Shaping Curious Minds

38-42_Chorh_Chuan230113v2-1Today’s institutes of higher learning embrace and support a much broader definition of education than in the past. Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, President of the National University of Singapore, for instance, believes that young people must be exposed to challenging situations that lead to self-knowledge, empathy, curiosity and a can-do adaptability.

 By Kannan Chandran

Learning from experience has lasting impact, something Prof Tan Chorh Chuan has experienced through much of his 53 years. The President of the National University of Singapore (NUS) took a shine to learning from travel and adventure since his undergraduate days — he’s dived with whales in Tonga, trekked in Bhutan, explored the Amazon and more. Whether it was witnessing a whale up close and seeing parallels in it to human behaviour, discovering a successful IT enterprise in the mountains of Bhutan, or committing fascinating landscapes to paper, they have all been illuminating in their ability to teach. As a doctor turned academic and administrator, he is keen to inject this sense of curiosity into the education process, and to inculcate in future leaders a desire to reach beyond academia and to engage with the real world.

One natural phenomenon he witnessed illustrates that well: “At Manaus, Brazil, you can take a boat to see the ‘meeting of the waters’. For many kilometres downstream from where the Solimoes and Negro rivers join to form the Amazon, you can still see two separate streams of water flowing side by side — one ‘white’ and the other ‘black’ Blackwater rivers have much fewer nutrients than whitewater ones, are more acidic, have different ionic concentrations and therefore quite different flora and fauna. Interestingly, the zones where the two waters mix are especially rich in biodiversity. In an analogous way, in research, some of the richest possibilities for interesting work are found at the boundaries between different streams of knowledge.”

Prof Tan, who sees himself as an “evolving educationist”, is a dedicated player in a USD22 trillion global education industry in which NUS has in recent years climbed into prominence as a world-class institution. For instance, in the 2012/2013 Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, which examines more than 700 universities worldwide, NUS climbed three spots from the previous year to the 25th position. The university was listed ninth globally for academic reputation and 14th for employer reputation. In the Asian University Rankings for 2012, it came in second, while in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, NUS placed 29th globally, and was ranked second among Asian universities.

No mean feats, these, but the modest and elegantly articulate Prof Tan prefers to downplay his many personal achievements. He is a Fellow of several international colleges of physicians and the Royal Geographical Society in the United Kingdom, the recipient of the National Science and Technology Medal (2008) and the Public Service Star award for leading the public health response to the 2003 SARS epidemic when he was the Ministry of Health’s Director of Medical Services. With board appointments at agencies such as A*STAR (Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research), and the Monetary Authority of Singapore, his is a varied track record, which he puts down to curiosity and a firm desire to engage in issues affecting the larger community.

38-42_Chorh_Chuan230113v2-6SG: What role does an institute of higher learning play in instilling social values and responsibility in young people who are at the cusp of entering the real world?

Prof Tan: I believe that institutions of higher learning have an important role in helping young people develop appropriate social values. This is particularly so in our highly interconnected and globalised world. The global financial crisis, widening incomes and social inequalities have raised questions as to whether business and work practices based purely on profit motives are in the best long-term interests of society. Our ever-growing consumption of natural resources and the consequent negative impact on sustainability and climate change are growing sources of concern.

My own sense is that these issues are important particularly to many of the young, including those in Singapore.

Community engagement is a very powerful way to grow appreciation and foster social values.

SG: How can educators teach/reinforce in young people the fundamental principles that cut across cultures, like fair play, honesty, transparency, etc.? What do you think are the three most  important values that young people must embrace?

Tan: Within our academic culture, intellectual honesty and integrity are critically important and strongly emphasised. In addition, while we nurture our students to be critical thinkers, this should be associated with openness and respect. These are also important differentiators for graduates from Singapore.

Experiential learning helps develop facets of personality and character important for success in the long-term. I’m strongly focused on the need for these experiences — there’s no way you can learn this in the classroom.

Educational institutions can create many opportunities within and outside of the classroom for students to explore and be involved in activities which help them better appreciate these issues and to nurture appropriate social values. A lot of the work done in NUS is to provide a wide range of opportunities for students to have that experiential learning — a trip overseas, engagement in sports, community or leadership activities. Singapore graduates need to be effective across different cultures to maintain their edge across Asia.

For example, in NUS, the Students Against Violation of the Earth (SAVE) is very active in driving environmental sustainability issues and receives strong support from theuniversity. NUS itself has placed a strong emphasis on campus  sustainability and has several initiatives that endeavour to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, our three residential colleges all have very active, student-driven community engagement programmes in Singapore and overseas. In particular, the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme also provides for participating students to have formal instruction and mentorship in addition to their on-the-ground work.

Social entrepreneurship programmes have also grown in popularity and NUS has several initiatives including a partnership with Grameen, a social business originating in Bangladesh which supports many small businesses.

SG: How do you inculcate a sense of curiosity in students, and prepare them for the real world?


Machu Picchu, 2008. Prof Tan, a Chinese-style landscape painting enthusiast, commits scenes from his travels to paper.

Tan: This is very important and something that needs work on. One way we stimulate curiosity is to start students working on projects early. About 10 years ago we introduced problem-based learning. When you enter medical school, for instance, you are asked to work in groups on a series of clinical problems. The whole idea is to develop a motivation to understand how and why things are interlinked. When you read about biochemistry and physiology with the clinical problem you have to work on, you’ll be stimulated to read more actively and to understand the value of what you’re reading. I find broad-based learning a very powerful stimulus for curiosity and problem framing.

Four years ago we started a new design-centric programme for engineering students. We have a couple of hundred students in the advanced piloting phase for this who, instead of studying all the engineering concepts, pick a project and work together in groups for many semesters, using that project to learn engineering concepts.

People come to university with their patterns of thinking quite formed. What we can do is challenge them. Part of learning how to cope is to be immersed in a diverse environment. When students mix with individuals from less privileged backgrounds who have to struggle to do things, it helps them become more aware of the realities of the world and reshape some of their thinking.

Regardless of how we feel about the ability of the current generation to cope, we really have to get them to go out and do things; to get involved in their own community or in other countries. There is no substitute.

SG: Successful role models here are usually defined by the amount of money they make. Is there a need to address this thinking?

Tan: Oh yes, and we try to do so in different ways. When I was Provost we started a new set of awards. We’ve always had sports awards and academic awards, but we don’t have awards for students who do things for the community. We started a student achievement award. More recently, we have arts awards. We are the first university here to give sports scholarships. Within the university we have artists, diplomats, writers, sportsmen. We hope we can create an environment where more people will see that there’s more to life than material things.

Is it working? I don’t really know. These are long-term things we are embarking upon. We are just a small sector of Singapore society.

We can’t shift the centre of gravity of society, but we can create specific ways in which we try to diversify the way students perceive success.

SG: There is a general impression that students in the Singapore education system are spoon-fed and reserved. What do you think?

Tan: I don’t quite agree that our students are so constrained in their outlook and potential. I think the younger generation is sophisticated, and given the right encouragement and setting, will take on challenges. I am always pleasantly surprised by students doing things of their own initiative. At the base level, you must have the right programme platforms. As a medical student, I was one of a very few who went for overseas stints. There was no system in place and I had to arrange everything myself. Today, we have many exchange programmes. About 60% of our students go overseas, and 30% of the undergrads go for six months or more.

Students must be motivated to do so, and not just think of scoring higher grades. In Singapore, the grade culture is quite strong and students see getting the best possible grade as the single most important thing for them to achieve. In some parts of the university, we’ve adopted a pass/fail system where in the first year your grades don’t count for your final aggregate score.

The idea is if students didn’t always feel that everything they did was associated with a grade, hopefully they would pick things that would challenge them, and pursue them out of interest. The longer-term goal is to encourage a culture where students feel it is part of their education that they involve themselves in things beyond the classroom.

We used to admit students completely on grades. Several years ago the Ministry of Education introduced discretionary admission. Up to 10% of students could be admitted on qualities beyond academic grades, such as community work or overcoming adversity. It is a strong signal and a good way to recognise achievement outside of academia.

Many universities want to partner with NUS because they want our students on their campuses as graduate and PhD students. It’s not just for the rigour of their education. Our students show themselves to be very bright and full of initiative. They have high levels of integrity and are trustworthy.

SG: How can potential undergraduates better prepare themselves for university life?


Part of a Chinese-style painting by Prof Tan. Reproduced with permission.

Tan: The point of going to university is to discover who you could be. You’ve got to undergo a period of exploration, of doing different things and understanding different dimensions of yourself. That will then lead you to become who you could be. It would be a waste if you just rushed through university because there aren’t many other opportunities in life to do this exploration.

We are at a particular time in history when Singapore has grown in affluence, self-esteem and its place in the world. At the same time, Asia has been coming onto the centrestage globally. This provides exciting opportunities for students today to prepare themselves for when Asia is going to play a more prominent role. That translates into many new programmes that were not there when I was in school. I’d love to be a student again today.

SG: How should students decide what is important and what is not?

Tan: We should not be too quick to decide what is useful. Some of the things that appear to be useless today could turn out to be very useful in future. This is about personal growth. Some students may consider the time spent at orientation programmes useless, but it may turn out to be very useful in the future because you learn something about yourself, about teamwork, being involved in community.

Even if it turns out to have no utilitarian value, if it enriches your life, it is worth a lot too. So don’t just focus on what is obviously useful today because it limits the scope of what you can do and be in the future.

 SG: How important are university rankings and accolades?

Tan: People take the rankings quite seriously, especially prospective students, employers and universities looking for partners. The rankings tell us about the strengths and weaknesses, and the trajectory of the university. The top universities are generally well placed, but there are universities that are rising rapidly, like those in China.

Quantitative data and things like awards are indicators of whether our strategies are on track, and reflect on the quality of what we do and our students. Often, our students may have a little uncertainty about their own ability and standing. But universities around the world and do well, it does show that they are as good as anybody else.

SG: You’ve been President of NUS since 2008. During your tenure, how have you come to  appreciate the role of education?

Tan: It’s been a process of further sharpening my understanding of what’s fundamental for graduates of the future. We need people who have critical minds. Some people argue that because information is so readily available you don’t need to teach people facts. I don’t think that’s true.

You need to have a reasonably strong foundation of knowledge and critical thinking to interpret new knowledge…

…make sense of data, and identify the important questions. It goes beyond mechanical analysis.

You also need imagination and creativity to think about problems in a different way.

One thing I’ve been increasingly convinced about is the importance of intellectual breadth. There are two reasons why. First, many of the problems we face in our work and lives are complex. They cut across different disciplines and domains of knowledge. If you don’t have a broad intellectual base, you will not be able to see the potential cross-disciplinary implications. Second, where we expected to do three or four jobs in a lifetime, the average graduate today might do 10 or 12. These jobs can cross many different sectors so you must have the intellectual base from which you can retool yourself more easily to do different types of work.

 SG: What was your own major learning experience?

Tan: For me, it was the SARS situation. It taught me how to lead in a crisis. Mental and physical resilience are very important, and it highlighted how by being “still at the core” (calm) you can be effective in a crisis. The second thing is about marshalling teams and working with them to maximum effect, as opposed to trying to do things yourself. The third aspect is the critical importance of identifying the most important issues out of 10 or 20 things swirling around. It’s only by exposing yourself to uncertain situations and anxious moments that you learn how to control your mind and deal with things as they come. Travelling has been an important part of building this stillness. Exercising is very important, too. The more stressful your existence, the more you should exercise, even if there is no time for it.

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