Mottos can help define schools' identities

That the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are placed in the 12th and 13th spots, respectively, in the latest Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) rankings ("NUS, NTU in top 13 of world ranking"; Sept 15) is laudable, although these rankings are not without their limitations ("University ranking indicators inadequate"; June 15).

Beyond rankings, it is pertinent to ask what is the deeper identity of each of our universities and how these are aligned towards serving Singapore, and mankind in general ("Engineering skills needed in next phase of growth"; last Saturday).

With both schools being nearly on a par in the latest QS rankings, what attributes distinguish the graduates of one university from the other?

One embodiment of such an identity may be found in the schools' mottos. As many can attest, a meaningful motto is one of the things that students will long remember. Neither NUS nor NTU seems to have a motto, although their leaderships have variously enunciated certain visions. If they do have mottos, they don't seem to be widely articulated or known.

Unlike a vision statement, a motto is a succinct reminder of the nobler things in life, encapsulating the ideals of an individual, family or institution. And unlike the criteria used by ranking agencies, which may be revised at will - as was indeed the case for this year's QS survey - the motto is inked in a more permanent fashion, and not trivially altered.

Thus, whether it is about seeking "Truth" (Veritas - Harvard University's motto), fully engaging our "Mind and Hand" (Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Mens et Manus), having a questioning spirit (Die Luft der Freiheit weht - Stanford University) or the desire to leave a legacy that will be esteemed by future generations (Postera crescam laude - University of Melbourne), the DNA of each university finds expression both in the words of its motto and hopefully, in the character and contributions of its leadership, faculty and graduates.

Daniel Ng Peng Keat (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2015, with the headline 'Mottos can help define schools' identities'. Print Edition | Subscribe