I believe so much in internship. And I want that to continue. If I can get people, students inspired that they would do their best at the internship, that's half the battle won. So I wanted to create an Award that will carry on that legacy, that will get students to think, Hey! I want to do well in my internship. I want to do something different. I just don't want to be the run-of-the-mill. I want to contribute more. I want to put my heart and soul into this and contribute to my employer and to make a difference. So if they can imbibe that value, I think that's great. So I didn't want them to lose the message about internship.
I also gave a grant for community service as well. So we support a group in Cambodia that will take students off the street and give them enrichment programs and to care for them. So I said, Alright I would like to have a group of students (taking on the project). This is the money they have annually. I want them to go in and do something with the students there. So I guess you put your money where your mouth is, to internship and to community service.
At the same time you have to sit with the vendors and the coders, or you might be involved in the prototyping, or you might be involved in taking the early phases of the system sitting with the users, seeing how they use it, figuring out what has to change, going back and forth, and all that kind of thing. So we had a lot of students end up in those interface roles. Some people would call them business analysts, some people would call them other things. And we had some students work for the IT part of the company internally, some people work for the business part of the company but still doing IT-related things. We had some people immediately who got hired by the consulting firms, and put the students in client-facing roles. Some students who would do more software technology-oriented backend work. So even from the very beginning we had the different students fanning out into all these things, so I think it’s fair to say SIS students work in a wider variety of job roles, across the cohort of students, than the students from any other part of SMU.
We have the largest number of entrepreneurs in all of SMU, the most number of student spinoffs, of companies that are actually functioning as companies you know making it come out of SMU. So they’re all over the place in just a wonderful way.
One of SMU's missions (then) was to nurture leaders that have a heart and to have the ability to give back to society. And so how do we do this? So we wanted (them) to give back to society, to look beyond the school and to serve the community. So we came up with community service (CS). And we asked, How long should we do it (CS)? We didn't want it to make it compulsory in the sense that oh the students drag their feet. They stand at the street corner selling flags, raising money and they do it grudgingly. So then, we engaged the community that needed help and asked What could we do, with you, for you? And can we adopt projects that are meaningful both to you and to our students? Then, of course, we had to convince the students: Yes, it was important for you and your personal development to be able to look beyond your own needs, to see the needs of others, to be able to empathize, and to give back to community and to do good, not perfunctorily, but to do so with a heart and to really know what it is to serve.
So it's all about service. We don't want them to (treat it as) a kind of a tour, where they think, Oh this is the poor old folk. We feed them a little. (Then bid them) Goodbye. God bless you. And off they go. I told my staff if we want to do a project, we take it on, we sustain it. (In) sustaining it, we hoped the students will continue to go back after they have completed the 80 hours. And many of our students do. You know our students do even a thousand over hours. They continue. And with this, we think it will set them apart even when they go to work, (they can) talk about your community service.
So one of the highlights when they go for a job interview (is that the interviewer says), Oh I see you have done community service. Tell me a little about that. And that is when they can talks (share their experience).And that (showcases) the soul of that student, where they can share. And you see the glimmer in their eyes, their smile, and the satisfaction when they talk about it. And you know, the passion comes out. Don't do something that you are forced to do, choose a community service that actually gels with you and resonates with you and can we support you. And if you don't know what to do, where to go, we work with the VWOs (the Voluntary Welfare Organizations), the Grassroots, the NGOs (the non-governmental organization) and then we tell you their needs. You then decide if this is something that you want to do. Once you signed up, please commit to do it and do a good job. If you don't do a good job and there's a complaint, we will take this seriously and we will talk to you about it, not from the perspective of trying to discipline you, but to change you and develop you. (We would sit and find out): What went wrong? How could you learn from this? And what remediation you could do to make it right? (We intervene) because that's a value that they carry with them when they go to work. So that's how community service started. It's everybody, hip, hip, hurray (moment), I have to do 80 hours of community service. We had to tell them the whys, we had to convince them, we had to encourage them and we had to excite them. And yes it sets SMU apart, this Community service is compulsory and it is about giving back.
The point of mentioning all this is to say that, when I was reflecting on what I saw around me, as well as what I did myself in those thirteen years, the kind of people you need to do it were neither the graduates of a business school-oriented information systems programme or the graduates of a computer science programme.
So I basically said, we’re going to start in terms of that type of professional who really drives the use of information systems in business settings, but has the technology capability to do this. Now if you read the wording of what a textbook definition of a business school oriented-information systems programme is about, that’s actually what they’re about, and that’s what they started on. Twenty, thirty years ago, information systems programmes in business school had a much stronger software [design] and technology [application] depth than they do now. And there are reasons for that related to how business schools evolved and what drives business school rankings and things like that. We won’t go into that. But we in some sense wanted to go back to that classic capability of a business-trained and -oriented person who had real skills to design and implement information systems that really enable people to do their work better in complex organisational settings. And while computer science programmes offered some aspects of the technology and the technical thinking, they weren’t focused on the domain. And here the domain is important, it was less important for us to know many of the intricacies inside a computer, than to know the context in which it worked.
So summarising, to draw these threads together, these years of experience in industry gave me, at least, what I thought at that time was a clear image of a kind of professional that we needed to create, that was a hybrid between what was coming out of engineering and computer science programmes and business programmes. Like a business programme [graduate], the person would have a lot of understanding of the business context. More so than the computer science programmes [graduates], the person would focus on software applications and the ability to design a new software that was especially pertinent to solving the problems of business.
When SMU started, I was holding two portfolios. I was Director of Student Life as well as Director of Career Planning. It was called Office of Career Planning, OCPP, Placement and Planning. So I said, Alright, perhaps we should change it to career services so that it's not just Placement and Planning but Career Services. At that point in time, not many people knew about SMU. We had quickly set up a two-story building, and taxi drivers brought our potential employers to SIM at Clementi and they would call, Oh Ruth, we are at Clementi. Where should we go? So we said, No To start with we've got nothing to show the employers. How do we then sell our product that they were good enough for the market place? So we went around to all the employers. (Our) skin was very thick, the shoes wore out; we knocked at their doors, we spoke to the employers, tell us what you like and what you don't like about the people that you hired. And what kind of people can we train to meet your needs? So then they gave us a slew of things that they didn't like and could you do this? Could you change this? Could you change mindsets? Could you give us people we could use? And who can be put on the job and they can run? So that got us thinking. I think one of the great assets that we had then was that we didn't have any baggage. We just looked at (what the) market needs, and if the market needed that, then how do we get our people, our products, to meet the needs of the market. So we then started with Finishing Touch.So I (spoke with) the best student, who had a 4.3 GPA, and said, Alright, show me your CV, your resume. Then okay, this was before we polished it up. And then I said, Alright, let me help you write a better CV that will bring out who you are, what you are capable of and the qualities that employers would want to look at. So I polished up his CV; of course working with him, not just editing for him, and then I brought this to senior management. I said, Look. This was your best student's CV, he had gone for some career planning, some training, and this was (his CV) before and this (CV) was after we polished it. Tell me, do they need this (finishing Touch Module)? No quarrels after that. Yes, they need it. So we started Finishing Touch.
We needed to know how our students fared. So for the first batch of undergraduates, we tracked them down personally and we knew them by name. We called them, we found out what they did and how they were doing. In fact, we are (still) in touch with some of the first batch of graduates. You know, we meet them on the road while they are doing so well these days. So we tracked them because we wanted to know how they were doing. We don't have longitudinal studies, which actually maybe Alumni (office) might want to do this. (It would be good to find out): How they started? Where did they go? What helped them? And what were the success factors? Where have they been? So probably that would be something (we could do going forward)
At the end of the day, we wanted to see where our students went. What did they do? What is the market for them? What distinguishes them from the others? It was because we wanted to know. That's why we tracked the first batch of graduates. I think as we grew, the Ministry of Education said, hey I want to know too: - Not only your university but every other university, And to then make it (the information) public. It was in our interest to let the communities, the larger community, know that SMU students have done well and they are in demand. People (employers) like the SMU hires. And they (our graduates) have gone places. I think that's an accolade for the kind of education we provide in SMU. It was important to let people know how our graduates were doing. And I think for these few years the Ministry had (introduced), instead of every university doing their own and you can't compare (data), they now have a joint graduate employment survey (annually). That means same questions are being asked, same time periods (used) and (using the) same format for presenting your data and (for) reporting. So it's standardized across the universities now.
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).
We felt that the commercial practice was much more important. We felt that Singapore’s growing as an international commercial centre, and that was where the demand was. So we thought what’s more important was to train lawyers who could work in the region. Alright, so that was the primary focus. So we were not that interested in other areas of practice like conveyancing, family law, et cetera. We thought the most important was to service the international needs of Singapore.
The first, the first cohort of graduates from the programme, the majority of them went to the Big Four because that was how we started. We had the employers from there come into our classes to teach as adjunct and then we tell them, you have the best opportunity to sell your firm, your organisation to the students, and then you invite them to your internship and to work with you, and so with the first cohort of accountancy students, about 80% of them went to the Big Five [should be Big Four] at that time and only about 20% would join MNCs [multinational corporations] and so on. But as our cohort increase in size and the quality also increased over time, we find that increasingly the foreign banks have been attracting them to go on internships, and so over time more of our outstanding students have been going to investment banking, they have been going to join also international consulting firms, many of them have gone into management associate programmes with the MNCs and so on. And today about half of our students will join the Big Four and then over 30% of them would join the finance and banking industry and then the other 20% will join other MNCs.
And then also looking at the jobs that our graduates took up, if we look at the starting salaries of accountancy graduates across the three universities, SMU accountancy graduates had a very significantly higher starting salaries compared to graduates from NUS and NTU. And to me this shows that at the time when employers are very selective about hiring graduates, and I was told that in 2009, a lot of firms were only hiring for replacement, it is quite clear that even when they are hiring along those selective basis, SMU accountancy graduates are still the graduates of choice among these employers, and the fact that there are few jobs around and yet those jobs went to our accountancy graduates, I think shows that our grads are quite resilient, our graduates are able to stand their own even when the market is not so good.
I think also the fact that many of our graduates, not only do a second degree, but a lot of them also do a double major, right, and that means that they not only are conversant in the discipline that they specialise in, they also are conversant in another discipline outside of their specialisation, and that makes them a lot more versatile when it comes to job selection.
And then another feature of our graduates is the fact that many of them have an overseas exposure. In accountancy school, easily over one-third of our students would go on overseas exchange or they would go for overseas community service or business study trip and so on, so they come back and they have more international exposure and that gives them a more international outlook and it helps them to stand out when they go for job interviews. That is also one aspect that makes them different.
And then finally to me a very important differentiating factor is the fact that in SMU a lot of our students take internship very seriously. You know in the other universities, in NUS for example, it’s not compulsory, internship is voluntary. In NTU students are assigned to a particular firm to do internship for eight weeks. But in SMU, students apply, they look at the firms and decide which one they want to intern at and then they apply and if they get chosen, they go. For our accounting students, most of them I would say, almost everyone would do a minimum of two internships. I usually tell them, you go to an accounting firm and then you go to one other internship outside of an accounting firm and many, many students when I look at their profile, they have done between two to six internships and that gives them a pretty good idea about what jobs are like and what jobs they think they will fit in better because they have interned at some of these places.
And so I think if you look at the type of holistic education we provide in SMU, we prepare our students to enter the workforce quite seamlessly. And a lot of them by the time they start their first job they feel like actually this could be my third or fourth job because they would already have interned in a few companies already. And I think that gives them an edge when they are looking for a job. And I think probably that is why in the last global financial crisis, our graduates didn’t have much difficulty looking for a job.
Okay. Technology is important right? It helps facilitate our work. And it's a platform but it's not an end in itself. So, OnTRAC ,by the way, is an acronym for:
On: for Online, because we live in the worldwide web, it's online, so everybody goes online, it makes access much easier.
T: It meant for training. We do a lot of training so we want students to get access to training, to training materials, to the training events, the workshops that we have.
And then, the R is for recruitment. So employers could say, hey there's a portal. I don't need to depend on the third party. I don't need to even depend on the career services to get access to the students, the potential hirers. I can put my opportunity out. I could suss out the people quickly for recruitment. And you know time is of the essence.
A is for attachment. At SMU, internship is compulsory. I am so happy that it is compulsory, and it has borne fruit right? You see now everybody now wants to go for an industrial attachment, because it will make a difference to their life. So A is for attachments, for internship.
And also for C is community service.
Some are different. One thing that I wanted and which has been done since the beginning was that the university would not be deemed a success unless students could get jobs. Since we were a new university without a reputation I thought it would be very, very important from the very beginning to have very good contacts in the business community, to have our students doing internships so they would be known and be able to get jobs and to work with them. And the Office of Students Affairs, Life. Aik Meng, does a fabulous job. They started from day one with the students. It wasn’t like, wait until your final year and give you some interviews and get you practiced on how you do this, it was from the very beginning.
And that was the same thing with Alumni Affairs. This was not so well known but I said you get people to identify with the university and with their class from the day they walk in. So one of our first things was to have your class flag and with your year on it that you walk into convocation and you’ll walk in with that at graduation and at all your alumni reunions. So we did that from the very beginning to build up that spirit. I was going to say the other spirit was donors from the very beginning. Coming from the Wharton School which was founded by Joseph Wharton with a very large gift, I’m accustomed to people wanting to support education and some people being able to do that financially. So that was a focus the first year and has continued to be.
I actually love the idea of creating new initiatives. So, you know, executive education was a large part of my portfolio, but as you talk with clients, as you work with government, you will start to hear some of the challenges. So, in the year 2006, I recall, IE Singapore which is International Enterprise Singapore, which is the globalization arm of the government. They help small-medium enterprises globalize. But there's also another part of IE that a lot of people don't realise and that is a program where they attract trading firms to locate their HQ, headquarters, in Singapore. And the reason they want to do this is very simple because Singapore's reason for existence is we are a trading port.
So in 2006, the Government started to find out that many of the trading companies were stretched for talent. They were getting their trader from Shell [Shell Trading], London. They were getting traders from Netherlands and it was very costly. And when there are more and more trading companies setting their headquarters here, they were doing an unhealthy task of pinching staff from each other.
So 2006, IE Singapore called in all three universities to a nice chit-chat session at their Bugis office. And they said, Hey people, can you help us build a pipeline of talent that will be job-ready to join the trading companies? And I could almost imagine that conversation up till today. NUS and NTU's, NTU's extension was invited, NUS's extension was invited and they invited me as executive education dean then, thinking that I only wear the same hat like the other two, looking at only professional training. Then I listened to the conversation a little bit and we actually had Olam [Olam International], Sunny Verghese, we actually had a Shell representative and I can't remember who else from another of the trading firms sit with us at the table. And all of them were thinking that everything is about professional training. It was just trying to maybe retrain someone who are in some other areas and transform him into a trader of grains, of energy, of metals.
And I listen to the conversation a little bit and I looked at IE, I said, if we were to come in with a proposal where we could reach out to the undergraduates and include in that some kind of a track that will make our kids job-ready, will you guys be interested? The immediate reaction from NUS and NTU was, There is no way we will get involved because we could never change or have a say in the curriculum of our university. Then I took away my executive education hat and I put on my associate dean of LKCSB hat. I said, in SMU, we actually have two years of broad-based education and we actually have a third year where we have a major. Maybe I could park the track under one of my majors, but I need support. I need to convince the students that if they were to go down this narrow pathway, there is a pot of gold at the end of the journey, because I no longer have the degree of freedom to move to another course. I am now going to something very much concentrated with a specialisation so you have to entice the students for me. When NUS and NTU say game over, they will not follow up because they have no way that they could incorporate any professional type or non-degree type training into a curriculum.
So IE thought that I was the most amenable and they formed a focus group of trading partners for me to have a conversation. That was a wonderful start that I am so proud that they've gone this direction. Those early partners stayed with us. I gave them a proposal where I told them, If you want our kids to go down this specialisation, put your money where your mouth is. I want 30,000 from each of them a year for a commitment of three years. So, one year, I cannot do anything, so I need that commitment of three years and I will design the concentration under finance major because all our students, seventy percent of LKCSB students opt for finance major, so I need a pool of good talent. Not only that, when I asked all the trading companies, they told me that all their traders are very good with numbers they are numerate, they are quick on their feet and they make very strong decisions. So, we actually on that very first meeting had a commitment of twelve trading partners. Today we've built up to twenty-three. We have doubled our trading partners and we wanted them from a whole diverse ecosystem. So we had bankers, because to do trading, you need to know trade finance, so we want banking because our kids love to join banks. So we have ABN AMRO [ABN AMRO Bank], we have Rabobank [Rabobank Group]. Those are all the Dutch banks and they were the ones who know about trading because the first traders to Asia is from the Dutch East Indies Company.
So we were like amazed that we have the Olam, the Noble [Noble Group Limited], the rubber, we have Lee Rubber [Lee Rubber Group] coming in, we have the Shell, we have the BP, and so on and so forth. We have just celebrated the sixth year of our trading partnership pact. These six years means that they have all renew twice. They are going into my third renewal now. I build for sustainability so those early partners continue to invest in our talent and IE has now given me funding for ITI [International Trading Institute]. They also invest in our research capabilities. So SMU is the only university in the whole of Asia that has a concentration in commodities trading.
You have to hear from the market where is the need, where are the future jobs? Our broad-based education is great, but at the same time, you cannot be a generalist, you have to be a T-shaped individual. Even in business school, you should have concentration where you know an industry so well that even when you are a management associate coming out from the U [university], you will have that sector in your palm, because there are very few business degree or econs or IT graduates who will know a particular sector. So it's the same thing, it's like marrying technology with finance and banking.
We have just launched a maritime economics concentration because this model has worked so well. The MPA, the Maritime Port Authority approached me again and said, We have no talent joining the ship management, the ship building, the ship brokerage, the ship financing, the ship insurance sector. Can you help us grow a talent pipeline? I went to Economics Dean Bryce [Bryce Hool], and said, Bryce, will you work with me on this? Bryce says, I would love to because I want to make sure that our economics graduates have a niche that is different from all the other economics graduates coming out from all the other school. And we knew we will succeed because at the recent Maritime Week, when Minister Tharman [Tharman Shanmugaratnam] announced the maritime economics concentration, I've been approached by ten shipping firms and they said, We'll take one of your students and we'll give you a scholarship.�
So the game has begun and we loved this. And why is this important? Because our kids when they come out, we don't want them to get disillusioned, we want to have students coming to SMU, knowing that at the end of the program, they are job-ready and the customers are looking for them, and not them looking for the employers. But at the same time, we want our kids to be happy at work. We want them to have the fit, so not all of them may like trading. We actually have a pioneer group that came out and three of them are in risk management and they love it. They are in Shell and they are not in trading, but they are looking at middle office. They love looking at where the risks flows are and they monitor the risk and they do risk reports. So, we actually have a whole value chain in the trading concentration.
I think the most significant achievement is when our students went out to work; they were highly regarded by their employers. That they were doing a good job. They were not people who just did things but they questioned, why are we doing things in this way. So their mindsets were rather different. And because of that, the employers like such students, and as a result, I don’t think any of our SMU students were unemployed. In fact, most of the students were being taken up, you know, employed even before they graduated.