Very concerned, I can tell you, 99% concerned. They will come and speak to us—you sure you’re a real university?—small little thing like that. So yah, we are for real, there’s no doubt about that. I think the biggest blessing was that about a year ago, we met a parent over dinner. And the parent said, “My son, so and so,” of course, I can’t remember their name, “He definitely wanted to go to [SMU] university, I [was] so angry with him, but today I am so happy. You saved my son, you saved my son. You’ve done something different. I don’t know what you all do”, he said, “My son never wants to study, but with this university, he stays here [and] study all the time”. And he’s a multimillionaire [and] he wants the son to take over the company.
After I left administration, I went into teaching and surprisingly I managed to survive quite well. So we have student evaluations and I am only entitled to be considered for an award after three years. So the first three years, I got the best teaching, teacher’s award and then subsequently I got to stop for one year because I must give another person a chance. Subsequently I won again. Give another person a chance, I won again. So I won three. It was very gratifying. So after winning three, they put me into so called ‘The Hall of Fame’, teaching fame. So I haven’t seen my hall of fame yet. So yah, I think that’s good, the students appreciated it.
Sure, I think that whatever you do, whatever you do, do the best, do your best, you give your best and people will appreciate it. It take time sometimes but people will appreciate that you did your best and I always tell my students also and I say, “Wherever you are, do the best you can.” Okay, because if you don’t, people will know. Do your best, even if you’re not very good at it, but people know that you have given your best. Nobody will blame you. Sometimes people are so clever but they are not going to do their best. It’s not appreciated. So I want to bless my students, which runs in the thousands, okay, all over the world that they will continue to do well. Be proud of themselves and be proud of their country, okay.
Ah, that’s very interesting again. The design of the campus, I was deeply involved in the design of the campus. Of course our land is not together, right. It’s separated by the church. So the design was a big challenge. So we, we had to have a consultant to help us to work out how the design ought to be. It’s a British architect, very famous architect. He came up with a design that has a dome—there’s a dome that covers the whole building here, the whole building—and I try to understand why. He said that it’s good, because air will come from the ground and go up. Up, you know, and, you can save air conditioning cost. So I say, “Um, I think we have a problem because Singapore has hot air up there, hot air down here. You going to bring hot air [in], we will all burn to death.” But he was so convinced that this is it. So he brought me to London, then we went to see [and] London and Cambridge has a building like that. And it’s cool, no doubt, cool. I say of course, England, you don’t need to do that, it’s cool also. (laughter)
Then we had another US architect, very clever this fellow. So he came up with a lot of designs, a lot of the facilities was also done by him. And, you know, lo and behold, our accountants also did a lot of contribution towards the design, you know that? This team of the initial nine of us, we do the impossible, we design the interior and get it going. It’s just fantastic. Will I live this life again? Yah, not bad, quite interesting.
SIM don’t want to be a university. And then, NUS also don’t want to come and they want to keep their business school. NTU decided later on that they will only give the business school; they will not give the accounting school. So the whole thing, [was] all totally different. The whole idea is put them all together, [but] now we created more schools. Initially as I look at it, it is a setback you see, because the press went to town, you know, on this new university. Then all of a sudden, this new university sounds like a small university. So initially, personally, as the lead person, I’m concerned because I took so many people with me, what happens if this thing fails? We [have] all got to go back and beg Dr Cham for a job. (laughter) So, yah I was concerned. But I knew something—number one, we are going to have a city university. Where on earth can you find a city university in a small country like Singapore? So expensive. So that’s what the Government promised and Singapore Government is always true to their word—they want to do it, they do it, you see. So that comforted me. So I said, I think that’s okay.
Yes, right. Even at our first meeting with Dr Tony Tan, he suggested that this will be a private university. So I said, “Private university? Where are we going to get the money?” because running a university is very costly, but it will be a government-funded private university. When I go to the US [and] talk about this, they say, “What’s this? Harvard, MIT, they are all private universities, where on earth you got government- funded private university?” So the concept has flown through and Government, true to their promise, gave the money to us so that we will run privately as a university. I think there is no way we can run a truly private university yet, not yet. But if Government is backing us, eventually [when] we do so well, hopefully our alumni can donate. Eventually we hope that we can be a private, proper private university, be able to contribute to the economy. So that’s, that’s one thing which is very unique. In fact, that was some bit of worry on my part also you see. Because what if the Government says, “Okay, no money already.” So what are we going to do? Those were early days, but now no problem. Government has been funding us very well.
Oh, we went to SIM. At that time we used their conference room. No place, so we were hunting for a place and asking [for] a piece of property and by that time, we already decided that we would have a small campus at Evans Road. I don’t know whether you know it or not, Evans Road, the blue building. Opposite [it], there are these black and white houses and they are empty. So we got Ho Thim Seng to go and check with the URA [Urban Redevelopment Authority] to give [them to] us [and] they said you cannot use that for offices, it’s for house. So we’ve been running around and then Ho Kwon Ping [had] his building in Upper Bukit Timah Road, asked, “How about using my office here?” Then I said, “Sure, but we’ll pay rent.” So even today he would say, “I rented [it out to] you all so cheap, you know,” which is true. (laughter) It so happened, there’s another building just nearby, and the bidding was quite low, so he’s got no choice, he’s got to follow the valuation. Anyway we managed to get in there. At the beginning, let me tell you, we got no facilities. I’m the first employee, we got nothing there. We got no copier, we got no fax, nothing. Nearly no desk. (laughter) Fortunately, they had some old desks there so I managed to go in there. I always laugh [and say] we have to sit on the floor, almost literally sitting on the floor to work. But it was okay; [when] you’re happy it’s okay. You marry the right woman, you happy, anywhere you can…. (laughter) So that was a big thing.
So what I did was, I took my computer from my house. My wife has a business so all photocopying [was] done by her. (laughter) So we brought everything home, either to photocopy or to fax, back and forth. So that was a bit… [when] you talk about start-ups, starting a business, this is it. People don’t realise, they think, “Wah, so easily done, already.” No! A lot of hard work. You talk to my wife, my family, a lot of pain to go through—what [are] you going to do tomorrow—so that kind of thing. So facilities, that was a problem.
Oh I tell you, we only got six months, and I, even my wife [was] worried for me. Students [were] coming, where are we going to put the students? So every night, me, wife and dog, we walked, walked to the site to see and I tell you, at the beginning it’s very frightening because they are all piling, right, and you see nothing. So the two of us [asked], “Where is the building?” They are all underground, and after the piling was done already, then when it comes up, it was very fast, very fast! Remarkable in six months, we got the building up—painted, we got chairs in; we even have our offices there.
When we decided to work with Wharton, as you know Wharton has very strong research standing, so that becomes a good opportunity, plus we were only hiring PhD from mostly from Ivy League schools and top schools to attract these people. You don’t have good research, they won’t come. So we need to work on having professors [and] researchers who want to come to do research here.
Yes, we got to create an environment, so we have the Wharton-SMU, Wharton Research Centre. That was the first centre that we started. So we need to give them the environment to work, you see. No point talk, talk, talk, talk, they come here, they can’t do anything. So we fund them, fund them, we give them a critical mass so that they can work together, plus trying to link with other universities and people. So the research environment has been very good. In a short ten years, we have done very well.
Yes, taking a step back, I’ve been the dean of NTU [Nanyang Technological University] for eight years and to tell you the truth, I was so comfortable [there]. By the eighth year, you know, everything had been set up. We had 3,500 students, we had some 300 PhD faculty and at least another 300 faculty and staff, so I was very comfortable. So I said, “Okay, take one more year, probably I will step down and let somebody take over.” Then lo and behold, sometime in May 1996, Dr Tony Tan, DPM [Deputy Prime Minister], called for a meeting with the deans and the president, vice president, registrar of NTU—all the deans, including the engineering deans and, of course, including me, the business dean.
All the deans in NTU went for a meeting, not knowing what is going to happen. Then in the course of the discussion, Dr Tan mentions the establishment, his idea of an establishment of a business university. You know, I was leaping with joy, inside my heart. I said, “This is the best thing to happen in Singapore because everybody wants to study business in Singapore.” And everything, plenty of students wanting to do business. [The] business school is full in the two universities, NUS [National University of Singapore] and NTU, and even SIM [Singapore Institute of Management] was very popular at that time. So I said, “This is great for Singapore,” and I was really thrilled by the possibility.
Where can you find that kind of opportunity? One, it’s a business university, purely for business. At that time, we had a discussion, we also talked about law, we also talked about accountancy, we talked about all the businesses. And in my business school, in NTU, its huge and we had a lot of specialisation, like, for example, actuarial science, insurance, we had marketing, human resource, and it’s a huge business school. So in itself, it’s a university already. So I thought, “That’s wonderful, it’s a great thing to happen.”
The thinking was that since the two [existing] universities are three-year programmes, our third university wants to have four-year programme, where are we going to get our students? That’s the worrying part, which was totally unnecessary. But like everything you start anew, you tend to be a bit careful, so we were still trying to cram the four-year programme into three, which we did in NTU. In NTU, we had a three-year programme, but it is also a broad-based university. Our business school is broad-based, so I wanted to do the same thing; I wanted very much here in SMU that we should have broad-based education. I think if we have too narrow an education, it’s not going to be good for our students, nor is it going to be good for our business in future. So I wanted them to have science, I wanted them to have the humanities, we’re talking 15 years ago, it’s like, this is not on.
One, we have done well in research. If you look at the…our young PhD [faculty], they’ve been publishing and recognised, I think that’s important. We have sent, quite a lot to the US and did their PhDs and came back and [are] doing well. Also the student population has grown, that’s a good measurement. The people are interested to come to our university. Also exchange, our exchange students have been a lot, quite a lot, our signing of agreements, to have exchange with universities has been tremendous, has been tremendous. So this helps to build your reputation. Foreign students are coming in, not only [on] exchange but really coming in to be [full-time] students.
I think our challenge has always been competing with our [other] two universities and top universities elsewhere. I think we should build our people, our own students, our curriculum, our pedagogy. We build confidence in our students that they are able to stand up and talk. Very few Singapore students can do that. So you talk to friends outside, you’re from SMU, “I like your SMU students, they can just stand up and talk.” Maybe they talk too much but they can talk, better than not talking at all. So our training has been excellent, 48 subjects, every subject they log one hour, so you give them the confidence, you build the confidence. So the way I see it, our students will eventually become top leaders here, because you cannot lead if you cannot talk. So right from the beginning, this is what I will do; every course there must be a presentation, right, to build confidence.
I worked too hard. (laughter) No, I think it impacts me in the sense that, you know, certain joy, you can’t describe. It is like, “What a challenge! What an opportunity!” Not only to me, but it’s to the community, to all the people that come here. We all benefit from it, not only me. My children benefit from it, like my son benefits from it because it’s an opportunity. And I always tell my staff, whatever we do, we do well, okay. Let’s do well because [when] you do well, you contribute to the community; you never know when you are contributing to yourself. So it’s a real joy to do it.
That’s the scope only, and also the idea was to shift all the business schools, to the new university. The whole idea is having a business school, and the other idea, which is of course, pre SMU, is to convert SIM into SIM university.
That’s the initial strategy because SIM itself is very big so, that’s a good, clever idea—use an established school and SIM had at that time the facilities and so on. We can all be put together there you see, so it is supposed to be a SIM university.
And people will come, it’s quite interesting. Let me just relate the example, a student who was coming in the first batch, they had to fight with their father to come [to SMU]. The father wouldn’t let them come, “No, this has no track record, you come to this university?” The student said, “What! I don’t care; I want to come to this new university.”
And we were very fortunate because these are the guys who were true pioneers; these are the guys who got the guts. We interviewed them and they are full of passion, “This is what I want to do.” So we had our 300 students I think at that time. The first batch that came in were very interesting students, very bold.
For example, a small university with 300 people, we also participated in the university games, varsity games, so I was telling myself, “What games are we going to play? 300 [students], this fellow [university] got 15,000 students!” So we get them together, I said, “Let’s don’t be smart, okay? Let’s go and pick one or two games, that’s all, and we will just focus.” So we got one judo fellow, he was a national champ or number two, whatever, so okay, “You enter.” Then we had a canoeing team, they are very, very good, also the national team, so I said, “Let’s just have these two games, the rest don’t want [to participate] and I will give you a prize if you all win.” Both won prizes, one was second, one was third.
Then, the other part is that every year, the student union will go to the Istana to meet the Minister of Education for a dialogue. So what we did was, [with a] small team, you just got to train them. Then I said, “Look, think of what we want to ask and you all write it down and every time there’s silence, SMU people must stand up there and the first question must come from an SMU student. No silence. Silence means you [need to] quickly stand up and ask [a question].” So we did make an impact, because they all knew, small university and every time they say “SMU”, and I said, “You must say, say SMU loud, loud.” (laughter) “I’m so and so from SMU,” create a presence you see.
So all these little things, which now [when] you look back, “Ah, so simple,” but you think about it, if you had not alerted them and the students are not brave, if they’re all quiet, then you’re finished. So, these are things that we do to create that kind of environment for our students. I could even hear, because the two ministers there, I could hear one of the ministers talking to another SMU [student] and I was so happy. Then during the tea session, they [the students] will all stick together, I said, “No, you don’t. You get out and make friends with all the ministers, all the big tycoons there.”
So I think the public reaction has been good. I must say that, and after the second, third batch we never have problems anymore.
They knew. We showed we delivered. I keep saying we must deliver, we must deliver. I know it’s all fun here. Exam, exam is no fun. Take away the exam, fun, the exam part of it. Fun. We can have fun and study at the same time, “Why must you make education so miserable?” Let’s enjoy it, that has always been my motto, let’s enjoy it. A lot of kids enjoy it.
At that time I signed the document, it was about that time. We had a meeting and we decided that in order for our Singapore business school to be the top, top, top top-notch, we want to go for the top-notch US university, business school and Wharton is the best. And then they sent me on a trip to Wharton, and we [talked about] collaboration with Wharton, I think that’s a godsend. Janice Bellace was quite happy, you know, and the president [Judith Rodin] of Wharton [should be U Penn] was quite happy, so there was collaboration, which is very good for us. And once we start marketing [that] we collaborate with Wharton, the whole world is different. So, that was a good collaboration and I’m very happy that Wharton has been very kind to us.