Home singapore Committed to social good over academic papers 'read by just 50 people', SUSS president sets out priorities

Committed to social good over academic papers 'read by just 50 people', SUSS president sets out priorities

Committed to social good over academic papers 'read by just 50 people', SUSS president sets out priorities
Singapore University of Social Sciences’ (SUSS) second president Tan Tai Yong is on a mission to hire academics committed to the university’s goal of achieving social goodProf Tan, who took over the helm in January this year, wants to deliver on the university’s vision as a driver of lifelong learning and impactful researchTo do so, he has been on the lookout for “self-motivated” colleagues to steer the course with himIn a sit-down interview with TODAY, Prof Tan spoke about what it means to achieve real impact by widening definitions of thisHe also touched on offering students experiential learning opportunities with international exposure, among other things

By Deborah Lau Published November 13, 2023 Updated November 13, 2023 Bookmark Bookmark Share WhatsApp Telegram Facebook Twitter Email LinkedIn

SINGAPORE — Singapore University of Social Sciences’ (SUSS) second president Tan Tai Yong is on a mission: To hire academics committed to the university’s goal of achieving social good.

He aims to deliver on the university’s vision as a driver of lifelong learning and impactful research, and to do so, is looking to recruit the right faculty to steer the course with him.

Since taking over the helm in January this year, Professor Tan, 62, has been on the lookout for “self-motivated” colleagues committed to the mission.

One key criterion is that their research “must impact lives”.

Prior to joining SUSS, Prof Tan spent more than three decades at the National University of Singapore (NUS), including his most recent stint as President of Yale-NUS College between 2017 and 2022. 

In January, he took over the SUSS leadership reins from Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, who served as SUSS founding president between 2005 and 2022 and is now its emeritus president.

In a recent interview with TODAY, Prof Tan said that faculty members at the university “are very committed to achieving social good”.

“They are very oriented towards community, and they’re very passionate about the work they do,” said Prof Tan.

An example of this social good is the work being done by his colleague, SUSS’ head of gerontology programmes, Dr Carol Ma.

Last month, Dr Ma and her team launched an inter-generational reminiscence game called “Come! Let’s Chat”.

The game draws on the power of residual memories of times long past to promote better well-being for seniors with dementia. It was developed in collaboration with the National Archives of Singapore.

Pointing to this work, Prof Tan said: “Now, this is not going to result in any sort of publication in some top-tier journal. But there’s impact.

“And (Health) Minister Ong (Ye Kung) who was there … was encouraging us, ‘Y’all should do more of this’, because it has real life implications and impact for the people who need it.

“So (Dr Ma) is a typical example of the kinds of faculty we should have here. Someone who’s very passionate about her work on society — gerontology, in this case, ageing.”


Asked how he intends to recruit more of such faculty members aligned with the school’s vision, Prof Tan said: “This is the challenge I posed to our provost. You have to look for those kinds of people, and there are people like that.

“Because of the local context of our work, we try to look locally. But sometimes, from Hong Kong, from Southeast Asia, even from the West, you do find people who are interested in the issues we’re dealing with — so we’ve got to entice them,” he said. 

“This will take some time, because it’s not easy to find talent who want to come here. But the plan is afoot, and we are now trying to build that up,” he added.

And when he does find them, Prof Tan will do whatever he can to support the team.

This includes encouraging the faculty, and finding resources such as time and research grants to empower them in their work, before recruiting more similar prospects.

“Then, I think SUSS will really be top of the mind when people think of applied research in some of these areas.”


Still, getting the right faculty staff on board would involve having a unifying vision, and an ability to articulate that vision, while convincing his colleagues to run together in the same direction, said Prof Tan.

Asked how his time at NUS and Yale-NUS had prepared him to do so, he said: “I’ve always said that in terms of the experience of leading an institution or developing an institution, wherever you are, the principles are really the same.

“You’ve got to get a sense of vision, what you want to do. Then you’ve got to communicate that vision and convince the people that this is where we should be going — and then make sure that people follow you.”

On his vision for SUSS, Prof Tan said he hopes to build on his predecessor Prof Cheong’s legacy: To establish a university dedicated to learning for life, and impacting lives.

“Of course, I do not come into a brand new university.

“(Prof Cheong) and his team have developed vision statements … and I try to keep close to what he’s been trying to achieve, so there is no 180 degree turn.

“In other words, I wanted to continue what he believed for the university, and to build on it.”


On what it means to live out that vision of impacting lives, Prof Tan said: “It’s not just an ivory tower thing.”

“We’re the only university that says we are committed to achieving social good.”

And to do this well would involve widening definitions of impact.

Traditionally, universities measured the impact of their research through the common metric of publications — an approach familiar to him in his time at NUS.

In such a model, having faculty members’ research published in prestigious, “internationally renowned” journals or university presses would be regarded as impactful, he added.

“But in social sciences, it’s more complicated. 

“Let’s say you do very good work on social interventions for marginalised groups, or for families in need of help … international journals may not be interested to publish these sorts of things,” he said.

“But if the work that you do — the research, the insights that you produce — informs the Ministry of Social and Family (Development), and then they develop policies based on the studies… that, to me, is impact.”

To this end, Prof Tan said that he was trying to draw a larger definition of “impact”, one that “means that your work is useful to whoever needs to use your work, and it need not only be in publications”.

In fact, producing such work and research that is “useful to society” is more important to him as a university dedicated to the social sciences, said Prof Tan.

“I mean, what’s the point of social sciences if you feel that just 50 people in the whole world will read it?” he said.

Instead, the university must focus on work that is “useful for Singapore” — attuned to understanding the nation’s needs, and seeing what can be done to help the Republic progress on these fronts.

“So I think that’s where applied research is important. You must understand where we are.”

“We may not publish in journals or do theoretical work, but our research must be impactful because it’s useful for industry, enterprise, for policymakers.”


And this is what Prof Tan hopes to extend to SUSS’ students as well: To value-add to their time at the university, by finding a sweet spot in equipping them with both the necessary academic knowledge and practical industry engagements.

“There are many things that make a good university: The quality of your education, the quality of the students, the quality of your teaching staff, the quality of your research output. But this is very generic because this can also apply to Harvard, or Princeton, or to Tsinghua (University in Beijing). 

“But if I were to just look at SUSS — what would I want to achieve to make SUSS a good university? Of course, the quality of education and the quality of the learning experience is very important,” he said.

“If I offer a course on some esoteric field, where students study, they get a degree in X, but then they can’t find the skills useful — that’s pointless. So I need to make sure that the university, whatever we do, is able to have a very close kind of link with industry, enterprise and society.”

He said that means the university would “work hand in glove with industry, so that we understand (students’) needs”.

“But also as a university, we must bring some value because it’s not only vocational training.”

And while experiential learning, such as internships and industry attachments, is crucial, the university wants to offer students some international exposure as well, said Prof Tan.

One way SUSS has designed its offerings to help students achieve this, is through its establishment of three Success Academies this year.

Co-launched in September with industry partners on the ground, the Success Academies are international centres aimed at providing SUSS students with global networks for experiential learning opportunities.

The three centres are in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and China’s Beijing and Shenzhen, though there are plans to expand to Indonesia and even Thailand, he added.

“We are not just a standalone university. We believe that we can be the node or the hub of all sorts of networks. Here is where we are quite keen to position ourselves as a critical knowledge partner of various sectors — from the social sector, to the economic sector. 

“And this is where I think our knowledge and education can have impact.”