Mee siam and kopi siew dai? Yes, please, says NUS College's inaugural Dean Prof Simon Chesterman

For many people, a refreshing drink hits the spot after a long run. Professor Simon Chesterman thinks otherwise. He rewards himself with a hearty bowl of his favourite Singaporean dish mee siam to sweat it all out.

Spicy food has become a staple for the Australian academic. Give him sambal and it could be his elixir to run even faster. But what the Dean of NUS Law misses most when he is away from Singapore is the quintessential local coffee.

“I’ve developed a real taste for kopi siew dai,” said the 49-year-old, who found a new world of local coffee when he served the beverage to his law students as a promise following a successful fundraising campaign. 

“They queued up to make the most complicated orders. I discovered yuan yang, half coffee and half tea – I mean, make up your mind.”

Prof Chesterman has been appointed Dean of NUS College – Singapore’s first honours college – and he is no stranger to new experiences, having taught in Australia, Britain and the United States before moving to Singapore in December 2006. But what binds them is his love for education.

“I love teaching, I love research and I love engaging with students, and academia offered a path for me to do that,” he said.

The Mandarin speaking lawyer and AI expert

There is no comfort zone for Prof Chesterman. He is constantly trying new things such as exploring west China in the early 1990s and learning about artificial intelligence (AI).

Today, he can buy food at hawker centres in Mandarin. His fascination with Chinese culture began as a student in Melbourne, and he eventually studied both law and Chinese at the University of Melbourne and Beijing International Studies University respectively. He lived in Beijing for a year in 1991 on a government scholarship.

“I’d like to say I was far-sighted and realised that China was the next economic and political actor, but actually I learnt Chinese just because it was fun,” said the father of three, who first learned the language in secondary school for five years.

His Chinese, however, has been on a “downward slope”. His five-year-old recently even advised him to read simpler Chinese bedtime stories with hanyu pinyin (romanisation of Chinese words).

While Chinese may no longer be his forte, he is a recognised authority on international law and AI governance – an interest that grew from his early research on challenges to public authority.

“The new gadgets like driverless cars and robot lawn mowers are fascinating,” said Prof Chesterman, who is also Senior Director of AI Governance at National Research Foundation’s AI Singapore. “At the same time, technology is playing a greater role in all sorts of decision-making, making governance much harder.”

In fact, the accomplished author recently published We, the Robots? Regulating Artificial Intelligence and the Limits of the Law in Aug 2021.

Singapore’s way of life

His book on AI governance is his latest of 21 books, not counting young adult novels that were inspired by his two older teenage children and his own fascination with Sherlock Holmes.

The result? A mystery trilogy that centres on Arcadia Greentree, a 16-year-old savant who solves puzzles.

“The great thing about fiction is you can just make stuff up. You don’t need to worry about being right or wrong – but hopefully it’s interesting,” he shared. “I suppose I also wanted to write something that my own children would actually read.”

Family is one thing he holds dear. When the pandemic shut all borders, they bonded by discovering new places in Singapore on two wheels, cycling “almost every bike path” and enjoying the outdoors. At home, they played board games like Catan and Cluedo.

After living in Singapore for more than 15 years, Prof Chesterman has immersed himself in the culture here. His grasp of Singlish is solid, and he “appreciates the amalgam of languages” as well as the multi-ethnic way of life.

“The extent to which there is a conscious effort to understand and embrace the different cultures, religious traditions, the holidays – that’s one of the things I love about Singapore,” he said.

The NUS College dream

His own story with the little red dot is set for a new chapter. From 1 July, he will lead NUS College. Singapore’s first honours college, NUS College is where students from as many as 50 different majors – from Humanities and Sciences, Engineering, Environmental Studies, Business, Computer Science to Law – can come together to read a common curriculum that complements their chosen majors.

This is an evolution from the liberal arts college model of Yale-NUS College, and the interdisciplinary approach of the University Scholars Programme.

Small, seminar-style experiential learning, global exposure, and an immersive residential life will be key features.

“Students will have the expertise and discipline, and a relevant degree, but complemented with broad-based education and a rich residential experience that will be transformative,” Prof Chesterman said.

Engaging them, and having them interact with each other in person, will be key. While online classes were a band aid for safe distancing measures, nothing beats an actual class setting or mingling among peers, he added.

“A lot of learning happens on the margins of the classroom. In the college environment, you can extend that through the day and into the night,” he said. “It enables them to push boundaries and do crazy things they wouldn’t have done if they were living at home.”

What's in NUS College's common curriculum

One half of the common curriculum features interdisciplinary modules around Critical Competencies and Global Orientation to build transdisciplinary thinking and inquiry, and cultivate global perspectives in students.

The next half allows a choice from a variety of interdisciplinary and experiential modules in two domains: Humanities and the Social Sciences; and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Students can spend six or 12 months in a flagship Global Pathways Programme for an immersive global experience. This comprises the Global Experience Module and an academic exchange component – either Student Exchange or NUS Overseas College programme – which takes them to the exciting cities of Beijing, New York City, Silicon Valley, Stockholm, or Toronto.

The common curriculum culminates in the Impact Experience Project, a capstone module integrating experiential learning, interdisciplinarity, and thoughtful impact on the wider community.