Fortunately the Bukit Timah campus of the former University of Singapore was available. It was not occupied and SMU took over that campus. We renovated some of the buildings and it served SMU well for a number of years while the permanent campus was established. For the site of the permanent campus, again, I felt that, as far as possible, it should be different from NUS and NTU which are located in basically the outskirts of Singapore, in the suburbs—NUS in Kent Ridge and NTU up in Jurong. If it’s going to be a business university, then ideally it should be located within the city. That took a lot of discussion within Cabinet because any place within the city will result in the use of extremely valuable land, from a commercial point of view, for educational purposes. But eventually I’m happy that the Cabinet agreed to the proposal to establish a city university within here in Bras Basah Road, different from NUS and NTU with a different constitution, with a different structure, and in partnership with the Wharton school.
We conceptualized that 75th year of Bukit Timah campus because I think, in a way, we wanted to be part of the history of Bukit Timah campus. That was SMU making its mark in terms of using that campus and being part of that tradition because most of the educational institutions in Singapore have, at some point, started or have gone through that campus. The other was also because at that point we didn't have alumni at all. We wanted the alumni of the Bukit Timah campus to be part of SMU. And it was also in that broad sense of corporate relations, engaging this community because the alumni at Bukit Timah campus were also very successful folks in the local community, and we wanted them to know of SMU and to be aware of what we are about and to feel a part of SMU and the development of SMU. So that was the thinking behind the celebration of the 75th anniversary.
Hoping the Evans Road campus would be finished. I think it was finished the week before. I mean the paint was still wet on the walls as the students entered that. After all it was January when the ground was broken; I think it had to be done by August. The second challenge was most of the faculty were brand new and they had to come together just as the term started and they couldn’t do this in Goldbell Towers -- there was no room. The people who barely knew each other would have to come together and teach at a place that wasn’t finished yet, so that was the greatest challenge.
And I must say once again that the first Provost Tan Chin Tiong was wonderful and the others and I say this was a start up. Now if you’re in a business school, you’re talking about start ups all the time, well this was a start up. It’s very exciting but, looking back I don’t know how we did it.
I think the intent of having a campus in the city really was to enliven this area, and also for the university really to engage with the community, with the business community, with the arts community, the civics community. So I think when they came for that visit, they were definitely pleased to see part of the Singapore Art Show on our campus green, and to see different people, the public coming through the city campus. I think that was meeting the objectives of having the campus in the city. But, of course, more than that, we were introducing them to the stuff that we do here, sending our students for internships and having this business community coming through to talk to our students, to engage with our faculty and all. That was energy of a city campus.
It was quite amazing because here we were pitching, you know, the city campus, how it would be, getting the architect's drawing and seeing that thing come up over the years, and finally it being ready. Through that huge consultation process, whether it's student or staff or faculty, in terms of the needs and being involved with the signages, the colors. I mean it was really I'm really, really glad to be a part of that team to get the campus ready. And also, of course, that big move from Bukit Timah campus to the city campus. We had a big, colorful procession all the way from Bukit Timah. We even had to close part of Orchard Road so that we could come down Orchard Road into Bras Basah to make an entrance into Bras Basah. So the year itself when we moved to the city campus, we had MM Lee, former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, here to launch Li Ka Shing Library with Mr. Li Ka Shing himself. Then we had former SM [Senior Minister] Goh Chok Tong to open Lee Kong Chian School of Business with the Lee family. Then we had PM Lee [Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong] at the grand opening of the city campus. So that was all within one year. And continuing that, we organized a lot of community outreach, inviting MPs [members of Parliament], ministers, representatives from different agencies, statutory boards, different sort of communities in the society to come to the campus. That was such a great opportunity to also introduce SMU and what we do and how we do things differently to the community. We also actively reached out to the institutions around us, the art institutions, the art schools. We were sharing spaces with them, welcoming them, actually, to use the city campus, such as the Singapore Art Show, the Biennale, the Literary Festival, the Night Festival, so much so that actually we were the first local university to win the Friend of the Arts award. I think maybe the rest didn't think to put themselves out to be nominated for that, but because of what we were doing with all these different art insitutions and art schools and that outreach, I think we've won that award for a couple of years.
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.
The Campus Development Committee at the board level made a very interesting decision; they decide to go for design competition, rather than ask people to submit a quote and then we choose. I think there are hundred over designs, it’s a first-level design so it doesn’t cost the architectural firm too much money yet. Those conceptual designs and all the designs were displayed, people voted for it, people including those of us who were involved in NTU, I mean SMU, as well as the board, the government people, interested public including the architect association, all those things because they are so conscious about the green lung in the city, right, that we are going to destroy.
So out of hundred over designs, they shortlisted half a dozen or so and from which two were picked, one to build the admin block at Victoria, the other to build the cluster of academic, including the library, buildings on Bras Basah Park itself. So the approach is new in the sense that very few government-funded projects go on an open competition basis and where public can give comments, so it came out good in the newspaper too. With hindsight I think that’s a very good advertisement for SMU before we launch our first programme because parents and potential students see that SMU is a group of people who do things rather differently, right. Oh, by the way, later if you look, that is the tagline for our first advertisement, SMU is different, so it is not a deliberate play on words, because from the whole process of building SMU, from the board level down, I think we do things rather differently, right. I mean not earthshaking but it’s different from the normal government approach, those things.
So they design, they select the design, after which then the architect then come and work with, as I said, the group of people who plan out all the space and actually begin to fit out where do you put all those components, where to put the seminar rooms, which of the building become the library; it’s not that straight forward. To give an illustration, there were two small schools that were planned, that were in existence then, small I said, one is SIS [School of Information Systems], the other is accountancy. So the original assigned building was actually swopped because two schools, each of us look at our needs, the size is not much different, 80 square meters that’s all, because of the relative need, we swap that’s all. That also reflects the good working relationship within SMU at that time. The dean is not territorial, said I want, this is my place and you will not touch it. So that was good. Of course the business school being the biggest school swipe the biggest building. It has to, right, no choice. Actually I don’t think it’s the biggest [building]; biggest might be econs [economics] and social science [building] because it’s supposed to house two schools. [Lee Kong Chiang School of Business is the biggest school in terms of size]
So that reflects how the details were worked out, bit by bit, room by room. It goes down to the detail of where to put the power point for the working user group committee. Michael and myself were involved, a lot of other people were involved, where to site the tables and all that is because the conceptual design of the SMU building is again rather different. It’s not a block structure, it’s very odd, sorry, I shouldn’t use the word, it’s a unique shaped building, every single building looked different with all the curves. It’s a great challenge to fit in all the teaching rooms and offices. I think it is safe to say that I don’t think you can find many teaching rooms and offices that’s exactly the same with another one.
Well the first year students, they loved it, they loved the ability to participate and talk. They were very, very involved. Like all students there were issues about grading, I’ll leave that to the faculty to work out but no, the students were very happy and they were very involved. They were very happy. Remember Evans Road was very close, they could see the Bukit Timah campus being renovated and so they were very happy to move there.
Separately, by the way, I would say, if you go back to January 2000, I said we’d have three campuses we were building at one time; the Evans Road campus and we were planning the Bukit Timah campus and we were planning the permanent campus. So I felt like I was in a state of meetings, continual meetings of which campus building committee am I in now. But Bukit Timah, it was a privilege because it was such beautiful buildings. Because of changes that had been made over the years, especially to accommodate a very large number of students, they had 5000 at the end for NIE, it looked worse in 1999 than it had when it was opened before World War II. And so to work with architects to bring the exterior up, not totally back to what it had been, looking much more what the original architects had envisioned and have a completely modernized inside. I love the architecture and I think it was a great privilege and I’m sure NUS Law loves being there now. We’re very gracious and we very much enjoyed it.
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.
At that time we went and looked at several universities, how they use IT in their teaching rooms. We know what was being used in NUS, NTU. If you boil down to the pure technical difference, there is not much difference in the equipment that’s being used, right? I mean those are standard things people use, overhead projectors, they use whiteboard, they use whatever it is. So we were asking ourselves, but if we want to have an interactive type of teaching environment what do we need? We need to get the technical equipment into the room and yet seemingly out of the way. Sometimes equipment can interfere with your teaching. So we looked at how Wharton designed their rooms, how Harvard designed their rooms.
When we first started in Bukit Timah, the temporary campus, we built actually two experimental teaching rooms. There were a few of us who are more gung-ho in IT types, people who loved to play with gadgets. [We] go in there, propose new things, try, cannot work, throw it away. Seem to be a waste. We even try sound systems without mikes and things. The acoustics will cost us a bomb So people revert back to mike and things. We tried with two projectors which worked quite well for some of us; some of us do want it. We tried with the first handwritten tablets to be massively used in Singapore, so much so that Microsoft was so happy, invited two of us, Themin [Themin Suwardy] and myself, to give a talk in their…I still remember how people make use of tablets to teach.
The city is a very, very good compromise. As I said, it’s still in the city plus, it’s right in the midst of all the cultural areas which with hindsight tied very nicely with the broad-based style education we give to our students. So talk about once the government decided it will give us a city campus, somewhere in the city and that’s where the ministers for land development, URA [Urban Redevelopment Authority], I think, all agreed, somehow they all identified this Bras Basah site.
Then I was asked to make a budget for the city campus, that’s one of the documents I’ve given to you too. That one has a story behind it because I remember the government was pushing, they need to announce things. So somebody from Deputy Prime Minister’s office called up and asked, “Who’s the guy responsible for all the budgeting?” and of course somebody had to put up their hand. He asked, “What is the estimate for the city campus?” So I give an estimate, that’s the figure that you saw there, $1.6 billion. I still remember because it came out in the papers next day because he gave a talk. Then sometime in the morning, the newspaper came out, the chairman called me up. Kwon Ping said, “Now who give the figures to the government that I don’t know about?” That’s one of the things…it’s a good anecdote, an example of when we are busy doing our own things sometime we forget the, I call it, the necessity or nicety of communicating up through your chain of command.
I think just before this happened, maybe a week before or a few days, I was asked, so the groundbreaking was scheduled, and I was asked, “Would you wear construction worker overalls?” Now I must admit I thought this was very strange and I said, “Well what does the Chairman say?”, and the person said to me, “Oh the Chairman said he’ll wear it if you wear it.” So I said, “Well, OK.” (Laughter) Not realizing that the Chairman thought this was strange also but if this unusual weird American agreed. Now I didn’t know that construction workers in Singapore wear red overalls because they don’t in the United States, nor did I know how heavy those boots are. So it was very funny and I certainly…and I think the person who suggested it, suggested it because she knew that this would get on the front page of the newspaper. So one way, she had a great sense about what’s the photo op and this was the way she was going to, because I mean anybody who’s reading it, even the Business Times, would say, “What’s that?” so in a way she’s correct. I don’t know if it made my image at first to be so iconoclastic, I normally would not do that. So that was very funny. It was very hot too.
We have the enormous advantage of being a city campus, being here in the centre of the city and thus being a visible presence of an academic institution. Visible for everybody, everybody knows the buildings of SMU at the end of Orchard Road. Perhaps we haven’t really exploited and leveraged that position as well as we could, in terms of having impact on the business community. We are a university for the world of business. We’re not a business school—we’re a university, but for the world of business with the different components that I referred to a little bit earlier. We can make a difference in the way people manage, whether it’s in business, whether it’s in government, whether it’s in NGOs. For example, in NGOs, what the Lien Centre is doing is very important, in my opinion, in trying to influence the quality and the professionalism of management in NGOs. And I hope that in the long term we will be successful in influencing them.
My first point about society and SMU is that we need to take our research and see how relevant that is to businesses and see how we can influence the way they think and they work. That’s not going to happen automatically. We need to make a serious effort in communicating that. And that’s one of the reasons why I come back to that—we haven’t probably leveraged our closeness to business or to government or to some other organisations here around us, that we haven’t completely fully leveraged that to influence them, to communicate what we’re doing in terms of research. We also need to use much more social media to communicate the results of our research. And not only from the faculty but also some of the great ideas that some of the students have. I’ve seen some student papers that I was really very impressed with and I thought—we need to make sure that this is known by the community around us. So that’s the first point, that is, communicate better through our physical presence, but also through social media and anything else that can help us communicate better, the results of our insights of our research.
The second way that we relate to society is through our students’ and staff’s and faculty’s community service. As we all know, our students are required to do eighty hours of community service but many of them do a lot more. And we celebrated in September a million hours of community service, which is when you think about it, impressive as a university, a small university. But I would hope that through that community service and what students learn there, they get an attitude of helping the communities in which they work for the rest of their life, so that we can educate our students in continuing their education, so that they feel that as citizens they have a responsibility to the society in which they work and have to give back to the community. And this goes beyond our students. It’s faculty, staff, but also our alumni. And I would be very happy and I see that some of that is already, happening, where alumni and the students are working together on some of these community service projects. So I hope that, that again is something where we can influence society.
And the third one is something about the holistic experience that we provide to our students. Our educational system is one where we provide a holistic experience to the students, where we tell them, yes, you’re studying accounting or you’re studying business or information systems or law, or whatever you’re studying that—but then at the same time you should understand what’s going on, a little bit of what in the other schools is going on. You should understand how your domain fits in the broader world of business. And at the same time we stimulate our students to participate in the CCAs [co-curricular activities], do some cultural work or some sports or whatever. So we provide a holistic experience. I would hope that students go away from here and keep that holistic attitude and that I think that will have an influence on society, that society is not a collection of a bunch of silos but society’s about interaction, integration. And I would hope that one of the ways SMU can influence society is through our alumni who will keep that attitude of thinking broadly, thinking in an integrated way and perhaps influencing the way their colleagues and their organisations in their communities in which they work.
We also explored wireless. That was something new, and we were taking a rather bold step in doing that [then]. There were two reasons why we decided to use wireless although it’s a very new technology – that we have a very short timeline to bring the IT systems up. If we were to wire every point, we would probably take another three months, or probably more. So it’s far easier just to put up wireless points. In some places wireless worked incredibly well, like in the cafeteria. And classrooms as well. We were, at that point in time, one of the first institutions of higher learning that used wireless.
We invested in a learning management system that’s put together by a company called NCS. That’s where you deposit soft copies of [course] materials. Back then there aren’t many commercially available online materials, so we have to develop our own. What we wanted to do was to get away from distributing hard copy of notes or slides to students. We wanted all of this moved online. We also wanted submissions of assignments to be done online. So the learning management system that we had was specially designed to cater for that. Bandwidth was a problem [then]. Buffering technology was still at its infancy, so video streaming that we have today like YouTube, would have taken a horrendous amount of money to put in place. So those things were not available.
SMU Residences at Prinsep was opened in 2007. It is within walking distance from campus. It consists of three blocks of four storey apartments in a tropical setting with landscaping and abundant foliage and can accommodate 260 students. Each apartment has a lounge and dining area, equipped with refrigerator and microwave oven. The hostel is primarily for first year international students as well as senior students who act as mentors. Before the hostel was opened, OSL used to source accommodation for international students in locations such as Chip Bee Gardens and in Farrer Road with hostel providers. SMU believes that hostel living is an essential part of university life for students. Living together on a daily basis ensures that both local and international students integrate, accept each other as people and forge closer relationships. In the context of Singapore, it supports the Government’s national agenda of community engagement and foreign talent retention.
Living together enables students to learn about the importance of diversity, form friendships, and eventually entice foreign students to stay on in Singapore after graduation. Now for our first hostel, we decided that someone trained in counseling was important as many of the international students are young and needed a father figure. In fact, we had two who were about 16 to 18 years old. Timothy who is our first residential master or housemaster is assisted by a group of students called residential seniors who mentor the students in their apartments. We wanted the SMU hostel to be a home away from home. As such emphasis was placed on residential life, with regular activities organized to bring the hostel community together.
In fact, because the SMU hostel has been so successful, we are now requesting the Government to give us land to build hostels for both faculty and students. Currently, a proposed concept has been finalized and we hope that the MOE as well as URA will be convinced enough to give us the land in the near future.
That part we recognised the need for student housing. But not just for housing per se, but student housing as another way to integrate learning and training. So we are discussing with MOE about our need for student housing to enable us to integrate what we call training the students in living, learning and leading. Providing the facility for us to do this, that when students come together and stay together, there are different ways of learning how to live together, how to learn together and how from there to learn to lead. So we've already come up with this concept. We are now engaging the MOE. They understand what we are trying to do. The other part that we are engaging are the government agencies to look for the place, the land for us to build this, alright. So that's all in discussion. We have some feedback from MOE. They want us to sharpen our vision for this housing in terms of making sure that the educational aspect of it is, in a sense, more firmly established so that it is not too much student activity oriented but really the academic and the learning content is there, so we are looking at that as well. So that's in the planning stage. We hope ultimately, we will have something, and a facility that enable us to have a different way of teaching our students how to live, learn and lead.
Well, the campus then was in a very idyllic setting. You were surrounded by a fair amount of open park land. The campus was two quads that shared a common side, so you had inside quad space, nice grassy plains for students to be active in and whatnot. All the facilities were first-rate, even restaurants for the students were built and were first-quality. So we had sort of a community unto ourselves. First-rate facilities. I came in where we already had the first group of students and one thing I know for sure we had an incredible, enthusiastic student body, and that was an incredible amount of fun.
But it's a reflection of the spirit, and if you think of a student body coming into a new university, most students in the world come into a university and say, Gee, I want to join the marketing club or the finance club. And there's a club, and in fact, they get handed it on a tray. �You want to join? Go to the next meeting. Well, if you're a student, and it's a brand-new university, and you say that, well, people like me look at the student and say, Well, you'd better form a club, because there isn't any club, and it's supposed to be a student activity and responsibility. We don't feel particularly comfortable in managing the creation of a club because it ought to be what you want it to be. Oh. Well, rather than say, Take a hike, the students went super active, and before long, we had a lot of clubs, with, I'd say, minimum faculty supervision, and they worked out pretty well. And that's a rare event.
Well, I can tell you exactly what I was told is, "Here's the business school. This was the shape of the building, these are where the stairwells are, these are where the bathrooms are, these are where the classrooms are and the first three floors. Anything on the fourth and fifth floor that doesn't move a stairwell or a bathroom, we will listen to. And also the size of the offices. And the general location. So I could decide where to put the faculty lounge, and how to organise the dean's office and the associate dean complex and the business part, so it wasn't just me, but I kind of headed up the team that did that.
We moved in June of 05, and I think we were the second school to move, I'm not sure. But I do remember coming down [to see the campus under construction] and looking at the things going up and all that. Joanna Lee was my office, the head of the office thing, and the staff did just incredible things. And it worked beautifully. Now there was a small glitch like the air-conditioning went off for two days which is a problem as you know. But it was really relatively benign, largely because Joanna and the staff handled it so beautifully, and I'm sure they probably remember this as a major crisis in their life. But the thing that is really impressive is the month after we moved in, we hosted seventeen events here in July of 05, including the first-ever Asia conference by the Marketing Sciences Institute, including one that Ong Siow Heng put together that had something like seven Singapore ambassadors, ambassadors to Singapore at that conference. It had the first-ever marketing camp, the first-ever finance camp. I
could go on and on and on. They'd moved this whole thing down; you would have thought they would have all gone on vacation. But instead we had all these conferences and it all worked. And I'm thinking, that's just amazing, just amazing what the staff did. Anyway, I'm still amazed. I think back and it worked so beautifully.
Okay, as a strategist, somebody who's done research and done a lot of teaching in five continents about strategy and marketing and stuff, this was a brilliant strategy to bring this piece of a university. I realise there was a park here once, some people say we lost our park, but this is a park-like environment now, and it really helped to redevelop this area, so in that sense it's good, but what's brilliant about it is we put a management university here. And we've got econ and SIS [School of Information Systems] and social science and law and business and accounting. What's down in this part of the world? This land had to be worth a billion or two at least, and they gave us another half a billion to put up buildings. But what they got for it, is they got what part of the university is going to help them in the government sector, the judicial sector, the legal sector, the multinational business community, and the Singapore business community? And where are they? They only have to walk a few blocks or take a short taxi ride or drive to interact with, and we can have events and stuff. It's a business school. They didn't move white rats. They didn't move hydrodynamic laboratories from the far fringes. Those could be out almost in Johor, that's fine. But what they put downtown on a very expensive piece of land and getting a big return for it has been the very pieces of a university that... both the university benefits and it benefits a wide range of communities. I wonder if they really realise what a smart strategy they had. They probably did, knowing Singapore because it's brilliant. It just is, I kind of a marvelled, "What a plan, what a plan." So I think it's sensational to be down here.
The absence of law school building is the biggest single minus in the arrangements. It's not satisfactory to be working in two separate buildings. It means that you, you don't see by accident, people in the other building. I think that's actually very important and desirable. It seems now to be fairly certain that the building will go up. The location of the building is agreed, it's on the corner of Armenian Street. So it will be on the opposite side of the road from the accountancy building and there will apparently be a bridge over it. And the current plan, talks in terms of it being open in 2014.