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Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Finance, at the National Engineers Day 2018, 28 July 2018, 2.30pm, at the Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre

28 Jul 2018

Professor Lui Pao Chuen,
Advisor, National Research Foundation

Ms Jasmine Foo
NED 2018 Organising Committee Chair

Prof Lim Tit Ming
Science Centre CEO

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

1.       A very good afternoon. I am very happy to join you this afternoon to commemorate National Engineers Day 2018, and to witness the creativity of our students. I look forward to seeing how they are dealing with the energy challenge and the National Innovation Challenge, in community health, in community service and mobility.

2.       Let me share a story. A few years back, when I was Minister for Education, I went to a science fair at the Singapore Science Centre. The students were extremely creative, with all sorts of good ideas.  At the first exhibit, I asked the group of students who had worked on it, “How do you make money with this?” They looked at me quite stumped, probably wondering: why is this Minister so money-minded?  At the next exhibit, I asked the next group of students, “How do you make an impact with this?” Again, they were puzzled.  What exactly do we mean by impact?  At the third exhibit, I asked, “How do you benefit people with this?” This time, their eyes lit up.  Benefitting people was something they could understand.  Not only that, it was something that they could get fired up about, that they would be excited to pour their energies into.

3.       If you think about it, all three questions are inter-linked. In order to make an impact, you must ultimately bring benefit to people. You must serve people. If you can make an impact, the impact can be measured in dollars and cents or in social impact, if it cannot be measured. But both are important. In many of our companies that are doing innovation, investing in R&D, being able to turn some of that results into commercial success is important. Because that is the only way you can sustain a cycle. Without being able to turn that back into money, the companies, in fact the country will not be able to continue to invest in R&D. I think just as we learn about the energy cycle and the waste cycle, we need to learn about the money cycle. So, my question was not as far off as the students thought, but I think it is important for us to help our students understand the value of innovation both in social sense and in economic sense.


4.       Technology and innovation are continuing to progress rapidly. We are now into Industry 4.0. It is very important for us to ask how do we continue to innovate in order to benefit people. What is it that innovators have done to make a difference in people’s lives. Let me talk about two subjects, how science and technology are collaborative activities and they are becoming ever more so.


5.       I think we are all familiar with the Human Genome Project. This was the world’s largest international collaborative biological project, which from 1990 to 2003 completely sequenced the 3 billion base pairs that make up the human DNA, and identified the 22,000 human genes. This data is freely available, and has allowed researchers around the world to understand diseases and tailor treatment: from cancerous mutations to molecular medicine to prevent diseases. It is going to have a major impact on our lives increasingly.   

6.       This cutting-edge science has now generated a lot of interest not just among professionals. In the UK, students took part in the Genome Decoders project, to annotate some of the sequenced Whipworm genome. And I was in Netherlands recently to study their innovation system. The young people in the schools helped to formulate the Dutch National Research Agenda, by asking questions which they wanted the scientific community to answer. This ranged from fundamental scientific questions: How big is the universe? Will the universe continue to expand? If the universe continues to expand, how big can it get? On the other hand, what happened before the Big Bang? Students were asking questions like this and it didn’t help them to look at research questions and agenda such as why do we need to invest in theoretical physics.

7.       Those are the areas that allow us to understand this better. In fact, over the last two days, on my way back from a very long trip, I was reading this book on quantum physics and Einstein’s theory was all interwoven. How those innovations and breakthroughs in scientific thinking were happening. So, the story of the student who helps to set the research agenda to unveil the genome shows that students have a big role to play in shaping the future of science and technology in Singapore, to take part in research and to look at how we can turn knowledge into something useful. I am very glad that the Institute of Engineers is also encouraging this and stimulating creativity of students in this. Some of you may be puzzled, why is it that on National Engineers Day that I talk about the human genome. One of the reason is this: I recent spoke to a doctor. He said, “The people whom I love most to collaborate with are engineers.” I said, “Why?”. He said, “As doctors we study the human body system and engineers like to study systems. So when we talk, we talk in the same wavelength. With the human genome, we are now talking about bioengineering. In fact, bioengineering is one of the most exciting field so I’m collaborating with engineers and bioengineers to look at how we can engineer the organs or human system better. This is a new interesting breakthrough.”


8.       This brings me to the second point, which is why innovation in science is so multidisciplinary. It requires us to identify problems to solve, and to take what we can learn from different fields to find new ways of doing things. Successful solutions and new ways of thinking are often found at the interface between subjects and fields, between two different and sometimes opposing points of view.

9.       This is why when educators today speak about nurturing the next generation of engineers and problem-solvers, they speak of a move from an emphasis on STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths – to STEAM – the extra A stands for the Arts.

10.      How do the Arts fit into Science and Technology? Let me give an example. You may have heard this story about Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple. He had dropped out of college, and started attending a calligraphy class, learning how to write beautifully, how to form individual letters, about serif and sans serif fonts, down to the fine details of the amount of space between individual letters.

11.      Now this may sound like an unusual – and not a very useful – hobby for a person who builds computers. It has no obvious practical applications. But the very first Macintosh computer was a success in large part because it had beautiful typography – fonts which were proportionally spaced and aesthetically pleasing. His artistic learning inspired his focus on design. As all of you know, the iPhone is a great label in design. It is not only a functional phone, it is a well-designed phone.

12.      Design and the creative arts are an important component of a rounded curriculum in education. They develop skills and competencies transferable across subjects and domains. I am very glad to read that the Institution of Engineers’ mission to advance science, art and the profession of engineering. I think it is a very well-crafted mission statement. In the latest PISA rankings – the Programme for International Student Assessment – which assesses students in 52 countries, Singapore came out top in reading, maths, and science. But for me, what I feel very encouraged by is not just the fact that we are top in this ranking, but the two other components.

13.      One, we have the lowest proportion of low performers in the world. I think this speaks to the great effort in which our teachers, parents and community have put in helping everyone level up. When I was Education Minister, I said “Every school is a good school.” It wasn’t just a political slogan, it was something which I feel deeply and important. That is why I am glad to see that indeed, the results show how we are levelling up the base of everyone, and no one is left behind. The other ranking that I feel very encouraged by is that we have the highest proportion of top performers in collaborative problem solving. So, our schools are doing well. But we can aim even higher to integrate both the sciences and humanities in problem-solving. This is why we implemented applied learning in our schools. It is so well-liked that it is also being experimented in the primary schools. I hope our schools will continue to nurture our children and we need a broader community like this, the institution of engineers.

14.      We can make STEM and STEAM even more appealing and exciting for our students. Our future is a future that is built on science, technology, and innovation. That is why, in this year’s Budget, I spoke about how we must positon Singapore as a Global Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise. You may ask, why Global? Why Asia? In the earlier years of our industrialisation, we were linked globally to the major economies in the world. We benefitted a great deal from the technology transfer. In that period, Asia was relatively underdeveloped. Now, Asia is growing and developing, the opportunities are right now in a big hinterland here. Therefore, there is great opportunity for our young people to marry the best of what we have globally and what we have here in Asia. Given our long emphasis on science, technology, and R&D, we should really move to the next phase of science, technology, innovation, and enterprise.  


15.      I hope all of you will play a key role in helping shaping this agenda, in advancing this agenda. I hope that our young people will make the extra effort to meet new people and develop an openness to other culture, because in an open world, it is most likely that a multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural approach will reap the most benefits. So, for a start, make the most of opportunities to learn about our region, get to know friends from other schools and other communities, and other countries so that the young people can come together to learn from one another and have that cross-cultural experience. As you know, in the Budget two years ago, I announced the “Global Innovation Alliance”, an idea that came out of our universities when I was leading the Committee on the Future Economy. The idea is to create global incubators in the major cities around us and have our students and start-ups go across and collaborate with innovators from those countries. In that way, we can create a more vibrant hub around us. I hope our students will benefit from that and we will support this.


16.      Going back to my story on the students I met, when I talked about how technology and innovation can benefit people, they can understand. In fact, technology and innovation is only of benefit if you benefit someone or if you make someone’s lives better. Beyond this engineering day, you have a whole week of activities. I hope our students, all of us in fact, will be aspire to make an everyday dedication to applying knowledge to benefit people to continue to think of new ways, to be curious, to be creative and to be innovative. Thank you.