In Conversation With

NUS President Tan Eng Chye  

Dean Thomas Coffman
NUS President Tan Eng Chye

In this issue of MEDICUS, special In Conversation With guest host Duke-NUS Dean Thomas Coffman speaks to the presidents of Duke-NUS’ parent universities—Duke University and the National University of Singapore (NUS). In this two-part special, Duke President Vincent E Price and NUS President Tan Eng Chye share their perspectives on how the pandemic has impacted university communities, what the future of learning and higher education will look like and how they cope with the responsibilities and demands of leading a top global institution.

Thomas Coffman: President Tan, you were very much involved in the development of Duke-NUS, serving as Deputy Chairman of our Governing Board, could you share your reflections on the history of Duke-NUS history and what you might see as the role of the School going forward?

Tan Eng Chye: We started Duke-NUS as we wanted to do something different and that has become a differentiating factor for the School. Duke-NUS now has a strong reputation in medical training. In fact, your blended learning came before even massive open online courses, or MOOCs, came about and that’s something I’m extremely proud of.

You produce high-quality graduates who have been impacting and shaping medical care in Singapore and beyond. In terms of research, you have established global research leaders, produced fantastic results which are known worldwide and, in this current COVID situation, you have punched well above your weight.

Thomas Coffman: You bring up the COVID pandemic, which has obviously created many challenges and disruptions for educators. What were some of the experiences that you as President of one of the most prominent universities in Asia had during this time and how do you think the University has responded?

Tan Eng Chye: One of our biggest challenges, especially for our community of 52,000, is to ensure their safety and the safe continuation of our education and research operations and activities. When Wuhan was locked down, we had more than 50 students based in China doing their NUS Overseas Colleges programme. All but one came back by the third day of Chinese New Year. In March, we had to pull our students from Europe and the US too. It was difficult to convince close to 1,000 students that it was safer to come back. We also had to ensure that their studies were not disrupted because of this recall. Fortunately, 95 per cent of them were put on programmes mid-term so that they did not have their studies delayed.

With the lockdown in April, we set up a student solidarity fund to provide support to students with financial difficulties.

We launched the Resilience and Growth Initiative to support the graduating batch of students, under which we created 800 SGUnited traineeships as well as 200 full-time positions. So, total of a thousand openings for this batch of graduating students. We opened up our continuing education programmes and allowed graduating students to take up to four modules towards a certificate for free. Pay for one more and add a certificate to your CV! The last initiative was an innovation challenge that funded projects that impacted individuals, the Singapore society or the world, which was taken up by quite a number of graduates.

We also converted parts of our Prince George's Park Residences into a community recovery facility, and I was very heartened that our colleagues and students came together to make the stay of these patients more pleasant.

Our COVID-19-related research continued throughout the Circuit Breaker. We allowed our faculty members to continue with research on therapeutics and point-of-care test kits—one of which, a breath analyser, was recently granted provisional authorisation for trials at land checkpoints in Singapore. And once the circuit breaker was lifted, we resumed quite a lot of our teaching and research, and NUS’ citations have increased exponentially during the last year.

One important thread that runs along all this is the resilience of the NUS community, which has enabled us to overcome adversities and continue to press on and contribute.

Thomas Coffman: With COVID, there were rapid and dramatic changes in the way education has been delivered. What’s your sense of how well that’s worked and will some of these innovations persist beyond COVID?

Tan Eng Chye: The many years of experimentation have enabled the University to switch to online learning very easily. But talking to my colleagues, I think that a fully online education is still not the way to go. You really need that face-to-face interaction. Zoom—or Microsoft Teams—cannot replicate that spontaneity, especially with regard to ideation and creative endeavours.

Now that we have experienced going fully online, we’re taking the opportunity to have a more refined version of learning through technology. The Provost will be announcing our plans soon.

Thomas Coffman: That sounds exciting. The community building that happens between students and faculty is difficult to accomplish without in-person interactions.

Tan Eng Chye: And I learned a lot from the teaching and learning at Duke-NUS. I think you have, if not the best model, an excellent model. The issue is really how to scale it up.

President Tan Eng Chye gets ready to celebrate the Duke-NUS Class of 2020

President Tan Eng Chye gets ready to celebrate the Duke-NUS Class of 2020 who had their graduation ceremony delayed to April 2020 because of the pandemic

Thomas Coffman: One of the things you pointed out was the resilience of the community. NUS has also increased mental health awareness and support significantly. Could you share how that developed in your thinking?

Tan Eng Chye: Mental wellness is indeed a concern and something which we have been paying attention to. Medical statistics indicate that teenagers are the ones who are most affected and for us, undergraduates would be the most critical group. But COVID-19 has accentuated many things. We realised that our staff, especially those under 40, may be more vulnerable to mental wellness issues. So, last year, we set up a unit under my office to implement a more holistic and cross-functional strategy to address health and wellness.

The first part of the strategy is to destigmatise mental health issues. Particularly in the Singapore context, mental wellness carries a stigma; it is taboo to go to a psychologist or counsellor. So, we started the #AreUOk campaign. It also raises awareness of the many resources available. And the University will continue to expand the team of psychologists under this unit to help support our staff because it’s important for us to have a better grip on this particular issue.

Thomas Coffman: In medicine, even before COVID, burnout, stress and anxiety have been a big concern. And one of the things we tell our staff and students is to pay attention to their life outside of work. So, as a university president, what do you to keep yourself calm and provide some refuge from your very large job?

Tan Eng Chye: You may know that I walk a lot. On weekdays, I walk on campus, usually with a head of department, vice dean or dean. It’s less formal and helps, because I also need to shed the two kilos I gained during the Circuit Breaker (chuckles). And on weekends, I take longer walks. As university administrators, we deal with a lot of multifaceted issues that demand immediate decisions. But if they are critical issues, it is good to think them through a little bit longer. It is during my weekend walks that I can reflect and often come to a decision on which way to go. And I like water. So, I go to the reservoir to have some quiet time facing the water, and that quiet time also helps to relax and calm things down.

Thomas Coffman: That’s a wonderful example and seems to be something that is shared by university presidents as President Price similarly turns to long walks to de-stress. Looking ahead then, how can universities prepare their graduates for this ever-changing future?

Tan Eng Chye: These days, industries are constantly disrupted—mainly because of new technologies—and our graduates need to cope with a world that is changing very fast. Since I became President, I have made lifelong learning a core feature of our educational framework. Our graduates are likely to have 40 to 50 years of working ahead of them. No university—not even the top university in the world—can provide all the requisite knowledge and competencies for a lifetime.

To enable our graduates to be lifelong learners, we are introducing a common curriculum this August that spans about one and a half years and covers the humanities, social sciences, science, engineering and mathematics. That broad intellectual foundation will be something graduates can return to over the next 40 to 50 years.

NUS is focusing on nurturing graduates who are lifelong learners

NUS is focusing on nurturing graduates who are lifelong learners


Our students will also benefit from flexible pathways. They can go for double majors, one major and a minor or, for the more ambitious, a major plus two minors, so that they can explore all their interests and passions. And with lifelong or continuing education, they can broaden and diversify their knowledge and skills as they move on in life.

The last aspect, which I feel differentiates us from other universities, is our focus on interdisciplinarity. Our common curriculum is fully interdisciplinary and we’re exposing our students to scientific inquiry that blends physics, mathematics, biology and chemistry from the start because most modern challenges, including climate change, require interdisciplinary interventions. Now, we just have to support and encourage our faculty and students, who are still more familiar and comfortable with teaching and learning in a certain discipline, to embrace true interdisciplinarity across all levels.

Thomas Coffman: In research too, the importance of working across disciplines has come to the fore and I would be interested in your thoughts about, specifically, the role of academic research in addressing a global crisis like this and why we were able to succeed?

Tan Eng Chye: I would say that our COVID-19 response is a manifestation of the maturity of Singapore’s research ecosystem. We are comforted that the government and the country are also mindful of the immense contribution and the potential contributions to come. So, despite the government’s spending on supporting the economy and the people, they have increased the next Research, Innovation and Enterprise budget. That augurs well and shows that the government believes that institutions like NUS, NTU and A*STAR will be able to continue to contribute to Singapore. And COVID-19 mitigation is just one aspect of it. There will be more pandemics. There will be many more challenges. Agri-tech (agricultural technology) and aqua-tech (water technology) will be extremely important. So, at NUS, we are gearing up by hiring more top-notch academic staff. If we can hire the right people, then I think we can position our institutions well for the next 20 to 30 years.

Thomas Coffman: Thank you, President Tan, for sharing your valuable insights with us.

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