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Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Health, at 6th Medical Grand Challenge Finale, 20 August 2022

Professor Tan Eng Chye, President, National University of Singapore

Professor Yeoh Khay Guan, Chief Executive, National University Health System

Professor Chong Yap Seng, Dean, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine

Academic staff

Ladies and gentlemen

1.     First, let me share two stories. In my community work as a Member of Parliament, I have benefitted from exercises like this, which allow ground ideas to come up, and students and young people to propose solutions. The first example is from my constituency, Sembawang. Mr Lee Kuan Yew delivered a speech shortly after we separated from Malaysia, at the Sree Narayana Mission in Sembawang when he gave out scholarships to students of all races. Mr Lee made a passionate speech that Singapore can succeed. He said, “Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. 10 years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.”

2.     I tried to hunt down where exactly he had made that speech because Sree Narayana Mission has since shifted to Yishun. I thought it was in one of our secondary forests, so when the secondary forest was going to be developed into an industrial estate, I asked to find out the exact location where the speech was made. When JTC Corporation and the Urban Redevelopment Authority did a search, it turned out it was not in the secondary forest but right in the middle of a community park of a HDB estate. I wanted to build something to commemorate the site.

3.     How do we go about doing it? I asked for help, and threw a challenge like this, where many education institutions took part in. In the end, it was a cross-tertiary institution team of both polytechnic and university students who won. They went to great lengths designing the statue, finding the materials, getting a sculptor to teach them, and manufacturing and fabricating the statue. Today, it is a marker of our history.

4.     My second example is an ongoing project on high-rise littering. The National Environment Agency installed cameras for enforcement but people will stop littering when they see the bright orange cameras. I decided we should do something more effective. Again, I opened up a ground-up challenge and received many proposals. This time a polytechnic team came together to create a simple solution using high definition cameras and object detection imaging solutions with some AI. By calculating the trajectory of the litter, they can tell which unit it was thrown from. Today it is collecting data and detecting people who throw litter quite accurately. The next step for us is to figure out how to use the images to enforce, and for the team, how to commercialise this.

5.     I relate these two stories because I want to illustrate that exercises like this make a genuine difference in the way we conduct our community activities and making lives generally better. It also illustrates how far education has changed, not just in medical schools. I would just highlight two things which are relevant to today’s event.

6.     One is inter-disciplinary studies. I like the rules of this competition – one medical student solving a medical problem or healthcare issue with students from other faculties. Because we know that innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines. For that matter, whatever we define as subjects, faculties within universities or textbooks are artificial because everything is related to one another. The more we can synergise and integrate them, which means promoting inter-disciplinary studies, the more we encourage innovation. I am very glad that the National University of Singapore (NUS) has been a pioneer in this, pushing ahead with inter-disciplinary studies with various programmes and initiatives like the University Scholars Programme.

7.     The second aspect is the importance of encouraging ground-up innovations and efforts like this. It is an important signal to our students that the knowledge and skills that they learn can empower them to really make a difference.

8.     What the Ministry of Health (MOH) is trying to do is to encourage this in the field of healthcare. Prof Chong Yap Seng referred to a media article where I said that digital technology is moving fast, but is relatively slower in healthcare because healthcare is a sector where safety is paramount. Therefore regulations are tight, and the deployment of certain technologies will be slower than for other industries.

9.     But we are also changing and evolving. Healthier SG, for instance, is a very important strategy to encourage innovation. If our preoccupation is always advanced care and curing people who are already very sick, our focus will always be on hospitals and the operating theatres, and innovation revolves around that. But when we say our emphasis will shift towards preventive care, delivery of care is then in the community, in homes, where all of us can be a participant. That is when we open up a broad surface area and receptacle for all kinds of innovation which are not as tightly regulated. An example are healthcare apps, where the great majority are consumer products which are unregulated.

10.     I hope we seize this opportunity, synergise what the government is trying to do in terms of policy emphasis, together with the skills that you have learnt. It has been a pleasure to be invited back. I wish you all the best. Thank you.


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