Prof Andersson: A president to remember

By Xu Qi Yang

PHOTO: NTU

For NTU President Bertil Andersson, keeping an open mind is a big part of his everyday life. Even when it comes to the simple things, like determining the route that he wants to jog everyday, he is open to possibilities.

“When I wake up in the morning then I decide — where should I run today?” said the 69-year-old, of his jogs on campus in the mornings and evenings.

There is no doubt that Prof Andersson’s open-minded approach towards life is also evident in his career.

The world-renowned plant biochemist from Sweden left his position as chief executive of the European Science Foundation to join NTU as provost in 2007. He was appointed President of NTU in 2011, and remained at the helm of the University for seven years.

“I never thought I’d be a scientist, I never thought I’d live in Singapore. I felt sometimes that I was not in command of life; life was in command of me,” said Prof Andersson.

“I have been given opportunities, and I have taken them,” he added.

With only a month left until Prof Andersson steps down from his position, the retiring president shared his experiences in NTU with the Nanyang Chronicle.

One of his proudest achievements was setting up the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in 2013, a process that took six years.

“I worked a lot to create a medical school (in NTU), to create more doctors. That was quite hard work; we had to convince the government it could be done, we had to convince them that NTU (could) do it,” said Prof Andersson.

“This is certainly one of the times when I felt we made it, and this was something important for Singapore and NTU,” he said. He added that he will return to NTU next July to attend the graduation of the pioneer batch of medical students.

To Prof Andersson, his role as president of NTU was “more than just a job”.

Living and working in Singapore has been a fulfilling experience for him.

Interacting with Singaporeans and learning about the different cultures here are experiences he would never have gained if he had stayed in Europe, he said.  

“I feel that I’m a richer person,” he added. “I’ve learnt to work with people from different backgrounds and cultures, and tried to understand other people and other perceptions.”

But his move to Singapore was not without challenges. Prof Andersson’s biggest struggle is having to be apart from his two daughters, who are currently residing in London and Stockholm respectively with their families.

“To be away from my children and grandchildren has been the most difficult thing,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve counted weeks till I would be able to see them.”

Adjusting to life in Singapore was also an initial challenge but Prof Andersson believes he has managed to adapt well.

“That was one important challenge which I obviously managed as I haven’t been fired yet,” he laughed.

Despite his busy schedule, Prof Andersson’s time in NTU has not been all work and no play. He counts Deepavali as one of his favourite events on campus and joins in on the celebrations every year.

“It has a good intensity. It’s colourful, (has) lots of dancing, singing and is quite noisy. But I like that,” he said.

Once, he even surprised students by dancing with his wife during a Deepavali event in NTU.

“There were a couple of girls who said ‘Oh, the president can dance!’ like I was some old fossil,” he said with a chuckle.

Prof Andersson is also a self-professed “super fan” of the local rock music scene. He is a loyal supporter of NTU’s rock bands, and said he often tells Singapore’s ministers to give local rock bands a chance to “commercialise and explore and be famous”.

“NTU bands should all be famous. That’s my vision,” he said.

Prof Andersson added that he will miss the school’s can-do attitude.

“We have been doing a lot of things, a lot of changes to research and education. We have progressed,” he said. “We’ve come so far in high rankings, and we have done a lot of investments in good professors, facilities (and) dorms.”

Surprisingly, he will also miss the weather here.

“People think I’m crazy, but I love it. It’s so warm and nice here,” he said. “Particularly in the autumn and winter, I’m so glad I don’t have to be in Sweden when it’s so cold and dark.”

After he retires and returns to Sweden for the summer, Prof Andersson intends to remain active in the academic sphere.

“Being busy is my philosophy,” he said, adding that he plans to read more novels and biographies, and travel around the world as an advisor for universities and academic organisations.

“It’s not that I’m going to sit here and drink coffee,” he added with a laugh.

As his term draws to a close, Prof Andersson hopes students can continue to work hard, be determined and adopt a spirit of spontaneity as he has.

He said: “Don’t over-plan your life. Take advantage of the opportunities that come, even if they are unexpected.”