S'pore tech company Sea donates $50 million to NUS for computing research and education

(From left) Sea founder and group CEO Forrest Li, Education Minister Lawrence Wong and NUS president Tan Eng Chye at the signing ceremony on March 29, 2021.
(From left) Sea founder and group CEO Forrest Li, Education Minister Lawrence Wong and NUS president Tan Eng Chye at the signing ceremony on March 29, 2021.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Home-grown tech company Sea, which owns e-commerce platform Shopee and game developer Garena, has donated $50 million to the National University of Singapore (NUS) for research and education in the field of computing.

This is the largest corporate gift the university has received to date.

The funds will go to NUS' School of Computing, which has about 4,200 undergraduates, and 1,020 PhD and master's students.

NUS president Tan Eng Chye said on Monday (March 29) at a signing ceremony that the donation will support the university's work in research and education in critical, fast-growing areas such as artificial intelligence and data science.

It will also be used for the recruitment and development of academic and research talent through scholarships for undergraduate and postgraduate students, research fellowships, visiting professorships and professional development.

Other initiatives the gift will support include seed grants for enterprising projects and outreach programmes, said Professor Tan.

Mr Forrest Li, founder and group chief executive of Sea, said the contribution also marks the deepening of a long-term partnership between Sea and NUS.

"Academia and industry make powerful partners. Together, we can turn deep knowledge and experimental research into practical and scalable solutions that can uplift entire societies.

"This gift will allow us to accelerate the impact that academic research can have on real world challenges and create high value jobs in emerging fields," said Mr Li, who will join the NUS board of trustees on April 1.

At Monday's event held on NUS' Kent Ridge campus, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said that Sea's contribution will complement the Government's efforts and investments in the area of technology.

The gift from Sea is important not just for economic reasons, he said.

"(The) crisis has prompted all of us to reflect deeper on what's really important to us, and the kind of society we want Singapore to be," he said. "We want a fairer and more equal society, a greener and more sustainable nation, and an inclusive and more united Singapore. These objectives are achieved not just through government policies."

The private sector must also be involved, said Mr Wong, and businesses must do their part to be good corporate citizens and ensure that Singapore's society and economy grow in a sustainable manner.

Education is one key way of preparing Singaporeans for the new world, he added, as the pace of technological change continues to accelerate amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We're fundamentally rethinking existing structures and methods to better meet today's and tomorrow's demands... We're doing more to equip our students with a broader range of skills and core competencies," said Mr Wong.

"At the same time, we're continuing to ensure that we build up the interest and capabilities of our students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The good news is that more and more students are showing interest in coding and programming."

"So we will expand our intake for information and communications technology at the tertiary level, including for degree and post-graduate programmes, to meet the aspirations of our people, and also the growing needs of industry," Mr Wong added.

Mr Li said that as one of the largest employers of local university graduates, Sea has "directly benefited from the high quality of talent produced" by the institutions.

The group has close to 900 NUS alumni, both in Singapore and in its offices abroad. Among them are Sea co-founder David Chen and Shopee chief executive Chris Feng.

Speaking at the event, Mr Li said: "This gift is our way of giving back to NUS and the wider community, in thanks for all the support we received on our own journey, starting out as a small start-up just 12 years ago.

"Singapore helped open doors for us from the very start. When we were ready to scale, it was the access we had to talent, capital and infrastructure here in Singapore that allowed us to grow from local to regional, and then from regional to global.

"So now we hope to pay it forward, by supporting the education of more bright young people, and the next wave of innovation in exciting new deep tech areas," he said.

Sea started in 2009 in a small shophouse office in Maxwell Road as a game publisher called Garena, but has since transformed into a regional heavyweight with more than 3,000 employees in Singapore.

Its e-commerce platform Shopee was set up in 2015 and its digital financial services arm SeaMoney was established in 2014.

Prof Tan said that Sea has been a strong supporter of NUS Computing over the years - it has served on the school's industry advisory committee since 2017, provides its students with internships and actively recruits its graduates.

In his speech, Mr Wong said: "Sometimes we worry that as artificial intelligence becomes more developed, robots and machines will take over the role of humans. But the smarter a machine becomes at calculating data and providing answers, the more it forces us to think about what is uniquely human about us, beyond our ability to calculate and reason.

"What's more important is that along the way, we learn to cherish the things in us that are most human - qualities like compassion and generosity, duty and honour, and our ability to transcend our own needs, and to care and look out for one another."

Thanking Sea for its contribution, Mr Wong said: "These are the human qualities exemplified by this gift from Sea today. We're glad that you are taking the lead and showing us how companies in Singapore can do well and do good at the same time."