting older, and we must make it possible for Singaporeans to live full and meaningful lives even as they age;

- the absolute growth of incomes and absolute mobility is slowing, as has happened in every developed society, and disparities between different groups take on greater significance;

- Singaporeans’ interests and life preferences are becoming more diverse, particularly in the younger generation;

- we are more focused on the quality of life, as we must be – not just in the material sense, but in the quality of family life and friendships in the community, the way we share in each other’s joys and setbacks in life; in our local places, which must be able to evolve their own vibes and charm; and in opportunities to engage and develop ourselves in the arts and culture, and in sports;

- we are at the same time exposed to the new global cross-currents – in culture, religion and values. All the more that we find ways to strengthen our Singaporean identity, and deepen the multiracial and multicultural spirit that underpins our society.

6. Many of these challenges appear similar to those in the advanced or more mature societies. But the challenges in each society and the ways they can be met will never be identical. They will always reflect our distinct social, political and economic histories. Social norms evolve in their own, complex ways in each society, even in an increasingly globalised world of culture and ideas.

7. We must therefore promote and strengthen Social Science Research (SSR) – studying trends in economy and society, the emerging challenges and opportunities, and how societies can best address them in this new era and enable their citizens to progress together.

8. New challenges will require fresh perspectives and new approaches in public policy. Social Science Research (SSR) can contribute to public policy, especially as policy choices become more complex, or the trade-offs in each policy become sharper. A healthy and robust dialogue between policy-makers and academics can bring new and useful ideas.

9. I should add that SSR can also strengthen our economy and create new niches for growth and professional development. In today’s marketplace, technical sophistication is not enough to create great products. Ideas, emotions and subtle connections to human experience are central to creating value.

a. Companies from Starbucks to Lego are indeed using anthropological methods to gain customer insights on consumer experience.[1]

b. We have the opportunity to develop thought leadership and insights on Asian markets and societies, with relevance to a broad range of businesses.

Existing Government Support and Applications for SSR

10. Our current investments in SSR are not negligible. MOE supports SSR through the Academic Research Fund, which allows social scientists in our universities to conduct research in their own, chosen areas[2]. Our various Ministries also have 12 research grant schemes for applied SSR in various areas. Government agencies have also commissioned several SSR projects to enrich public policy thinking. To give two examples:

a. MSF’s Family Research Fund supports ground-up academic research on topics such as work-family integration, and the effectiveness of intervention programmes in improving the learning abilities of pre-schoolers from disadvantaged families.

b. MOH has worked with SERI and Duke-NUS to conduct research in the “Economic Impact and Health Burden of Eye Diseases in Singapore”; economic incentives to promote walking among working adults; and cost-effective strategies for increasing screening rates for breast and cervical cancer.

Setting up of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC)

11. We will invest to build up social science research in Singapore, and to develop talent and capabilities in the area.

12. We should especially strengthen social science research in areas that meet the Singapore’s future needs and those of other societies in Asia. This could include areas like

a. Understanding the dynamics of population aging;

b. Strengthening resilience and cohesion in multi-ethnic societies;

c. Social challenges and opportunities for quality living in cities, both in the many emerging cities in Asia and in global cities.

13. While the Government can identify strategic areas of interest, we will partner the academic and social science community to identify areas that are worthy of deeper study.

14. We are taking several important steps to build up SSR.

15. First, we will establish a Social Science Research Council by the middle of this year, to provide direction and support for SSR.

a. The SSRC will comprise prominent academics.

b. It must have a strong local character and local expertise. But it will also tap on some of the best minds in social sciences around the world.

16. Second, we will put more resources into social science research and its application, to complement existing funding. MOE will provide more details on this later.

17. Third, together with Singapore’s tertiary institutions and think tanks, we will provide active support for local talent development in the social sciences. Besides those already in the field, we will strengthen the pipeline of young Singaporeans who can build strong capabilities in the social sciences. We will also encourage Singaporeans to have careers that bridge academia and the public sector.

18. Fourth, the Government will continue to generate and release more data to spur social science research. Just last week, the Department of Statistics made some 5,000 more data series available (for free) on their website, including historical time series data. This is how we can encourage research and the development of new policy solutions.


19. This new phase of social science research and its application is part of our nation’s evolving education landscape. It would require all stakeholders – government, people, institutions – to participate in it, and I am glad Ngee Ann Kongsi has taken a lead in this.

20. 学无止境 (xué wú zhǐ jìng) Learning is a never-ending journey and there is always something we can learn. I am glad that in this never-ending journey, Ngee Ann Kongsi has always been a strong and involved champion.

21. Thank you.




[2] For example: social resilience, education, health services, family, early childhood, land and liveability