AsianScientist (Feb. 25, 2016) – Some people think of him as an electrical engineer and educator, but “builder” makes perfect sense as well.
From colleges to research institutes and government agencies, Low Teck Seng, professor of electrical and electronic engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), has built and run some of the largest organisations in Singapore.
It has been a long journey for the boy from Kuala Pilah, a small town in Negeri Sembilan. When Professor Low moved across the Causeway, it was with only one intention in mind: to complete his pre- university education and apply to a local university.
In those days one could study for the GCE ‘A’ levels at Singaporean secondary schools, as National Junior College was the country’s only junior college. So Professor Low worked towards his ‘A’ levels at Swiss Cottage Secondary School, under principal Rudy Mosbergen (later Raffles Junior College’s founding principal).
But shortly after the exams were over, Professor Low was rejected by both NUS and the University of Malaya.
“They didn’t want me,” he says wryly.
On the advice of a family friend, he applied to and was accepted by Southampton University in the UK. There, his passion for engineering led him to a first class honours degree in electrical engineering in 1978, and a PhD in 1982. In 2009, his alma mater conferred on him an honorary science doctorate.
Some people said I was working on lodestones
For Professor Low, one memorable episode from the UK revolves around his undergraduate final year project—when he developed a two-dimensional model for permanent magnets under the mentorship of KJ Binns, an infamous, cigar-chomping professor.
A magnet, like those on refrigerator doors, is any material that has its own magnetic field, i.e. the property of being ferromagnetic. Permanent magnets are made from “hard” ferromagnetic materials such as ferrite (ceramic) and alnico (iron alloys of aluminium, nickel and cobalt), and do not lose their magnetism easily—as opposed to “soft” materials, such as iron alloys of nickel and zinc, which do. Professor Low modelled the properties of permanent magnets and validated his findings with experimental data.
Despite Professor Low’s initial apprehension about Professor Binn’s esoteric teaching style, the research led to his first publication, in the IEE Proceedings Part B journal, which he says is the most satisfying paper he has ever published.
Returning on a high from the UK in 1983, Professor Low was shocked by the “abysmal” labs and research facilities at NUS’s department of electrical engineering.
To make matters worse, NUS did not have graduate students to help Professor Low with his research. But he persevered, writing code with undergraduate students and collaborating with NUS colleagues Chua Soo Jin, Jacob Phang and Daniel Chan.
To add to his list of growing concerns, the field of magnetics was “not popular” with funding agencies.
“Some people attributed the work I wanted to do on permanent magnets as working on lodestones!” he says.
Lodestones, naturally ferromagnetic materials made out of mineral magnetite, have developed a poor reputation within the scientific fraternity after years of misuse by charlatans, for instance as amulets and good luck charms.
Fortunately for Singapore, Professor Low had by then met his wife-to-be, and they intended to settle down locally. This helped to repel job offers from the UK and the US. And the local naysayers who did not value his research would change their minds in the late 1980s, as the data storage industry grew in significance and importance in Singapore.
With the support of Philip Yeo, then chairman of the Economic Development Board of Singapore (EDB), and funding from the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB), Professor Low founded the Magnetics Technology Centre (MTC) in 1992. As founding director of MTC, later re-named Data Storage Institute (DSI), he diversified its initial portfolio of mechatronics, tribology and coding to encompass magnetic sensors, media and optics.
MTC helped to attract and root key data storage manufacturers in Singapore, including multinational companies such as Seagate, Maxtor, Conner Peripherals and key magnetic media companies. Today Singapore manufactures about 40 percent of the world’s hard disk media, a key component of hard disk drives.
Professor Low attributes his success at DSI to good luck and friends, including senior colleagues from around the world who helped him chart a road map for the fledgling institute.
DSI would go on to spawn many successful alumni, such as Lee Yuanxing of Avago Technologies, a Singapore-based global microelectronics and technology firm; Gu Guoxiao, who runs a design centre in Singapore for Western Digital, a US technology firm; and Wang Jian-Ping, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota.
For his role in establishing DSI and the support it provided for the growth of the data storage industry here, Professor Low received the National Science and Technology Medal in 2004.
A bird’s eye view of R&D in Singapore
In 2012, after serving as dean of engineering at NUS, founding principal of Republic Polytechnic, and managing director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Professor Low took on a new, complex portfolio, as chief executive officer of Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF).
The NRF is a department in the Prime Minister’s Office that coordinates the R&D efforts across Singapore. It also funds projects in areas where Singapore has a strategic interest, such as water technology, clean energy, satellite technology and urban sustainability.
Of the many areas NRF has supported, one of them is particularly close to Professor Low’s heart: spintronics, an emerging technology that uses the intrinsic spin of electrons and their associated magnetic moment to develop new magnetic materials and structures for circuits and devices.
Bringing together researchers at NTU and NUS, the Singapore Spintronics Consortium (SG-SPIN) was established in 2015 to develop next generation technologies for data storage and microchips. Founding industry members are Applied Materials Inc, Delta Electronics and GlobalFoundries.
Advances in spintronics could lead to, among other things, personal devices that are faster, more energy-efficient, and have a larger capacity. Imagine not having to charge mobile phone batteries on a daily basis; and being able to store almost infinite amounts of data on laptops, accessing them in a fraction of a second.
When Professor Low took charge at NRF, Teo Chee Hean, Singapore’s deputy prime minister and chairman of NRF, gave him two key objectives. The first is to foster collegial competition between the various research groups across Singapore.
Collegiate competitiveness, Professor Low says, is achieved when scientists have the ability to work together on collaborative projects, such as SG-SPIN, while maintaining a healthy competition between themselves, to “egg each other ahead”. It is a delicate balancing act, he says.
Professor Low’s second target is to realise benefits from Singapore’s R&D investments for Singapore and Singaporeans. But assessing R&D outcomes is an inexact science. In Singapore, there has traditionally been an emphasis on individual KPIs (key performance indicators), which distill a researcher’s output into a set of numbers.
“Forget about KPIs,” Professor Low says, believing they are reductive and force unnecessary focus on individual achievement.
He calls for a more nuanced approach to assessing R&D outcomes, one which shifts the pressure of achieving results from the individual to the system as a whole. No doubt, individual assessment is necessary. But Professor Low believes that the system can become more effective at assessing individual performance without compromising the intellectual freedom on which discovery science depends.
To gauge Singapore’s R&D performance, Professor Low believes the overall rankings of institutions are important, to a degree. Being ranked highly on international lists helps EDB and NRF attract global technology companies to Singapore, where they will co-create intellectual property and contribute to the economy, he says. These rankings also help academic institutions in Singapore recruit talented faculty and graduate students.
“I think our government has been very, very patient,” he says, about the time that has been taken to get Singapore’s R&D off the ground.
Building a pipeline of young Singaporean leaders
His portfolio may have since changed, but you cannot take the educator out of Professor Low. Of the various institutions Professor Low has contributed to, he is most sentimental about his stint as founding principal of Republic Polytechnic in 2002, which led to him receiving the Public Administration Medal (Gold) in 2007.
At Republic Polytechnic, he established a problem-based learning approach, modelled after the one employed by Olin College in the US.
“It contextualises concepts that you want students to learn and it is very integrative. You don’t silo things,” he says.
He is hopeful that this type of integrative curriculum will help to build a strong pipeline of young, enthusiastic and entrepreneurial technologists for Singapore.
On the broader national R&D landscape, it is essential for Singapore to have a vibrant talent pool of scientists and engineers. Professor Low says that Singapore must have deeply-rooted locals in leadership positions to complement the many foreign scientists who have come to develop their careers in Singapore.
Nevertheless, he is well aware that young people today, like his son, a National Serviceman who intends to study chemical engineering at NUS, may have other career plans.
“It’s a good and bad thing, right? Today our young people have options because of Singapore’s success,” he muses.
Brick by brick, his generation has laid the foundations; Professor Low often wonders who will take over.
This feature is part of a series of 25 profiles, first published as Singapore’s Scientific Pioneers. Click here to read the rest of the articles in this series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Bryan van der Beek.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.