It is probably not known to many that the teaching of physics at university level in Singapore began before Raffles College was established. Physics was a compulsory subject for the medical students in King Edward VII College of Medicine and it was taught by the Government Chemist and other offices of the Government Medical Service. In 1927, Dr E Madgwick was appointed Reader in Physics at King Edward VII College and later Professor of Physics at Raffles College.
The first science students of Raffles College were enrolled in 1928, and in 1929 the Manasseh Meyer Science Building at Bukit Timah campus was opened, half of it being made available to the Department of Physics. Professor Madgwick ran a one-man show for about three years until 1931 when Mr C G Webb joined the department as Demonstrator in Physics. In August 1935, Professor Madgwick resigned and the work of the department was carried on by Mr Webb with the assistance of two demonstrators. Dr N S Alexander from New Zealand arrived in Singapore in late 1936 to occupy the Chair in Physics. Together with Mr Webb and Mr Hon Yung Sen, a local graduate who was appointed as Demonstrator in Physics in 1937, they were the only teaching staff of the Department of Physics until the Japanese invasion in 1941..
In those days, the department provided a three-year course for the college diploma, covering mechanics, heat, light, sound, electricity and magnetism. The courses given in each year consisted of lectures and a series of laboratory experiments. In addition, there was a course for medical and dental students, which was similar to but simpler than the first-year course for the science students. The number of medical and dental students taking physics was usually much larger than that of science students. In the academic year 1935/36, for example, 44 medical and dental students read physics while only 11 science students took first-year physics, five took second-year physics and two took final-year physics.
The physics laboratories, almost empty and without services, were reopened in October 1946. At that time Professor Alexander was away from Singapore and Mr Webb took charge of the restoration of the laboratories and attempted to secure delivery of books and apparatus from the UK. After a year of improvisation, the Department of Physics was back in working order, though on a minimal basis.
Professor Alexander returned in December 1947, but Mr Webb went on leave in early 1948. Mr Hon was away on study leave in the UK. The department was short of staff and this slowed down to a considerable extent the work of rehabilitation, of which a good deal remained to be done at that time. During that year a number of third-year students gave valuable assistance as part-time demonstrators in the practical classes for first-year medical and dental students.
In the seven-year span between 1949 and 1956 after the University of Malaya was formed from the amalgamation of Raffles College and King Edward VII College of Medicine, as many as 12 teaching staff were recruited. However, all except two of them stayed for only one or two terms of contract. During this period, both Professor Alexander and Mr Webb had resigned, the former in 1951 and the latter in 1956. Mr Hon Yung Sen became the Acting Head. He took charge of the department for three years until 1959 when Dr K M Gatha arrived to assume the headship.
Since the end of the war up to 1956, the Department of Physics occupied a section of the Manasseh Meyer Block and a temporary hut built by the Japanese during the war. Space was very limited and this placed a constraint on student intake. The problem was not solved until late 1957 when a new physics building was completed. The total number of students attending physics courses each year fluctuated around 85 throughout these years. More than half of these students were medical, dental and engineering students. The honours course was introduced in 1949. The department produced about 15 to 20 pass-degree physics graduates and 2 to 5 honours-degree graduates each year. Many new physics subjects were introduced, but mainly for the honours students. Among them were quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, X-ray crystallography, relativity, electrodynamics and ionosphere physics.
In 1960, the governments of the then Federation of Malaya and Singapore indicated their desire to change the status of the divisions into that of a national university. Legislation was passed in 1961 establishing the former Kuala Lumpur division as the University of Malaya while the Singapore division was renamed the University of Singapore on 1 January 1962.
From 1959 to the mid-sixties, the teaching staff number in the Department of Physics increased slowly from 7 to 10. It further went up to 16 in 1973 as many returned scholars joined the department. This number remained about the same for the rest of the decade. Professor Gatha passed away in 1967 and Mr Hon again acted as head of the department until 1969 when Professor A Rajaratnam was appointed as the new head.
The number of pass-degree physics graduates increased steadily from 20 in 1959 to a peak of 79 in 1967. After this peak, it dropped to a low of 22 in 1973 and varied between 30 and 40 for the next few years. The number of honours-degree graduates also followed the same trend, rising from 3 in 1959 to 31 in 1968 and then declined to 13 in 1974. The drop in the physics student enrolment after 1968 was due to the establishment of the Engineering Faculty and the fact that very few students from Malaysia gained entry to the university.
The physics course content and structure had changed a great deal in these twenty years. In 1964, an additional course was introduced for third-year students and henceforth, there were two physics courses—Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics. Students intending to read honours in physics had to take both courses in their third year. In 1973, the courses were revised and re-structured and the syllabi expanded in all years. Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics were renamed Physics and Applied Physics respectively. The revision of the physics courses was done to provide students with training relevant to the local industries. Subjects such as workshop technology, linear programming, computer programming, applied electronics and materials science were included in the Applied Physics course.
In 1966, the extension to the physics building in the Bukit Timah campus was completed. The building was formally declared open by the late former Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew on 1 July 1966.
In the area of research, the activities were generally low in the sixties and seventies. Emphasis was placed on teaching and producing graduates who were in demand by the local industries.
The number of physics academic staff members increased from 15 to 23 with the formation of the Joint Campus and the subsequent merger of the University of Singapore and Nanyang University in 1980 to form the National University of Singapore. Thereafter, it further rose to 29 before the end of 1983. In 1982, Professor Lim Yung Kuo was appointed to head the department. His term of office lasted six years until he retired on 31 October 1988.
Together with the other departments of the Science Faculty, the Department of Physics moved to the Kent Ridge campus in June 1981 before the buildings were fully completed. The laboratories became operational in August 1981 and all equipment purchased under the IBRD loan were installed within the next few months.
The physics student number doubled immediately after the merger but declined slightly in the next few years. The main reason for this was that the Department of Information Systems and Computer Science had increased their student intake during this time. Over the past few years, the Department of Physics had about 250 first-year students, 120 second-year students, 90 third-year students, 30 honours students and 20 higher degree students. Starting from 1988, the department took over the running of the Computer Programming and Applications course from the Department of Information Systems and Computer Science. The number of students taking this course was approaching 700 that year.
A new subject called General Physics was introduced in 1988. This was intended as an optional course for first-year science students who do not plan to major in physics and for second-year students who have not read physics in their first year. Also the physics courses were re-structured and revised again before the 1989/1990 session began. The new course structure enabled the students to concentrate on fewer topics at a time and allowed them greater flexibility in their choice of elective courses.
The research facilities in the department had improved tremendously in the next eight years. This was largely due to the implementation of a new university policy at the beginning of the decade, which gave paramount importance to research. Research grants were generously awarded to academic staff and research scholarships were readily available to students with good honours degree for further studies. Consequently, the number of research publications by staff members also have increased greatly in recent years. Now the department publishes over 50 papers in local and international journals each year.
By 1989, the department had grown from a one-man operation to a full-fledged department with 34 academic staff and 50 technical and office staff. Since its establishment in 1928 until 1989, the department had produced about 1600 pass-degree physics graduates and over 500 graduates with honours and higher degrees. The Diamond Jubilee in 1989 marked the end of the first 60 years and also the beginning of the era of increased support for research and development (R&D) in Singapore.
The National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) launched the first national technology plan (NTP) in September 1991. Focusing on economically driven R&D, the government allocated S$2 billion for the five-year plan which served as the blueprint for R&D development in nine sectors: information technology; microelectronics; electronic systems; manufacturing technology; materials technology; energy, water, environment and resources; food and agrotechnology; biotechnology; and medical sciences.
The Department of Physics underwent major expansion in its research facilities during this period. Major facilities and centres that were set up included the van de Graff accelerator (Box Story 1), the Surface Science Laboratory (Box Story 2), the Centre for Superconducting and Magnetic Materials (Box Story 3); the Centre for Quantum Technologies (Box Story 4), and most recently the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials (Box Story 5).
The department further expanded to about 60 academic staff and 45 technical
and office staff by the end of 2015. With the increased investment in research
funding and strategic hiring of high quality academic staff over the past two
decades, the quality and quantity of physics research has rapidly increased
too. This is reflected in various publications, citations and ranking indicators.
For example, the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2015 for “Physics &
Astronomy” saw NUS ranked 23rd in the world.