One is the Asian identity. And so I just rattle on about the Asian identity but it's really saying that we need to be seen as a leader on the Asian continent. The second thing is to be seen as a school for management, not as a business school. In other words, we have to embrace much more our identity in term of solving problems, which are problems to do with not just business and industry, but government, civil society, the role of NGOs here in emerging industry environment. The interesting countries are not China, India, Korea or Japan, the interesting countries are the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Vietnam less so because it, I think in many ways it's a fairly brash American oriented place in many ways, even though it has a French heritage. But you know, we need to be helping the development of management education in institutions there, schools for management there to the degree I can help while I am here. And I also think the issue that front and center are in entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, which we are starting a new entrepreneurship elective in the undergraduate program in the business school which is long overdue. And the grant I've gotten in Social and Financial Entrepreneurship will enable me to embed those kinds of ideas in the business school before I leave.
Yes, in the sense if you look back, it is easier to be a growing up kid. Now, you are a teenager. From my perspective, challenges of course, financial, because we are out of the early, premium funding years. We are now same level as the others and we still have a gap. So that's one big, constant challenge. Space-wise, we have outgrown our first stage in a crunch. The footprint in terms of what has been set aside for us is also fixed. So, if we want to grow more, that will be a big challenge. Ok, so that's one. Facilities, land-wise, looking forward will be a challenge as well.
The other challenge, of course, from my perspective is succession, succeeding leadership, alright. To have people groomed to take over and make sure that things run smoothly. My aim has always been that I should be able to step out without the institution missing anything. If I don't, I failed my job. So, at the back of my mind is always grooming enough leaders to take over and make sure this place continues to improve. So that's the other. Leadership to me is a key challenge.
I think one of the challenges would be economics itself—the profession is evolving over time as more and more difficult problems show up and crises come up. Some people are even talking about the bankruptcy of economics and the debate about the direction, the future direction of economics and what it should do. George Soros himself, we mentioned his name [earlier] but in another context, he has put up millions of dollars to support programmes and research centres that would look into New Economics. And that centre and the decision to donate that much money to support the centre was motivated by George Soros’s observation that this global financial crisis that took place was partly because of the lack of appropriate controls and regulatory measures to provide a structure for decisions made by investors and financial product developers. What he would like to see is a look into nonstandard economic thinking that would address these problems. That debate will continue, and it’s very important for a place like the School of Economics to be very responsive to all these developments. The worst thing that one can do is be stale and stuck with one type of thinking—again that word, flexibility, in another sense is needed. That’s a big challenge by the way.
Some people will say that the American system now is not responding. I’ve heard some very influential people say, “Hey, there’s no way I would send my kid to an undergraduate economics programme in the United States now.” I believe that that’s wrong; I disagree with that, but at the same time I would have a healthy scepticism and would approach this with an open mind and see how we could really develop our students here at SMU economics to be very effective leaders and thinkers in the marketplace, responsive to what’s going on.
Well, SMU started very different from all the other autonomous universities in Singapore. In fact, when we started, the other universities, NUS, NTU they were not autonomous. They were corporatized so to speak, and then they became autonomous, when the government saw that you know it can actually work. So we were like a little experiment or guinea pig for them, which is fine, it seems to work well. But what that means a challenge for SMU is that many good things that we were doing now, you may not be unique anymore, that they’re also being done by the other universities. Now you can say that well, we’re small, we’re nimble, we can move faster than the big universities, which is true, but don’t forget that they have economies of scale. And also, because we’re small, when we do something so-called wrong, the criticality of the consequence of the error is much greater. Now in a larger university when one area gets messed up, the university will usually still be okay. It is the same argument that when United States messed up in a particular state or area, it’s not a problem for United States. But in Singapore, we have always been told that you’re vulnerable, you can’t mess up. If you believe in the narrative, SMU will need to believe in the same analogical narrative there’re many things that we cannot afford to mess up. So having good leadership is critical. Having good people, both in faculty and admin staff is critical. And continuing having good students is critical. So I think the people are critical, the issues I don’t think is about money or physical resources because those, if you’re doing the right thing, you’re able to get those. It’s about putting the right people in the right place. And I think that would continue to be critical and the ability for the university to work together as a team is critical, and by that I mean a faculty and admin staff working together, I also mean locals and foreigners working together. And having a leadership that is both local and global, and I call it “glocal”. The ability to see global, and the ability to function and understand the local regardless of your nationality. I think that is important.
The first challenge is ourselves. How do we convince our own stakeholders, the schools and all that, to first embrace a common strategy and for them to articulate their own respective plans that is in line with their strategy. So thats the first challenge. Each school has to articulate what they want to do and we have to make sure that these are all in line with the total university strategy. That's one. Next thing, of course, is to convince the board that this strategy that we are embarking on would achieve the kind of goal and vision that they want for SMU. So that's the other part of the engagement that is very active. And we are very fortunate to have a very active board that really help us shape all these things and they truly are actively gave their advice and their input in terms of where we should be going. So that's the other one. In terms of MOE, they decided to come up with a different funding model for the university which actually resulted in just them coming up with a total, what they call a block budget to give to each university without having to go into all the details of why are you spending so much on this, why are you spending so much on that, they don't have to do that anymore.
I hope the university will not become too institutionalized. I think that's a bit inevitable. You know, you grow to a certain size, but we have always wanted to be smaller, we've always been smaller. And I think small is an advantage in our case, small and niched in. We should always sort of be on our toes to move a bit faster, to be nimble in responding to changes and challenges, to continue to be bold in pushing the boundary a little, to be creative. I think we shouldn't be afraid to be creative in addressing the challenges.
I really see the next ten years as difficult for an interesting reason. I think when you start something, firstly it’s very easy to be excited and so many things happen that your energy takes you through. And also the first people who come are very committed or they wouldn’t have come, so that’s the first ten years. But then the next ten years become, I’m going to say can, can become tedious or you can fall into routine. You can fail to innovate. You can become complacent or accept second best.
So to me the challenge in the next ten years with faculty particularly is to innovate, to keep up the energy level and this passion for excellence and to increase quality. That saying that Rome wasn’t built in a day, that’s really true of universities. If you think of whatever you think of as a great university, you’re probably thinking of a university that’s100 years old. A lot of universities fall into the second or even third tier and they deliver a solid education but they don’t become world class. And we started out from day one to be world class. So that’s the challenge and that’s my hope.
I think one thing is to maintain quality, because it’s difficult to start, but it’s also difficult to sustain a successful thing. I mean, SMU has been very successful, so I do not take it for granted that success is a given. So we’ve got to continue working at what makes SMU distinctive. So for example like curriculum, you know, holistic curriculum. You got to look at it, and the university is looking at it now. So you got to look at the things that makes SMU different and good, and keep at that. And I suppose we also have to see how we should continue to grow in ways like postgraduate education, whether there’s any other school to add to SMU, but that is constrained by the amount of resources. I’m talking about land resources, whether the government thinks that SMU should be allowed to start another school or two. Alright, so I think that, I mean, we’ve gone through the baby stages and now we’re moving on. And we just have to built, build on what has taken on, taken place before. And I think it gets more difficult because it’s more competitive. As NUS and NTU are aware of what we’re doing, you know, it gets more competitive. And then you’ve got the new university, Singapore University of Design and Technology that also adds further competition. But on the whole, it’s extremely good. It seems to have brought the Singapore legal scene to a higher level than before. So I think that viewed from many angles, the SMU development is an extremely good one for Singapore.
We have achieved I think some measure of success. Going forward, if we say that we want to see SMU feature high in the university rankings, in terms of research, in terms of our graduate programmes and so on, I think a lot needs to be done to move us forward to that target. And what we need to do is to build on the cohesiveness that we so far have been able to achieve to bring us to where we are today. But I think the next step is going to be a lot harder because, for instance, to achieve that research target that we want to achieve, we have to have faculty who believe in SMU. I believe currently more than, a little more than 50 percent of the faculty in SMU are non-Singaporeans and non-PRs. And I think it is really important that we don’t have faculty looking at themselves as Singaporeans versus them or them versus Singaporeans, but more, all the faculty looking at SMU as their university or their school. And then wanting to achieve success in their research, not just for themselves but for SMU, and that I find we haven’t arrived. Because when I talk to faculty, for instance, a lot of them are looking at what they can achieve for me, but they have to align their interests to the interests of the university, and if we are able to get them to do that, then I think, going forward the next ten, twenty years, it won’t be difficult for SMU to be ranked within the top 30 schools, 40 schools, worldwide.
So faculty, and then in terms of our graduates, so far the graduates that come out of SMU have been able to carry the SMU name really well in the marketplace. What we need is to make sure that the connections with all our graduates remain very strong. And as our graduates do well in the corporate ladder, that they will continue to keep their links with the university. If you look at all the top universities in the world they always have very strong alumni support. And if we can maintain the very strong alumni support, not only in terms of how we will be perceived in the marketplace but also in terms of the alumni helping to bring in good students to come into our programme, I think that is going to be another very important factor we need to build on. So building a strong alumni base and also getting our faculty to believe in, the fact that they have a strong stake in the university’s success.
I think the most important part is to, if they can retain the experimental spirit, not just the things that I mentioned before like IT, teaching rooms, everything else. If we don’t try new things frequently it is a very natural progress to bureaucracy they call it here. I mean this is quoting those social sciences, not my area, but I read about it. We will tend to become just another one of those old established universities. Already we see signs of some of it; it’s quite inevitable when a place grows big, right, you need a system to run things, you need to be seen to be fair. Therefore when people ask, can I do this, no you can’t because I don’t allow the other person to do it, why should I allow you to do that, right? Hopefully we don’t go too far that way, right, so if we can try new things every now and then. Of course that one will be in the hand of the provost, president and all the deans of various schools. If they are doing new things all the time. I think one easy measure is every two years [if] you haven’t done anything new something is wrong because that’s how fast things are changing
Singapore is changing, our society is changing, our economy is changing. The aspirations of students and their parents are changing. So our university sector, the Government, the Ministry of Education will have to take cognizance of these developments and ensure that our universities change in accordance to the needs of society and our economy—to be alert and be prepared to take timely measures, which is what we have done the last thirty years. The last development was the establishment of this liberal arts college which the IAAP had recommended some four years ago. So long as we are prepared to take that approach and we have the courage of our convictions, I think the university sector in Singapore will continue to develop and will do well. There will be many challenges, but I see a very bright future for universities here as well as for Singapore.
The challenges are faculty. I think. This is a people-power industry, it's a brain power industry so you got to find it, and nurture it, and do smart things to make that develop and happen. I think SMU should grow in the masters programmes. What happens in the doctoral programmes I made some suggestions about what I think are some, I regard as creative alternatives but there's going to be more on the graduate level, that's going to go on. What I hope is that, I hope that the Government will continue to be supportive of SMU, and I also hope that charitable support of universities their dual roles of generating and disseminating knowledge will gain support, financial support. Relative to the US, non-religious philanthropy is quite underdeveloped in Asia. And so, I was fortunate. If I'd had to come here and raise money, what do I know? I'm from California.
You know, I got to tell you about a quick story about the guy who was the provost at Stanford when I was promoted. I used to tease him that that was his one blemish on his record, but (laughter) but I had him out here to talk, and he later was just recently here. But this was back in '03. So I had Bill Miller [William F. Miller] out. I made him the first lecturer of some kind. And he was talking about entrepreneurship. We had him along with a panel, and I sort of moderated the discussion with a couple, three executives. And one of the guys in the audience said, Well, it's great you talk about Silicon Valley and all this stuff, but you know, but we're poor little Singapore. We've got a small island, and there's almost four million people, and what are we supposed to do? And I still remember what Bill Miller said. He said, Tsk, you know, Silicon Valley has the same area as Singapore. It also has the same population as Singapore. And it also exports eighty percent of what it makes. What's your problem? Do it. You know, my classmate was Philip Knight, the guy who started Nike. Just do it. Okay? And so, don't cry, go do it. Don't tell me what you can't do, do it. And I think that you got to have the same attitude. And it's important that SMU supports innovative thinking and doesn't get bogged down in bean counting of a sort that will stifle creativity. If you do that, then it's not going to then its futures is going to be ordinary. It will be a good undergraduate programme somewhere. And I'd, and I probably won't be around, but I'd be crying if I were. Because I really want to see . I think this place has such an opportunity and it just would be tragic to miss it.
Well, the two most important things are the students and the staff who are the faculty. And by then the first cohort of students had been recruited, and I should say that we have no difficulty in recruiting very good students.This is a feature of modern life, that young children, or relatively young children and their parents and in Singapore that's important think that law or medicine are good things to do and that on the whole lawyers and doctors don't starve. So this is actually a big change from when I was a student. But nowadays, lots of very clever children want to do law, so you, you have no difficulty recruiting good students. And actually that's what is done very well and actually curiously enough the SMU style of teaching as you know is significantly different from NUS. And because we make a big thing of this in the advertising and marketing, we do actually get students who want to be taught interactively.
As far as recruiting the faculty is concerned, I mean, there were I think, somewhere of the order of ten or twelve faculty in the law department in the business school. Most of whom I think had been recruited by Andrew or by Kee Yang [Low Kee Yang]. And fortunately they did a very good job so we started with excellent people. And we've now, we've gone from that number up to forty or thereabouts. And I think the recruiting of the staff is obviously one of the major jobs of the dean. But again I think coming to teach here has turned out to be attractive. And that means a number of people have moved from NUS and a number of people have come from, well there're a number of good Singaporeans and a number of people from other countries. The school is very international in terms of faculty.
I think SMU was definitely a major, major change agent for the education landscape. You know before SMU, the university landscape—or at least in the business school sense—tends to be, maybe a little bit complacent. You know, we had been doing more of the same for a long time. It is doing fine, there’s nothing wrong with it. But the education space has so many new things and so many new happenings out there and I think SMU had brought a new model into the landscape. We have brought in a more US model. We have brought in a lot of practices, a lot of new norms into the space. And very quickly, as you know, NUS and NTU followed.
SMU must have played a significant role in re-garnishing the new energy to do new things, to move forward. So in that sense, I think SMU as an institution, had created, had injected new energy and new life into the space.
I think the one thing you've touched on, perhaps I'd like to say one or two words about is the question about the future of management education. And I think that's a very important topic. I really do. Some of what I say would not necessarily be not everybody would agree with what I am about to say. But I think management education is, let me use the word I use before, it's about schools for management, we have to get closer to those other entities whether it's in Singapore or whether it's in Mozambique or wherever it is I would be working. So I think there is understanding the broader role of what management is about is tremendously important. And therefore to lose the liberal concept of management education would be a huge mistake. I see too many people going back to what I call a wasteland of vocationism, making the courses, you know, well they fit the job, therefore they must be right. I think the way we tried to redesign the MBA program was right. We were talking about mindsets that people need to use in managing. I think the VUCA courses are right because we were trying to talk about mindset in managing. So I think the future in management education is such that, I would predict the demise of the MBA program, except in the very elite schools. I think the MBA program is passed its sell by date. It was novel. When I had gotten an MBA in the University of Chicago, there was hardly anybody. I mean I got more job offers than I had hot dinners and I dined on their hot dinners. I went and listened to everyone's job offers and actually went to places in Chicago I wouldn't otherwise have gone to. So I think the MBA program served a purpose right through from about 1960s to 1990s. I mean that was the golden age of management education in my view. Now I think we have to focus more on� I think the undergraduate programs are tremendously important, I think the liberal side of the undergraduate program. If you take an African context, you know, the remedial side of undergraduate programs, the matriculation rate for example in South Africa is 38%. So what's the first year going to be about? Well it's remedial math, science, English. There has to be linkage between K through to 12 and the university. And our elite business schools was the solution to the problem of management. In a lot of emerging countries, they are not. There about more to do with strong undergraduate programs, and strong high schools. And building an ethos and a tradition there. So I think the MBA program will die, because these people were more mature, they're in jobs, they know what they want to do. The problem with the MBA program is, you know, in the golden age, you're getting job offer after job offer after job offer and the kids thought well, five years time I am going to be the CEO. I think now they are lucky to get a job. And that is very very different. And so I think we as scholars, and educators should be thinking about what degrees we offer our people. I think the Master of Management degree is a much more sane alternative. It gets people job-ready, executive education needs to be much better developed. And I think what I will see is a lot more smart use of technology in education. I mean, this year, just by chance, it turned out that somebody was teaching in parallel with me on the executive MBA program and I couldn't get enough sessions so I turned around, I said to the director of the program, well look, why don't I just tape a few, so I went on elearn and did what you've been doing now. And I discovered I did my introductory lecture without any notes, you know, just 6 slides and it took me 65 minutes. I actually showed my wife and she said, that's not bad. So then I did a wrap up lecture as well. I am actually going through all other lectures and put them on elearn. And what I can do in class will be that, greatly different. But what I am hoping to do is to get them transcribed. There's a publisher in the UK who wants to publish them. I don't want any royalties. I'd be quite happy to, it's only going to be 150 pages or something like that, far more relevant than a 701 page textbook. I mean my text book on strategy is 701 pages. When we were in Warwick, a student came up to Lynn and I when we were in a dance and said, sir I really enjoy your textbook. And I said oh thank you so much and I said what particular part. And he said I should explain and he goes on to explain. That's the true story by the way. You think I am making this up, I am not. He said, recently we had a baby. And he said, I don't know what you call them, cots or cribs here, and he got it from the equivalent of Ikea. But one leg was not stable. So after he put it together, my book was perfect to put it under the leg and he told me his story and he'd had a few drinks. It was a dance. But you know, the metaphor for that, is the book is too long. I mean, you know, give them readable 100, 150-page books, then make the class interesting and participative. That's what we try to do but we don't convey it in the written medium, we don't convey it in this medium that we are working with now. I mean, we could make tremendous more use of it, for example, the projects in Africa which I am absolutely terrific where they're doing exactly that, which is what I would call the massification of education and massification of education has got to come. Some of these courses that have been staples like the MBA program, other than in the very elite schools and a very good state schools and places like SMU, they'll still survive. But in a lot of other places which have put on the MBA program to make money, they will die. And they will die in the next 10 or 15 years. I might not be around to see it, but I think it's true, other courses will come on, a lot more flexibility in learning will come. I'd like to see that happening. And I am writing about it so I will imbue and enthuse somebody to do it, you know, you has just got a some years to live in the and you need so much energy and enthusiasm to push it ... I am trying to persuade others as oppose to do it all myself. It's impossible. That's really the other thing I would like to say and otherwise, I enjoyed it.
In a sense, where does SMU fit in within the university landscape in Singapore today? At the last IAAP [International Academic Advisory Panel] meeting in September last year, one very important observation was made by the IAAP members that the Singapore education system which had been essentially developing steadily for the last— from 1980 to 2010—thirty years, had reached a level when essentially it is matured.
So the IAAP said that in a sense that, essentially, you have a complete university landscape already. There is sufficient variety for students and their parents, there is sufficient variety of courses, there is competition. Essentially, as I remarked at the press conference, what the IAAP was telling us, essentially, is that you have run out of people to learn from. We used to learn from a lot from the US, from other countries. Our university sector has now reached a level where, essentially, the IAAP’s conclusion was that the easy part is over.
When we started SMU we looked at what Wharton was doing, we just transplanted it here. When we started SUTD we looked at what MIT was doing. Now you are at the stage where, who do you learn from? My conclusion from the IAAP’s remarks was we have now earned the privilege of making our own mistakes now.
I think Singapore can really afford to have more universities. At one time, the fear was that there would be unemployed graduates. As they saw decades ago elsewhere, I feel that fear is unfounded. And the more universities you have, there’s more education. After all they always say the only resource Singapore has is its people. Therefore we must provide opportunities for the people to develop. Workers are being developed, you know, not just now, but whenever there is a change in economic structure. There should be people who come here for an undergraduate degree in psychology and move to do a post graduate degree in business. They should provide these opportunities for people to change track or widen their knowledge. I like to see people doing more literature for example. You build up that interest in you. So with more universities, I hope they don’t stop at four, maybe five. And with UniSIM for working adults and other link ups with universities overseas. They are providing to develop our people’s potential, after all that’s the only resource we have. So we have got the fundamentals right in terms of education. We try to stretch everybody to their best potential. And universities and schools are there to nurture people. To nurture them to their highest potential. That is a cliché no doubt but it is the whole idea of developing them intellectually, their value system, skills. I fear for value systems.
I think one of the big issues is getting the internal community, not the faculty, but the internal administrative and administrative support people in the various central administration functions to realise, we’re beyond the days when SMU was only an undergraduate school. So these two big ideas, SMU is not just a business school, when we started it was just a business school. SMU is not just a place for undergraduates, although for those who know the details, the very first people to get degrees from SMU were master’s students. The Master’s of Applied Finance first cohort actually graduated before the first cohort of business school students, but nonetheless, there was such a small number, that in the earlier days people would think about this [SMU] as only an undergraduate school.
We want to progress from just being able to say, oh, we’re research active because we have a lot of good research faculty who publish a lot of papers in good journals to, hey, let me tell you about the ideas that have come out of SMU. These are big ideas, you don’t even have to cite the journals. I think in your earlier phase, when you’re trying to prove that you have some validity on the international scene, you give a lot of attention to saying oh our faculty publish in this and that and that journal. When you’re really there, you don’t waste your time referring to the fact that your faculty publish in certain journals—it’s assumed, it’s, hey, look at these ideas that have had an impact on the world, either truly worldwide or in this sub-community, and they came out of this university
We need to plant these seeds to say, hey, these things can happen here. And to get the community to realise, the community outside of SMU who really loves the dynamism and the industry interaction of SMU, to realise that we’re that and the world of ideas, to take us into the future.
I think SMU had done very well. We need to be conscious of the fact that some of these attributes that make SMU successful, we must make sure that we keep them and do them, polish them, refine them and improve on them. And a lot of the things that we have done like, we have the broad parameters, we have created an environment, an infrastructure that is uniquely SMU and we can continue to do that. So SMU needs to be conscious of the fact that what makes us successful and make sure we continue to do more of that, and what else can make SMU stronger, we need to incorporate them.
I really hope that we'll keep true to our mission, that we will still have a soul here. I guess the temptation is with so many people, it's just churning them out. And we've got to make education relevant, relevant to the changing times, relevant to the needs of the society. And that we are at the forefront, and we should be leaders and not followers. We should be on the cutting edge and not just reacting. We should think ahead. We should say, is this the right thing? We should be critical of ourselves and see are we doing the right thing? Are we still fulfilling that niche that we have? Are we really different? The question is: are we really so different? And we share that term, At SMU you are different, I thought actually came from the employers, who came onto the campus, You are different. Is that a good difference? I hope so. Initial years we said, difference doesn't mean better. Different means, You are different. I hope you can say you are unique, you are relevant. You stay relevant. You stay connected. With the many things that we do, sometimes we can get so distracted that we just do things. Where are we going? Is it necessary? And I think we don't just bury our head and say, We are an academia; we don't do this. I think we are an academia with a difference. I hope we can still continue to create that kind of impact that we have created when we first started.
A particular image of SMU that many people will draw in is the jumping student. But sooner or later, that student comes back to earth, gravity prevails. You can’t beat gravity. And the move to the second trimester is bringing the student back to earth. That is, a lot of that “jumping-ness” has been promise and excitement and aspiration, but by now we have three years of work experience by students. So if we had shown eight years ago, a student jumping to a whole new career because they’ve come to SMU, we now know whether that was in fact an accurate representation or whether we were gilding that lily a bit. So that’s what I mean about the jumping student coming back to earth. Now we’re in a much more realistic period for assessment by people outside.
People are aware of us, but we’re not in the rankings and there’s a reason for that because we haven’t had certain qualifications for a long enough period of time. But they see the headlines: NUS and NTU in the top 35 whatever it was, at that time’s Higher Education, the Financial Times’ ranking. So, we’re now in that second period, which at its worst will be the doldrums, but at its best would be the period when you change the sails. But it's one or the other. I don’t believe it’ll be the first but it's certainly is not a steady continuum on the way through.
I think it's very fortunate we’ve got a new president for this next phase. The previous president was absolutely fit for the purpose of that trimester. Now there is a new trimester. And it’s going to be much more of a challenge, I think, in working through the scepticism that’s going to come in about—are we as good as we say we are with that jumping student? How we work our way through that will then determine the third trimester which in some respects, at its best, would be the golden age of the university. There will be other periods that are wonderful as well. But it's that third trimester of development, if you avoid the doldrums and get the sail change right, that takes you to that the third stage and that would be a PhD programme where people clamour to get in, international exchanges in recognition.
One, we have done well in research. If you look at the…our young PhD [faculty], they’ve been publishing and recognised, I think that’s important. We have sent, quite a lot to the US and did their PhDs and came back and [are] doing well. Also the student population has grown, that’s a good measurement. The people are interested to come to our university. Also exchange, our exchange students have been a lot, quite a lot, our signing of agreements, to have exchange with universities has been tremendous, has been tremendous. So this helps to build your reputation. Foreign students are coming in, not only [on] exchange but really coming in to be [full-time] students.
I think our challenge has always been competing with our [other] two universities and top universities elsewhere. I think we should build our people, our own students, our curriculum, our pedagogy. We build confidence in our students that they are able to stand up and talk. Very few Singapore students can do that. So you talk to friends outside, you’re from SMU, “I like your SMU students, they can just stand up and talk.” Maybe they talk too much but they can talk, better than not talking at all. So our training has been excellent, 48 subjects, every subject they log one hour, so you give them the confidence, you build the confidence. So the way I see it, our students will eventually become top leaders here, because you cannot lead if you cannot talk. So right from the beginning, this is what I will do; every course there must be a presentation, right, to build confidence.
I see this in particular contrast to Hong Kong U, in contrast to Hong Kong. There I was on the University Grants Council, committee council, for nine years. I went off that about a year ago. And that’s the body that receives all the funding from the government and then allocates it to the university. It's like an ongoing QAFU, although they have a separate QAFU, but it’s like an ongoing international advisory panel. Half are... members of the... university presidents from other universities, including from China. Hong Kong has eight universities. Most of them having been polytechnics elevated, called universities. Australia, prior to let’s say the mid-eighties I think it was, had maybe twelve universities, then overnight we had thirty-nine. That is, the government declared a large number of the teachers colleges and polytechnics—universities. And there’s a big debate, still goes on, about that. In Australia, the difficulty is there’s this egalitarian notion of university funding, so that every university is the same. If you want to become a world-standing university, it’s a much harder struggle in Australia because the government does not fund for that to occur.
Hong Kong is exactly the same. I did a review for the government on whether we should merge Chinese University of Hong Kong and Science and Technology [Hong Kong University of Science and Technology] and in the end, I think we should have. But in the end, it was impossible. Because if we had, there would have been two world-class universities that you could build, twin peaks. But there was such a fuss from all the foothills that it didn’t happen. And the same happens in Australia. The sign of the problem is the ease with which a polytechnic or teachers college is simply declared to be a university.
Singapore strikes me as having a very different approach. The way I characterise it is, I come here and I see the Government saying to the polytechnics, there are two things we want to tell you—these are my words; these are not the Government’s words—there are two things we want to tell you: one is we’re going to fund you, one is you are never going to become a university. If we’re going to build a university, it won’t be a polytechnic becoming a university. But secondly, we‘re going to fund you as though you are a university. You are going to get levels of funding that you won’t believe as a polytechnic. And that’s been my experience. Which means that when you get a new university, such as SMU, it is a greenfield exercise, it comes up, and now SUTD. [Singapore University of Technology and Design].
Let me backtrack a little bit to answer that question and go back to the last twenty years of business education. Now we focus on business education. I keep on saying that between the late ’80s and 2008, let me decide to put it that way, business schools all over the world have had a ball. Nothing could go wrong for them, for many reasons. But probably the most important one is that we have seen in the ’80s in many countries—but perhaps the most visible with Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the United States—a transformation of society, whereby business became more important, and where business was seen as the leader in society. I’m old enough to have studied in the ’70s of the previous century and I remembered that in those days, business was not that good. My own family, my own father—when I told him that I was going to study business—looked quite worried. And he was a civil servant and he was convinced that service for government was what one needed to do, and going into business or studying business was seen or looked upon with a sort of hesitation.
We’ve seen this major transformation in the ’80s whereby society as a whole—and again I put as black and white—but society in whole had a lot more belief in what business could achieve, believe very strongly in entrepreneurship, saw business as a role model and was in many cases saying the way we organise government should be similar to the way businesses are organised with objectives and key performance indicators, and the way you organise government—society can learn from how business is organised. So it became natural that business schools were good for you. And that the best and the brightest wanted to go and study in business schools. And that business schools could charge almost anything as tuition fee because it was almost sure for people who would graduate out of a good MBA programme that they would have the right return on investment. We have had a ball.
This has changed over the last two, three years, precisely because of the financial crisis and some of the excesses that we’ve seen in business. And perhaps because not all of the ideas that came out of business worked so well in government—and I lived the last four years in the UK and I’ve seen what Tony Blair has and then his successor have tried to do in the government. And maybe not everything that they’ve tried to do, in terms of having a business orientation in government, has worked that well. But it’s clear that the financial crisis has put some question marks around the value of business for society and today we need to much more justify the role of business in society. For business schools that means that quite a few people have asked questions about business schools and the role of business schools. And how come that business schools, who were seen as being the training ground for the elite, then produce people who seem to get victims of these excesses and do things that you shouldn’t do et cetera. There have been a number of questions there.
But equally important is that because we were so successful as business schools, we isolated ourselves. We thought that we knew what society needed. And thus we define business as a combination of marketing and operations and finance and accounting and a bit of strategy and whatever and say, “This is what business needs to know and this is what society needs to know.” And I think business schools have in general not listened enough to what society really needs or even what businesses really need. And that’s the reason why I use this phrase, “We need to move from being a business school to a school for business.” And what I mean by a ‘school for business’ is listen much more carefully to what society needs or organisations need and try to come up with solutions. Even if these solutions are not in the traditional disciplines of a business school.
And I take an example, which I only know from the press so I have no privileged insights in it, but when we take the example of the major oil spill of BP in the Gulf of Mexico, it was interesting for me to see how BP originally defined it as a technical problem— “We can’t stop the well”—and didn’t see that it at the same time was a societal problem, an environmental problem, a big PR issue. It was a relationship of a British company—it was interesting to see how BP suddenly was called British Petroleum again—so they had a geopolitical issue in United States. And then it was a much more complex issue. The solution for that problem—which is a very difficult one and I’m not saying that I have a solution for it or that I would have been better at managing it—but it was clear that the solution, the leadership that was required to manage that problem needed to find ideas in sociology, in political science, yes, in the technology, but also in pure management and leadership. That they needed to have components of solutions that would fit together, that could be assembled together, and that—in terms of where it had to come from—went much beyond what a traditional business school is doing.
Now that’s where SMU is sitting in a great place, because we have many of the building blocks that are needed to respond to issues around energy, sustainability, global warming, diversity in the workforce, or all kinds of other issues that organisations are confronted with. By the combination of social sciences, economics, information systems, pure business management, and accounting and law, yes. We have many building blocks whereby if we listen carefully to society we can come up with integrated solutions. That’s the reason why, if you would look at some of the early speeches and early interviews I gave as a president, I have been hammering on interdisciplinary efforts. I always am careful, I believe in disciplinary research, and I believe that you can do very good research based in the disciplines and, but there is a lot of value in bringing these building blocks together and providing answers to society that recognise the complexity of the problems and don’t try to bring it back to one single item of what we have to offer. So SMU is uniquely well-positioned if we can keep that integration between the different schools that we have to be a leading institution in the world.
And that brings me back to an earlier question that you had about the change in educational scene here in Singapore. I think we had had a watershed, and it’s a bit of an easy word to use, but until now, the Singapore educational institutions could learn from their counterparts elsewhere in the world. They were—I’ve sometimes used the word, apprentices—of what was happening elsewhere in the world. And it’s clear for, example, that SMU has learned a lot from Wharton, and that we’re still learning a lot from CMU, from Carnegie Mellon, in information systems. At the same time, I also see that NUS has learned a lot from MIT, from its collaborations with other institutions, and I could go on like that. We have been, when I talk about SMU and I will limit it to that, we’ve been an apprentice. But we’ve learned a lot, and there’s a moment where you have to take your responsibility and say, “We’ve now become a partner that can contribute to others in the world.” And that is a subtle but very important change in the educational environment here in Singapore. That is that we’ve become partners for the rest of the world, partners for some of the best institutions in the world, and we will have to develop together what the university of tomorrow is.
And that’s where my ‘from business school to school for business’ comes in. A new view on what a business school can be, a new view on how you respond to the challenges and the questions that society has and how we as educational institutions, higher educational institutions and universities, react to it. We are in the…we have become a university that’s in the driver seat, that has to come up with its own ideas.