Yes, sure. Before SMU, that was before 2005, depends on how far we go back, well if I could, let’s go back to the days before I entered academia. I actually joined as a police officer in the Singapore Police force at 18 years old for quite some time, then did my undergraduate studies at NUS [National University of Singapore]. And somewhere in the early 90s, that’s when I began to get interested in Psychology, which is the field that I am trained in now. And I decided to leave the police to go to academia, where I got a scholarship from NUS, National University of Singapore. And that comes together with a bond, where they paid for my PhD education in the United States, came back and I served as an Assistant and then Associate Professor with them for a couple of years. And how I came to SMU was actually, somewhere around 2003 or 2004, Professor Tan Chin Tiong, who was then the Provost of SMU, read about me in one of the alumni magazines that NUS produces and he thought that “Hey, that’s a Singaporean guy there doing Psychology” and I only knew later that he said he felt that we need him to come and start some psychology programme and so on. He contacted me, asked me out for lunch, and I said yes, and then the semi-offer was kind of made over lunch. At that time, I didn’t say yes, I didn’t say no either. I was saying let me think about it. To be very honest, I went back to my office, went back to normal and didn’t think much about it for one year. Why? Because I was actually on the tail end of completing a longitudinal study at NUS then, trying to look at the effectiveness of a scholars’ program. Obviously, it would be unethical to leave when you are still in the middle of study. So it didn’t occur to my mind that I should leave then. When the study was over and it was time to think about my next phase; that was when I had the connection again with Chin Tiong, with SMU. That was a year later after that lunch. And then I got bit interested to be part of something new, then came for the job interview, that was at the old campus at Bukit Timah, somewhere around early 2005 I think. I got the job offer and started with SMU in 2005, July, which was exactly the same time that the Bras Basah campus started functioning.
Well, when I first joined, it wasn’t a School of Social Sciences. It was School of Economics and Social Sciences. And actually it was predominantly economics, the faculty were like, I think, there were like 30 over, maybe 40 over economists and like two or three social scientists. Well, economics is part of social sciences in the broader sense of the word. But the way we use it here was that social sciences is, whatever in social sciences that is not economics, and the university at that time, before I came, had already decided to develop majors in psychology, sociology and political science. So at that time, social sciences composed of these three disciplines, and economics was separate. It was very obvious at that time, the Dean was Bobby Mariano, of course Chin Tiong was the Provost and I did realize after I said yes to come to SMU was that their plan was for me to come and help set up the social science aspect of it. At that time, of course I believe the understanding was still within the school, with a possibility that if things work out, it might become two schools and so on. Nothing was said to me at that time but very soon after I started, Bobby, the dean actually asked me, and said “Could you be the associate dean?” At first I said no, and the reason was that, well, I wouldn’t want to join the school on the first day and become the associate dean, because being the associate dean is not about your academic knowledge but about the understanding of the administration and so on. And there are senior people around and I believe the school can definitely function without an associate dean in social sciences for one term at least. So I said no at least for the first term and I think it was only in the second term and maybe even towards the end of the first year, that I agreed to take up the job because it becomes quite obvious that at that time, my inputs were being sought and I needed to give inputs and having the associate dean, or agreeing to do the associate dean, was actually helpful because you can actually be in a legitimate position to get certain things going. So then I became their associate dean that lasted for a year, and for various reasons, the SMU leadership decided to form two schools out of the one school and so then we had School of Economics and School of Social Sciences and naturally I was then the associate dean and so I became the interim dean of the school of social sciences for a year, and subsequently we did an international search and had a new dean from overseas came and took over and I went on to become the vice provost in the university and headed the office of research and also took care of the post-graduate research programmes for about a year or so, maybe a year or two, and then I became the Deputy Provost also a year later.
I think if you look at cohesion in a very large board sense, you need to first understand differences. Cohesion comes about or the necessity for cohesion comes about only because of differences. In other words, because there are differences, then there is a need for cohesion, if everybody thinks the same, act the same, has the same view point, cohesion is not relevant. Because we have differences and together with differences, there would be disagreements. The issue then becomes how do we manage those. And traditionally, we think in terms of race and religion in Singapore, and the government is very careful because of our history of racial riots, to make sure that the races and religion respect each other, that no one should dominate, and that is a secular state, and that when things happen, the state will step in and try to arbitrate and make sure that everything sort of goes well. That has been the model, and it has worked very very well if you compare our country’s social and religious harmony with everybody else in the world. However, there are new emergent group differences, such as differences between people having very different strong beliefs, say there will be a group that is for capital punishment and another group that is against. Of course your traditional ones, which is not really an issue in Singapore, but people who so call believe that abortion is okay and others who believe that abortion is not okay. Those words are extremely loaded isn’t it? I mean, pro-life and pro-choice. I mean how can you not be pro-choice and how can you not be pro-life. And the problem with such dichotomies is that it tells us, they suggest to us that they’re opposites and you can never maximize their respective goals together, which is something that I do not believe in. I believe that life is not a balance, it’s not that when one view goes up, the other view must go down. In other words, it calls for a compromise all the time. I think that many differences are due to either misunderstanding, or the failure to realize that there are also other important issues that we both care about and agree on. And so my approach to this is that cohesion need to understand that differences are not bad things. If we don’t have differences, as one of my article goes, titled “we are in trouble”, it means we all think alike and we could all be happily wrong together. So you need to allow to have differences, the question then is how to manage them, and also how to look at the differences, from which you emerge something that is better than each of the respective views. And that gives an example of LGBT versus certain religious conservative views, that LGBT is just morally wrong. Now those are differences which are going to clash inherently because they are moral views, and you don’t expect one side to change the other side. What do you do? Now in those instances, do you fight? Do you go all the way and try to stop the others from their beliefs and activities? Now if you do that, we will all be sort of in trouble together. My approach is for people who are advocating LGBT and people who are advocating against it, to ask yourself, are there something else about our identities beyond our sexual orientations or our sexual orientation beliefs, and the question has to be yes. If for example, you and I are Singaporeans, it doesn’t matter whether one is gay and the other is not or one advocates and one is anti. The question is that surely we can function harmoniously, solve problems together, despite this particular difference that we cannot work about. And that’s where psychology and social science research comes in. We realize that we all have different social identities, could you activate certain identities such as citizenship, such as respect for human dignity, respect for social harmony, that these beliefs can be activated in addition to your moral beliefs about LGBT whether you’re for or against. I think that’s where science can help and that’s where SMU and other institutions try to promote or enhance diversity, especially when it enters into so-called morality issues like LGBT, one needs to be a bit careful. The question is not should you talk or not talk about LGBT. My position is a bit different from the government. The government’s position is that we do not rock the boat in some sense because we go along with what the social values think about. My position is that at some point, you do need to talk. When do you talk and not talk about an issue, be it LGBT or otherwise, it should be guided by our beliefs in certain common values. If we believe in social harmony and respect for human dignity, and we probably do, why can’t we let these two values guide us when to talk and not to talk? When it becomes very clear that the debate is threatening our social harmony, perhaps it’s time to take a pause. But when it becomes clear that one particular groups’ dignity is being threatened, being discriminated, our value for respect for human dignity needs to come to the fore and therefore we need to talk, such as meritocracy or fairness being threatened, we need to talk because those are our core values. And so my position is not, not to talk, but when to talk.
Well, I was appointed as a member of the National Council on Problem Gambling. And as a member, I chair a subcommittee on research. But at the same time, I was actually co-chairing the international advisory panel, that advises both the Cas well as another initiative which is the National Addiction Management Service that belongs to the health area where of course gambling is one of the several other addiction possibilities such as alcohol or substance abuse. Our Council has statutory powers; it is part of the Casino Regulatory Act. So we started before the government decided to have the casino and as we all know at that time, when the casino started, it was a big social issue. There were debates about it, the population was split sort of in the middle of for and against having casinos in Singapore. Of course, it’s done deal now, and it has been for several years, and our primary aim at that time was to ensure that, to address not gambling per se but issues of problem gambling. And we were amoral about the issue of gambling, so we do not say that gambling is good or bad, but we say that gambling can lead to problem gambling and you need to address problem gambling. Now how does that relate to research at SMU? At that time, the Council we have about 18-20 people, I was the only academic on it, and research was very important when we first started. It’s still important now because you need to know what’s going on in the Singapore context. There were not much, in fact, there may not be any systematic research on problem gambling in Singapore. And gambling behaviours are affected by of course your social cultural context. So research was very important and again immediately, as I said earlier, that you’re able to apply your technical knowledge and research skills into the real world. It becomes very real. That was something quite separate from the university and we did not actually work together. I was doing it in my individual capacity as a professional, so called “national service”. But several years ago, there was already when I was doing problem gambling for some time, the MSF, Ministry of Social and Family Development, actually approached me as the Director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute to ask whether our institute could do a piece of research with the ministry on problem gambling. And we talked, I talked to the President about it, we decided yes, and so we then worked on a few years long programme of research on gambling. And so we got actually, I have actually seven researchers, seven faculty members working with me on that.
Well, in quite a number of developed countries, you have a social sciences research council or its equivalent by whatever name you call it, where they specifically not only do funding of research grants, giving out research grants, but chart the directions of areas where the nations should invest their resources in. Social research and social sciences research is very broad, they would include your political science, sociology, psychology and so on. As way back as about 15-20 years ago, when I first came back, soon after I came back from my PhD, I came back in 1998 with my PhD, I felt it was very important for us to set up a social sciences research council. I am very sure I was not the only one who thought that. But it dawned upon me the importance of it, especially many things about social behavioural, and we need to complement the STEM, the Science, the Technology, the Engineering, and Mathematics part of it, we use STEM for short. And so there was a situation where I, after I joined SMU, that’s more than 10 years ago right, there was, if you recall an Economics Strategy Committee, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman, [Tharman Shanmugaratnam], and they did organize a session, where they invited the representatives from then the three universities to share their views about economic strategies of the nation. And in the audience were of course senior civil servants, but there were about half the cabinet ministers, half the ministers in the cabinet were there, including the DPM himself. And I happen to represent SMU to convey our report. Among the many things that we said, there was one bullet point which I smuggled in, and say that we must set up a social sciences research council, so at least for sure we know that that got some attention, because the civil servants did feedback to me to say that, yes there was a possibility that they were looking at it. But I am sure many people would have given the government that idea, and I am not the only one and probably not the first one. And then there was IAAP [International Academic Advisory Panel], the universities are being advised by the International Academic Advisory Panel, and we understood from the media that several years ago, when they came, the government and the panel also discussed a possibility of setting up the council. Then the ideas at least went public and said that it seems like a good idea, we should set it up. From that announcement, which was about probably two, three years ago, until recently, about half a year ago, the decision was made then to set up the council. I’m fortunate, together with Lily Kong, our provost, to be part of this 15-18 members of the council.
Yes. If you recall, the decision to join SMU was exciting, not to take risk, but to be part of something new and that was really what it was, because I had to start a new school. The decision to have two schools was made in as far as we can tell, in a relatively short time. So once the decision was made and announced, basically the school will be on your own and you had to get things going. It was interesting. There were two things. One, you want to make sure that the existing students are taken care of, that the transition is smooth. At the same time, the school is attractive enough for people to want to join you, both the faculty members, as well as the students. So first, you need to make sure that you’re building the house in place, get your pillars, you know, okay. And that wasn’t too difficult for me, fortunately, because of my work experience, both in NUS and in the police. It was not too difficult to know what needs to be done. It was hard work but it wasn’t like, okay, I have a problem, how do I actually solve this new problem. So like any startup of a new university, it was not difficult but it was hard work. What was interesting was to make sure you balance the socio-political aspects of starting a new school because we are still in the same building with the School of Economics, they at the 5th floor and we were at the 4th floor, then questions will naturally arrive about the sharing of facilities, and things like that. Fortunately, the SMU leadership was very supportive of the new school. We had very good, a small but very good administrative staff to help me and together we basically put together schemes, school policies, handbooks, recruitment. I still remember that within the year that I was the interim dean, I attended each and every job talk of a faculty member, and we hired 12 members, 12 new faculty members within a year, which was kind of record breaking. But before we hired each, for each one we hired, we had at least four to five people that we interview, so you can imagine the number of job talks that we were all enjoying sitting through them.