In memoriam: Professor Saw Swee Hock, distinguished academic and generous benefactor

Professor Saw Swee Hock, a leading expert in statistics and renowned philanthropist, passed away on 16 Feb at the age of 89.

Prof Saw was the President’s Honorary Professor of Statistics at NUS, and Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He served as a member of the NUS Board of Trustees from 2004 to 2015.

His generous donations include a landmark gift in 2011 that led to the establishment of the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

Prof Saw’s contributions in the field of statistics and demography as well as his philanthropic work were recognised in 2015 when he was conferred an Honorary Doctor of Letters by NUS.

“Professor Saw Swee Hock was a close friend of NUS, and we are profoundly grateful for his contributions to the University in so many ways – as an academic, an educator, a benefactor, and a member of our Board of Trustees. We are deeply saddened by his passing, and our hearts go out to his family in this difficult time,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye.

World-renowned expert in statistics and demography

Prof Saw received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from the University of Malaya in Singapore (the predecessor institution of NUS) in 1956 and 1960, and obtained his PhD in Statistics from the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1963.

His academic career included the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and the University of Hong Kong before serving as Professor of Statistics at NUS from 1975 to 1991. He also held visiting positions in top universities including Princeton, Stanford, Cambridge and LSE.

The international community tapped on Prof Saw’s expertise in statistics and demography, as did the Singapore government. He served on the United Nations Committee on Salary Adjustments, the International Statistical Institute, and the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population. Prof Saw was also the first chairman of Singapore’s National Statistical Commission – the predecessor of the Singapore Department of Statistics.

Philanthropic work

Deeply committed to education, Prof Saw was a generous donor to NUS. He had been a regular donor, making gifts annually to support various programmes at the University.

In 2002, he supported the Saw Swee Hock Professorship in Statistics. He provided an endowment in 2004 to award bursaries annually to final-year financially needy students across all faculties to allow them to focus on their studies without the need to work part-time. In celebration of NUS’ 100th year anniversary in 2005, he supported the Saw Swee Hock Centennial Professorship in Law.

In 2011, Prof Saw made a landmark gift which was used to establish the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. The School educates and trains public health professionals, and undertakes cutting-edge research on innovative models of public health and healthcare delivery systems.

“We will always be indebted to Professor Saw, whose gift enabled us to set up our School. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis is a stark reminder that the major public health issues confronting us are becoming increasingly complex and require multiple levels of intervention. We are determined to carry on Professor Saw’s legacy by continuing to play a transformative role in raising the standard of public health in Singapore and the surrounding region,” said Professor Teo Yik Ying, Dean of the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

Professor Chia Kee Seng, the Founding Dean of the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health who served from 2011 to 2017, shared that he had the privilege of a very close relationship with Prof Saw.

“I recall vividly our monthly lunches where he repeatedly emphasised that the School should focus on making societal impact rather than just publishing academic papers. He was very glad when we had our first Singapore International Public Health Conference in 2012 where the School released its projection of the future burden of diabetes. This contributed to the launch of the War on Diabetes,” said Prof Chia. He added that Prof Saw’s generous donation has also resulted in a School that is currently helping to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof Saw received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2005 from NUS, as well as the Outstanding Service Award in 2007. On the national level, he was bestowed the Public Service Medal (PBM) at the 2013 National Day Awards. That year, he also received the President’s Award for Philanthropy (Individual).