We had to interview students to evaluate their communicative skills, their interests. So we had two staff interviewing an applicant, and we asked various questions to assess the [students’] suitability, whether that person is made for that style of pedagogy. Because not every student would prefer that interactive style of teaching.
We were trying to give people opportunities to show that they had the capability to do well in the university course, et cetera. And so maybe they don’t conform with your traditional expectations of what is a good student. Alright, and so we were trying to see whether there were some other areas of talents or achievements, accomplishments that they had which showed you that they are different and they have something that’s worth considering, alright. So we considered some of these cases based on, you know, special talents, et cetera. So in addition to this interview, which is very useful, there’s also this whole idea of considering, you know, people who have some special talents. But then we did it differently from, and I guess we still do, from the way it’s done in like, American colleges where you bring someone in because he plays football, basketball very well and they may never graduate but it doesn’t matter. But in our case it’s not, I mean, you take someone in you must be sure that the person will graduate, otherwise don’t bring that person in. Yeah, so I think that is a different slant of the way we handle special talents.
I recall my days at SMU to be…I remember the students around me were very competitive and it was stressful four years. But I would say to prospective law students, enjoy your time in SMU. It might be stressful, it might be competitive but don’t forget to go on your law exchange. Don’t forget to just enjoy the silly moments you have during your group work, during your group discussions and just enjoy the process.
I think the fact that SMU has a strong emphasis on pro bono work is very important. I also think that many students come into the program, thinking that they want to go into the big firms because they see that as a way of being successful or being recognized for being successful. I want to just say that I think you learn so much more if you are in a smaller or medium-sized firm simply because you’re hands-on in there and your connection with your partners and your bosses and your clients is so much more direct. The learning curve is much steeper when you’re in the small firm. And especially when you start out, it may not actually hurt to have some of that. And I’ve done my first trial in my first year and that is not an opportunity that many people in a larger firm, these people are not gonna have that. And I think you also get more direct guidance because you’ve got a partner who’s just above you and you can go to him. But of course having said that, it really depends on the division in the large firm you’re in, some of them do operate that way and some small firms you might not enjoy that as well but I just say keep your mind open to other alternatives because it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to get into the big 4 or 5 firms, otherwise you’re not going to make it. I think pro bono work is an excellent way of getting an insight into actual problems that people have.
I guess some of the challenges would be not having seniors above us. We didn’t know who to go to when we had difficulty understanding the subject. We only had each other. So we needed to discuss among ourselves, whatever you were studying at that point in time. Our first test was contract law. It was during the semester. And I guess the law professor sat us all down when he was revealing the result. The result was really bad and they had a pep-talk for us because it was the first test we had as law students. None of us knew how to answer the questions. I think none of us really knew what kind of questions were coming out. And it was quite an experience, because the grades were really bad and we were afraid that this was going to be what law school was like.
I remember it was in Year Three; I was having a casual conversation with Professor David Smith after we discussed the outline of my research paper. He was just asking me how I felt about entering the working world. I said to him, “Well, professor, you know I am not the most brilliant or the most outstanding student out there, so I guess I just follow the usual route, be one of the junior lawyers entering the working world and just slogging my nights out.” I remember at that point in time, he turned serious. He looked at me in the eye and said, “No, Yvonne, you’re not just one of the many out there. You’re special.” I was quite taken aback by his statement. I didn’t expect him to say that to me. And till this day, I really cherish this memory fondly, because whenever I feel that I am just one of the many out there, I recall what he said and just tried to find that something special he saw in me and try to work things out.
I think the difficulty will be from the students’ perspective. Because whenever you start something new people tend to be overly enthusiastic. So, in some sense if you look at the first batch of business students, first batch of account students that I teach, when I start teaching them accounting, we were very tough with them. And so, right, the first batch, their grades are not great. But they are not worse students than the later batch so you can see the trend. Of course, some people say there is grade inflation; we tend to be more lenient over time. But I don’t think so, we tend to expect a lot more from the first batch but in some sense, it also reflects their good attitude. They also accept whatever is given to them. They might not be happy. We don’t have students in the first two batch asking, can you improve their grade? Unfortunately we do have some of them doing it now, asking for it. Previously they just take it. They might not be happy, but they take it. So it reflects [that] there is a different type of reward for starting something new. The student enjoy, the faculty enjoy. Some students enjoy it too much. The first batch, I still remember when I was teaching them, I think a bunch of students never open their textbooks until the sixth week.
Because my test is on the sixth week, they all fail, right, flat. That’s the first time I give so many zeros. They said that, “Oh I thought we’re supposed to be interactive.” But cannot be interactive until you don’t study, right. But they woke up very quickly.
My first day at school was a Tuesday. I remember I was just waiting to go to school, not thinking much about it and on Monday I was just chatting with some people I’d got to know during law camp. And they were asking me how prepared I was for the first lesson. And I thought to myself, “Don’t you just go to class and write down things that the professor says?” Apparently not. They were all reading before class and I panicked. I can’t remember whether I had my books with me yet but I was panicky. I did not expect to have to read before class. So after I came to class, not everyone had already read up before that but there was some who really knew the stuff. So I just lost then at my first class and listening to the professor speak. It was quite an intimidating experience.
When we had our very first batch of students, I suggested to Kai Chong, I said, “Let’s do something different.” So what we did was that, I went to buy boxes of Fuji apples – red, juicy Fuji apples, and went into the first class and just gave each student an apple. So we did that for our first batch, the first class of the first batch. So every one of them – if they can recall – received a nice, juicy, red apple. We wanted to do that because it’s special, you know. So I think they might remember that.
I think it was quite exciting. I remember the first day of class was held in Bukit Timah. And we were all pretty excited and the students were very enthusiastic. I still miss the first batch of students from the university. I think they were a very unique bunch of people. By nature I think they were more risk takers, to be willing to join a new university without any history, without any so-called benchmark that they can use. And they were more go-getters, people who were willing to try anything and everything. And I think they showed a lot more initiative than the later batches of students. They [the later batches] become more and more like the traditional university undergraduates. And I think if you ask any one of us, those of us who started with the university, the huge majority of us would tell you that we miss the initial batches a lot more. They were fun people. I mean we got really close with them. The class size was very small, about 20, 30 per class and we got to know every one of them by name by the end of the term. They make the attempt to get to know us too so it was a two-way traffic. I still miss those years. (laughter)
I think the first semester for most of us passed in a haze of confusion and fear, I would say. Simply because I think being in any new courses is already difficult, but when you are put in a program which is accelerated, because the law degree we complete within two years or three years, and unlike the LLB program which extends over four years and the students only take a few law modules, we take only law modules. And they had arranged the timetable such that we had 5.5 credit units in the first semester, which was very heavy for a bunch of us who A: had not been in school for a while and B: didn’t know how to read, you know, even find the case let alone read it. So, we really didn’t know what we were doing.
I think if there was any point at which people might have considered “okay maybe I should just leave now and save myself the trouble”, that would have been it. But I think the fact that everyone else was in the same boat and we were all suffering together, if you like, that helped. What we did is we gathered together as a group and we actually went to see our professors to let them know that we just thought this was too much and we couldn’t deal with it. They couldn’t, of course, do anything at that point but what they did was in subsequent years, it is now down to 4 credit units in the first term. So I think even though we probably didn’t help ourselves very much, we managed to help our juniors, which is really good.
I think we learnt after that how to read cases. You know, it’s a lot, you really need to know what you’re looking for when you read it. If you read and you don’t know what you are looking for, you spend a lot of time reading and not really getting the point and then going to class feeling quite lost only to discover the point was something else completely different from what you thought the point was. But all this is not uncommon to any law students, I think, in the first term. It’s just that the load was so heavy that it made it doubly hard. We learnt of a time how to get quicker and faster. We also learnt to organize ourselves. This was advice that we were able to give to our junior so we hoped that they were able to do this much quicker than we were, which were to set up groups for things like, you know, gathering the cases, and making copies and sending them out and all those sorts of things. And all that helped, eventually. And I think the teachers were quite understanding.
The other additional burden you have when you are a post-graduate student is you’re trained to think in a certain way in your field. And every field has a particular “language” or way of viewing the world. And this is what you’ve been doing for, you know, X number of years, you ask questions almost instinctively from a certain angle or direction. And now you pretty much have got to learn a new language, a new way of looking at things. That is not easy. It’s almost harder to do that when you’ve already got a preset way rather than when you don’t have any ways in the first place. But these are all things that we learnt along the way. And the positive side of having people with diverse experiences, we had engineers, people who worked in the finance sector, journalists, teachers, we even had a surgeon, the positive side of this is that cases and the law operate in society and, you know, they cuts across all these industries. And so what our classmates brought to the table was, you know, all their experiences in this line and this field. They helped us to understand cases in a way that I think if we were all were law students and nothing else, we wouldn’t have had those insights. And I think that’s also now what my class contributes to the legal industry, is that there’s a whole bunch of people out there now who actually have expertise in both. So while the learning was difficult, I think at the end of the day that learning was also doubly rewarding for these reasons.
Actually the first job I had was at Rajah & Tann Shipping. I met my employers there through a shipping course that I did during my 4th year. So SMU actually engaged them to teach at an electives, the Shipping & Admiralty Law Course, so there were 3 partners who taught the course and I got a job after that. Because I did internship and I liked it there, so I did a job there. I just carried on after that. I must say that the course they taught was rather interesting because it was the first time it was taught by practitioners. As much as we had everything written down in books, they also shared their experiences and what they do in their daily lives, like arresting a ship, the considerations they have for arresting a ship, the urgency, the many interests to balance. All this we didn’t get from the books, so it was quite an interesting course.
There was some sense of an excitement there because a lot of these students also knew that they are the first cohort, they are pioneers in a new university and pioneers in a new programme, the business programme. So there was enthusiasm there and throughout the term and as the term passed and we looked at the first cohort of students, one of the things that strike us was that these were students who were willing to learn. While we had some very good students, some students knew that academically they may not have been the brightest, but they were willing to learn and I remember some of the faculty saying that, they went all out to challenge the students with difficult projects, with difficult questions and so on. They set a lot of assignments and so on and the students never complained. You know, they took it all in stride and they learnt. And a lot of them learnt also how to do presentations. That was also very new to them because they had never had to do it before so they learnt how to do PowerPoint presentations, they learnt how to stand in front of a class and present their projects and so on and everything was a very new learning experience.
And you could see among some of the students those who had leadership potential, they just stand out because in an environment where everything was new and you needed someone to take the initiative, then those who had leadership qualities, the opportunity was there and they just developed. That was where we could see the first student association was formed, the first few CCAs [co-curricular activities] were formed and the start of a university to me was looking at the first cohort starting all of the things, not only the new classes but also the new CCAs and so on. First yah…everything that was started in that first year was a first.
When we were ready to admit the first batch, we then invited applications. So there were advertisements and then the applications came in and, it was, I still remember looking at the applications and, we were very happy with the fact that there were many students, very good students who decided to join a brand-new university. But for it to be the very first cohort of business students, the target was to take in three hundred students. The first hundred and fifty applicants were really good; we had no problems making our offers. And then, there was going down the list, and then we were looking at some of these students and we were saying that, “Gee if we were to adopt the criteria that were being used by the other two universities, we won’t take them in,” because if you were to go on the basis of academic results alone, both universities will not take them but because we also look at SAT and we also interview the students, then we actually found that students who didn’t make it in terms of the academic results had very good personalities and there were those who were very entrepreneurial and there were those who could see the vision of what we wanted to achieve. So we were able to, at the end of the whole admissions exercise accept our first cohort of business students. And the first cohort actually turned out to be really very good.
It’s almost like seeing your child being given birth (laughter). It’s the first batch and I think we were very proud, particularly so in the sense that a lot of them got out and got good jobs. As time goes on, we find a lot of them are climbing up the ladders and doing very well. The same thing applied when the first batch of accountancy students graduated. So, there were two commencements that were [a] first for me at least—first batch of SMU students and first batch of accountancy students. For those of us who were involved with them, I think we were all very proud and very, very satisfied that they managed to achieve whatever they have achieved.
The first commencement is always different. As I said the first batch of pioneers are very close. In fact the only group, because it was a small group, where we almost know everybody. By the way, we also have the interesting philosophy among some of us, not every faculty agree, we tell the students to call us by first name, some do, some dare not, some of them still shy in Singapore, or maybe they’re just polite which is good too. And they’re rather close so on the first commencement, you almost feel like your own kids [are] graduating. So in some sense the feeling will never be replicated, not because we don’t like the subsequent batch more, I don’t think you can see it that way but maybe the analogy with parents…some parents will always remember their first child, not because we have favourites, but because it’s always something very different. So that was quite fun.
Convocation is like nothing people have seen, and it’s all done by the students. That’s part of our ethos also. Every convocation is organised by the students themselves. Besides the normal kind of stuff they have events, student performances that they put together, it’s quite incredible. Everybody is impressed by it. They even do a few, in my view, rather kitsch stuff themselves. It’s all done by them! Many of them were probably guys who came from national service, so the trooping of the colours, the taking of the student pledge which is a take-off from the national pledge. But these were all done by students, never done by management. If you talk to dean of students, this is where it’s also totally new for us compared to the other universities. It ties in with the whole issue of the sense of ownership. Now we can’t get students designing their own courses, but the point is, where you can give people a sense of ownership, empowerment, give it to them. A convocation exercise need not be decided by management. Lord, leave it to the students! So it’s left to them, they started all these traditions.
So I think they appeared in our third year. At that point in time, after two years in law school, we were quite comfortable with each other. Some students were more outspoken than others; some students were just very laid-back. But when we shared electives with these JD students, it was a different experience altogether. They were much, much more outspoken. They would challenge the professor in class and it was in those ways that we never imagined. They would use their experiences to ask the professor “why is the law this way? From my experience, it shouldn’t be this way. It’s wrong.” And to us, that was rather confrontational. So we were just looking at them and wondering what they were thinking but it was quite interesting because they had experiences brought along with them. They had prior experiences with the law. They came to the law school with a motive, with an objective in mind. And it was quite apparent from the questions they asked and it was quite refreshing, I must say because when we entered law school, we entered as a clean slate. So the interaction was quite interesting, I must say.
Even within my JD class, we had a range of ages. We had students from 22 to 46 years and that’s a really diverse class. We learnt a lot from each other, I think, especially those of us who are not particularly technologically savvy, we picked up a lot from our younger classmates. And I think, we literally from different generations, we do have different ways of seeing the world. And I think when we went into the electives and attended classes which were predominantly with LLB students, we could see why sometimes when the LLB students came into our classes to do a make-up class, they would get very stressed simply because the way the classes operated was very different. The LLB classes, generally speaking, they were very much on-task to finish everything in the outline that they were supposed to cover and they just needed to know the proper answer and go on. I mean, of course they’re all prepared, I am not saying they didn’t. But in the JD class, often what would happen is people would just find something that really, you know, peeved them or interested them and the discussion would just go off on a tangent and the comment we used to get is, “You guys never stop talking”. And I think, actually even for your teachers, because we were the first batch, they had to learn how to manage this class because if not, what would happen is that we would finish our three hours and not get through the outline. They hadn’t foreseen this often because, I think, maybe most of them were not experienced in teaching us but they quickly learnt that and quickly started to manage us a little better. I think we also realized that we needed to do that. So, it was actually good to add attend classes with the LLBs because we could see that there is a very different style of learning, much more functional and I guess that introduced a certain discipline into how we worked as well. But I think we hoped that we also broadened the perspectives for them.
In fear and trembling because the first batch came in in 2000 right? and I think a few of them were fast-trackers, so they wanted to graduate in 2003. That was the year SARS hit us. It was really bad because, you know, nobody is doing anything. The economy was greatly affected, especially with travel, everybody gets paranoid. So it was into that situation where we had the first few graduates. How did we put our graduates out there? (In 2004) So the economy was slow to pick up. That means hiring was not going to be at the top of their minds. So how do we get the students to be seen by the employers? Of course we had the value of internship. Some of the employers get to see them during the internship period. Then we had to sell the (graduating) students. We invited the employers onto campus and to interact with our students and to have a sense of the products that we are putting out to them. So we had networking sessions like An evening under the stars. It was in the Bukit Timah Campus. Then we had other sessions where we brought industry speakers to come in and interact with our students. And I am so happy that during the interaction, and our first batch was really very good, they told me, Ruth, your university is really different. I feel the vibes. They feel the vibes and I remember once we brought in the CEO of DBS. And he had a session with the students and there were our students putting up their hands and asking very intelligent questions, practical ones, not just theoretical. And then he answered and he took notice of a (particular) student. As we walked him out, he turned to his HR fellow and said, Get the name of that student. I want to hire him. So it is the students that were starring. So we need to put these stars into the hands of the employers. We can't have everybody (employers) come in. So we got the students to compile their CVs. Come, put all your CVs together and we then market you. Then we heard from the employers, I'm looking for a person with this and this and these qualities. Ah, I know the exact person who fits your requirement. So here's the CV. Read (about) this guy. Try him out. Interview him. We did the matching. But that is only because we knew the products, and which product will sell to which employer. So we needed to intimately know our students and know the needs of the employers. Sometimes if you just read advertisements, you miss it because it is so generic. You don't know. So developing that relationship with the employers was so critical and to give them quick response, and say hey these are three people (you can consider). The response was Ruth I cannot imagine this. You just gave me the CVs within just a few minutes. Yes, I have them ready, I know who they were. I think they will fit your requirement. Have a look at them. If they are not good (enough), let me have a look again. Maybe I didn't understand your requirements.
So that was how we put the first batch out and it was a partnership (effort). We had to work with the students, very intensely, and we've got to work with our employers. So then I am glad that our first batch all got hired. And not only hired, they went to Wow places that you thought, oh we are a young university, nobody would hire us (our graduates) but they went to the great MNCs, the banks, we even had the first $100000 student (student earning more than $100,000 pa).
I did two major internships, one smaller one. One was with the Attorney General’s Chambers and this was because I was really just wanted to have an insight into how things operated, you know, how prosecutions were done. And they had very good structured program for internships. I spent four weeks, I believe, in AGC. They actually rotated us across different divisions that they have, and they have, I believe, six or so. But we spent most of the time in the state prosecution division and criminal justice division so we were mostly working on the actual criminal cases and we got to see how prosecutors put things together. And they actually had, you know, hands-on things that we had to do including writing, if you like, the charge paper, doing sentencing, summaries and all these things and actually going to court. They had a mock thing when we had to go to court and pretend to be prosecutors in a plead-guilty mention. So all these were very interesting and I had a very good mentor in the AGC, who actually, I think above and beyond, was trying to explain how the thinking goes in AGC and I think this is very useful now because I do criminal defense work and it helps me to see the case from the perspective of the prosecutor and it helps me to understand how the prosecution might be thinking about this case. That, I think, is a unique insight that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
The other very special internship was the Singapore Academy of Law litigation internship program, which lasted about also 4 weeks I believe. This was very special because it had an attachment to the Subordinate Court and an attachment to the Supreme Court, a short attachment to AGC, and then about 2 or 3 weeks when we were attached to a senior council. And this is really unique because you don’t get these insights and I think the best part for that was we were at the Subordinate Court, the judges were talking to us and, you know, interacting with us in a way that, I think, as practitioners, you would never have access to the judges this way. And they actually could give their point of view on many things and share what they thought were important, and not just in terms of any given case but what is important for you as a lawyer to be doing, what you should bring to the table and things like that. So that was a very unique experience. And of course tailing the senior council you get to see how he thinks and how he prepares his cases. This was yeah, good fun. These are things that, I think, the fact that it was a compulsory internship program never felt like a burden. It actually felt like an amazing opportunity.
These were the students who actually were sold on the idea of the fact that we were going to offer them something different. Our, our pedagogy is not going to be lectures and tutorials; we’re going to have a seminar-style teaching pedagogy. They’re going to do projects and so on and there was quite, quite a lot of excitement when the first cohort came in.
Interviews with pioneer students
Interviews with pioneer students
Interviews with pioneer students
Interviews with pioneer students
Interviews with pioneer students
Interviews with pioneer students
I think the first two batches reacted to them extremely well. I think they came with the expectation that it was going to be different. They were happy to have a different way of learning, and I think they were a lot more enthusiastic. They were more willing to ask questions.
Sure, I mean, in terms of facilities there were a lot of things that were not as freely available. So for example, the library facilities weren’t as great as the other two universities when we first started. Now we have this spanking fabulous library. A lot of things that we have now, we didn’t have it then. The great thing about the first couple of batches, were that they were so innovative. They make do with what they have and they make the most out of everything that they have. There were no CCAs [Core Curricular Activities], we didn’t plan for CCAs. The students started their own CCAs.
Whilst camps in NUS and NTU were planned by students, with fun as the primary objective, the planning team decided that SMU’s freshmen leadership and teambuilding camp should also have a learning objective in addition to fun. As there were no senior students, staff & faculty volunteered to be instructors and were trained by an expert on team-building techniques. They served as group leaders leading the freshmen in various team-building activities. The activities were designed to get students working in teams, interacting and strategising on the best approach to completing a task, and having fun at the same time. Each activity was intended to impart one or more of the CIRCLE Values. For example, there was the trust fall activity involving a person falling backwards from table height into the arms and hands of a group. This demonstrates the importance of commitment, responsibility & excellence without which it could be disastrous. Each activity was followed by a debriefing to discuss the lessons learnt. The first camp took place at the site of the current Copthorne Orchid Hotel at Bukit Timah. After 2005, with the increase in student intake, the camps were moved to the Outward Bound School. Currently, senior students take on the role of group leaders leading the freshmen. They are trained by managers in the Office of Student Life. The safety aspect is handled by the Outward Bound School.
I have to tell you separately something that happened. One of our staff members had been to the Singapore Zoo, and made the commitment that the university would adopt an Orang Utan, and she came back and told me this and I think it was five thousand Sing dollars. And I said, “What are you talking about, how can we do this, how can we use MOE funds to adopt an Orang Utan, this is ridiculous,” and I can see NUS and NTU saying, “Well it’s a noble purpose but these are MOE funds”. So she said, “Where will we get the money?” So I said, “Well look at those students, give it to one of the student teams as a project, that that will be their project to raise the money and organize this.” And not only did they, but it became a huge thing. It eventually became what was called Project Primate and the purpose of which was to not only adopt the Orang Utan but to educate people [about] how destruction of the rainforests was endangering various species. Because they’d gone to the zoo and talked to people and they really got very interested in this.
And so one thing they did, the event that was going to be the fundraiser, they had several things and then one big event. Do you remember back then the buses used to often be wrapped, maybe they still are with advertisements. So it was SMU Project Primate. And I think the bus company donated that and various things at all spots and then the final event was at Club Zouk. And Club Zouk said, “If you come in before nine pm, we’ll charge the admission fee but then we’ll give it to Project Primate” and they had all sorts of things going on at this nightclub at which I showed up. But here’s the one I never expected.
That was the one and when people say, “What did you do at SMU that you never expected to do?” and I said, “Hold an Orang Utan in a nightclub”. That was the one. The way the Orang Utan’s looking at me is really quite hilarious. Well I go up to say, “Thank you everyone and one of the projects, one of those things…,” and this nice zookeeper hands him to me and I think “What?” but then I thought, “Well if the handler knows he must be safe, then I guess it must be safe to hold the Orang Utan”, which I held him for at least 15 minutes, maybe closer to half an hour and it was quite hilarious. Then they told me it was very funny but they raised the funds, they raised more than $5000. So it was just a wonderful example of [how] a team and they were only first year students, really ran with it and showed it could be done. So I always remember that as an example that to me that was a great sense of fulfilment that it could work and it can work in Singapore.
I was very thrilled to receive the post-graduate scholarship, the Kwa Geok Choo scholarship. As you know, she was Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew, she was a lawyer herself, she was a mom. And to me, I thought this was one of the best things I could receive because she represented, to me, someone much much more skilled than I am, but in the same situation, at least as a lawyer, as a mom. And I felt that that was very inspiring. She was a very good role model, if you like, from that perspective.
I think the, the trying to bring in the first batch of students was very challenging, because you are coming up with a product that’s not seen at all. You got no building, no track record, and you’re supposed to persuade these young people who’ve got choices, you know, to come to you. So we had to go and give talks et cetera, and to tell them about the distinctives of SMU. And yeah, and I think part of it is to believe in it yourself. You’ve got to believe in it then you can persuade them to believe in it. So you give quite a lot of talks, and I would say that the first batch was reasonably good, you know. There were those who were adventurous enough to join us, but there were those who preferred to play safe and they went to NUS and NTU. So it was a challenging task trying to get the first batch of students, but I think we did reasonably well.
The recruitment process wasn’t too terribly difficult because spaces in Singapore for tertiary business education was somewhat limited and it’s rather popular. Most of the students and parents were a little apprehensive of this new university. They were very inclined to ask the same question, “Is this university government-recognised?” I think they’re comforted when we told them that there is an Act called the SMU Act passed in parliament, that we are funded by the government. And that the people that put together this new university were originally from the two national universities. There were also parents who asked, “Can we guarantee that after their son or daughters graduate, that he will be employed?” Of course we very boldly said, “Yes, we can guarantee that.” Now think about this, we have three years or four years to work on this child. At the end of three years and four years if we can’t find this gentleman or young lady, a job, I think we should close the university.
Things were a lot simpler for us because of the initial group of students. They like to call themselves the pioneers of SMU. They are obviously a very different lot who dare to sign up for a university. At that point in time when we were marketing, we have no premises. And all we were selling was a dream. I think these are the sort of people with that sort of drive and sense of can-do and adventure, they will succeed. No amount of teaching I think, can teach them that sort of drive. This initial group of students then help us to recruit subsequent batches of students.
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.”
I was incredibly happy, I have to say that. What we called, who coined the term I don’t remember, “The pioneer class.” I think I did, because I remember saying, who are these students that would choose a university that has no track record whatsoever and who, when they applied, there was nothing physical. The first class are really dear to my heart. And the person who was named Dean of the business school, Tsui Kai Chong, Kai Chong was just wonderful, in organizing things, in really having the class bond, having some activities that really pulled them together. It was such a wonderful class, I always call [them] the class of 2000 although they graduated later. I think people were really happy, partly because some people including the organizing team had been working on this for two to three years, so finally something you’ve been planning happen, there was a great sense of fulfilment.
So it was interesting talking to the students and getting to know them and I have to say that where they were great was they were willing to take up every challenge and opportunity given to them. And that’s where I’d like to go. I remember a course. I wanted a course in leadership and teamwork, because I feel once again, that in business [and] in real life, you work a great deal in teams. It’s not individuals, you work a great deal in teams and that traditional education does not prepare you to do that. So there was a course at the Wharton School that had been developed when I was undergraduate dean. And the students have to, as part of this [leadership] project, part of this course, have to do a project.
I think this bunch of students were very great, you know. They had an X-factor. They dared to take on the challenge, and they want to show that they are pioneers that will establish SMU’s name. Yeah, that’s a great attitude.
The pioneer class may be described as entrepreneurial, loving challenges and willing to think out of the box. Immediately they started forming clubs to enhance the level of student life. These students set the tone for future student leaders, which is why student life in SMU today is very vibrant. Many of the clubs such as Eurythymics and Guitarrissimo continued to flourish today, setting high standards for themselves and even organizing public concerts each year. Having taught at other local universities, I would describe campus life there as impersonal, with little interaction between faculty, staff and students. In SMU, at the outset, we decided that we would encourage a ‘family’ concept with fewer barriers between faculty and students. Our small classes and interactive teaching pedagogy also enabled faculty to know students better. Students were not afraid to approach faculty to discuss issues. It was not unusual for faculty to participate in activities of students. Many of the faculty, for instance, joined the pioneer students on a 3-day cruise at the end of their first year.
One of the things that I find very valuable is the fact that a lot of our faculty have developed a very close bond with our students and so, as a result of that, the students also in turn develop a very close bond with the university. And if we build on that and also the fact that we take a lot of effort to make sure that we give our students a holistic experience—you can have seminar-style, you can have class participation and so on—but it’s the total experience in the university that the students take away with them.
And if we make sure that we maintain that and when our students leave the university, they feel that we have truly value add to them, then I’m not so worried about the fact that the other universities will catch up with us. They can catch up with us in terms of some of the methodology and so on, but what is personal is the relationship that the students build with the university and with the faculty. And of course, we have to continue to innovate. Every so many years, we have to sit down and relook what we have done, we have to relook our curriculum to see, “Are we still relevant? Are there areas we need to change?” and if we continue to innovate, then I think we should be able to stay maybe one step ahead of our competitors, maybe not three steps like we had before but at least, always one step ahead of our competitors. Then I think we’ll be all right.
We wanted students to be participative in class because we wanted to groom a group of students that will stand out when they graduate. We made a very deliberate decision that the students coming to SMU may be not much different in terms of their schooling, but when they get out, they must be very different. So in our selection process, we interviewed every student. So if you came to an interview, if you just kept quiet, chances are we will not have that student. So it’s a selection process, we decided to put students together. We also know that if a group of people who know each other for a while, and if they sit in class, they will be naturally noisier, because you’re comfortable with. So what we did was before term started, we have teambuilding with the students. The first group, the pioneering batch, the faculty went with the students to do the teambuilding. Subsequent batches we send them to Outward Bound School in Pulau Ubin. So once you get to know each other there, in class they will naturally be noisier, you know choose to speak. But what we also very deliberately did was that when we go for all of these team buildings, the teams, we kept them intact. We put two or three of this team into a class.
The students were rather enthusiastic and so and then, and one week before the exams, nearly died of heart attack, because they’re obviously not studying. And I was walking around telling the students, please study, you know, we do kick you out if you don’t do well. Their view is that, no it’s an American system; no one fails in the US system. I said, no we do kick people out, this is still Singapore. And as a result of which, after the first semester, I remember having an emergency meeting in the Tanglin Community Club in the backroom with now judge of the appeals, Andrew Pang, Phang Sock Yong and a few other senior faculty about the results. We had one third of our students, a hundred plus of them, with a GPA of below two. That was term one.
Yes...that was term one. We could’ve, obviously, moderate the grades such that more of them would pass but we decided against it, because that would not be a true reflection of, not the abilities, but the efforts. With that in mind, we also made the rule, there and then, in that basement, that three strikes and you’re out. And that’s how that rule came about. That they allowed three terms with GPA of three and below, and thereafter, we’ll have to ask them to leave.
They were always a very good bunch of people to be with, they’re extremely open. We also did something that the other university did not succeed in doing, which is to have an open dialogue with the students every time. You will notice that none of SMU students write letters to the press to complain about SMU. Not yet. The rule then was, if we have a problem, let’s discuss it, and let’s solve them together.
SMU, in class, one of the assessment components was participation. So that was sometimes 20% of the grade, so we were made to speak up in class. We were made to ask questions when there were speakers. That really encouraged us to speak up. As Singaporean, you don’t really speak up but that really encouraged us to speak up when something is at stake. And I particularly like the presentations that we need to do as part of our curriculum. Usually, we would have a hypothetical to discuss within the group, and we were made to present our answers or our solutions to the hypothetical after that. I particularly liked the magical moment whereby we finally found the solution to the hypothetical and the group presented it in a way we thought was correct.
When we got the [first economics students] in, I told them from the beginning that I want to have lunches with them, and I sort of calculated—ten students at a time—so five lunches in the first five weeks, one group per week. The first group was very worried, why were they invited by the dean, to say the thought that I said earlier, “Did you do something wrong?” Then they showed up, very nervous. No one wanted to sit next to me. Then when they’re finally seated, I told them order whatever you want, I’m paying. They didn’t know what to do, they didn’t exactly how to deal with me. But the second batch, they heard from the first batch that I’m paying and it doesn’t matter what they order, they can order anything. They were ordering the most expensive dishes, they learn very quickly.
We have kept touch since then, and as a matter of fact, they just had the farewell party for me a few days ago. It was held in the Vanilla Bar & Café in the central business district which is run and solely owned by one of them. More than sixty percent of them went into the financial sector—banks, investment firms—because the combination of finance and economics was a very interesting and demanding, but these are very bright kids and they handled the programme very well, and quite a few of them went into the double major or double degree arrangement. The [student] who runs Vanilla Bar & Café was one such case and she started working for a bank or an investment firm after she graduated. In less than one year she realised that she really wants to have a restaurant and run it, and so she resigned and opened this Vanilla Bar & Café. She does everything—she does the marketing in the morning, she cooks, she develops different dessert products, and of course she manages the finances of it.
Well, I actually handed out the first degrees ever from SMU, and this was the summer of 2003, July of 2003. And there were I would say thirty-two or thirty-three Master of [Science in] Applied Finance. So I handed out their degrees in the auditorium, we had a ceremony. So what's interesting is later on I used to have to remind President Frank and the Provost, Tan Chin Tiong, they talk about well SMU's got these undergraduates and we're going to having to be going towards graduate student and I say, Don't forget, our very first graduates were master's students,
We had a group of junior college teachers with us. They were interested to find out what we are doing and our selection process and the sort of people that we want to select for the programme, because we had a bunch of rather noisy, enthusiastic and very articulate students walking around campus. And one of the teachers among that group asked me, “Where do I get those students from?” “We got it from you.” She replied, “But they are not like that when they are with us in JC.” Well I answered, “Because you don’t allow them to.”
Another very memorable thing – I don’t know whether anyone has mentioned – I think at that time our students were starting their second year. NUS Business School sent us an invitation to have our students participate in their case competition. We were a bit apprehensive because we had our students in the beginning of second year. Nevertheless we sent a team. And then, so the competition was held. And the day after the competition there was a blackout on the news, because SMU won. (some laughter) There were three teams from SMU [should be NUS], three teams from NTU and one from SMU. SMU won, you know. And the judges asked, “Hey, where did you get the students from?” And in fact I asked one of the students, the team members, I asked him, “So what did you all do?” And he told me, I think his name’s Byron, I think he said, “Actually, we just doing it like we do it in class.” So our seminar style teaching with the requirements of presentations and all that is actually extremely good. Apparently what our students did was that four of them, the four of them did simultaneous presentations, with PowerPoint but people interjecting back and forth. And that was so different, because the traditional one is that four of you, you know, each one stand, sit down, stand, sit down, yeah. So the SMU team just blew the judges away. It’s very interesting to see that, you know, such a young university at that time could come up with something pretty good. And from time to time when I spoke to parents, it’s very interesting what they tell me. They say that just after a term at SMU they can see changes in their child, son or daughter. And they find that the son or daughter has become much more confident, much more eloquent, actually. And that’s the refrain you hear from employers. I think it is the result of having to do presentations in your three to four years of studies. And it’s quite challenging, and you can see it, because before the presentations, you can see the students pacing up and down, repeating, you know, rehearsing what they’re going to say and all that. And so at the end of about four years, having done about 30 over presentations, with different combinations of people, you’re very good at presenting, and also reasonably good at dealing with people in a team, some people are slackers and all sorts of things. So I think that the experience is very beneficial for our students.
After year one, we received an invitation to participate in a case competition organised by NUS. Typically we would send year three and year four to a case competition because these students would have gone through most of the programme and would have probably have done strategy. You must remember we only finish year one. I was asked to send a team. So we trained a team and send that team to NUS. And that team emerged champion, beating year three and year four, from NUS and NTU. We also had another success one semester later. We send another team to Copenhagen. Another team, not the same team.
Not the same student. We beat I think, 11 other international teams in Copenhagen to emerge champion. The strategy there is the same. All we did was tell the students, “Go there, please don’t be last.” Because the case competition is a mere game. If you succeed at the case competition does not mean that you will succeed in life. Winning is fine, not winning is okay. Go out there and make friends. And that’s the reason why we do not send the same team twice. We want to expose this experience to as many students as possible.