Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Classification of Research Activities

It is prestigious to be a research worker. Ask any research worker what they are doing and you will be surprised at the replies you receive. Some will tell you the high powered activities they are doing. Others will tell you how boring and even frustrating their work is. Ask the students whether they would be interested in doing research, the general reply is “it depends on what they are expected to do and the prospects.” People are generally not clear why they are doing their research and the prospects of the jobs. Happy are those who know what they are doing.

After years of involvement in the various types of research activities I have found the following definition and classification to be useful.

1. What is “Research”

2. Can it be classified so that the importance of the results can be rated.

True research is a quest driven by a specific question or problem which needs an answer or solution. Research activities are expected to answer questions of what, why and how. The first part answers the philosophical aspect of the question “what and why” are we doing the research for? Most of the famous wise men of ancient times are philosophers. They propounded theories e.g. the atomic, germ, gravity, electricity and many others and proved these theories are correct by further observations (experimental development or science). Even the “wise men” of modern times are known as doctors of Philosophy (Ph.D.).

The second part, the scientific aspect, is the more popular part nowadays. This part answers the questions of what and how the research results can and should be used to ensure that the activities will carry on.

For the purpose of this article we will confine ourselves to the scientific aspects of the questions and problems. The scientific and technological (S & T) activities can be divided into five categories namely:

* Basic or academic research
* Strategic research
* Mission oriented research
* Applied research or trouble shooting
* Routine work involving the use of some S & T knowledge

To understand what true research means to us we must know the reasons why we are doing what we are doing. Should there be more than one reason we must know the priorities and goals we set for ourselves. It can be tough to be faced with the problem of having to make money first instead of just producing the scientific results. It will take time to convert new knowledge into money. To be able to convert knowledge into funds is a specialty by itself. People who can produce research results and produce funds at the same time are difficult to find. These technopreneurs do not need us. We need them. This is one of our problems. However people like prospects and tenure in what they do. For a good researchers to be considered an authority in his field he needs continuity. This takes time to build and this often the main passion in their lives. How are they to get the support and funds they require? Are we promoting and providing enough funds to encourage research in our society for our own good?

I will confine Research as the creation of new science and technological (S & T) knowledge which can be used to confirm hypothesis or predictions that can be tested.

What are the main reasons for doing the various types of research?

a. Basic or academic research is the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake without any assumptions as to what the results may lead to. This type of research is usually done in universities whose functions include the generation of knowledge to teach the future generations. Funding such research depends on government policies.

b. Strategic research is the pursuit of new knowledge which might have practical application but without a precise view of the nature of the application or its timescale. This type of research involves big and forward looking organizations and even individuals to prepare themselves for the future. Such research can be risky but also can be very rewarding.

c. Mission orientated Research is knowledge specially developed with specific objectives in mind. These types of research usually involve and are funded by industries that like to convert new knowledge into products, process or technologies for their businesses.

d. Applied research or trouble shooting is a combination of existing knowledge required to solve an immediate problem in hand or to improve methods, processes and products. This type of research may be short lived but the results can be published in many scientific journals. Such research requires real knowledge and good skills to solve. The funding usually comes from the normal budget.

e. Routine work requiring S & T knowledge.

Some do not consider this type of work as research activities. Such activities do not require “specialists” or professionals to perform under the law, but skilled people are still required. Such work can throw up a lot of problems and potential projects that need to be solved.

Singapore has invested heavily in building a knowledge based industry. We have invested a lot in manpower and infrastructure development. The success of our effort in this exercise will depend on how well we can make use of our investment to deliver what we expected it to do. We have started some good research but much more needs to be done. How to assist those interested and ensure that they will not be unnecessarily hindered will continue to be our challenge. It will help to have some knowledge of the types of research we can and should do.

Basic or academic research and Strategic research do not produce results that can generate cash immediately. People find it easier to support Mission oriented and Applied research. We must widen the visions of some people so that more research can be done.

Lee Kum Tatt

Thursday, June 21, 2007

What is research?

What is Research
How is it initiated and managed

This is a hot subject particularly among the students, researchers, public and private people and organizations that have to be involved, find the funds and manage these activities.

There is no accepted definition of what constitutes Research. There are many books and theses written on this subject. The term “Research” has caused a lot of confusion and controversies to students, researchers and people in general. My own idea of what research is, changed with time and experience over the last 55 years. In the process I have made my own definitions of Research to guide me and give me the focus I needed to handle Research as my profession and career. This helped me to compare apples with apples and pears with pears.

What I am going to say on Research is based on my experience as :

* a Ph.D. student
* a Chemist doing routine work and trouble shooting
* Head of Department with responsibilities to provide medical laboratory services to our hospitals.
* Chairman and CEO of SISIR helping our industries grow through provisions of S & T (scientific and technological) and R & D (research and development) services.
* Chairman and CEO of Singapore Science Council to promote R & D activities and S & T manpower development.
* Chairman of private companies where research is required to expand and stay relevant and competitive.
* As an individual working on projects of personal interests.

I have produced a simple chart based on my definition of Research and my classification of the types of research we can do. This has helped me in my work. This chart will be given in the coming articles. With the examples I am going to give it is hoped that some people will find the information useful. Research always starts through a question or problem. How some of the projects were initiated, implemented and managed differ from case to case. These are information many have asked me for many times in my life.

Lee Kum Tatt

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Research & Managing Research - reply


Could you talk about the difference between doing research and managing research ?


The question you raised cannot be answered without defining

a. what research means to you and the objectives of the projects you are involved in.

b. your personal position in the project and how much is your personal involvement.

Are you just a scientifically qualified individual given an assignment, a member of a research team, leader of a research team, head of an organization that needs to do research, head of an institution responsible for promoting and funding research without being personally involved in the nitty gritty of the research activities.

What you have to do depends on where you stand. I have held and experienced most of the positions described above, starting as

1. a research student,

2. a staff doing routine work and trouble shooting,

3 a head of department with its responsibilities to provide services to our hospitals

4. Chairman of SISIR helping Singapore to develop through its industries,

5. Founder Chairman of Singapore Science Council to promote R & D activities and

S & T manpower development.

6. CEO of companies where research is required to expand or stay relevant.

7. As an individual working on projects of personal interest.

Research has given me lots of joy but also not without some pain. I like to encourage people to do research and share with them what can be in store for them. I have tasted some of the “pies in the sky”. They are nice and enjoyable rewards but the ride to get there can be bumpy. Research can give many of us lots of pleasure and joy. However it is not the “koh yeoh” ( Chinese herbal medicinal plaster) that some people try to sell as something that can heal all ills. Some of the passed and the coming articles in my blog are written to encourage more people to do research in spite of the difficulties. This is what we need for Singapore. Take them for whatever they are worth to you.

Lee Kum Tatt

Quantitive Determination - reply


I do not know too much about QA techniques used here but was there any problem with usuing ETDA chelation + UV-vis spectrophotometry of some sorts? Or were the amounts too small even for that ?


The incident I referred too happened in 1954. The technology was not as sophisticated then as it is now with modern instrumentation. The problem consisted of three parts:

a. the separation of Lead and Copper ions from the unholy organic mixtures in wine and the high sugar content in it for analysis.

b. the quantitative determination of these elements is from 0 to 1.5 parts per million in wine..

c. the strong urge to do something to improve the method then in use and face the consequences to make the change.

The first part, the isolation of the elements, gave us the greatest problem. I just used an ion exchange resin Zeocarb 226 to absorb the ions from the organic mess. This was new in those days. It was so easy but nobody thought of it or dared to try it.

The second part was not a problem. There were sufficient methods including the ones you mentioned, even in those old days to easily determine the amounts of Lead & Copper present.

The third part is the important point I tried to make. If you dare not think out of the box or overcome obstacles in your way, you will be stuck.

Again this is another incident where we can use our Mind, which I believe is a force , to do simple things which can lead to bigger things to come.

Lee Kum Tatt

Overcoming the fear factor - reply


From having a fear of death to becoming a forensic chemist. Talk about meeting your fears head on. Respect.


Thank you. Everyone has some fears of his/her own which inhibit them from doing many things they would like to do. These fears include threats to their physical health (getting hurt or sick), financial losses or emotional upsets. It is important that we overcome these fears to become more innovative, creative, entrepreneurial and be ourselves. Every success helps strengthen our mind and give us greater confidence to tackle other fears we have. This is life. It has been mine. More people should share their experiences of how they overcome some of their fears with others. This can help encourage, if not inspire, others to do the same. I will continue to do my small part in this respect in this blog and in my life.

Lee Kum Tatt

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Look for Solutions, Not Scapegoat - Picture

Look for Solutions Not Scapegoats

To Say Sorry Is A Sign Of Strength
And Not Weakness

It is so easy to point fingers at others. It is so difficult for many to say sorry even though they have made obvious mistakes.

Many feel that saying sorry is an admission of guilt. In our present day world, one can be sued for saying sorry too readily. Even children nowadays find it difficult to say the word “sorry” to their parents and siblings for being naughty or fighting among themselves. How did we reach this stage which is changing the culture and basic values of our society?

Some people are good at acquiring authority whilst avoiding responsibilities. These people set bad examples for others to follow. It is so refreshing to meet individuals who can say “sorry” and take responsibilities for what they have done. This has prevented small misunderstandings from blowing up into big ones.

This was how I was brought up. We must be responsible for what we do. I live by his philosophy. Be sincere, then people will act likewise to you. In this way I enjoy the confidence, trust and faith from the people I work with. Because of this I have peace of mind. I made many trusted friends without whom I could not have done many of the things I did. We used our combined energy to find solutions and not waste it in looking for scapegoats. Let us help to stop our society from sliding into the “Kiasu” ( fear of loosing) slope of no return for our society. The world will be such a better place to live in.

I like to share a cartoon which I asked my staff, the late Mr. Tan Huey Peng to make when I was chairman of SISIR in 1969. It hanged on my office wall then and now it is hanging in my home. It reminds me what I must do.

Lee Kum Tatt
16 June 2007

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Overcoming the Fear Factor

Every one of us fears or gets upset by something or other in our life. I fear having anything to do with the dead. I fear to see dead bodies. I avoid going to wakes and funerals or even to touch things belonging to the dead. I lost four loved ones when I was young. Possibly because of that and my mother’s influence I and many of my other siblings were brought up to fear morbidity. Because of this I did not want to take a medical course although my parents would have liked me to. I discovered that besides my siblings there are others who also share the same fear of morbidity as I did.

I decided that I must somehow learn to overcome this fear or it would be a serious handicap for me in my life and work in the modern world. The first test came when I became a toxicologist in the Department of Chemistry. Analyzing for poisons in stomach wash outs was acceptable but to have to extract poisons from human stomachs and livers was something else. It took a lot out of me to overcome this fear. Fortunately I managed.

I had a new chemist to understudy me in toxicology. Like me he feared having to handle human organs. He requested that I allow him time to get used to the job by starting with pig’s stomachs and livers which he bought with his own money. I empathized with him and allowed him to do so. After two weeks he still could not take it and he resigned. He told me that he loved eating pig stomachs and livers. He could not eat anymore pig’s stomachs or livers after the toxicological experience because pigs’ organs smelled so much like the boiled human organs. He was convinced that he could never get over the fear of handling human organs as I did. I felt sorry for him because I was like him at one time. There was nothing much I could do if he did not want to overcome this fear himself.

As for myself I learned that I can somehow use my mind to control the negative thoughts like fear which involved the emotions if I have to. It took a lot of practice for me to acquire this “skill” which stood me in good stead in my life. Fear, which is emotional, can be killing if not properly handled. I tried not to pass this phobia to my children as this will inhibit them from taking certain professions. I succeeded: two of my daughters have been practicing their medical specialties for more than 20 years! We can overcome fear if we want to. If only I can impart this skill and know how to others it can be helpful to many. What it involves is how to control our mind when it needs to be controlled. The question is do we want or dare to overcome our fears?

Lee Kum Tatt
13 June 2007

What Chemistry Can Do For You.

The Singapore National Institute of Chemistry (SNIC) is organizing the First National Chemistry Week from 16-24 June 2007. This Week is organized with the active participation of NUS, Ministry of Education, Singapore Science Centre, East Zone Science & Technology Centre @ VJC, Nanyang Polytechnic. Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore Polytechnic, Tamasek Polytechnic and Republic Polytechnic and is supported by Hyflux.

This National Week is specially organized for those who are interested to know what Chemistry can do for them. Many activities have been arranged throughout the week including visits to places of interests, like the Tiger Beer Brewery. Students can have hands on activities with Chemistry and many other topics at the Science Centre. Forensic & Detective Chemistry, Chemistry in Action and many other such activities are available at other centres.

This inaugural National Chemistry Week aims to raise awareness of the importance of Chemistry as the central science by highlighting the application of Chemistry in our daily lives. It is an outreach program specially organized and designed for the people of Singapore during our school holidays.

Interschool competitions among the students on “Chemistry, Fact or Fantasy” has been organized. Winners of all the competitions organized during the Week will be given prizes at the closing ceremony on 23 June 2007 at 2.00 pm at NUS. I have been invited to be the Guest of Honour on this occasion. See you there.

For more details about the National Chemistry Week please visit Many have worked hard to put this Week together for us. Participate and show our appreciation to the volunteers who have spend much time and effort putting this show together. One good look is worth a thousand words.

Lee Kum Tatt
13 June 2007

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Danger Of Making A Wrong Choice Of Profession.

Many parents and students are attracted by the status and rewards a medical profession brings with it. Few realize the price they have to pay for being a medical doctor.

I have seen many cases of students going cuckoo when they could not take certain aspects of the course. One of the common fears is the fear of morbidity, having to dissect corpses in the first year of the course. Another common fear is the fear of failure in the highly competitive environment. These are real fears which can stress the students very badly. Many students became abnormal and had to give up the course. What a waste and a pity.

The medical practice and a few other professions may be too strenuous and demanding for some people especially the ladies. Our culture and tradition still expect the ladies to look after the children and the home in addition to their numerous other professional duties. Unless this is changed and external help is given from parents and in-laws etc this new trend to get more ladies into certain demanding positions may be too high a price for the girls to pay in terms of their personal and family life. Studying science and doing research for those who have a liking for it can be just as prestigious, rewarding and challenging for ladies to take up. We can expect the Science faculties and polytechnics to have more lady students and graduates in the years to come. The lady scientists with their temperament may turn out to be equal to or even better than Man in this field.

Lee Kum Tatt
12 June 2007.

Why Study Science?

This is a standard question parents and students ask me throughout my life. There are many books written on the importance of Science to our lives. There are many inspiring stories of the lives of great scientists and inventors and the joy and fame they enjoyed brought about by their knowledge and practice of science. This reward is good enough for many to study and get involved with Science. For many others they enjoy the technology that science created without having to learn science. Nevertheless it would be advantageous for them to have some understanding of how science affects their lives and what they do. For example, why are we paying so much for our vitamins and other food supplements? What do they really do for our health?

There are many other great professions like medicine, law, engineering, architecture, accountancy and even politics that are available for students to study. My advice is to choose something that suits the temperament and interests of the children and not just the parents alone. Your children’s life and future depend very much on your choice and theirs. A wrong choice can ruin their future, your dreams and your hard work.

Our local universities, NUS and NTU, and our polytechnics have produced many brochures which tell you what their science courses are all about, what they are doing and how well their researchers and graduates have done. This information is what many are looking for. Some of these teaching institutions have websites of their own with information that you need. This information may be general but useful.

It is interesting to know that just after the war (1947) Raffles College had only 80 students in the entire Department of Science consisting of 1st year to 3rd year diploma students. There were no post graduate or research students. After independence in 1965 Singapore decided to emphasis on manpower development, especially in Science & Technology. Political freedom would not bring us freedom from poverty and disease. It was realized that the difference between the developed and the developing countries were in their levels of Science & Technology. The developed countries took a couple of centuries and more to arrive at where they are now. We want to achieve this and more in a few decades. That was our challenge when the Singapore Science Council was first formed in 1967. It was decided we should emphasis on producing more scientific manpower with knowledge of science and ability to apply this knowledge for Singapore’s development.

In 2008 (next year) Raffles College, which produced our first science graduates, will be celebrating its 80th birthday. The NUS science faculty which is the successor of Raffles College has a student population of 31, 346 in 2004 – 2005 session , consisting of:

Undergraduates 22, 751
Graduate students by research 4,483
Graduate students by course work 4,112.

The NTU and the polytechnics have their own set of figures which when added to the above will far exceed 40,000 students. This number of parents and students can not be wrong in their choice of science. Our science graduates now work in every sector of Singapore’s life; in Commerce and Industries, Government Ministries and Statutory Boards, Professional Practices, Private entrepreneurs, Overseas, community services and politics. The scope is very wide. Parents and students should be interested not only in the type of jobs and pay they can get now. They should also be interested in what the future holds for them. Many organizations run career exhibitions every now and then. The Singapore Professional Centre runs the biggest career exhibition in S.E.Asia in March every year for the last 20 years. Thousands of students can learn directly from the Institutions of higher learning (both local and overseas) and potential employers what they are looking for. These sources provide general information in what Science has to offer. If you want greater details of what a science career has to offer, you have to talk to the practicing scientists who hopefully will share with you their experiences if not to guide you along. A successful profession and career is important and this depends a lot on your own self.

My colleagues and I are proud to have helped built our Science & Technology infrastructure to give us what we have today. It is for the future generation to build on this and make it grow even bigger, faster and better.

Lee Kum Tatt
12 June 2007

Monday, June 11, 2007

Fighitng Boredom And Insult.

When one is bored and insulted at the same time, one can be easily fired up to do a lot of things. I was bored with the work in the Customs Laboratory in the Department of Chemistry after three months’ work there. I tried to improve the method of analysis of traces of lead and copper in wine. The method then in used was a very tedious and messy one. My Chief Chemist then, an expatriate officer, asked me what I was doing. I told him that I was using an ion exchange column to absorb the metal ions before analysis. This was a new but simple technique which was never tried before. The Chief Chemist reacted, as a matter of course, and told me that if the method was so simple as I described the British chemists would have discovered and introduced it for use long ago. His remarks were not meant to hurt me but it somehow did. It made me asked myself “Are the locals really that inferior?” or was it a myth I must break.

The Chief Chemist also told me that under the Department’s code of practice we must use “approved methods of analysis” for our results to be legally accepted. We could not change the methods of analysis as we like. The Chief Chemist’s comments almost killed my project on its track.

The Chief Chemist put his points very nicely to me but I felt greatly insulted by his remarks that the British chemists would have introduced this method if it was such an easy one. Fortunately I had worked on the procedure for 3 weeks already and had obtained some positive results. Politely I told him that I would make it work. This was my response, my commitment and my challenge. He had no choice but to let me continue. I had to continue and deliver or else. I succeeded to make the new method work. That saved me my job and gave me a new standing in the eyes of the Chief Chemist.

Then came the second point of what constituted an “officially approved method of analysis.?” I asked the Chief Chemist how methods of analysis were approved and who was the authority who approved them. It turned out that our own Department of Chemistry was the authority advising the government on this issue. The authority on this matter consisted of the Chief Chemist and his professional chemists. If any of the professional chemists was not happy with a method he had the right to make changes professionally in consultation and agreement with the Department. The removal of the general belief that the existing methods used could not be changed allowed me to change a number of methods used in the Department after that. The Chief Chemist – Dr. D. A. Frye was a perfect English gentleman. He was prepared to acknowledge and accept what was right. This may be a small incident but the effect on the Department and its staff was great. I myself had a freer hand to do what was professionally necessary after that. It was a very satisfying experience that we can do a good job. Do not wait for someone to push you into the corner before you react. It is within you to do this by yourself. . I have Dr. Frye to thank for initiating this change in me.

Lee Kum Tatt
6 June 2007

Research During The Colonial Days.

There was little or no research done during the colonial days both in the University and in the government ministries in Singapore. There were also no special funds set aside for research. People were either kept busy teaching in the colleges, the U or bogged down with routine work in the Government departments. There was no private sector to talk about and research then was non existent. This was the scenario our early science graduates faced after the war. Some of these situations still exist.

Local graduates with their Raffles College diplomas were not on equal standing compared to the British expatriates with their university degrees and professional qualifications. At best the few science graduates became science teachers in the schools and in government departments they worked as glorified laboratory technicians and not as professionals. The superiority and inferiority complexes that existed between the expatriates and the local graduates inhibited progress. The rules were “never argue with the boss”. Rule No. 1 was “the boss was always right”. Rule No. 2 was “if you think otherwise refer to Rule 1”. It was an absolute top down management, no questions and no arguments. People preferred to keep quiet, complain silently and let things go on. This killed the initiatives of many people. Let us ensure that this situation will never ever happen in Singapore again.

It required the Malayanisation policy of the Government in 1950’s in Malaya and Singapore to have this system changed. The locals were to take over the administration from the expatriates within a specified period of time. It is not difficult to imagine how the expatriates feel and react. It was under these conditions that many of us joined the Government service in 1950’s. I was a timid person when I was young. The environment then existing changed me. I had to fight for what I considered was right and just, not only for myself but for others too. We are not inferior beings as some people want us to feel. Our future was in our own hands. With this new found self confidence and challenges many of us found a lot of courage to do many things which we would not have done otherwise. We dared to be pioneers and venture into the unknown. It is wonderful to know that our pains can give hope to others. To be able to right the wrongs was good enough for many of us to do many of the things we did during our time. Let us not lose this spirit that we possess. When people are pushed to the corner they will fight as some of us did. We have today because of this “never say die” spirit and attitude.

Lee Kum Tatt
6th June 2007.

My passion for research

Research is a human activity. It has its rewards and its costs. To be a good researcher one must love what one wants to do, enjoy the pleasure and bear the disappointments that come with it. We do research to acquire new knowledge. This was what professors do if they are to be great teachers. Research is a respectable and prestigious occupation. For most people research is part of continuous education to keep them relevant in their fields. There is a general belief that a person can be transformed from “rags to riches” through education. Unfortunately few ever became wealthy millionaires through research although many live comfortable and fulfilled lives doing what they like to do.

I wanted to do research so badly that I gave up many good paying jobs just to do research for a Ph. D. on a Shell Research Fellowship in 1952. My Ph. D. work gave me the confidence that I can produce solutions on my own. That was the most important thing my Ph. D. training taught me. I learned to think for myself. I am pleased to note that more and more students are doing research now. Unlike the undergraduate courses they have to do more thinking on their own for their post graduate degrees. We need more of these people to build our knowledge based society. We need more people with passion to do good research.

For 16 years after I graduated from the university I chose to work in the laboratories instead of at the desks. Even after I joined the Board rooms I kept my interests in research throughout my entire professional life and career of more than fifty years. I had my good and not so good days. On the whole I enjoyed finding new solutions to old problems and opening up new frontiers through innovation and development. I was able to do this through the positions I held and the institutions I created. To do this I needed something to motivate and drive me. I had both positive and negative factors that affected my life. The positive factors are the pleasures and satisfaction I derived from finding solutions, providing education and jobs, touching and saving lives of my fellow men. The unexpected recognition and acceptance from my peers, the Government and my community for my work is very encouraging and rewarding. The negative factors like fighting for equality and justice, defending my reputation and honour or fighting boredom, were just as challenging as the positive ones. Here are some examples that made me do some of the things I did. These are some of the situations which researchers have to go through. I hope you can learn something from my experiences. Be passionate and committed to do what you have to do and never give up pursuing what you believe in.

Lee Kum Tatt
5 June 2007