Embracing change, foreseeing the future – and having fun in the process

Students from the NUS University Scholars Programme (USP) successfully hosted the STEP Asian Undergraduate Summit conference for young regional leaders across Asia virtually on Zoom from 1 Jun to 3 Jun, and 7 Jun to 10 Jun. This year, the summit engaged a total of over 150 students from 17 partner universities across 10 different countries within Asia, the summit’s highest number till date.

Entering its seventh iteration, STEP AUS is a USP student-led international conference – supported by Temasek Foundation – that provides a platform for undergraduates from diverse disciplines across Asia to engage in meaningful inter-cultural and experiential exchange and academic discourse.

With this year’s theme of “Leadership in a Complex World: Managing the Dilemma of Growth”, participants were challenged to consider the numerous trade-offs that come at the expense of pursuing economic growth, especially given the context of an ever-changing world filled with uncertainty.

Adapting to new situations

Primarily, AUS comprises two segments – the Overseas Leg and the Singapore Leg. The onset of the pandemic meant that the conference had to transit online; priority and emphasis was placed on ensuring that participants were granted an equally meaningful and immersive experience in a fresh and engaging manner. Furthermore, increased inter-connectivity worldwide coupled with availability of online platforms, allowed ease of coordination with partner universities to ensure a synergised and well-executed programme.

The Overseas Leg was a three-day summit, with single day programmes planned and led by undergraduate students from the these Overseas Host Universities (OHUs) Zhejiang University, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Topics such as the future of mobile payment and data security, inclusive education as a means of sustainable development, youth unemployment and personal development were explored through a series of seminars, engagement sessions with industry experts hailing from various nations. Participants were introduced to these topics within the context of the countries of the various OHUs and were assigned to utilise knowledge from their numerous disciplines and combine new perspectives to review current developments within their respective societies.

“Rather than executing the events in isolation, we hoped that by combining the components of the overseas leg into a cohesive programme, participants would be able to gain more out of the experience,” highlighted Mervin Junus, Chairperson of AUS 2021.

“Participants would have the opportunity to learn and gather more perceptions and opinions about the various sectors – technological, educational and social, present in society to ideate on potential solutions to solve pertinent issues,” he added.

Back to basics

The Singapore Leg started with a speech by Singapore Management University President Professor Lily Kong, who discussed the dilemmas of the growth of a city through a Geographer’s perspective. “The most difficult decisions are between right and right,” she mused.

Through pre-recorded educational site visits, insightful discussions with industry experts and workshops, participants were prompted to internalise and reflect on the world around them, to take notice of the various assets that one might not have noticed at first glance, and evaluate their importance in the grand scheme of things.

The first site visit brought participants on a virtual tour of Singapore and examined how infrastructure relates to inclusivity.

Kampung Lorong Buangkok, the last surviving Kampung in Singapore was the key focus, and participants were urged to re-evaluate intangible assets such as culture and heritage. The segment noted how the pursuit of urbanisation and economic growth has resulted in the loss of the “Kampung Spirit'', and stressed on the importance of holding onto our culture and ties, ensuring that it does not get crowded out as society advances.

A key highlight of the programme was the Futures Thinking Workshop led by the Executive Education Singapore Futures Team from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP). The AUS team had decided to integrate Futures Thinking into the programme. The workshop enabled participants to identify and pre-empt past and future trends, to uncover hidden biases and assumptions, thereby prompting them to ponder about the future more creatively.

Among those sharing their experiences under the “Human Library” segment of the summit was Mr Aaron Maniam, Deputy Secretary, Industry & Information at the Ministry of Communications and Information, who called attention to the rise of digitisation and the problems that accompany it. Mr Eric Sng, Senior Social Worker at SHINE Children and Youth Services also related his personal experiences working in the social service sector.

These speakers doubled up as mentors for participants during the “Ideation Marketplace,” offering new perspectives and ways of approaching different issues. In the spirit of constructive criticism, participants bounced off their thoughts and ideas with these experts freely; the engagement was intensive yet meaningful.

The New Normal

During the closing ceremony of the Singapore Leg, NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye stressed that though we have been “sharply reminded of the fragility and vulnerability of the world we live in,” the presence of resilience and determination amongst communities and individuals across the world offers a beacon of hope and inspiration to advance forward. Professor Tan elaborated that it is admirable how we have come to recognise that “bonds of friendship and the spirit of fellowship” are what sustains and strengthens us in the face of adversity.

The Guest-of-honour, Minister for Social and Family Development Mr Masagos Zulkifli, graced the summit virtually, congratulating participants on working “intensely together,” developing ingenious ideas to tackle current problems in a “VUCA world”. Minister Masagos voiced his confidence in today’s youths and how they will “continue to inspire and effect change” to ensure our world becomes a better place for generations to come.

The summit culminated with participants presenting in groups their respective ideas and solutions in dealing with a present dilemma identified within Asia to a panel of esteemed judges including Mr Gerald Yeo, Senior Director of Temasek Foundation, Mr Mayur Singh, Co-Founder of Green Collective Singapore, and Professor Albert Teo, Acting Dean of Tung Wah College. Participants were judged based on their creativity, sustainability and feasibility of the solutions provided.

Following AUS tradition, the summit ended on a high note with participants partaking in the trademark Cultural Night. It was like taking a virtual trip around Asia, as participants donned traditional cultural attire and tailored their Zoom backgrounds to reflect the uniqueness of their home country, contributing to the overall experience.

Booths were set up – via different breakout rooms – with participants sharing on cultural norms such as etiquette, greetings, and even idioms, while others showcased interactive segments like dance. Participants were able to “visit” the various booths throughout the night to explore and actively immerse themselves in the various cultures.

Excitement filled the room as participants were seen enthusiastically participating in the activities, some got off their seats and were seen swaying to the music while others were keeping the Zoom chat lively!

Looking back, taking AUS 2021 online seemed like a daunting task for the organising committee, but it has become evident now that it was all worth the sleepless nights and anxiety. Participants had the time of their lives, established a wonderful network of friends across Asia, and gained a holistic understanding and greater appreciation of the world around them!


By Tan Armado Yi Zhou, Vice Chairperson of Asian Undergraduate Summit 2021 and NUS USP student