This year's Commencement saw NUS confer Honorary Doctorates — the University's highest accolade — on three distinguished individuals, in recognition of their outstanding contributions to Singapore and the wider community. This is the first time in more than 30 years where three honorary degrees were bestowed.
During the Main Commencement Ceremony on 6 July, Singapore President and NUS Chancellor Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam conferred the Honorary Doctor of Laws on Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong; the Honorary Doctor of Letters on Professor Saw Swee Hock, President's Honorary Professor of Statistics at NUS; and the Honorary Doctor of Science on Sir Richard Brook Sykes, Chairman of the Biomedical Research Council's International Advisory Board under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
As Principal Speaker at the ceremony, Mr Goh offered some words of advice to the new graduates, using the analogy of a river to describe life. "It begins as a trickle, then becomes a stream…and eventually journeys its way to the ocean…But as it goes around obstacles and overcomes challenges, it also shapes the environment and sustains life…No matter how lofty your ambitions, how grand your dreams, how fast your river of life flows, always remember its source and treasure it.
He shared personal glimpses of his own "river of life, shaped by both personal and key external events. He also mentioned that circumstances did not permit him to pursue his PhD during his university days, and expressed his gratitude to NUS on the conferment of the honorary degree. "Who would have dreamt that half a century later, my alma mater would gift me one SG50 gift, without my having to work for it! he joked.
Mr Goh's more than 50 years of service to the nation were highlighted in a citation by Professor Brenda Yeoh, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Prof Yeoh recounted how Mr Goh, an NUS Eminent Alumnus, first started out as an Administrative Service officer in the Economic Planning Unit in 1964. He ventured into politics in 1976 and went on to serve in many capacities including Senior Minister of State for Finance, Minister for Trade and Industry, Minister for Health, Minister for Defence, and First Deputy Prime Minister, finally helming Singapore as Prime Minister in 1990 for 14 years.
Mr Goh's reputation for being in touch with issues on the ground was cemented in the numerous social policies he initiated, from the Workforce Development Agency and Medifund to the Community Development Councils. His support of community services and social sciences research was dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Singaporeans and inculcating shared values for nation building.
His remarkable leadership steered the country through tough times including the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic in 2003, as well as greatly improved bilateral ties. For the latter he was recognised with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 2004 from the Government of India, joining past recipients Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Despite all his achievements, it may come as a surprise that Mr Goh had originally intended to pursue journalism as a career and even joining academia, only entering politics by chance. But as aptly put by Prof Yeoh, "NUS' major loss would, however, become Singapore's much greater gain.
Dean of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine Associate Professor Yeoh Khay Guan delivered the citation on Prof Saw, outlining his major contributions to the field of Statistics and Demography particularly; tertiary education in Singapore and other countries; as well as his far reaching philanthropic support.
The exemplary scholar has authored or edited 50 books, 7 monographs, 31 book chapters and over 130 articles. He has also lent his expertise as Visiting Scholar to schools such as Princeton University and Cambridge University as well as in advisory roles within the Singapore Association for the Advancement of Science and Singapore Mass Rapid Transit system Steering Committee, among others. He was the inaugural Chairman of the National Statistical Commission of Singapore from 1972 to 1975.
Prof Saw's philanthropic efforts and passion for education are equally well known. In his words, "education is the main medium to uplift the needy and poor and provides the key to social mobility. Many universities and students have benefitted from his support for the establishment of medals, bursaries, scholarships, professorships, research projects, research centres and buildings. In NUS, he set up a bursary fund that has benefitted more than 150 needy students while his gifts have created a Professorship in Statistics, a Centennial Professorship in Law, the Saw Centre for Financial Studies, and the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. For his generosity and dedication, Prof Saw was bestowed the President's Award for Philanthropy in 2013 and named as one of 48 Heroes of Philanthropy in the Asia-Pacific region by Forbes Asia Magazine the following year.
Finally, Sir Richard's transformative contributions to the biomedical sector were noted by Professor John Eu-Li Wong, Senior Vice President (Health Affairs) in his citation. Sir Richard is the first to receive the Honorary Doctor of Science by NUS in more than 40 years ' the last being in 1975 when the late Tan Sri Professor Chin Fung Kee was accorded the honour.
Sir Richard is credited with discovering the world's first monocyclic B-lactam antibiotic, aztreonam, which is commonly used today, while working at the Squibb Institute of Medical Research. Since 1987 when he was global head of Research and Development at Glaxo, Sir Richard has been involved in the biomedical sciences landscape in Singapore. He helped more than 300 local students study abroad at leading universities through a $50 million scholarship scheme and the GSK-EDB trust fund. During his Chairmanship, Glaxo invested heavily in Singapore, establishing it as their regional headquarters and building facilities. He assisted in launching Singapore's Biomedical Sciences Initiative in 2000 as co-chair of the International Advisory Council, propelling the growth of Singapore's biomedical sciences landscape.
Knighted in 1994 for his services to the pharmaceutical industry, Sir Richard was awarded the Singapore National Day Public Service Star Award in 1999 and Honorary Citizenship of Singapore in 2004, the highest form of state recognition conferred on non-citizens.
Sir Richard's speech during a lunch reception held in honour of the Honorary Graduates, touched on Singapore's Biomedical Initiative, praising the University's efforts. "NUS, together with A*STAR and the wider research community in Singapore, in my opinion, has made a strong positive impact on the world of biomedicine, and in addition to the Singapore economy…I would like to wish NUS all the very best for the future and great things for Singapore, he said.
Prof Tan commented that the remarkable qualities displayed by all three Honorary Graduates serve as an inspiration to students, NUS and the wider community. "This is particularly meaningful and important as we celebrate SG50 and NUS' 110th anniversary this year, he added.
To read more on the three Honorary Graduates, please see:
Citation for ESM Goh Chok Tong by Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Citation for Prof Saw Swee Hock by Dean, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine
Citation for Sir Richard Sykes by Senior Vice President (Health Affairs)
Read story on NUS Commencement 2015.