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.
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.
By the very nature of an institution that started out living in one room—I guess that’s the nature of this—people got to know one another very, very closely. And then of course we got to two rooms and three rooms and we grew a little bit bigger. There was a great sense of interaction between the chairman and the president and the members of the board who were coming on. Ron Frank [Ronald Frank] was the other overseas academic member of the board. And Janice at that point was the first president. So, Janice, Ron, myself, Chin Tiong [Tan Chin Tiong], with KP [Ho Kwon Ping] coming in—he’s never short on enthusiasm and ideas and questions—they would often send us off into areas we had never really anticipated going into. There was just so much to do.
I guess today everyone would say there’s so much to do as well, but it had a different drumbeat to it back then. There was nothing that was not possible. We were the brand new kid on the block, being premium funded at three to four times what the others were doing. In a way, we knew that that was going to come to an end, but that’s a long way away. At the moment it’s still coming in; we’re discussing new buildings, new courses. You give your right arm if you are really into and love universities; you’d give your right arm to be in the middle of something like that. And because Singapore is so serious about a quality development of its higher education system, you didn’t feel as though you were spinning wheels or wasting time.
I’ve been on advisory bodies for start-up universities—which is a good and true endeavour, it’s a community service that you do, it’s necessary to engage in that from time to time—but nothing quite like SMU, which had the particular attention of the Government. In many other areas where I’ve seen new institutions come together, the government has put them together; you’ve got a new body emerging because they’re trying to solve a problem. It’s arisen out of a divorce or they’re trying to prevent a divorce of institutions. Whereas SMU was greenfield, totally fresh, had funding at an appropriate level, had a group of people whose capacity was beyond question. The one danger, I guess is we simply got ahead of ourselves, we’d raced from point A to point E, without realising we should have covered B and C along the way. Then you look back and, oh, we better take care of that. It was a very good time.
I thought it would be nice to set up a centre for cross-cultural studies. And so I met with Chin Tiong and I said, I've got this idea. So he said, why don't you write it out? So I did a preamble and everything and shared it with Kai Cheong. And they were very excited, they said, wow, this is great, why don't we do it?
And this was a new initiative, and this was November 1999; we were ready to go, you know.
The centre for cross-cultural studies sounds a little bit pedantic, sounds a little bit academic. And what does the man in the street have to do with a centre of cross-cultural study? So I was talking with Kwon Ping [Ho Kwon Ping], and I said, KP, maybe we need a name for this centre, which is not like this, named after a person. We came up with a few names, and Mr Wee Kim Wee, his was one of the names. And KP, myself, Janice [Janice Bellace] and Chin Tiong, the four of us met and we talked about it. And we finally said, Mr Wee is a good example. Because basically, he came from nothing to something, his education was pretty low, and then he educated himself. Then he joined the media, and he rose from a rookie to the head of state. This was an example of a cross-cultural, inter-cultural person. You know, he looks Chinese and all that and yet he hardly spoke a word of Chinese, he was so comfortable in Malay. So he really embraced the whole idea of diversity. And so we approached him and asked to use his name and he said okay with two conditions. One is, my name shall not be used to make profits, and he said, my name will be used to educate the larger community. Because he said, you're already educating your own students, they're there and they're yours. But he said, people outside the university also need to benefit from the university's expertise, knowledge and all that. So those were the two conditions. So we agreed. And that's how the Wee Kim Wee Centre came to be.
Well, the first day was quite interesting. Because I am not the new person, right, because the campus is new, so everybody, even if they have been with SMU for a number of years, are stepping into a campus new. And therefore, they are new in a different sense. So no attention was focused on me, which was great. And I can be as confused and blur like everybody else, as we would say in Singaporean English, “blur”, like confused. So it does allow every one of us to ask each other what about this, what about that, and point to the same thing and said, “look at that, how interesting”, or “look at that construction piece, I can’t believe it’s still there”. And that gives you a kind of common bond, if you like, something common to speak about. And I think from a psychological perspective, we are in need together to try to make sense, so the sense-making process was not lonely. It was everybody trying to make sense together. So that was what I remembered about it, not so much about the first day in class and things like that. Of course, subsequently, when you start teaching, then you began to see the differences between the students in NUS and SMU, the nature of the pedagogy and so on.
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.
There was a lot of excitement in the air, the first day in the life of a new university. The students had earlier attended the freshmen team-building camp and knew each other well. Hence, there was a carnival atmosphere with faculty and students interacting with each other. I remembered Mahesh who eventually became the first president of the Students Association ‘monkeying’ around dressed in robes and trying to amuse his new-found friends. The first teachers were the senior faculty who came from NUS and NTU, together with new staff such as Saw Cheng Lim and Lim Pey Woan. I sensed that the students didn’t have much difficulties adjusting to the teaching style. They had applied to SMU because they preferred studying in small classes, the seminar-style, interactive teaching approach as well as the class participation, presentations and project work.
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)
First day of class was quite interesting I think. I remember, I for example, I was teaching the first class in Financial Accounting and here was a group of, I think it was about 35 to 40 students in the class and I was trying to explain what is a seminar style, how is it different from lecture and tutorial style and about ten minutes into that, the door opened and at that time the dean of the business school was Tsui Kai Cheong, he came in with Low Kee Yang who was the deputy dean and they came in bringing a box of Fuji apples and then stopped everybody and said, “This is the first day of class, the dean is welcoming everybody to class and we hope that you will have a very good experience with us and here is a little sweetener so everybody gets an apple.” And I thought it was kind of interesting because I don’t remember it ever being done in NUS or NTU before. So that has stuck in my mind for a while because I thought, eh that’s a very nice way of telling students, “We welcome you to something new and different”.
I just had two concerns – that all the equipment in the classrooms function, because that’s the first time we’re testing it with a live audience of that size. Most of the challenges were resources, nothing to do with the students.
I can’t think of any significant challenges, except for one. A parent called us and asked us, “Are we sure that we are able to open the following Monday?” Because she noticed that our roof is not on yet. It’s just a roof; one week is a long time. So we got that in. Day one was memorable for some of us. My deputy dean, Low Kee Yang, went around distributing apples. That was picked up by the press. I would imagine the students loved it.
At that point, when we moved in here, the library had an even smaller collection than I had anticipated. They had about 20,000 different titles and up to that point, books were being purchased on a one-off basis. Normally when you start a new library you buy an opening day collection. SMU had not done that. Individual faculty were ordering the books that they wanted and there was no collection development policy. There were no librarians to actually do a collection development policy. There was an assortment of different books based on the classes that were being taught.
The students assumed that libraries were study halls. I mean that was what they were used to. From their public library experience, the people at the desk checked out books and you were supposed to be very quiet in the library. In the beginning, I really upset the staff because I said, “not quiet”. If they are learning interactively then they have to speak to each other and it’s not our job to be police people and this is still something we are working on -- getting the students to be responsible enough to ask other people to be quiet.
Well, I had seen the board close up and seen what was happening. At board meetings I would often come in a week or more before and do some consulting for Janice, interviewing people on staff; people on faculty; giving advice as schools were starting to develop, and some of the other functions were beginning to be developed, finance and human resources and the like. So I had a pretty good understanding of the institution and the people, and I liked the people a lot. That's one of the things, maybe we can get to a little later. But the staff, the students were attractive. The students weren't there when I started, but there were there shortly thereafter. But I was confident of the people.
I had seen indirectly, a year and a half of experience with the commitments that Singapore had made to the university, which to my knowledge, they kept throughout my presidency, and throughout subsequent presidencies. And those commitments involved a substantial amount of resources.
In some ways, I'd argue Janice and I had the best possible set of conditions you could imagine to try to create a new university not that it wasn't a challenge but nonetheless, you couldn't ask for more favourable conditions in a government and in a country.
My first contact with SMU is I heard that my old friend Ron Frank had become president somewhere out in Asia. I was asked to write the history of the founding of the TIMS Marketing College there were seven old-timers that were asked while we were all still alive and with some mental faculties left, we were asked to write about how things got started. And since I'd started all this stuff, I did a lot of the write-up and so I went to a mutual friend of Ron's and mine and said, Hey, where's Ron? And so I got his email address and I sent him the paper that I had written. I said, This is going to come out in Marketing Science,and I said, You're mentioned in here but I'm not going to tell you where because otherwise you'll only read that paragraph.So I made him find it.
I had retired and Ron said, I came out of retirement, why don't you come out? Why don't you come out for a week, or a month or a semester, a year, two years? I said, Okay, how about two weeks? So that was, would have been about July '02 and so I came out in September and October for seventeen days.
That's when I kind of discovered that the university was two years old and their students had already won an international competition in Copenhagen, and good grief, that's terrific! What kind of a place are they and I had learned that they had great ambitions. It looked like the undergraduate programme was well established and going, and it was a bright young marketing faculty, the whole faculty was young nothing wrong with that because they were young and ambitious. And so I got to know the marketing faculty, and I got to know various other folks. Pang Eng Fong lived a couple of doors down from me and others, and got to know Bobby Mariano [Roberto Mariano], the dean of economics.
I remember as I was about going to be leaving for the airport [after the 2002 visit] Ron and Chin Tiong [Tan Chin Tiong] whom I Chin Tiong had visited, the provost had visited Stanford, so I got to know him then, and I knew he was here and so the two old friends of mine were the president and provost. And these guys had invited me out and I had a great time and I had finished four papers while I was here, and it was really great. They said, We want to talk to you about something. I said, Okay fine, my plane leaves in a couple of hours. And he said, We'd like you to think about becoming dean and I said What? You must be joking and they said Yes and I said, Look guys, I could come out for a semester or something and teach a course or something but I must talk with my wife, who is also my lawyer, and I have to speak about this before I so anyway. Then I got home and talked to Toby about it, one thing led to another. And she and I come out in January of '03 for a visit. The discussions went on and then in April of '03 they had the press conference, I came out for that and on May 1st I became dean, but I had to still stay in Palo Alto because of SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome]. Because I had already agreed to be at a conference at Harvard, and I thought if I come out to Asia I am liable to get stuck coming or going and not be able to get back. So I came out here in June and my wife followed me a couple of weeks later and we had a wonderful time.
I came to Singapore for the first time in 1987 and taught for a term at NUS [National University of Singapore]. And in those days, the NUS summer well I think of as summer, but there's no such thing as summer in Singapore term started in July. So I could teach in July, August and September which you couldn't do now, which is an ideal arrangement for somebody coming from England who doesn't want to take leave from his home university.
We liked Singapore a lot. It was very interesting. Anyway I liked teaching at NUS. I mean, teaching at NUS in those days was very like teaching in Bristol. It was largely by lectures and tutorials and in those days Singapore law was effectively exactly the same as English law in the field that which I was teaching.
Oh, well that must have been quite soon. I think when I was at NUS in '99, one of my best friends was Andrew Phang and his wife was in the economics department at NUS. And either while I was there or shortly after I left, she moved from the economics department at NUS to SMU. So I was aware that there was another institution. And I knew that, I mean, when Andrew of course moved a couple of years later, I don't remember exactly when but in the early 2000s.
Well, I came in one of the short terms, either 3A or 3B. I had been teaching in Australia. By this time, I theoretically retired in England. I mean retirement is actually a very theoretical concept for people who are keen to carry on in universities. So I had been teaching in Australia and the possibility of coming to SMU on the way home as it were was mooted, so I came, I'm not sure whether it was 3A or 3B, but one of the short terms. And of course there was a law department by then but there wasn't a law school. And I taught a course in contract negotiation which would be for the business school and I think most of the people doing it were non-lawyers.
In the case for SMU at that time, it was really a start-up. The planning team in SMU was still negotiating with MOE [Ministry of Education] on the start-up funding just to get it going. And the negotiation was just going on, and but meanwhile, there were people on the payroll. So fortunately they had some funding from the original institution that was supposed to create SMU and that kept it going for a few months, in fact, nearly a year. That sustained it until subsequently, when the start-up funding was agreed with MOE [Ministry of Education] that is when I have already joined the first thing I did was to cut a cheque and paid off the other one and we are completely on our own. So that was the first phase of the funding and that is how we started recruiting our initial set of faculty and staff to get the university ready for the launch.
Actually, when they called me for interview. Well briefly, I guess, in the media I've heard of the launch on Bras Basah Park, when they first launched the university. The first convocation, I believe, was held on Bras Basah Park. So I read about it in the papers, and also Kwon Ping [Ho Kwon Ping] defending SMU being sited here and the removal of National Library then. I knew about it because I was working in this area at The Substation then. So, to be part of the university then, I guess, was such a thrill because it's not every day that you get a new university starting, and it's not every day that you have the opportunity to be involved, I guess, with shaping the profile and reputation of the university.
I actually applied for the [board secretary position]. Okay, at that point in time, I thought, Oh being a secretary to the board is not an issue because I have always served with the PA Board (as the sub-secretary of the secretary). So I thought, Oh, that's something I could do. But when I came, they said, Why don't you consider being the Director of Student Life? I said: Oh, Student Life? That's really interesting. So then they told me, at that point of time we were not quite sure what it is. Then we take a look at, oh what do the directors of other university's Student Life do? So we have a vague idea, but then they asked me, Well what would you do for the students?, then I thought, Yeah, I want them to be able to be given the opportunity to develop themselves, to take on leadership, to expand their interest, and I would do whatever I can to help them along. I would have to develop this and grow with the job when I get into contact with the students. Actually, the day that I started was the day that I was put on the job immediately. It was 1st June and we had an info session with the (potential) students there and then and it was in the Revenue House and I had to tell the (potential) students what Student Life was about and to get them all excited about joining SMU. I thought, How could I do that? I haven't even started But I did some (home) work before I joined the University so I was able to share with them what I hope to do as Director of Student Life. I really loved the first batch of students. They had such faith in us. We had no facilities, no budget and we didn't even have a Student Association or a Constitution. But we were able to excite the students to come in.
And then I continued until 1999, and this is where we're coming to SMU. Early in 1999, Low Kee Yang, who had himself just been inducted into the provisional set up for SMU, saw me one day and he said, I need to talk to you. So we sat down and talked a few days later, and he interested me in SMU, and said, I think we all make a very nice team and we need somebody like you to just provide us with kind of extra perspective and looking at things and all of that. So I said, sure, I'm always ready for a new adventure. And so that's how, in July 1999, I was formally interviewed. And by then the president had been more or less appointed, President-designate Janice Bellace; and Chin Tiong, Tan Chin Tiong, was also designate provost; and Kai Cheong [Tsui Kai Chong] was designate dean. And so we had this interview in a wonderful little room called Committee Room 3, which was next to the Banyan thing, Upper Bukit Timah Road. The formal meeting took place in this thing, and then, of course, we adjourned to the sarabat stall which was next door to have coffee and tea and just talk about things. And that was more or less when I sort of became a part of the SMU founding team.
Then in the year 2000, Tan Chin Tiong, who was then the provost in SMU, actually, said, Would you like to join me in building a whole new university?� And while there was no real push factor, the pull was so attractive, because it's not often that a Singapore Government allows you to build a whole new university from scratch. And, of course, the enticement is he told me, You know, when your girls are grown and you have grandchildren and you pass by the city center, you can point to SMU and say your mum and your grandma was involved in building up this whole new institution.�
So that attraction stayed with me for a couple of months and on April 1st 2000, I decided to join SMU and I really loved that date because everyone says, Annie, you are always unconventional, you are always a little bit of a rebel, so which date do you want to join SMU? And I said, �I want to call it the April 1st decision and it's not a joke, it is a commitment and I don't think I will be running off to another university. I'd like to build a place, have strong institutional attachment to the place and I'd love to see this as the last place when I have probably the next academic career.
So in 1996, ‘97, that’s the year that you mentioned, it was when the government asked whether we, a group of us want to write a paper on the need for a third university in Singapore. And of course, a lot of us were very biased already because we have seen that there was a great need. In fact, I don’t think we need much justification since I think the government also knew. It’s purely from the demographic in Singapore, although we are getting less babies but the number of people needing university education has increased. So it was quite easy to justify. It’s more the form of the university that the government wants. Of course, they did not put any constraint.
So a group of us, both academic as well as some outside people, were asked to form the task force and write the paper on the need for a third university in Singapore. As I said, that is an easy paper to, easy project to justify. Of course, we throw in ideas [on] what it should be. So even in the early years we look at the existing two universities and said, what else is necessary. So to jump the gun, ten years later it was very obvious that both existing universities have very great British, Australian influence as a matter of necessity because Singapore was a colony before. And some of us who have experienced education as well as having friends from European and American universities, see that it’s good that Singapore may benefit from having a different type of university education. So that got put into the taskforce project quite early, American-type education and [the Singapore] government seemed to be very happy with it. So that was the start of it.
Well, you know, I think it is probably one chance in a lifetime to get involved in starting a new university. At that time, there were two universities in Singapore. When I say two universities, I’m not talking about, there were other universities around, you know, that were privately run and so on, but state universities, there were only two. And this initiative was of course fully supported by MOE [Ministry of Education], so I actually considered it quite a privilege to be invited to be involved in something like this because in the Nanyang Business School there were a few hundred faculty members and not every faculty member was invited to be involved. It was just a group of about maybe ten of us. So certainly it was something interesting, it was something exciting and something definitely different from what we were doing on a day-to-day basis. So yes, I was quite excited about that.
In that early, at the early stages, the idea was to upgrade the SIM into the third university. So those of us who formed the working groups, the main responsibility was for us to review all the degree programmes at SIM and to look at the rigor of those programmes, the coverage of those programmes to see whether or not those could be re-packaged and enhanced into business university. So the skill sets that were required were mostly the skills that were possessed by senior faculty members who have many years of experience in teaching, also experience in administration and running of programmes. So the ten faculty members that were appointed were the existing heads of divisions at that time and other senior members who were involved in different aspects of administering the programmes at NTU.
At that point in time when I was involved in the workgroup, I had not thought that I would leave NTU. I thought that it was just something extra to do beyond running a division so I wasn’t thinking of any risk at all. I was just looking at the opportunity to see whether an existing university that was run as a second chance university could be upgraded into a state-recognised university so all I saw was excitement and something really new.
The actual proposal was submitted in March of 2002, and the approval was in the second or third week of October of 2002. Now, earlier aspects of this planning had taken place in 1998, ’99, 2000, and it’s good to reflect on history what was happening in the world at that time
Well there was this explosion, and it really was unlike anything people had ever seen before, probably in the history of civilisation with the rapid spread of being able to use web pages. It really was transforming many aspects of the world. And at that time, it just didn’t exist before. Now it’s so second nature, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a world prior to the Web. So when they did the early planning of SMU in ’98, ’99, it was clear that something important was there. Clearly we have a school [SMU] about business and management and everybody in organisations are talking about, and how we can get this on the web, and how is the internet going to be incorporated into how we work, and all these new mail services that were impacting what people do at home. So I think there was just a broad sense that we needed something about infocomm. Singapore had taken a very proactive and aggressive stance about the use of computerisation in the civil service—that goes back to the early 1980s. So this was a country that had prided itself by aggressively positioning on the, in its ability to make use of computerisation, in both the public sector, the private sector, to the extent possible even in educational programmes, because they knew business wanted this manpower.
So when I came back I had gotten back in touch with Ron Frank just to see what was up, knowing that they had this pending proposal. And he notified me that it was either just about to be approved, or will be approved, or was approved, but it was right at that time basically. As I had mentioned that indeed it was approved about the second or third week of October. And now they’re approved! And they’re supposed to start a new cohort less than twelve months away, from scratch. In a situation where they really have no pre-existing curriculum, and really nobody with real experience in that area either. So Ron was faced with an interesting situation. You know they quickly had spun off an accounting school a year after SMU started, but of course, the core faculty of SMU, to a large extent had come from NTU School of Accounting. So that’s a little different, because you have them all sitting there in the first place. And I think with economics as well, they had had people trained in that area.
So Ron had the mandate of launching this new school. I was seriously thinking about transitioning back to a university-like setting, after what had been an interesting hiatus. I had left Carnegie Mellon in September 1989, and here we were in the end of 2002—I think that was about thirteen years or so that I’d been working in industry in various capacities as a practitioner of using or designing information systems and large scale automated types of environments. So it just seemed like an interesting match, and the fact that at that time there was really no formal relationship with Carnegie Mellon, and not even any relationship of much depth to speak of, other than two Carnegie Mellon faculty had done a bit of visiting and offered a few opinions on some possibilities for planning the curriculum. But that was really no more special than the types of conversations one would have with a large number of people at that stage of the planning process. But the fact that there was some involvement with CMU that way, and of course I was a prior CMU faculty member and I’d done my PhD there—it seemed just like an interesting set of things were aligning.
My somewhat longer term encounter was when SMU had just been organised and founded. And one of the very first joint programmes of SMU with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is this research funding support that SMU offers to Wharton professors to undertake a research project dealing with topics that are of interest to Singapore and the region and to be done in collaboration with SMU professors.
This was announced to the Wharton professors, and I was one of the first to apply and get the funding for such a project. So that project brought me to Singapore for two weeks with SMU in the summer of 2001. And it was funny because just as I was finishing up my two weeks’ stay I was getting some funny questions like, “Do you have any young children, or still going to school?” or “How would your wife like living longer in Singapore?” I didn’t know that there were any plans at all about economics at that time—it existed as a group or an area or a department in the school of business in SMU.
There was only one school at SMU at that time, I‘m not sure whether accounting was already set up.. But when I arrived for that stay to do the research and report on the research, the offices of SMU were in Goldbell Towers.
And it was very convenient, we were staying at the Sheraton which was right next door. I roll out of bed, go to the elevator and then sort of take a one-minute walk and I’m in the office. But the premises were so limited that we had to share offices with some people. It was nice and comfortable and I had fun for two weeks. Little did I know that I would be coming back.
Well, I had a phone call one morning. My secretary said that there is a Janice Bellace on the phone. I happened to know Janice from my international professional body—at that stage it was called International Industrial Relations Research Association and I was the president. In fact, we held a conference in Sydney in 1992. Janice was part of that, she was on the International Executive and she and I got to know one another through that. Then when SMU was being set up, I guess someone asked her for the names of people who might be brought onto the board, and I guess that’s how my name came through. It was cleared the normal way I guess, and then Janice made the phone call and I said, “Well, give me a day or two to think about it,” but I didn’t need very long. I knew I was finishing up with UNSW, it hadn’t been announced at that point, but I was beginning to think what will the bridge be. I certainly wanted to maintain involvement with Asia. And SMU was the first of my Asian involvements that started then. There’s another set that arose in Hong Kong that have run parallel with SMU.
When we first came, six of us faculty members there, we were all camped at Wah Chang House, that’s the offices of our chairman’s company. And it was quite interesting because when we walked in, we had rented the ground floor of Wah Chang House and we were looking at that and said, “That certainly doesn’t look like a university office at all.” So the very first task we did was to rearrange the ground floor, so that we could form workstations so that each of us could sit, so that took us about a week or so, we had to get new partitions, we had to redo, you know, all the offices and so on. And then we got that done and then we settled down.
It was sort of a real immersion. In other words, the day I arrived, there were 14 issues plopped on my desk to solve.
Firstly, we had no offices. The organizing committee was physically located in a room, one large room admittedly, of Wah Chang House, the chairman’s offices. And they couldn’t get one more person in there. So one thing that had to be done very very quickly was to find for a two year period, let’s say, the administrative home of the university. So I remember going around, not knowing Singapore that well, but going around looking at possible places so we could sign the lease. That was [how] we ended up in Goldbell Towers.
Another one, though and this was truly major, it had been assumed that we would be able to go into what was then the National Institute of Education, NIE, which was at what was called the Bukit Timah campus. And so in June of 1999, it was assumed, up until a few months before, that NIE would move out rather quickly and somehow this could be renovated, or at least some part of it could be renovated quickly so that we could start students in June of 2000. So we go out to NIE and are told that, “This is completely impossible because their new building had been delayed.” Once again I remembered, it was a day when it poured rain very, very heavily. It was just like, “It’s impossible.” So once again, where would we be? Secondly it was evident to me upon visiting NIE that it would need very substantial renovation and I mean very substantial. So then the next question is, “Where’s our temporary campus?” This became a wonderful question of dealing with the Ministry of Land [should be Urban Redevelopment Authority, URA] and all sorts of things because there isn’t that much land in Singapore that was suitable and we would be needing a temporary place, so that was going on. Tan Teck Meng was a wonderful help, so good at negotiating with so many people, just knew everything. Curiously it was the person who was head of NIE at that point, who made the suggestion. He said, “Let me point out a parcel here.” He said, “This you think is part of Bukit Timah campus but it is not,” and put his finger on the map and that’s where our temporary campus called Evans Road was located. But he was the one who identified it. He was very helpful.
The next thing that was going on, all these things were going on simultaneously, the next thing that was going on was of course the planning for the permanent campus, which had started already but there was this issue of where we would be. I strongly wanted a city campus, so in the summer, it must have been July or August, Marina Bay had essentially been offered as a possibility. And I was not the one who suggested Bras Basah Park, I mean I would not have known, but when it was mentioned, as if to say, this is another area that would fit, I said, “Well that would be perfect.” Well, the amazing thing is the Government agreed. What I didn’t realize is this would, would be so controversial. So that was rather humorous in one way because I didn’t realize this.
And also there was another event that occurred. The National Library was located on Stamford Road, and it was being announced right then that the National Library would be torn down, and for their current headquarters, but in the public’s mind, because it had just been announced that SMU would be on Bras Basah Park, somehow it became connected that we were also linked to the demolition of the National Library. Actually it [SMU] had nothing to do with it. It had been planned for some time, and had to do also with the tunnel that would be going through Fort Canning Hill. So it was very interesting to encounter that, but I remember going to the old National Library to essentially convey to the librarians that although we had nothing to do with it, we did regret any inconvenience due them. And I still remember, finally someone said, “You do realize, Professor, we’re very happy to be moving.” And that was very funny, because they were saying that this building is completely inadequate for a modern library of a nation like Singapore and therefore we would have to move to a new building and it has nothing to do with SMU. But that led Tan Teck Meng to realize since they would be our neighbour that at the beginning they could assist in running our library and that was a very fruitful collaboration. So this was all maybe in a two month period.
I wanted a mixed board. But I just wanted to emphasise how that is also in a way very novel, because this was a board that would be selected by me, and from here on it’s self-selecting—meaning, it’s not me anymore, it’s the whole board deciding. That’s a critical aspect of autonomy. If the board cannot be self-selecting, then you don’t have autonomy. So I want to emphasise how when you talk about autonomy, the board is important. The first board was put together by me trying to put together a number of people with diverse backgrounds, including overseas trustees too. We wanted trustees like Narayana Murthy, for example. He was important because he’s known for his CSR [corporate social responsibility] and yet he’s widely respected in India, and we also wanted Indian students. So when we chose trustees, it’s a mix of things we put in. Let’s say there are twenty trustees, I needed to have enough trustees I could fill up the committees, who would have to be resident here, so that’s one. I wanted foreign trustees to represent countries whose inputs are important to us, and who are individuals also that we wanted, we think are important. So now we’ve got Jaime Ayala [Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala], who is not only a prominent businessman but also has an interest in education.
What I wanted to do linking all the trustees is I wanted people who have—well, they all serve pro bono, that’s one important point. All the other boards that one sits on, even Temasek Boards, you’re paid. For university you’re not paid. So you’ve got to have people who have a certain passion for what they’re doing and have to believe, at the same time, that they themselves are making a big contribution. So we’ve had board members come and go, but my philosophy of it has been a) diversity is important, and b) empowerment.
We also have established clearly that we have to have governance systems that are very robust. So the board always has an executive session, where all management leaves, including the president and everybody else, and there are very rigorous discussions about, about everything. Including management, including the president, assessment of the president. Because we have, we’re aware of one responsibility we have, not just to SMU but to, hopefully, a kind of system we want to set up in Singapore.
I was involved to the extent that I asked if there could be non-Singaporeans which was happening at that time in Singapore and for the first time. And they said, “Yes and who do you have in mind,” and I said I’d like two academics because I feel it would be important to have people with experience in universities and business schools from outside of Singapore. So I did suggest John Niland who’s still on our board and a very important…I knew John, we’re in the same field, not just being in university, but we’re actually in the same field. And I knew he had just stepped down from being the Vice Chancellor of the University of New South Wales and Australia’s not too far. And I suggested another person who had just stepped down from being a dean of a business school in the US and I had known him from the Wharton School where he’d been deputy dean and that’s Ron Frank. So when I suggested that I had no idea that ten years later how this would…once again what would happen. But they said yes and those were the two. The other names were [taken] I guess [from] the organizing committee and the government had its ideas.
But when I created the accounting system and the planning system, at the back of my mind was to make it such that it helps us understand the business dynamics of SMU, more so than just trying to say this is the money we have, how do we spread it. It must be looked upon from a business perspective, so all the things that I set up was similar to a business model with revenue streams, with cost and what is the bottom line. And how do we balance the budget? Again, not just as one entity, but with all its subcomponents because we have different schools. Different schools have different needs. Different schools have different dynamics. So, again we have to be able to look at things that way. So I, in a sense, set up the system all to enable us to look at it and not just as one university and one pot of money to spread around. So, I guess, that's where I wanted to look at it very differently and so that's where I want to be different.
I created a [cost] centre, responsible for running the services that you are set up for and responsible for managing the financial resources that we are allocating to you to offer those services. That created a bit of apprehension on many because they were never held that way, to be accountable for not just what you are doing, but to manage the resources that I allocate to you. So that was quite a bit of change for many. They were very apprehensive. I guess for the obvious fact that, what if I don't have enough money to do the things that I need to do. I say, No, you are responsible, so you manage.� Of course, you have to justify your needs every year, based on what is expected of you, and we will allocate what we think we can allocate to you. So, that was one part of the journey that we went through. But after a couple of years, people got comfortable, and it worked wonderfully later on because then truly accountability and responsibility are now aligned.
Different schools have different capabilities in terms of the ability to offer programs that they can use to generate additional income to support the school. From business school, to say social sciences, they are all very different. And if we look at our portfolio of programs today, clearly business school can offer a lot more. And, therefore, they have that ability to use those programs to bring in additional revenue to support the school. But I would say if we look at social science today, that capability is much less compared to business school. That difference will have impact in terms of the financial outcome of each school. Some may end up generating surplus within the school. Some may always be in a perpetual deficit situation and we recognise that. But we cannot say -- let's get rid of the loss leaders because in the way we have structured it, they are all interdependent.
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.
And leading up also we wanted a really impressive beginning, so let’s talk about the photo there of the inaugural convocation. That was my phrase, the inaugural convocation. In the United States, the opening convocation for some universities is not huge but a rather ceremonial thing. Since we would not have a graduation, a commencement for some time, I said, “Well let’s have, make convocation, opening convocation a big thing.” And that’s where we then seized upon the idea of having this gala, sort of inaugural convocation. It was Ho Kwon Ping who selected the site, the physical location of the university would be where we were having this instead of in a nice place that was air conditioned like Suntec City. The planning that was involved in having to put, you know get the tent and all this, remember this is a very small group of people doing all this organizing to put on a major convocation under a tent on Bras Basah Park, on a day by the way when it was pouring with rain. And we had guests flying in for this, and we decided to have some very exciting academic conferences at the same times. It was just quite amazing, and the Ministers would be there, Deputy Prime Ministers etc. It was very hectic.
The other thing when I look at this photo -- the small things that you never think of when they say you know if you agree to be the first president. Selecting the gowns that we wear, the academic gowns, but I’m very proud of the fact that they have zippers so that everybody looks very neat. The British don’t, things are always gaping, and I say women always look terrible in them. That’s why you have such a neat appearance except for the ones that are British, which are the ministers and the chair.
And the other thing was the mace which I had never in my life thought about. Tan Teck Meng and myself with the mace. Oh by the way the first six months, we picked the logo too, the tangram lion and that was a whole thing about the logo. So [in the photo] all these things I look at. I even liked the color blue and gold. That’s why we have blue and gold so it was a very…all these things. But it was a major feat to put on that opening convocation but very, very exciting. By the way, the person standing next to me, who came over, that was the Dean of the Wharton School, right there.
Well, just a little bit about my background. I am a graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur in mechanical engineering. I meandered into systems engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and I finished in the business school and the University of Texas at Austin hired me into the marketing group and I stayed at UT Austin for about 25 years until 2003. When I left UT Austin, I was a Senior Associate Dean and UT is a big school, the business school is almost as large as SMU as a whole. From there, I went to Emory University in Atlanta and I was no stranger to Singapore because I was doing some consulting and executive teaching for Hewlett Packard but I was really not aware of SMU till 2007. In 2007, SMU hosted a conference called The Marketing Science Conference and I attended that conference and I ran into Chin Tiong and I ran into, you know, other people as well. But that was my first association with SMU. Our president at that time, Woody Hunter, had been the former Provost at Emory University so he discovered me; however he discovered me, you'd have to ask him, but between him and Chin Tiong, they recruited me to come down and I came down in December 2007 to see what might be possible. And In July, 2008, I started as Provost at SMU.
Well, I think the challenge. You know the alternative was going back to United States and I'd been there, done that. I figured, I knew what I was talking about in terms of United States. I've been to Canada; I've been to Europe; I knew Australasia from the time I've been in Australia and New Zealand. So we came and what made me come? Well I saw a challenge, I also saw, in truth, a business school which I though was in strategic drift. It had not really developed significantly. You could tell, and I knew enough about Singapore from prior experience, you know, the global school had projects that, the Ministry of Education has done here that I knew intimately. And I knew that they would invest in this university, I therefore knew there was government money, which in the UK and European context is not quite as clear.
Interestingly, I think the wonderful thing about SMU is we were attracting all the people like the first batch of our students. Even the faculty that joins SMU has plenty of risk inclination. But as you recall, I'm a forex [foreign exchange] trader. I love taking risks, but calculated risks. And I really thought that if the Government is going to be investing in prime property and building up an institution, it's not going to let it go under. So, definitely it's a calculated risk. And it's also at a stage of my academic career when I thought it's been great being a teacher, having lots of students, and they are still meeting up with me up till today; but this is building it from a pure business point of view, from an administrative point of view and having an impact. And maybe there are things in the previous way in which business education is being conducted and offered to the market where you could not have a decision to make a change. Whereas this is one window of opportunity where, if you didn't believe that things can be made right, this is your chance to make it right. So, I think the benefits and the impact outweigh the risks. And I guess I was a lot younger, so when you are younger, you are willing to jump and take that risk.
You probably would have known by now, it was done all through the initiative of Dr Tony Tan. He was then the deputy prime minister. He looked at the landscape, and he recognised a few things. First, there is a need for a third university. NUS and NTU [Nanyang Technological University] at that juncture they were more [focused on] teaching than research but the game plan was to evolve them into research universities. And there needed to be a teaching university for Singapore. If you look at almost the third university at that juncture, it had turned out to be the Singapore Institute of Management. They run a lot of programmes in collaboration with universities, and by and large their programs, I would say ninety-five percent, ninety-nine percent, are all in business. So Tony Tan looked at SIM [Singapore Institute of Management] as a potential candidate to evolve into a university. So what he did was, he came into the picture, he replaced the entire [SIM] council. Ho Kwon Ping was brought in as the new chairman and business people were largely constituted as the council members and Tan Teck Meng came in as the nominee from NTU and I came in as the nominee from NUS.
The original plan was to have this committee work on a concept paper [on] how to evolve SIM into a university. John [John Yip] was then the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] of SIM, so he was very much involved. And SIM, the large portfolio of its programmes at that point were diplomas, and so this new university logically would be a feeder for a lot of the diploma kids, the poly [polytechnic] kids and whatever else. And after thinking through, debates, dialogues, and so on and so forth, the concept paper was put in place and it was submitted to the Government, and the Government approved that. The concept paper or the council‘s decision at that point was SIM had a role to play. It should continue to be SIM but the Singapore Government should create a third university, and this was where SMU came into the picture which means a new university will be created.
When we first started, the idea was to review all the SIM programmes to see if those programmes could be upgraded and so all of us in the workgroup, we each came up with a report after reviewing all the various programmes. And then we came up with a report recommending whether it was possible for SIM to be made into a university. And the recommendations from the various workgroups was no. The existing programmes in SIM had to be radically changed if they were to be good, rigorous enough to be recognised as programmes in a state-run university. So the recommendation was for us to run our own university.
Yes, I was happy to. Mr Ho Kwon Ping invited me because this was the first cohort. So I was happy to accept it. Because in a sense, it’s a completion of the first part of a long journey. The work of establishing universities never ends. A university is always an ongoing project, but this was a significant milestone I was happy to see—that SMU had managed to cross that very significant point. Since then, I’ve watched SMU grow, I’ve had opportunities to interact with senior establishment here, with the faculty, and I’ve seen them establishing new schools including the School of Law.
What started off as basically fifteen years ago as an idea has turned out to be a reality and something which has made a great contribution to Singapore and will continue to make a contribution to Singapore, Singapore parents, and to Singapore young men and women. I think that’s a great source of satisfaction.