Reshaping ideas and practices in Asia’s next normal


Prof Tan (top row, extreme left) leading the conversation on “University Leadership in Asia’s Next Normal”.

26 April 2021 — Universities need to adopt resilient and versatile learning systems, while maintaining high-quality standards of education – that was the consensus of speakers at the recent Temasek Foundation-NUS Programme for Leadership in University Management (TF-NUS PLUM) Southeast Asia Leaders’ Summit.

Organised by the NUS Global Relations Office (GRO), the summit was themed “University Leadership in Asia’s Next Normal” and aimed to reshape ideas and practices in higher education, in light of the disruption created by the pandemic.

Over the virtual conference on 26 and 27 April, university leaders discussed the way forward for ASEAN higher education institutions, and agreed that embracing digitalisation with remote learning, as well as community safety and inclusivity, were top priorities.

“Universities have to adjust teaching and learning, student engagement and research, to adapt to the new COVID-19 world. We have to stay ahead of the fast-changing environment, so that we can prepare our students to be flexible and agile for new and exciting opportunities,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye in his opening address.

At NUS Engineering Dean Professor Aaron Thean’s session titled “Leadership in Asia’s Next Normal”, he shared that the age of accelerated technological convergence is driving transformation forward.

“We need to make sure that our pre-employment training for graduates is relevant to the job market. There must also be continuing education to adapt and refine the training, in order to support their careers,” said Prof Thean, who was joined by NUS Engineering alumnus and CEO of the Sustainable Living Lab, Mr Veerappan Swaminathan.

“There may be multiple possible scenarios in the future, but a winning strategy is to develop an approach that can survive multiple possible scenarios,” said Mr Swaminathan. He shared that his consultancy could maintain its performance during the pandemic because it diversified into different areas that were complementary.


Prof Thean and Mr Swaminathan enjoying candid banter as they discussed the topic of navigating the future.

During the “Presidents’ Roundtable”, Prof Tan affirmed some of the top priorities for NUS during the pandemic, which includes ensuring the community’s safety through vigilant measures; and supporting the graduating cohort through the NUS Resilience and Growth Initiative that provides employment through placements, apprenticeships and direct hiring.

Prof Tan noted that being prepared for a post-COVID world has required major transformations to the University’s learning models. In particular, lifelong learning is becoming the modus operandi. “Students and alumni will need to constantly upskill and reskill, to remain relevant,” he said.


Prof Tan sharing NUS’ top priorities during the pandemic.

In Prof Tan’s dialogue on ““Imagining the University Post COVID-19”, he highlighted that accelerated innovation and entrepreneurship is a way to mitigate the disruption, displacement and uncertainty of the future.

“Universities must prepare students for a more uncertain world through innovative learning approaches and experiences,” he said, adding that experiential and problem-based learning will enable students to pursue more versatile pathways in the future.

He also affirmed that an interdisciplinary education can equip students with the ability to cross-learn and connect the dots, for deeper and more impactful learning through life.

The insightful summit concluded with a panel discussion on “Southeast Asia in the Next Normal” among the university leaders, moderated by GRO Associate Vice President Associate Professor Reuben Wong. Speakers acknowledged that while the various countries have their individual approaches to education, the pandemic calls for greater regional collaboration. There was an overall consensus that universities should continue to foster close partnerships and support one another.


Assoc Prof Wong (top row, centre) engaging the regional university leaders.

TF-NUS PLUM serves as a platform for university leaders to discuss issues, share experiences, and advance ideas on the governance and management of Asian universities. Since 2012, over 250 university leaders from ASEAN, China and India have attended this programme.

This article was first published on 28 April 2021 in NUS News.

29 April 2021