In Pursuit of Possibilities – Five Years of Perspectives with Dr Kuan Yee Han

This interview series seeks to discover five years of perspectives – from students and fellows in Tembusu College, whether they have just joined the college, or have been with it since its inception.  This week, Dr Kuan Yee Han shares with us his thoughts about being with the college since its inception, the experiences he has had, as well as how Tembusu is family to him. 


Dr Kuan is the Director of Student Affairs at Tembusu College and the Residential Fellow of Gaja House. He received his B.Eng (Hons) in Mechanical Engineering, and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from NUS. In his undergraduate days, he was active in the NUS Students’ Union and elected as the President of the Union.

You’ve been with Tembusu since the pilot programme, what were your expectations coming into Tembusu? How was it like in the beginning?

When I first started off, coming into Tembusu, there were not many expectations in a way, because it was based on a new Residential College concept, so there were a lot of things that we were not sure of. I think the expectations would be that we would try to do what we can to make sure things function. We came in not knowing anything, not knowing how things would turn out. We tried to learn from the halls and the University Scholars Programme (USP), and met with them to learn about their programmes. We didn’t even have a building back then, we stayed in Prince George Park Residences (PGP) for the first year. The most we had was the artist’s impression of our future building. There were only 51 students in the pilot programme, and most of them were recruited from existing students in PGP. For the first year, we did a lot of bonding activities, and tried to get the students to think about what they really wanted the college to be. We got them to think about the idea of a college logo, and envision what were the things they wanted to be inside, and that was how the tree and the globe came about. These were the things that we got them to figure out; what embodies the spirit of the college.

What were some of the challenges faced when the college was in its infancy?

In a way, I think we were unsure of what we would encounter. Even when we moved into the building in July 2011, we didn’t know what were the facilities we could use. That was the main difficulty – the unknowns. At the same time, it was also an opportunity, given the fact that there were no expectations to what we could do, and nothing we could rely on in a way, so students were forced to come up with things that would work. For example, in the first year we came up with the College Students’ Committee (CSC), the different interest groups, that was something that I thought was quite exciting, because it was really like how we term the college a “Home of Possibilities”, and that was quite an apt term, as we tried to do every single thing. The first year, knowing that the college has no history, the students set aside their time to get things going, that was a challenge that turned into an opportunity for us.

Moving on to your experience in these five years in Tembusu, how would you rate it?

Well, while I was a Graduate Fellow (GF) here, I was also a Ph.D student in the Faculty of Engineering, and I must say I spent more time doing Tembusu stuff than my research (laughs). But I really enjoyed these experiences with the students, and I really wanted to see the students grow. For a few of us, like Prof Clancey, Ms Sara Kuek and I, we have been with the College from Day One, so we got to see how the college has grown in a way. The first year was really a lot of setting up the systems and laying the foundation. Coming into the building, the first semester was a bit of fighting fire, since there were a lot of teething problems in the building, like flooding or aircon leakages. Within a month of moving in, Prof Clancey’s apartment was flooded! That was something that was shocking, as we had to figure out what to do. But fixing all these problems, as a GF, I found it… exciting? I was taking the lead trying to be the main coordinator for the residential team, trying to get everybody to figure out a way to interact and engage with the students, and I had fun, I had a great time.

You mentioned about setting the foundations, having been here from the start, how do you think Tembusu is like now, five years later? What has it grown into?

I think we are still finding a sense of identity, but slowly it is taking shape. There are a lot of things that we are still trying and experimenting, it is a learning environment, we are not exactly sure of what things might work or might not work. It can be a cycle also, because it depends on what type of students we are getting. The students are the ones that set the tone and rhythm of how the college will go, there is only so much the Fellows can do. Looking at what the students have now, there are examples of what has been done before, so it is easier as we know what worked and what did not. For example, for the Orientation experience in Tembusu, we are trying to make it different from those by halls and faculties, and some students like it, some do not. But I think what we are doing is trying to define what it means to be a student in this college. We hope that through this experience, students won’t find the college a foreign place. In the first year, it was all about having fun. Now, we are trying to instill a sense of identity and a sense of community to the students, and bridging the gap between the fellows and students. That is what we are trying to do. In terms of some of the activities that students do, it is also taking shape. A few of the trademark events that students are doing, like Arts Week, performances in the dining hall, Tembusu House Games… students are trying to do new things and continue things that have been done before.

You are the first Graduate Fellow to transition to being a Residential Fellow, how has it been like?

I am quite grateful to how things turned out for me, like the network of people that I got to know over the years. When I graduated and finished my Ph.D, I spoke to Prof Clancey about whether there was an opening in the college, as I thought I wanted to continue with my time in Tembusu, to see the ‘baby’ growing, as Tembusu was still at her infancy stage, and I wanted to see it continue growing. Transition-wise, it is still a learning phase for me. I am still trying to figure out how to manage things in some ways, as a GF, I was working in a team, looking up to a Residential Fellow (RF), waiting for directions, whereas now, I am the RF, so there are people that are looking to me for directions as to how things should be done. This is something that I am still learning, as I have never been in such a position before, taking the lead in a lot of things. I am learning the ropes from Kelvin (Dr. Kelvin Pang), he is really the one I will count on, and the one that I look towards for inspirations. It is not easy, but I really enjoy the learning process. negotiation Dr. Kuan and Dr. Pang with students of the Senior Seminar Negotiating in a Complex World.

Is that the main challenge being a Residential Fellow, having to lead a team and give instructions?

Not so much giving instructions, but more of empowering students. That has always been my way of doing things, having been from my days in the NUS Students’ Union (NUSSU). I want students to learn through experiences, because that is how they grow. My role would be more of trying to be there to guide the students, based on my experience, and doing my best to support them. If there are students who need instructions, only then will I come in with my residential team. But most of the time, I want students to be the ones empowered to do things. That is how I learnt a lot in NUSSU, that is how I want students to learn as well.

I’ll ask this question since you’re the Director of Student Affairs: In the recent CSC elections, there were less applications than there were slots, what do you think of this?

I think it boils down to what people feel the CSC is. There was a comic that Treehouse drew about the CSC application, that it was a huge trap ready to catch someone and bog them down. I think that captured the sentiments that students feel in a way, because it is a huge responsibility being in the CSC, and it is always a thankless job. You can spend a lot of time doing things, and if you do well, people think you are supposed to do it because it is your job. If you do not do well, people will complain and ask, hey, why did you not do a good job, you ran for office, it is your role in some way. To me, I was slightly disappointed that not many people applied for CSC, and I think maybe it is because for the Year 1s, coming into the College is an exploratory stage… so they want to try out different things, and that is fine, because I do not want students feeling ‘forced’ to apply for the CSC, I want them to join because they have a genuine motivation to make a difference in somebody’s life through the things that they do. That was my experience in NUSSU as well. Being President of NUSSU was a thankless job, because people do not see what happens behind the scenes, as things we want to push forward take a long time to get done. But I think if you can make a difference in somebody’s life, that can be something the CSC can be prepared to focus on. Some students might feel powerless to do things, since they only have one year in office. So the question would be what can they do to implement that can impact the lives of students in the college?

Do you think that the CSC needs to put themselves more out there, and inform the students more about themselves, so people will feel that they can actually do something? 

I think even if they put themselves out there, maybe there is a need to show something, but not to the extent where they are boasting, more of trying to put things in a way to recognise what they do. Perhaps even on the college side, we can do more to recognise what the CSC has done in some ways. I think this is something that not many people are aware of, what they can do, or what they have done. Putting themselves out… maybe some of them need to make themselves more known to others, like for example the recent elections, not many people know who got elected, because they have not announced it yet. I know they plan to announce it during the Annual General Meeting, but it may be a little too late for students. It is up to them to talk to students more, and I think they are doing that, talking to different houses, trying to understand the concerns that students have, which is a good start. with4thcsc Members of the 5th CSC posing for a photo with Dr. Kuan at the Inaugural Dinner earlier this semester.

What do you see Tembusu becoming in the next five years, or even the next ten years?

Exactly how it will be, it depends on the students that we recruit, and how the seniors pass down some of the values that the college embodies. But for the college as a whole, maybe it will be a name that people are more familiar with. No longer will it be ‘what is Tembusu’, it will be something that people know about. I think it is more about branding, at least people know what a residential college is, more than now. In terms of culture, I hope that what the students have done will continue, and I think back to the point about the spirit of how we try to term this place the ‘Home of Possibilities’, it is more my wish about how Tembusu will continue to have the spirit and values that maybe it will be a place for students to feel comfortable about themselves and explore things, and hopefully here will be the place where they find what they want to do with their career or lives in some ways, a discovery stage of sorts for those who are unsure. Five years from now, I hope to see these come up stronger in some ways, where students will explore the things that they like.

Tembusu is ______?

Home. I have been here for so long, it’s part of me. I think that is one of the reasons why I left A*Star. Actually I don’t know whether to say ‘Home’ or ‘Family’! I still remember at the end of my Ph.D, that day, I was supposed to teach a class from 9-12, and then do my thesis defense from 2-4, and an A*Star meeting from 4.30 to late. After my thesis defense, Kelvin was going to give me a lift to A*Star, but said he needed to pick something up at the College first. When he stopped at the drop-off point, he pointed to the MPH and said: “Hey! What are the staff doing at the MPH?” I also wanted to find out what they were doing, so I went in, and the rest of the fellows were all there, to toast to the completion of my Ph.D. I was literally speechless! I didn’t know what to say, and I teared, because I was really quite touched. It was this sense of community and family, in a way, that makes you feel like you’re part of this whole thing. I also hope students see me more as a friend, and not so much as a fellow in some ways, so I do try to blend in, in some ways.

Do you have anything else you would like to say to students of Tembusu?

There is something I always tell students, whether in Tembusu or elsewhere; coming to NUS, students are here for a good university degree. That is their primary aim, and students should always work towards a university degree that they are proud of. But if they can afford to spend some time to do other things, I hope that they will explore all the possibilities that they can do in the college or NUS. This is a time to learn and try out different things, and even if you fail, there is a safe haven here in some ways to shield you. I do want students to make full use of their time, so they can have a good Tembusu and NUS experience. There was a quote that I used in the past when I gave a speech to NUSSU, by Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

This interview was conducted by Isaac Neo, with photography by Calvin Chan. Other images from Dr Kuan Yee Han’s personal collection.