Interview with Professor Lim Sun Sun, Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at SUTD and Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore

1. Share with us the activities you took part in NUS while studying history and political science.

I was a resident at Raffles Hall and was extremely active in hostel life.

I was involved in the hall orientation committee, road race, and the hostel year book. I was in the marketing team for the annual hall concert and the annual rag and flag. Back then, the rag and flag was super competitive between the various halls, so we were really driven to produce the best float and the best performance and costumes.

I also had the privilege to do an internship with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) offered by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). We were rotated to get as much exposure as possible and I recall that my school mates and I spent the most time in the International Organisations’ Directorate. We had to conduct research on issues pertaining to international organisations that Singapore plays a key role in, which aligned very much with our training in political science in the areas on multilateral organisations, regional organisations and international relations as forged and facilitated by these kinds of transnational entities. We were also exposed to overseas mission work through a visit to the Kuala Lumpur High Commission.

2. What was your greatest takeaway from NUS?

My greatest takeaway was the ability to recognise my strengths and to have the confidence to project them, while also recognising where I needed to put in more effort to learn and grow. One of the other big takeaways was the numerous opportunities to interact with peers to learn to work collaboratively as a team, to learn how, as a leader, you have to manage your team’s expectations while also being a good team player.

3. What prompted you to pursue further studies in Media and Communication at the London School of Economics (LSE) and a PhD in Communication at LSE? What drives your passion for communication and new media?

At that time, the internet was exploding and emerging on the scene. In the years of 1996 and 1997, it was the early days of the dot com boom. I realised that media and communications would be more significant in our everyday lives than ever. I felt that it would be interesting to study and have greater exposure to the analytical frameworks that help us understand how media and communications was going to shape our lives.

My ambition was to be a journalist. Growing up, I was a news junkie. I read all kinds of newspapers and news magazines and was a keen follower of political news. So, it was honestly not much of a stretch when I transitioned from political science to media.

While I was doing my masters, I had the opportunity to do some research assignments on various topics, including the broadcasting regulations in different countries and policies surrounding media access across the full spectrum of the population. I was also exposed to ideas such as the social psychology of technology, diffusion of innovations, resistance to technology and public understanding of science. I saw all these ideas as highly germane to the kinds of trends that were emerging around the world. Because of the dot com boom, I undertook a dissertation project on e-commerce and online behaviour of consumers and became quite fascinated with the whole business of how people engage with technology generally. At that time, my husband was pursuing his doctoral studies and as he was already in academia, I saw that academic research was really meaningful and rewarding and I could see myself doing it for many years.

4. What are your hobbies?

I enjoy reading, running and baking. I enjoy simplifying cooking, and I always try to find the most efficient way to cook something—it’s like a fun challenge for myself. And it emerged out of the fact that I have two children, no helper, and I work full time.

5. Growing up, did you have a role model you looked up to?

There were no specific ones but there would have been a range of them. Along the way, my siblings, my mom, my dad, teachers, bosses, superiors at work became my role models at different points in my life. I have had the privilege of growing up in the presence of and working with many people who inspired me for various reasons.

6. What is one quote you live by?

“Never be afraid to reinvent yourself”.

7. What is the greatest challenge you faced while undertaking extensive research?

I think for a lot of research, there is a scholarly dimension where you want to be original and produce unique work. But there is also the multi-faceted challenge with research, like wanting to bring something fresh to the table and ensuring that you’re doing justice to the research topics at hand.

In the kind of research that I do, it’s very much about articulating the experiences of particular groups of people. You want to reflect their perspectives in an accurate yet respectful way. The other challenge is the whole business of co-ordination. As much as research is an academic undertaking, it is also a logistical challenge, as you have to conduct your academic research at the right juncture, under the best conditions for you to derive the most valid findings.

For example, in one of my studies, I had faced many difficulties in trying to study juvenile offenders and delinquents as getting access to these respondents was often complicated. Their lives were unpredictable, and their family situations were precarious. I couldn’t schedule things in a rigid way like with my other research undertakings but had to be constantly prepared for uncertainties. Yet, the experiences of these youth was very valuable to understand youth on the margins, how they were using media and the kind of role media played in their lives.

8. What is one thing you would tell your past self and your future self?

Past self: In the broader scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. With the benefit of perspective and on hindsight, I realised I shouldn’t have lost sleep over many trifling issues that I thought were monumental at the time.

Future self: The possibilities are endless, to constantly keep an open mind, and not be closed to ideas. Every situation presents opportunities.

9. What do you hope to achieve with your new appointment as a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP)? What changes do you want to effect?

In the era of online misinformation, it is important that our public space for discussion of topics on the national agenda include a balanced airing of perspectives. I hope to bring my academic insights to bear on issues of national import so that the public can be more well-informed. I have various causes that I am passionate about including ethics and inclusivity in technology, digital disruptions, media literacy, public understanding of science and new imperatives in education. I hope to use my NMP opportunity to champion them as best I can.

10. What advice do you have for young undergraduates who are still looking for their identity, meaning, purpose, calling, passion in life?

My advice would be to keep an open mind to ideas, to people, and to situations. Make the most of your university days to understand more about the world, yourself and your place within it.

11. What are some of the future trends you foresee in the area of education and academia?

I think universities will make more concerted moves towards interdisciplinary education and research, although not all will succeed given the traditional structures that established institutions must contend with and seek to dismantle. However, it is increasingly clear that the wicked problems of the world including climate change, growing income disparities, extremism and online disinformation cannot be resolved through the efforts or lenses of any single discipline. Education and research must therefore strive towards meaningful interdisciplinary collaborations in the pursuit of sustainable solutions.


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