A Laser-Focussed Life

From protecting the navy’s ships to boosting Singapore’s electronic warfare capabilities, Professor Su Guaning has been decorated many times for his pioneering defence research.

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AsianScientist (Apr. 27, 2016) – LASER is actually an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Laser light is formed when the electrons in a lasing medium are excited to a higher energy state with light or electricity. When the “pumped” electrons return to a lower energy state, they emit a photon of light, a phenomenon known as spontaneous emission.

Occasionally, these photons hit other excited atoms in the lasing medium, amplifying the amount of light by making the atom give off two photons instead of the usual one. Called stimulated emission, this phenomenon is at the heart of how lasers work. In common parlance, the word “laser” can also describe a person’s intense focus on achieving a goal.

Interestingly, both the literal and metaphorical use of the word laser can be used to describe Su Guaning, president emeritus and professor of electrical and electronic engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Born into a technically-oriented family—his father was an electrical engineer, and his mother taught mathematics and physics—Professor Su was similarly adept at these topics: “I was also comfortable with abstract things, which you tend to need for electrical things, because it is not a physical thing you can see.”

His grandparents had migrated from China to Malaysia in the 1920s to start a school at Tangkak, Johor, near the border of Malacca. His parents, who met while studying at Xiamen University, married and relocated to Taiwan, where Professor Su was born.

His family moved back to Malaysia, and then Singapore in 1957, where he joined the primary three cohort two years ahead of his peers at the co-ed Nanyang Girls High School (primary section).

Top of his class at Raffles Institution, Professor Su went on to win a Colombo Plan Scholarship and President’s Scholarship to study electrical engineering at the University of Alberta in Canada, and a fellowship from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the United States for a master’s degree.

Project Magpie

It was during Professor Su’s master’s degree that the Vietnam War and Singapore’s newly-implemented mandatory National Service conscription began to define his life and career.
Professor Su had wanted to continue with his PhD under Amnon Yariv, his Caltech professor and supervisor, who is world-famous for his work on lasers and optics. But the Public Service Commission (PSC), which had awarded Professor Su his original President’s Scholarship, asked him to return.

“They said we need engineers, so please come back,” he says.

His heart sank, as he had planned on building his own laser that summer.

Back home, he also realised that being two years younger than his classmates made him liable for National Service.

“If I was born two years early like the rest of my cohort, things would have been different,” he laughs.

While Professor Su was waiting for conscription, Benny Chan, a senior scholar who had studied at the University of British Columbia, recruited him to join a top-secret R&D set-up at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

“It was a no brainer,” Professor Su says, as the programme allowed him to conduct military research for eight years in lieu of two-and-a-half years of National Service.

Around 1971-72, at the peak of the Vietnam war, there was a fierce air battle over North Vietnam, where the US was fighting Russian surface-to-air missile systems using electronic warfare. Jamming, as it is called, involves sending interfering signals against radars to fool detection systems, making it difficult for anti-aircraft systems to accurately pinpoint the locations of planes, ahead of a missile attack.

Witnessing all these military advancements from nearby, Singapore’s then defence minister, Goh Keng Swee, knew that victory in future wars would require mastery of the electromagnetic spectrum—to fight stealthily and remain invisible to the enemy.

“Dr. Goh Keng Swee felt there was a need to develop something special in R&D, in some sense a secret edge; that others don’t expect,” Professor Su explains.

Dr. Goh assembled a rag-tag team of newly-minted engineers under the codename Project Magpie. Needing a further cover, the team coined the name Electronic Test Centre (ETC), using the initials of its three pioneers: Er Kwong Wah, Toh Kim Huat and Benny Chan. It was completely cut off from other military units.

“I still remember our address was PO Box 822 Tanglin Post Office,” Professor Su chuckles.

MINDEF recruited the late Tay Eng Soon, then a lecturer at the University of Singapore, to head ETC and lead its research. Meanwhile S. R. Nathan, the director of MINDEF’s security and intelligence division from 1971 to 1979, interviewed Professor Su for his role. (Dr. Tay would later go on to serve as senior minister of state (education); and Mr. Nathan would serve two consecutive terms as Singapore’s president, from 1999-2011.)

The government hastily refurbished the top-secret military research facility, and the team soon began its work. ETC conducted all its transactions— some worth up to thousands of dollars—in cash.

Building up confidence in MINDEF

In 1977, Project Magpie evolved into the Defence Science Organisation (DSO), and Professor Su and colleagues no longer had to hide behind a PO Box address.

Three years later, Professor Su’s eight-year commitment to MINDEF came to an end. He applied for a senior tutor position at the newly-established National University of Singapore (NUS), which came with a PhD scholarship to study at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

But MINDEF had other ideas.

“In those days, when you applied [for a posting or a scholarship], you had to go through the department head, who at the time was the second permanent secretary, Mr. Philip Yeo,” says Professor Su.

Mr. Yeo shrewdly provided a counter-proposal: a fully-paid PhD scholarship to study at any university of his choice. Professor Su took up MINDEF’s offer, and went off to Stanford University to study signal processing.

Looking back, Professor Su believes that it was MINDEF’s enlightened decision to support PhD-level researchers like him that helped Singapore’s electronic warfare capabilities blossom.

In electronic warfare, other countries would never sell their most advanced equipment; even if they did, they sold the systems without the techniques required to make it work. MINDEF researchers had to develop the techniques to make sure the equipment worked against a real threat.

“All that required confidence,” Professor Su says, which the new PhDs provided—they helped transform DSO’s old adage of “What have people done, can I do it also?” to “Here’s a problem, let’s solve it. Doesn’t matter if nobody has ever done it before, we can be the first.”

In 1983, on his return from Stanford, DSO appointed Professor Su as its deputy director. In 1986, when he became director, he was firm in creating a “black box” environment—from the outside there was a wall of secrecy and from the inside, engineers had the creative freedom to pursue the best science possible, free from financial and operational concerns. In 1997, in his quest for even more autonomy, Professor Su led the incorporation of DSO as a non-profit company limited by guarantee, henceforth known as DSO National Laboratories.

He became deputy secretary (technology) at MINDEF a year later, where he created a new R&D directorate under the Defence Technology Group (DTG) as DSO National Laboratories’s contracting counterpart. In the new scheme, DSO National Laboratories was the service provider and MINDEF the customer.

The navy became DSO National Laboratories’s best customer.

“They faced the biggest threat, in the open seas, without support from anywhere. It is very critical that they protect their ships,” says Professor Su.

Later in 2000, Professor Su spearheaded the conversion of DTG into a statutory board called the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), where he served as chief executive until 2002.

These are all major milestones in Singapore’s long, perhaps never-ending, journey of enhancing defence agencies and structures. With DSO corporatised and DSTA a statutory board, spending could be clearly accounted for and objectives made clear. This move also helped both organisations attract Singaporean engineers despite a dwindling supply of graduates.

Feeling sentimental, Professor Su says, “These are my babies, in some sense.”

For his contributions to MINDEF as one of its pioneer defence research engineers, Professor Su received the Public Administration Medal (Silver) in 1989; the Public Service Medal in 1997; the Public Administration Medal (Gold) and the Long Service Medal in 1998; he also received the National Science and Technology Medal in 2003. In 2015, Professor Su received the Defence Technology Medal (Outstanding Service) in recognition of his pioneering contributions to defence technology.

Managing a young university

Taking over at the helm of NTU in 2003 from Cham Tao Soon, Professor Su maintained the university’s focus on education, with the building of three new schools, and the move towards a US-style system, with students undertaking both majors and minors as part of their degree.

Noting China’s growing importance to the world, Professor Su also developed strong ties to the country, not least through NTU’s 18,000 alumni there.

“In several provinces in China, the very top officials of every city have been to NTU for a short-term programme,” he says.

China has commemorated his contributions with the State Council’s 2011 Friendship Award and Guangdong’s 2012 Friendship Award.

Professor Su stepped down as president of NTU in 2011, in the same year Singapore awarded him the Meritorious Service Medal.

Recognising the value of his numerous experiences to young people, Professor Su started teaching a graduate course in 2014, called Systems, Complexity and Innovation, where he encourages electrical engineering PhD students to broaden their research areas by applying the tools of complexity science. He also started a new undergraduate course in 2015 for business minors, called Management of Research and Innovation, where students role-play as CEO and functional heads of companies.

“I wanted people to see complex systems from a big picture point of view,” he says. “The best alignment is when you can seize opportunities and do something that you feel is worthwhile.”

There may be many CEO role models out there, but if students are looking for a case study combining derring-do and laser beams, Professor Su’s own story is a fine one to tell.

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.

Juliana is the founder and CEO of Wildtype Media Group, Asia's leading STEM-focused media company, spanning digital, print, custom publishing and events. Brands under Wildtype Group include Asian Scientist Magazine and Supercomputing Asia, award-winning titles available in print and online. Juliana regularly moderates panel discussions and gives talks on science communication.

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