I think from my particular perspective, because it would be many, many different levels of challenges from faculty recruitment to student recruitment to the campus, I think from my perspective overseeing it all, the biggest challenge was one of credibility. Credibility to students, to parents, to the broader community, to MOE [Ministry of Education]. So, we had many people who were looking at this university as a rather strange little experiment, and we could have flopped. I think that was always topmost in my mind. A flopping would be one measured by simply the fact that we could be seen as a mediocre new university, one that had no impact at all, no big deal. I guess it wouldn’t have made much difference to life in Singapore, but it would have made a huge difference to all of us, because we had these great dreams about what we wanted to do. So to me that was the biggest challenge. Like launching SMU, to us was like launching a new product. I likened it to iPad, because there’s a certain similarity. Steve Jobs can do all the market surveys he wants to do, but the iPad wasn’t built on the basis of—or even iPod—on the basis of market surveys. It’s based on what he thought the public would want, but it could have flopped. You really would not have known beforehand whether it would flop or not.
So we had great dreams about what we wanted to do, and we had hoped it would resonate with people, but you never know, it could’ve flopped. So when you look back, that fear of flopping, in my view was the biggest challenge. It’s not fear of not having money, because the money was going to be there, Government was supporting us, but it was the fact that we could have flopped. A lot of things had to come together for it to have succeeded, and thankfully, it all came together—the faculty, the students, the administration, the choice of campus, the pedagogical system, everything came together and maybe because it was the first of its kind.
There were debates within MOE [Ministry of Education], we would hear about the idea that we should just be then the sole provider of business education. We didn’t want that, because it’s against my personal values and the whole values that SMU was set up on. I wouldn’t call it competition as such, I would say diversity is always good. That’s a fundamental value even within the ethos of SMU itself. We don’t want all top academic performers. We don’t want all Singaporeans. Diversity has an inherent value, in and of itself. And diversity in the choice you give to Singaporeans—first of all it does lead to competition, which is very healthy.
Having NUS and NTU business schools that are doing very well can only be good for us because a) it makes Singapore a destination for high-quality business education—that will rub off on SMU. It means competition so that we bring better professors overall. Competition overall—if you are a business person, competition is always good. More importantly, as a Singaporean, I think it provides diversity. NUS is going to have a slightly differently calibrated business curriculum, so will NTU, and so will we. And that’s good for everybody, to the extent that these things were ever discussed, a monopoly on business education or a large university. If they had gone ahead, against our recommendations, it would have been, in my view, quite negative. But thankfully, they were more distractions than anything else.
The real significance of SMU at the broader level is that we were actually the, the change catalyst for completely changing the university situation everywhere else in Singapore.
Starting off SMU on its own was a big risk and we discussed it for a long time as to whether this was advisable because it’s very important for Singapore—whichever university we start—that the university should not fail.
So it was very important that the university should succeed, the degrees of the university should be recognised and accepted by employers. The university should be able to attract its fair share of bright students and be held in high regard by parents. Starting a university from scratch in the context of Singapore, a small and urban environment where parents and students would inevitably compare the newcomer as I said with a proven product, NUS and NTU, was a big risk.
Eventually I agreed when Mr Ho and his council said they thought that this was best. And essentially for three reasons. The first reason was a very substantive point—that if they wanted to set SMU in a different direction from NUS or NTU, it should start from the very beginning. It should be different. It shouldn’t be built on what had gone before. The second reason why I thought that this might succeed was the fact that the subjects which SMU were going to teach, business and management, would be very widely accepted in Singapore because of Singapore’s position as a business hub. So there would be a demand for such places. Then the final reason why I thought this could succeed was because, with the approval of the Cabinet, to allow SMU to establish itself as a city university on extremely valuable land. This would differentiate SMU from NUS and NTU. So because of these three reasons—first of all we should start completely different from NUS and NTU, secondly because the subjects were business and management which would be widely accepted in Singapore, and thirdly, that it should have a city campus which would differentiate it directly from NUS and NTU. These would give the new university a chance to succeed.
But, as you say the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The question is, “Will you attract students? Will they find jobs when they graduate?” That’s unknown. So SMU took in its first students in 2000. They graduated in 2003, 2004. And we’re very relieved that they were accepted well and since then seven cohorts of students have graduated from SMU and all of them have been very well received. So it’s been a success.
So then we had the first batch of students coming in. Then we thought, Okay, we have got to make sure, unlike other universities, to get these students to work as a team. So we organized team building activities. We took them to the place that I (helped to) build, Outward Bound Singapore in Pulau Ubin, and there we had some teambuilding activities. While we were waiting for the boat to take us from the Singapore Island to Pulau Ubin; it's a boat ride about 8 to 10 minutes; some of the students held us back because they were late. They were holding back everybody's time. So I said, Alright! I need you to reflect on what you did, and what you learnt from this and (SMU's) circle values. Let's put together something where you could put all the C.I.R.C.L.E values in it, and talk about the lessons learnt. So it was a lesson on reflection. And then with one of my colleagues in the legal profession, (AP) Saw Cheng Lim, we kind of refined what the students wrote and made it the student's creed. So we then started a Students Creed and we got them (the students) to recite it every time we meet them so that they understood the Student's Creed which embodied all the C.I.R.C.L.E values. We even had a song written to it. And at the first convocation, we had (AP) Kirpal (Singh) read the Students Creed together with a student called (Gerald) Goh Tua Yang to the music that Cheng Lim played. It's a beautiful (piece of) music. That was exciting and that was how we started the Student's Creed.
There’s an earlier logo, I think very few people know about it. You can ask around, maybe nobody remembers it. There’s an earlier logo, makeshift one for name card. It is three bars, each one with the word Singapore, Management, University. It’s in corporate blue colour. I, at that time I said, that’s the easiest thing to do. I have to try and find it somewhere. It’s the first logo for SMU, just the three, three blocks – Singapore Management University.
Now, the logo that we have now, as usual we send out for tenders. And I, if I recall, there’re about three to four tenders, people who came to present. So, and this group that finally won the tender, gave this logo that you see, but not this logo, you’ve got to take away the tangram pieces on one side; they only provided tangram pieces for one side, not the other side, so it’s harder to see half of the face, only half of the, so-called the eyes, the lips et cetera, alright, because it’s more stylish, but I remember that not many people in the meeting saw that design. Fortunately that this company that’s tendering gave an alternative design, one of the simple ones like Singapore Youth Festival, something like that, very standard in Singapore. And so they won the tender, and then in the process they swung us back to this one. But I think that the, the logo is very important. In fact I think that the logo plays quite an important part, but probably subliminal part of the success of SMU, especially amongst the young people. You just take a look at NUS logo, NTU logo, and then you look at SMU and you know what I mean. So I thought it was very smart because there’s a lion which represents Singapore, there’s the tangram pieces that represent management, and there’s the eyebrow of the lion which represents intellect, or university. So it’s a very clever design, simple, but quite profound. In fact after the presentation I told the group, I said, “It’s excellent.” I said, “I don’t know whether you’ll win,” but I said, “It’s excellent,” yeah. So, yeah I think the logo is extremely good, and plays some part in helping students to identify and feel that they belong.
We continued what we did. There was of course a lot of activity and a lot of excitement as to what’s going to happen to us, the staff. But we managed that, we managed that quite well. At the same time, I myself was having second thoughts as to whether or not SIM should really drop its role at helping working adults get a degree and concentrate on just [being] a university for school leavers. I had my doubts. And I actually expressed these doubts to the council. Ho Kwon Ping is the Chairman, the Chairman is elected among the Council members, you know. So he was appointed Council member, appointed Chairman.
As I gave my views, I also said I would be writing a paper, getting views from different people on the concept of a third university, which I did and subsequently I submitted this to council in the early part of September. While we discussed it at the Council meeting, Dr. Tony Tan also joined us for some meetings, at least one meeting in June, so we could tap his ideas as to what he saw as a third university. And we had a lot of discussions, with different people and how to ensure that the university would function well and would be a good working model for a third university. Whether we should move away from the British system to the American system or have some elements of both. So we had a sort of mission to visit some universities and Professor Tan Teck Meng and I visited some universities in the States and in UK, notably Wharton [and] Haas School in California, London Business School and the LSE [London School of Economics]. We visited these four institutions, we looked at curricular, we looked at how universities were being run and we put up a report to the Council.
Having been the scribe of the report, I could put things there that I want to see happen, you know. Things like an American system, or American-based system, not just in terms of curricula or broad-based curriculum, first two years what you do, various subjects, and to focus on main areas in the third and fourth year, unlike the British system which is specialised whereas American system is broad based.
I also wanted to see the nomenclature of staff change. As you know in the British system they are known as assistant lecturer, lecturers before they become senior lecturers, before they become associate professors and professors. And I know well that in my discussion with the universities and in Penn and elsewhere that the people there did not know what a lecturer was. After all it’s a very British term, lecturer or senior lecturer. So if we wanted an American-based system, we had to ensure that we use an American-based nomenclature for staff. So I recommended that we should have assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, chair professors and what have you.
At the same time, I was really keen that we shouldn’t have a mega campus. And that was in my discussion with Dr. Tan. He also agreed that we shouldn’t have a mega campus like the NUS or the NTU. We should have a city campus. And the idea of city campus arose from the fact that I saw it working very well at LSE because it would create synergy with the city and you are in the midst of the activities, rather than to be in an ivory tower of your own. So that was how we should have a city campus.
So this are some of the ideas that we brought and we said that if we were to be American-based system then we should try to get an American university, a good one, to link up with the proposed university, to set up some kind of consultancy service. And at that time there was one professor from Wharton who was teaching part time at the National University of Singapore, NUS, by the name of Richard Herring, and I had some discussions with him as to whether or not he would see the possibility of the new university linking up with Wharton. And he said that could be explored. And in my visits to UPenn, for the six nation project, I took the opportunity to visit Wharton as well. And these ideas came up. And so there was really not much of a problem in having that kind of relationship with Wharton. When the agreement, when the understanding was reached that we could have this relationship, I put together an MOU, which we subsequently signed with Wharton towards the end of 1997.
A lot of the early decisions, from the Government’s perspective, it was Tony Tan is a visionary DPM [deputy prime minister] at the juncture.
NTU and NUS, they were constituted more like a statutory board. Statutory boards are entities created within the ministry, so they have a direct line from MOE. So the decision to put SMU as a private university was that we will be outside of MOE. We are not a stat board [statutory board], so we are not inside the ministry. The moment you are outside, there is no direct line. There is only a dotted line. So we can do things faster, we can move along quicker and we were pretty dramatic. We were doing many things very different.
If we had been inside, we would not have been able to pay salaries that are totally different from NUS and NTU. Remember in your old days when we first started, NUS and NTU, the faculty remuneration packages were very much in line with the civil service.
So we were incorporated like a private entity, legally we are on our own. So whatever we want to do, the Government can, well, influence some, but they cannot say no. So we were adopting, at that point, a lot of policies that were very strange to Singapore.
It is smaller. By virtue of smallest of size, there will always be, there will always be this distinguishing feature. With smaller size, smaller classroom size, smaller everything, there’ll be a greater sense of intimacy. So that will continue. But in terms of the actual programmes we’d offer, and I’m talking about many years down the road, I think it’s always going to be simply a matter of finding niches for yourself. Now, SMU has found certain niches already. Clear niches, the fact that we’ve always said the exciting areas of education are really at the intersection of traditional disciplines. Bearing in mind that traditional disciplines were set up in the 19th century—biology, physics, chemistry—those are all 19th century constructs. Today, the most exciting areas would be between art and computer science, its animation. Between physics and biology, biophysics and so on. Now we’re not involved in all those areas, but to the extent that we are going to be offering joint degrees in law and in business, in business and accountancy, in economics and law for example, we will be of interest to other students, and we’ll distinguish ourselves that way. Now, when NUS goes that direction, we’ll be less so.
We have said that if we had to ever use a simple way for stating, in twenty-five words or less, what our ambition is—and you always have to use other examples, other names of institutions to give people an impression—what we’ve said in our strategy sessions in the past is that, we want to be an LSE [London School of Economics] but with a Princeton type of setup. Princeton type of setup because it’s US-style education, liberal arts sort of thing. So, the style will be like Princeton, style and size, but the offerings will not be like Princeton. LSE, because a social science university. And of course management. So we don’t see ourselves as being management only. I think that’s quite limiting. Law is already, we’re moving beyond that, but we would probably want to offer a wider range of the social sciences. So it’s basically a marriage, imagine LSE and Princeton marrying, and that should be your SMU.
As the Government had earlier decided on collaboration with the Wharton School it was natural to use it as a starting block for the design of the SMU curriculum. However, we made various changes and additions to make the SMU curriculum more unique. For instance, we decided to implement a compulsory internship component to ensure that its students graduate with some work experience. It will make them more employable. Further, employers also get to know the quality of our students. Another compulsory requirement was community service. We wanted to inculcate in students the spirit of giving back to society and to nurture students with a heart. Another addition was a course module named Business Study Mission which we had implemented successfully in the Nanyang MBA program. We saw the importance of developing in students a global mindset. Study trips overseas, visiting companies, interacting with top management - all these would provide our students with a better understanding of operating in different cultures, as well as economic, political and legal systems. The BSM has now become a very popular feature of the SMU undergraduate curricula.
To differentiate the SMU program with other local universities, we decided on a broad-based curriculum spanning 36 subjects compared to their 24, and interactive seminar-style pedagogy with small classes. We saw these additions as important to grooming graduates who are confident, dynamic, able to think out of the box, and with good communication and presentation skills. However, it would require us to extend the program to four years compared to three years in the local universities. We perceived, however, that these improvements would add value and provide our students with a more rigorous education, and enable them to thrive in an increasingly dynamic and global environment. The fact that the employment rate for our graduates each year is closed to 100%, demonstrates that employers have found them appealing.
Separately, but affiliated. And the original concept plan was to take over NTU School of Business which includes the accounting component.The creation of the university—the concept plan—was for a fifteen thousand-student-strength university, and it was meant to be a big teaching university and largely a business management-type university. As you know, NTU had for a long time been the largest business programme in Singapore. So when you migrate it, port it over, immediately it would have a couple of thousands of kids, faculty. Then you can grow and expand from that base.
Ho Kwon Ping at that juncture was looking for a president and they appointed the headhunter. He was in conversation with Janice Bellace, and he suggested maybe Janice should be the person. Janice agreed, so that’s how Janice came into the picture very early on.
So the original plan is not supposed to be a research university. So the moment Janice became the president, she looked at the fifteen thousand student strength, she said that this is not going to fly. And this whole relationship with NTU is [also] not going to fly. At that time there were just a few of us involved, so the discussions went along, and basically, there was a lot of debate on what we should do and what we should not do, so on and so forth. The decision at that juncture was that we should be on our own. We should develop our own faculty, doing everything from ground up and as a result a fifteen thousand-size university is not going to fly so the number was cut down from fifteen to six.
But if you look at the whole notion of Janice coming into the picture, it had also created a new template, moving forward. What that means is that we will now follow more the Wharton model, which in fact was what Tony Tan wanted. He wanted this university to be a more American-style university compared to say the more British system of the NTU and NUS, at least at that juncture. And so this will differentiate SMU from the other two. And the Wharton connection, the Wharton relationship, actually gave us that. So when we first started—it was literally we borrowed—we followed whatever Wharton and Penn uses, we use.
Before we even go to that stage, when the concept paper was accepted by MOE [Ministry of Education], basically we need to start the ball rolling, and we need to go to work and it was at that juncture that Ho Kwon Ping, locked in a few players to get the university going. So at that juncture, [it was] Teck Meng, myself and Aik Meng [Low Aik Meng], we were the first three.
Oh, the concept was very, very much different. It was meant to be only a business school. NUS and NTU business students were supposed to come over and there will be no more business school in NUS and NTU. That was the first concept. However, the Government changed their mind later and wanted competition. I suppose competition is good that way.
Oh there was a lot of interaction certainly with MOE and those were mainly at the Tan Teck Meng’s level. And I must say that when we first started, it was having the university within the, within the umbrella of SIM. But very soon, that changed and then we would run our own university. And it was meant to be the only business university in Singapore because then NTU and NUS were supposed to close their business schools and all business education would be carried out in, within SMU. And the whole idea was that SMU would be quite a big university. It was actually envisaged to be like ten to twelve thousand students as steady-state. Then, of course, within the next one year, there were a lot of interaction with MOE, the other two universities were also very proactive in not wanting to close their programmes and so, along the way, over the next one year, the shape of SMU changed several times.
And by the time the consensus had been reached, we had our first president then and then the whole idea was, well we are not going to be that big, twelve thousand-sized university. We will be a small niche university; the other two universities will continue to run their business programmes because competition is good. Competition drives up quality. If the other two universities were to close their business programmes then essentially SMU would have a monopoly of business programmes, it could compromise quality. There’s a possibility there. So the whole idea then was that all three universities will run their own business programmes and each will find their own niche. And within SMU we had our own idea of how we wanted to run our own business programmes that would be different from the business programmes of the other two universities. So that was how it had progressed. By the time the university had reached about its second year, not the university, when the group of us had reached the end of the second year of our time with SMU.
There were constant reports being written about what we feel should be the direction for SMU and then those reports were constantly being revised as we hear feedback from MOE that these programmes are no longer going to close down and so on. And from our point of view, we were not dismayed because we actually think that we like competition, you know. We also think that it is good for students in Singapore to have choices. So actually we were supportive of that. We also didn’t like the idea of a very big university because if we are a small niche university, then we could really make ourselves unique and different. So it was actually a positive development for us.
Some small group was asked to review the university programme run by SIM. They’re mainly British, Australian degrees run in Singapore. I think that task force, that small group was led by Pang Yang Hoong who reviewed their programme et cetera. Without going into detail, she produced a report and those things, and part of the outcome of it was that, the decision was made that SIM would not convert into the third university. The positive reason is that Singapore does need a second chance university. I think every country needs one because there are people who intellectually bloom slower or due to financial reason, you cannot deprive them of a chance of university education. To convert SIM into a third university, our statement is that then somebody [would] have to recreate another SIM, which is a total waste of time to create two universities rather than just do a whole new one. So we went away from that model. So of course later on, we know that SIM do create their own UNISIM [Singapore Institute of Management University] but they’ve been running university programme anyway for a long time.
And once we decide to, or rather government decide that we should move away and start afresh, then we start eyeing and looking for role models from the US. By then as I said, it was already decided we should have an American type model here to serve as a different type of outlet or avenue for students. So the choice of Wharton [School of the University of Pennsylvania] was also quite easy. They are the top university that has a substantial undergraduate programme, and they’ve always been ranked number one then, 1997, 1998, in the US, for business degree programme.
There were talks of making a change in starting a new university. And the original plan was actually for NUS [National University of Singapore] and NTU both to close their business schools, and for business discipline to move to SMU. So SMU originally was supposed to be this big university with lots of management students, that was the original plan. And NTU was being brought in to help in this, in particular Tan Teck Meng who was the dean of the Nanyang Business School was asked to lead a team to help start SMU. And it was the initiative was from Dr. Tony Tan, then Deputy Prime Minister who had special interest in universities.
SIM don’t want to be a university. And then, NUS also don’t want to come and they want to keep their business school. NTU decided later on that they will only give the business school; they will not give the accounting school. So the whole thing, [was] all totally different. The whole idea is put them all together, [but] now we created more schools. Initially as I look at it, it is a setback you see, because the press went to town, you know, on this new university. Then all of a sudden, this new university sounds like a small university. So initially, personally, as the lead person, I’m concerned because I took so many people with me, what happens if this thing fails? We [have] all got to go back and beg Dr Cham for a job. (laughter) So, yah I was concerned. But I knew something—number one, we are going to have a city university. Where on earth can you find a city university in a small country like Singapore? So expensive. So that’s what the Government promised and Singapore Government is always true to their word—they want to do it, they do it, you see. So that comforted me. So I said, I think that’s okay.
I really do not know the real reason why that changed. But certainly in the concept paper, and in discussions with Dr. Tan, as a result of which the concept paper reflected that NTU would close its business school, NUS will reduced the number to 300 per year or something like that, around that figure, the idea was to give, to allow SMU a good head start. As I see it, that would be a logical assumption I would make. Give SMU a good start, so that if anybody wanted to do a business degree then they would logically choose SMU or NUS. But of course as you know, when SMU opened its door for its first batch of students, the very bright applied to SMU. And that was a really a feather in the cap for SMU.
SIM was going to be the third university but with the provision, with the understanding that SIM would continue as SIM but there will be an SMU to be set up but there would be no cross subsidies of funds. There would be funding from Government for SMU although it was to be a private university, funding was to come from Government. And I wouldn’t like to call it a private university in that sense. Perhaps it’s similar to what we have here, the independent school system in Singapore where funding is given by the Government but of course you run it independently, but not as private in the sense that you can’t do a lot of things that private universities can do.
The original plan was to close the two business schools in NUS and NTU. The planning parameters were that SMU was supposed to accept something in the region of 1500 students [each year]. That would be the sum total of the two university plus students from SMU. The idea of having an evening class was very quickly dropped. Minister Teo Chee Hean, he asked us to concentrate on the full-time programme first. Later we had this discussion with Janice, and the numbers were moved from the very ambitious 1500 to 300, because it became obvious that the other two universities are not going to close their business schools.
Yes, right. Even at our first meeting with Dr Tony Tan, he suggested that this will be a private university. So I said, “Private university? Where are we going to get the money?” because running a university is very costly, but it will be a government-funded private university. When I go to the US [and] talk about this, they say, “What’s this? Harvard, MIT, they are all private universities, where on earth you got government- funded private university?” So the concept has flown through and Government, true to their promise, gave the money to us so that we will run privately as a university. I think there is no way we can run a truly private university yet, not yet. But if Government is backing us, eventually [when] we do so well, hopefully our alumni can donate. Eventually we hope that we can be a private, proper private university, be able to contribute to the economy. So that’s, that’s one thing which is very unique. In fact, that was some bit of worry on my part also you see. Because what if the Government says, “Okay, no money already.” So what are we going to do? Those were early days, but now no problem. Government has been funding us very well.
Well, for business school’s spin-off to accounting school, it is a natural thing. The spinning off of accountancy school is due to two things. First the professional requirement, the degree programme needs to be a little bit different from the more general education kind of thing. So that was the main driver to spin-off, to have the accountancy school as a separate entity.
Business school [faculty] because we are recruiting from overseas tend to be more the research type whereby the accountancy group tend to be more the practice type. The practice type fits in very well with the local professional requirements, so to make it as a separate school became a natural thing. And after accountancy, econs [economics] is a natural spin-off and as you can see, a lot of the original team tend to be economists and having an econs school is a natural thing. The original concept was econs will then become the bed for social sciences, so we have a cluster. And so you have business, you have accounting, you have econs and IT came later because IT again, the intermarriage of IT and business turns out to be a very interesting and good one. And the original concept for School of Social Sciences was meant to be together [with economics].
I think it’s been explosive. I mean when I talked to people who were here at the beginning, a lot of people thought this was going to be a total flop. Now the Singapore Government does not allow total flops and they were going to make sure it worked. But it was also said to me quite candidly by both Tharman and Dr Tony Tan that one reason they wanted to try this experiment, and they wanted it truly to be an experiment, and because it was relatively small, and wasn’t a comprehensive university, if it didn’t work, that was going to be okay. They just wanted us to try different things and see how it worked, and it did work and I think better than anybody expected. The curricula at our two older siblings have changed. They have more interactive smaller classes; they’ve changed a lot of things. The new universities borrow a lot from what we have. I think SMU has dramatically changed the landscape.
I could only say that the way SMU developed would surprise anyone. First of all, although Singapore government is known for its efficiency, effectiveness, government is also known for its cautiousness in ensuring standards. So the fact that it’s so fast tracked - within a year, it was conceptualized, within that same year it was approved by Government although it took some months more to get it through Parliament. Within that short time, you had your campus; you had the funds rolling in. Then you had the development, fast track development with Wharton, finding your first president, then your campus, your temporary campus at Evans Road and your new campus here. A lot of money has gone into it, a lot of thinking has gone into it, a lot of brain power has gone into it but then with your students, your first cohort coming in, being very good students, your pioneers really put SMU on the map.
And of course the faculty, [we] mustn’t forget the faculty, the fact that you have good faculty and links to Wharton. That really helped. I would say that the fast track move, you know, building up. And now you are going into other areas, law and what have you, in that short time. Earlier on, the intention was that in the initial years, NTU would award degrees. Because after all NTI didn’t award degrees but NTI courses were accredited by NUS for almost ten years. I may be wrong but I think that it was that length of time. And that’s a local university. And so long NUS was accrediting NTI before NTI became NTU. And the fact that from the very first pioneering batch, we awarded degrees, that is really a big achievement in a society which is cautious but at the same time, efficient and of course will do its homework in terms of quality assurance and so on.
I think SMU will grow even more. And it’s good because you have amassed good practices that other universities can look at and say, “Hey, why can’t I do that?” You know, likewise, I’m sure you also look outwards to see what are the good practices elsewhere even within local universities and adopt them. I think that’s the pragmatic approach that Singapore has always adopted. And I’m sure institutions in Singapore will adopt. To me, there is nothing new in education. Everything has been done before but in a different way. It’s a question of how best to do it the way you want. The principles are there. So the best practice approach would be is the way to go.
It’s giving the two universities a run for their money. Students want to get into universities of their choice, so they will apply to three universities and the universities select the students. But still, the universities are advertising. And I think that is a good sign. They want their university known, that they are offering this and that. They are this rank in the world ranking whatever, for different courses. And it means that they want to improve and they want to be there. So I would say in a way that the presence of SMU being the third is giving the two universities a run for their money.
Probably three things that stand out about this university, it’s able to nurture a group of students who obviously stand out in the eyes of employers, I think that’s the most significant. It broke a number of traditions, from the logo, how we recruit students and so on. And it’s also a university where the student is the centre of the activity. Not the establishment, not the faculty, but the students. I believe that those are the strength of this new and very impressive university.
And then the community service project. We had a Singapore group that I won’t name come, and they were looking at all we do and they said, “How can you mandate that people do community service? That seems silly. If it’s mandated it’s not service.” I said, “On the contrary, a lot of these kids have never seen, say the other part of Singapore or some other less developed parts of Southeast Asia.” If nothing else, they’re exposed to a part of society that they would not otherwise be exposed to. And for many it’s a transformative event. They also, in many instances, do a lot of very good work.
Well, another example in this community service was that beginning about 2002 or ’03, or sometime several years ago, there was a project that students got involved in, in a small community in the Philippines, not too far from Cebu. And they had been involved in things like helping build a community centre for older people, and they had worked with the schools on certain training programmes for kids, and also helping build some play facilities for younger children, a variety of different projects over time. And from the initial group that went, another group went back and this has kind of grown over the years so that we have a regular connection with this particular little town. And a substantial number of students go there every year to work on these projects. And the mayor and the town council have become so fond of our students and appreciative of what they’d done that they passed a resolution making all of them honorary citizens. And the mayor and a couple of members of the council came here to make a presentation to me to thank SMU and its students for having done this. Not too many universities in the world have kids who are doing that kind of thing.
I think when we came into SMU in the year 2000, we emphasised that this university has a difference. We didn't really know what the differences are about; I don't think it's down pat, on paper. We know that the teaching pedagogy will be different. We know that if we have four years a lot of people complain about our four years but we knew that if we have four years, we will make a difference. We know that we want a different kind of students to apply to us. I think we have to keep reminding ourselves about that, because after twelve years, it's very easy to try and put everything into a systems approach. Because we keep thinking if everything is systemised, then it will be independent of the individuals and then it can be a lot more sustainable. I worry that if we put everything down on a systems approach, we morph into like everybody else. And I really think we have to keep reminding ourselves that the reason why SMU make a difference, is different, is because we attracted very different people. We have very different staff, very different faculty and we are the risk-takers in some ways.
Of course, now we are no longer taking risks because we have physical presence, and everybody will say SMU will never be a fly-by-night anymore. It's got six buildings, it's anchored in the city and the Government has invested too much to let it go under.
Well, if you look at the mission statement, we’re basically to produce graduates who are entrepreneurial and have all the other qualities that we wanted to achieve. I think the main mission and vision—We want to be a top-class university—I don’t think the mission has changed or the vision has changed. If anything else, it’s a question, “How much closer are we to seeing the fulfilment of the mission and vision?” I think we have succeeded in various ways. We are producing students that the market acknowledges are very different from the other graduates. Our students are said to be a lot more entrepreneurial, which is part of the mission that we set for ourselves. Our students are able to communicate much better, hold themselves up as confident graduates and everything else. So in a sense, I think, over the years, we are seeing the fulfilment of the mission and vision of the university.
I would say the original mission statement is quite a natural outcome of a bunch of very enthusiastic people who didn’t know what they can or cannot do. So you find a lot of high-sounding words. I think we did drop things like world-class and things like that; it was a bit overused at that time. But essentially the initial mission statement should be interpreted to show the enthusiasm and ambition of the earlier group, whether it’s achievable or not. But it’s good to aim high in that sense.
One source that’s very important that we should not dismiss was we went around and talk to the employers—what do you want to see in university graduates? Of course we were a bit cheeky then too. We told them, look we were in the previous two universities before, what are the things that you find incomplete? I didn’t say they are bad, because they were our students. I think they are very good programmes, good graduates but nothing is perfect. So we ask them, if you are going to be a new university you must start doing something that is missing in the current bunch of graduates. This is a competitive type of strategy, that’s all. And they did tell us quite frankly what they want: they want students who are able to talk on their feet.
Before SMU came about, the standard response to employment or employers’ survey is that local graduate is inferior to foreign graduate in one sense—in that they don’t seem to have the confidence to tell people what they know, what should be done. And you find that that itself was built into our programme. That we insist that every course, unless they get special dispensation from their bosses, should have a project which students must present. Our argument is very simple, if any student goes through SMU, 35 courses, okay say 30 with some exemption, and you make 30 presentations throughout that time, you got no choice but to have improved in your presentation skills, ability to talk, stand in front of the class, because we give them grades for presentation. We give them grades for answering questions during presentation, not just stand there and talk. I mean talking is easy, but when people challenge you, how do you answer them?
And there was one other development then which, I must say was also quite, quite courageous on our part because Dr Tony Tan had said that the SMU could start as a new university, but for the next maybe, I don’t know, he said ten years or maybe shorter, students from SMU could be given NTU degrees, because he cited the case of NTU, when NTU first started, for the first ten years of NTU’s existence, NTU students were awarded NUS degrees. And it was only when NTU, or NTI [Nanyang Technological Institute] at that time became established enough to become NTU, then they started offering their own degrees. So the start-up team debated this and we felt that if we want to start something new, we want to start something unique, we should offer our own degrees. Even if nobody knew SMU at that time. So we went through several meetings convincing ourselves, and then convincing MOE, convincing Dr Tony Tan that SMU should offer its own degree. And it was for us, a major achievement when the Government agreed to let us offer our own degrees because it was unheard of at that time. The only precedence was that of NTU and they had NUS degrees for ten years. And we didn’t want our students getting NTU degrees so we argued for our own degree and one of the, I think, most satisfying memories we have is when the Government said, “OK, you can offer your own degree from day one”.
I was employed by SIM. And as I said, Dr. Tan visited us in either February or March, two months or so after I joined SIM and set in train [motion] this whole idea of a new university. So it was a lot of concentration on my part on what to do in terms of putting together a concept for a new university and how we move along, the directions in which the Governing council would want to chart for the university with inputs of Dr. Tan. At the same time of course, being CEO of SIM, I had to look after SIM matters as well. And SIM matters comprised membership activities, it comprised open university degree programs and it comprised collaboration with outside universities - that had to carry on. I couldn’t say, I shouldn’t say that I did it in my spare time. But certainly I was able to merge, to do both to the best of my ability. But of course the priority was to ensure that the third university would be discussed properly, the concept, and move along smoothly. And of particular concern to me, and having known SIM after six months there, was that I was very convinced that I should not let SIM die as a result of SMU. SIM should continue as SIM. It didn’t take too much of persuasion [for] Dr. Tan or the council but I think they did see my point, in keeping SIM as SIM because SIM is the credible institution for providing education for the adults. And the whole idea therefore was not to evolve SIM into SMU and therefore destroying SIM but to have SIM put up a proposal for a new university and in ensuring that SIM remain as SIM.
It was basically a SIM matter. And so it was the Governing Council of SIM elected at the AGM which had to decide how to go about putting together a concept for the new university. Being the CEO and being in the know of what would be the best and working with people in the Governing Council who may not necessary be educationists but who are in different industries, I put together a concept of what it should be, very clearly on how we should go about developing a new university and it was discussed by the Council very generally. They would of course give new ideas, as to what we should be, where we should go, and how we should go about it and how we’re going to endorse certain issues that I raised with them, raised in my concept papers. And as a result, I was able to gather all their feedback and put up a revised paper. Not revised drastically, but revised to meet all their needs, at the same time to meet Dr. Tan to see what was his own view on the matter, so that it could get Government approval. I put up a concept paper in early September, first concept paper probably that was discussed at the SIM governing council. As a result, I put another paper up in November, met with Dr. Tan and then put up a final paper at the end of November for approval which was forthcoming.
I joined SIM in January, January 1st or January 2nd 1997. I was trying to get myself familiar with the place. Then there was a talk given by Dr. Tony Tan, Deputy Prime Minister then, on the expansion of more tertiary education opportunities in January. And subsequently in either February or March, he visited SIM and he popped the question whether SIM would be an ideal instrument for starting a third university. That came as a surprise to me. After all, I was only two, three months on the job, and although SIM has been, had been there for 30 odd years, my initial reaction was, “Yes that would be a good sort of a seed organization to start a third university although perhaps a university [that] could take a different form and different shape.” So that was my response to him and we talked about various possibilities. Then subsequently, we had our annual general meeting in April and he attended the annual general meeting, Tony Tan. And he actually spoke to the general body and suggested the possibility of SIM evolving into a third university because for SIM to evolve into third university we had to get the general body’s agreement. And of course the general body after discussion, hearing Dr. Tan’s views, approved the setting up of, approved the evolution of SIM into a third university. At the same annual general meeting, new council members were appointed and that included Mr Ho Kwon Ping who is now your Chairman of the Board of Trustees. So in that sense, we had a new Council which comprised Mr Ho Kwon Ping and others, one representative of the Ministry who was Mr Tharman who is now the Minister for Finance, and he was once the Minister for Education. I had actually worked with Mr Tharman when I was in the Ministry. So he knew the kinds of things that needed to be done. And we also had different people from various sectors from industry to contribute as we progressed this idea of evolving SIM into a third university.
Of course, SMU [Singapore Management University] was not named then as the third university. You mentioned SIM [Singapore Institute of Management]; that was a very pragmatic approach by the government. At that time, the SIM had already been running for decades, right, providing what we called a second chance university experience for people who can’t get into the university locally, whose family are not rich enough to send them overseas, unfortunately. So they were safe enough and then do a, read a university degree part-time through SIM. And I think there’s a great necessity for that anyway, but the government said that since they’ve been running for so long, why not just convert SIM into the third university, so that was actually the original intention. That was not in our report. We just said that Singapore needs a third university. So when the proposal was accepted, and most of the task force members were faculty who volunteered to come up to form the third university, it is very natural the government said that take a look at SIM. In fact, SIM was very helpful. They actually fund our first year of operation. Of course the government did return, repay them later but it’s an interest-free loan, I think it’s good. So we are supposed to be SIM U [Singapore Institute of Management University], ‘SEEMU’, sounds a very funny name, right. Of course a lot of thing ran in parallel.
That’s the scope only, and also the idea was to shift all the business schools, to the new university. The whole idea is having a business school, and the other idea, which is of course, pre SMU, is to convert SIM into SIM university.
That’s the initial strategy because SIM itself is very big so, that’s a good, clever idea—use an established school and SIM had at that time the facilities and so on. We can all be put together there you see, so it is supposed to be a SIM university.
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.
The 12 members in the planning team together had a few hundred years of academic experience behind us and we knew what we wished to see in our graduates. We saw the need to instil certain core values in our graduates which would make them distinctive and give them an identity. We deliberated long and hard on the values the various stakeholders deemed as important and eventually came up with the CIRCLE values of Commitment, Integrity, Responsibility, Collegiality, Leadership, and Excellence. We felt that these were the attributes that would give our SMU graduates the ‘soul’.
In the classroom, courses were introduced to instil some of these attributes such as leadership and teambuilding, ethics and social responsibility. These were supplemented with other initiatives and programs beyond the classroom such as empowering students to take on leadership roles in organizing university events, requiring all freshmen to attend a three day camp to inculcate the core SMU CIRCLE values, inviting students to give back to the university by serving as peer helpers, SMU ambassadors, etcetera and also encouraging students to spearhead overseas community service projects to help needy communities. We saw the importance of a holistic education in developing the quintessential SMU graduate, one who had undergone rigorous academic training, possessed a value system and a sense of social responsibility. The student body in collaboration with staff and faculty eventually composed the SMU pledge reflecting the SMU CIRCLE values.
Basically the seven ‘I’s came about because we were preparing to go out to give talks to prospective students, to junior colleges, et cetera. And I just thought that it’d be convenient to come up with something uniform, I mean. So we came up with seven ‘I’s. And the ‘I’s were, if I try to recall, one is international, alright, to tell the student that the environment that you’re going to work in is very international, so your education has to give you some global perspective. Secondly, second ‘I’ is interdisciplinary, and your understanding of the world must be holistic, you must see how one area affects the other. So like in a company a CEO he has to know all aspects. He’s got directors, department heads in about seven to ten areas and he must understand each of these. So university education that prepares one for the working world must be interdisciplinary. Alright, so that’s the second ‘I’. Another ‘I’ is IT savvy. This one everyone knows, computer, everything. You must know how to use a computer and the technological aids that are available out there, so that’s another ‘I’. I think another ‘I’ was integrity. We think integrity’s important, because the value of a person lies primarily in integrity, and we hope somehow to inculcate that within our students. And then another ‘I’ was interpersonal relations, the ability to work, relate well. EQ skills, alright, EQ skills developed through team work, through, we in fact have the core, a course called Leadership and Team Building within our core program. So that was another ‘I’. And there were a few more, it came up to about seven, yeah. I thought it was a neat way of capturing some of the important aspects of university education. So we went out there with seven ‘I’s to, for the students, and also explained how each of these ‘I’s were being accomplished through the programme that we had for them.
Yes. There were ‘CIRCLE’ values which we discussed and before that were the other values that, the talent and friend things. We were discussing the corporate philosophy on students and staff. So, the earlier version used was the acronym of ‘FRIEND’ for a student. So ‘FRIEND’ is one focus we want the students to know what they want to accomplish in the university and in life. And responsible in the work, family, et cetera. To be intellectual, to cultivate that thinking ability. To be entrepreneurial, creative, enterprising. To be noble, to have values of integrity, honour, virtue. And to be dynamic, to adapt to and manage change. So ‘FRIEND’ was one possibility. Another alternative was ‘FAMILY’. ‘FAMILY’ stands for friend, ambassador, manager, innovator, learner, youth. Alright, so that was another. So for students we, in the early days we used this values that the student as a friend. And in fact in our offer letters to faculty we told them that students are friends and as faculty you are ‘TALENT’. ‘TALENT’ stands for teacher, academic, leader, expert, natural and team player. So this was what we came up with after brainstorming. I brainstormed with Yang Hoong, Kwong Sin and Kai Chong. So we came up with ‘FRIEND’ and ‘TALENT’.
Oh yes, I would say materially. It would have been, I think, difficult to get the quality of deans that we brought to Singapore that were capable of decentralised management and capable of their expectations of leadership on the part of a dean, if we had been required to very narrowly construe what the role of a dean was, and what the role of a president was, maintaining power. The way a US university works. In a sense I would argue that the role of a president is to put a president out of a job. You want to delegate with first-rate people everything in sight you can. You got to monitor, your responsibility, if it goes wrong, it's your head. Fine. But you don't hang on to it. That's a US model, to much more extreme than I think prevailed in Singapore at that time.
Admissions, our admissions programme, again the advertising programme you've talked about. I don't think at that time you would have a prayer in an existing Asian institution, Singapore or not, of doing that kind of activity and bring it into being.
But, staff, okay, you're going to have several hundred staff. What's the job of a secretary? Now that is a world in which you can define jobs and talk about what their responsibilities are, and do assessments of the value of those jobs in the organisation. It requires a lot of paperwork to build a performance-driven salary structure. We went through that transition. That's not part of a typical government operation. It usually is last year plus n-percent. So all that got mapped in to the practices of the university.
The arms-length hiring of deans, doing global searches as part of the standard, sort of the gold standard of appointment.
But it takes time, and people weren't used to investing either the amount of money or the amount of time to try to get the best possible person for that task, rather than, �Here is a circle of the people who are very loyal, I'll pick the best person there. Loyalty is a wonderful thing, I'm not deriding it. But if the larger world provides you a discernable difference in depth of experience and breadth, my book is, you go outside.
Well, I would argue that is still in process, not over. When the university started, they had done a deal with Wharton, to provide initial guidance, curricular materials, even the manuals for appointments and promotions and whatnot. And if you think of Singapore who's always in a hurry that's not a bad thing to do, because if you waited for that template, it would take years before you'd start and have actual students. But the downside of that is it encourages people to take as given a set of practices born in a different institution, in a different society, at a different point in time. Now, maybe all that's right. But if you think it through yourself and conclude it's right, great! No problem. But if you've never thought it through yourself and just bought it blind, I got a problem with that.
An example of that would be the University of Pennsylvania does not have a freestanding school of information systems, on a bet. Decision Sciences is what it's called and I think is still called that is a department at the Wharton school, it is not a freestanding school. Well, for what we envisioned we needed a freestanding school, and we needed the freedom to create an educational architecture that wasn't modelled after anybody. The conception that was provided by the faculty committee, and by the first dean, Steve Miller, was a halfway house. Computer science departments good on the software and the technology, kind of poor on the management application side. Management types who teach computer science or say they teach computer science know something about the management side, but aren't usually really good at systems development and implementation. The idea was to build a middle ground. That wasn't an idea borrowed from somebody else, it was an idea conceived of looking at a field and looking at its needs. That's was the spirit that I was after as president. And stayed after throughout the three years.
I think the intention was that this university would have a high degree of autonomy, and therefore would be free to decide how things should be done. An important aspect of this whole SMU project was that Dr. Tony Tan wanted SMU to be an experiment to try new things, which if successful, would be applied to NUS and NTU. And so one aspect of this was having a private university. So, SMU was not incorporated by statute, although there’s an SMU act. The Act simply describes some of the things that SMU does and gives SMU the right to confer degrees. But SMU was started by incorporating a company limited by guarantee. Alright, so, and in that format there’re two trusted individuals who are the subscribers or the, members of the company. And then it’s supposed to be run more like a company, having a board of directors, except we call it board of trustees. Alright. In comparison in NUS and NTU the advisory board, or whatever name they want to use for that body, is just supervisory and it doesn’t meet that often. In contrast at SMU the board of trustees meets once a year for almost a full day, and then there’s also sub-committees which meet about, twice a year or so. Therefore the involvement of the board of trustees is much more significant in this new model.
I would also add that we were modelled largely upon Wharton, and therefore there’s a deliberate intention to move away from the traditional role model which is the British model, towards the American model. Alright, so, that was quite a switch in many ways. If I were to, you know, deviate a little bit, for example, this whole process of hiring faculty. In the old system, the dean or the head of department more or less decides. In the American system it’s very different because the shortlisted applicants have to come for a job talk and present to the existing faculty. The existing faculty get to give their feedback and vote on it et cetera. So, the American model is much more collegiate whereas in the British model, the appointment holder has quite a lot of power, yeah. So, one thing to do was to do something private, another thing was to do something different, which is American. And American in several ways, one, the curriculum is supposed to be broad-based, not so specialist. Secondly, the pedagogy is supposed to be interactive, not lecture tutorials. And thirdly, the whole method of governance, university governance, is very different in the American model as compared to the British model.
At the time I left the Ministry, the school education system was well in place, in terms of providing opportunities for kids of differing abilities to pursue their education in areas of interest to them or in areas of their strength. But as far as the tertiary level is concerned, I think there was a dearth of places at the formal level in terms of what was being provided by the Ministry of Education for university education. In terms of vocational and technical training, adequate provision was made through polytechnics and through Institutes of Technical Education. So the academic side, the vocational side, and the skills training side, that’s been well looked after. In the university sector, I would say it’s also well looked after, but the participation rate was pretty low and there was a need, really, to try to increase the participation rate at the university level because children are getting more ambitious, they want to go to university and I think government was well aware of that sector. At the same time, there were many private education providers, outside the Ministry providing education for adults but that’s for the adult sector but not for school leavers. And therefore there was a need, perhaps to rethink as to how best to provide for more places for school leavers.
Singapore has always been a service sector and management is important, crucial. In fact Singapore Institute of Management was set up to help train middle level managers in the early days of industrialisation. And of course, having a diploma wasn’t enough, one needed to look at other areas and strengthen their own skills, in management practices. As a result, the two universities then, NTU and NUS provided undergraduate studies in business. Although at that time, many schools overseas were already reducing undergraduate intake and doing more postgraduate work but for Singapore, it was logical that we started with more undergraduate work and moving slowly to postgraduate work. So both NUS and NTU were already offering courses in business and accountancy.
The universities have always had their independence so Ministry would only have sort of a guiding role in terms of providing funding, of requesting them on the number of students to take in, because the number of students, intake per year at the university was always controlled by what we called the CPTE figures. There‘s a Council for Professional and Technical Education and they provided figures for intake and projecting them forward as to the number of people in different disciplines required for the economy.
There was talk even when I was at the Ministry towards my last one or two years there, of increasing the participation rate. And it was only logical that the government should start a third university. All these would be in addition to what would be available to working adults in the private education sector, outside the Ministry of Education, for example, at the Singapore Institute of Management.
We did talk to different people and the Singapore Institute of Management Governing Council, we had people from different industries and they would be able to give inputs. Because when we started, when we were discussing the possibility of a third university, which is actually Singapore Management University, SMU, it was Government who decided that SIM should look into this aspect of turning, of evolving itself into a third university. Of course subsequently, after the university was set up with help from SIM, SIM remained as SIM to my delight!
Well, one observation is I detect distinct respect from NUS and NTU. When I arrived they had nothing but disdain. And I'm sure some of them probably, if they'd ever heard of me, wondered what on earth I was doing here. So I think that's changed, and the continuing success of SMU and the undergraduate programme. And frankly to be honest with you, I think the other thing that's been brilliant about this strategy is that, unleashing a management university downtown like this, with the sort of creative way where people have to participate and, the innovations that were done, have unleashed the creative forces at the other two universities, which is exactly what they had in mind. And frankly, in some ways, even though they put a lot of money in it, they actually got this deal for cheap, because they did it smart.
I envisioned it as a school, a university that would focus on business and related disciplines and if I had to name another institution that’s well known it would be the London School of Economics.
So Accountancy, for instance, was hived off into a separate school, which was what I was not accustomed to, because of the requirements of the profession here, where you have to go through an approved curriculum to be a practicing accountant. The curriculum is such that it would have distorted the business school’s curriculum. You see if you were at the Wharton School, you could be an accounting major inside the business curriculum. The courses they take at Wharton, the whole number would not have matched the requirements of the Institute of Charted Accountants here. So it was easier to set up a separate school.
I know before I left we started to talk about Economics and Social Science. I mean you have to have Economics; you really can’t have a business school without Economics. In fact in the United States there are a couple of business schools, more than a couple, but I’m thinking of the University of Chicago, that puts Economics in the business school. Well it fits to some extent, let me just say, Economics and Finance have an overlap, but there are other parts that don’t match well. So it made sense to have another school.
I’m a lawyer so obviously I thought of Law but particularly the parts of Law that, much of Law relates to business. If you look at the curriculum of a normal law school, a good part of it relates to business transactions. We won’t call that but most lawyers make their living from dealing with businesses not from dealing with individuals. So that would be an example. That took more time and what I’m particularly pleased [about], which worked out by the way, is that there’s the JD. In other words when we were discussing this, and I can still remember dinner at the Mandarin Oriental, clearly there would have to be a first degree Bachelors in Law because Singapore is like Britain and it does it that way. But on the other hand there are so many Singaporeans who study abroad. So if you study in the United States, you can’t do law as a first degree. I said, “Well what happens when they come home? If they want to be a lawyer in Singapore how do they do this?” And so the JD gives them that opportunity. So that was another school.
We knew we wouldn’t have science labs or facilities for engineering, so what is now the School of Information Systems really wasn’t very formed in my mind. In fact I met the first dean, the person who turned out to be the first dean, Steve Miller, just a month or two before I was stepping down, we had a connection through Penn, he had gone to Penn. He talked about some ideas. So some of this plays itself out as you talk and you listen and people give you ideas.