Oh Boey! How life has changed since...

Mabel Lee quizzes NTU Provost Prof Freddy Boey on the turning points in his illustrious life and gets some candid answers from this serial inventor who is behind a string of life-saving innovations such as the world's smallest piezoelectric heart pump

This year, Prof Freddy Boey received the President's Science and Technology Medal, the highest of such honours given to top research scientists and engineers in Singapore. His distinguished list of inventions runs the gamut from a biodegradable heart stent to a new anti-glaucoma drug.

Q: How did your life change when you...

... received your first research grant?

When I first joined NTU in 1987, faculty rarely applied for research grants. I was probably one of the few gullible enough to accept the extra work – a research grant of $400,000 (yes, you didn't even need a detailed proposal to get it!). The grants were chasing after the researchers! Looking back, it was the best decision I ever made.

... became the Provost in 2011?

There was a quantum jump in my responsibilities. Aside from handling academic and research issues, I learnt to quickly grasp more intractable socio-political issues. As Chair of the School of Materials Science & Engineering, my decisions affected only my school, but now, they affect the whole university – students, faculty, staff and alumni. It does dampen my intuition for making daring creative decisions. I need to quickly crystalise core issues correctly, communicate effectively and execute efficiently. You can't do all three alone, so you need an effective, cohesive team. The most difficult part? Having clever people (they all are in the university!) work as one team. To survive as Provost, I must have really good mediation skills to resolve all sorts of relational problems.

One thing keeps my feet on the ground – something I have done outside NTU throughout my career. I pioneered community work for the poor in Indonesia, rural Malaysia, China, North Thailand and, more recently, Myanmar. Helping the marginalised, and letting them know someone cares... this brings hope and inspiration, especially to the children, many of whom haven't had parents or siblings to turn to. It is especially satisfying work and reminds me of what life is really about.

... mentored your very first student?

My first PhD student was very bright, but he had many personal problems. Twice, in the middle of the night, I had to go to his flat to literally drag him out of his depression and provide him alternative lodging. Today, he's a happily married father and runs a successful company. There was another student caught committing a crime who called me; I persuaded the police not to press charges by guaranteeing them that I would personally mentor him. Two years later, I handed him his second class upper honours degree at the convocation. Former students still email me to thank me for inspiring them to take up materials science and engineering. It is very heartening. Learning by inspiration is critical in a university – a great university is one that inspires people, and encourages them to think in a multitude of ways. NTU has done well here, and we should continue to do so.

... were in the army?

For a good 18 months, I managed to represent my army formation in football, swimming and even water polo. I was a full-time sportsman! We trained very hard, but it also gave me time to give tuition and earn enough to start my studies in Australia. For the record, I was a pretty decent football striker who was known for my ambidextrous feet – I scored with both legs and sometimes even with my head.

... were fighting to make ends meet as an undergraduate in Australia?

Tuition was free but the living cost was horrendous back then, with SGD3.5 for the Aussie dollar! But that was where I cut my teeth in innovation – I did everything I could to find a job, any job. Cleaning the pub at 4am, removing grease in restaurant kitchens, waiting tables in restaurants, driving a taxi, delivering fresh chickens to Asian students… I'm a born optimist. To me, complaining is something others do and often a waste of time. To succeed, you don't gripe about failures, but dig deep to find another way around things, and plough your way through.

... became a grandfather?

I joked: Now I can enjoy the company of a kid without having to take care of her! My two-year-old granddaughter Lily has been a real delight and brings the whole family together. Being a granddad has mellowed me and it reminds me not to take work life too seriously. The happiness you can derive from your family is invaluable, and ironically we easily neglect our family in the pursuit of providing for it!

... heard the best advice of your life?

I try to live by this line: Do what is right, love mercy and walk humbly. If I ever get to retire, I hope I can write a book about hope. Hope is an incredible thing. For all the money in the world, if you don't have hope, you will never find happiness. Yet, even the poor who have hope can be contented and happy! The cell phone is one of the greatest inventions in the world, because it is a great social equaliser amongst everyone, rich or poor. Hope is an even greater equaliser. No matter how bleak your situation is, if hope stays alive in your heart, it will transform your life.

3 things you wish to achieve as Provost

I believe that happy individuals – whether students or staff – work better. Many of us spend more time at work than with our family! To create a truly happy environment, we need to minimise quarrels, help others and work together. We should never neglect the very family for whom we work so hard for. We can always find another job, but not another family.

Less examinations, more exposure
In Singapore, there is a danger of becoming better examiners than educators. Of course, we need to have exams to ensure students know their work. But at times, I fear that the many tests and exams we have get in the way of educating our students. We need to change this culture. Students should be motivated to learn, not to pass exams but for their livelihood. Could we not achieve the same with 10 exams or tests instead of 15? The one-hour lectures have been around for decades. Today, we can learn faster with technology. Our students absorb information better and more quickly today than decades ago. With technology, the one-hour lecture can be taught in a 30-minute interactive video clip. So what do we do with the 30 minutes saved? Have more lectures to dish out more knowledge that can easily be googled? Well, we can use it to expose students to the workplace. Apprentice exposure is yet another form of education.

A strong sense of civic-mindedness in graduates
The selfish reason to be a good engineer is to earn more money. The noble reason is to bring social benefits to others. For years when I taught first-years engineering, I would kick off my lectures by showing Charlie Chaplain's hilarious but sardonic classic, City Lights, where Chaplain works frantically to keep up with an assembly line that keeps going faster and faster to increase productivity. I end with a poignant reminder: Engineering is meant to enhance people's lives, not make their lives impoverished and mindless. I hope to build in NTU an environment that encourages students to volunteer for social and community work, and not simply focus on gaining academic units. Perhaps, one day, NTU will be the university students go to because of their passion for social and community work!