Again we wanted SMU to have a different approach to admitting students from NUS and NTU. The SMU council, chaired by Mr Ho Kwon Ping, met with the faculty, with Janice Bellace who was the president, and they thought that they would have a different approach rather than just relying on academic grades, which was how NUS and NTU admitted students at the time. It was a brave decision because people are not used to it. The faculty, and particularly Janice Bellace, did a great job in going out to the junior colleges, talking to the teachers and explaining what they were looking for, talking to students to attract them to apply for SMU. Since then the approach may have been modified a little bit with time. Both NUS and NTU have also modified their admissions process. So I think that this is another way that SMU has been able to contribute to Singapore.
Yeah, in the initial years the concern has always been, “You’re more expensive [and] you take longer. Why should we send our children to you?” So, you have to address that concern in the sense that, I always tell the parents, “The university philosophy has always been [that] nobody should be deprived of a university education because of financial concerns.” And I said, “Look, at School of Accountancy especially we have our own scholarship to help students, especially students that have got financial problems.” I said, “If its financing that’s a problem, I don’t think you all need to worry too much about it, okay?” I said as far as number of years are concerned, my favourite answer has always been, “You as a working parent, you know how long your working life is going to be,” and I said, “In Singapore, it’s going to get longer and longer.” I said, “By the time your kid is going to retire, you’re lucky if the retirement age is not 70.” Like I said, I’m seeing it coming, and already it is coming. It’s going to be 62, it’s going to be 65, it’s going to be 67, it’s probably going to be 70, if the need arises. What choice have we got? And I said, “Look, what’s one more year?”
I always tell the kiddos, I said, “You know, you go and talk to any university graduate—when you’re in university, you’re dying to get out. After one year of working life, you’re dying to get back into the university.” So I said, “Why do you want to rush? [You] might as well enjoy yourself, really fill yourself with all the requisite skills that you need to do well in the corporate world.” And I said, “Look, we are giving you an opportunity to become, not just a specialist, but a specialist with a much broader understanding of all the other areas that will make you a good accountant. Why do you want to rush and just become a specialist and be so narrow in your focus and about everything else?”
The first question they always ask is, “Is this a recognised university? Are you recognised?” My answer is very simple, “Who do you think is funding the university?” And I always say that we are the only unique university in the world in that we are supposed to be a private university that is fully funded by the Government. And I said, “If the Government is funding us, you think the Government is not recognising us?” And I said, to me, it’s something that’s redundant. No doubt at all it’s a recognised university. And I said this is something that I don’t think you all need to worry about, And I was telling them about the pedagogy and I think a lot of people were sold in terms of the pedagogy that we sort of adopted. I think a lot of parents sort of see the benefits of having a new type of pedagogy.
Very concerned, I can tell you, 99% concerned. They will come and speak to us—you sure you’re a real university?—small little thing like that. So yah, we are for real, there’s no doubt about that. I think the biggest blessing was that about a year ago, we met a parent over dinner. And the parent said, “My son, so and so,” of course, I can’t remember their name, “He definitely wanted to go to [SMU] university, I [was] so angry with him, but today I am so happy. You saved my son, you saved my son. You’ve done something different. I don’t know what you all do”, he said, “My son never wants to study, but with this university, he stays here [and] study all the time”. And he’s a multimillionaire [and] he wants the son to take over the company.
There's a whole idea of how an organisation ought to run which is known as value delivery, and it really comes in three major stages or blocks. One is figure out what values you're going to deliver to your clientele, and our clientele is who? It's the Singapore Government; Singapore public and tax payers; it's the global community; it's the student population or potential populations, et cetera; it's the faculty and the global invisible colleges that spring up about each discipline and stuff so there's various targets. But what are we going to deliver? What values are we going to deliver? Then how are we going to do it? So making it happen. But the thing that sometimes gets lost is you got to communicate what you've got and how it works. And I just reflect back on that note that I started recruiting wars with, with Jin Han and I sent out saying, you start out and get their attention. They'll read that paragraph and then back of your head, you going, this is a serious place. But you've got to close that loop, you don't sort of wait for people to recognise how great you are, you make sure that you make it easy for them to discover. I'm not talking about selling ice boxes to Eskimos, I'm basically talking about don't hide your candle under a bushel, that's stupid. Make sure that you get, people can appreciate and I found with the best way to do that here get them to come, get them to visit, get them to meet our people and interact with them. And that's good for the home team too.
I think after the first branding campaign that was done from corporate communication, we kind of moved the whole marketing portfolio fully to admissions. And then we would be just really supporting the marketing effort, because from then onward we were really doing just media relations, corporate affairs, reputational management and all. So we were supporting more the marketing effort broadly.
The other thing that Alan insisted on, which we have kept to this day, is that everybody who appears in an SMU ad is an SMU person. A real, honest to goodness student, faculty member, administrator, advisory board [member], trustee, or parent. No models, nobody from the outside, just us. And that’s incredibly effective as an advertising technique. And obviously it worked in terms of getting the number of applicants who we’ve gotten in and very good ones.
Well, the calendar was a very interesting project that Alan and the others undertook. You know it was a charity thing, and the proceeds from the sale of those calendars went to a programme at KK Hospital [Kandang Kerbau Women's and Children's Hospital] for cancer children. I forgot what the total was, but it was more than $50,000 that we netted out of that project, and were able to turn over to this children’s fund at KK Hospital. But the people who were selected, obviously Alan had some interest in who was selected and stuff and what they looked like, but they were also representative in many ways of the mixture of people at SMU.
The initial years, especially year one, it was a bit of a challenge. We had to do a lot of marketing. Every year, there is this big do whereby we recruit the A-level and poly [polytechnic] students. And we did the same thing like NUS and NTU, we go to the career education fair. We have slots whereby we make presentations and the question is, “Why do I need to go to you when I can go to NTU and NUS, or I can go overseas?” It was a challenge. But I think from day one, the kids were excited by the fact that we are offering an option, an alternative to them, a more American-style business education—whereas, the conventional wisdom of the British-style education is that very early on, you have to specialise in a discipline. So one of the attractions, I think, for a lot of kids is that, you have a general education, you have the flexibility to do non-business subjects from very early on. This more American template actually turned on quite a few kids. So we received two thousand applicants for the first round, of which we took in three hundred.
Well, when we came in, we were unknown. So, how else can you tell the whole world about this new university but to go to the advertising campaign? And at that juncture, some ten years ago, most of the ads on education tend to be very boring. That would be the traditional ad coming from an educational institution. We reckon we are not going to be able to do the same to gain the attention of the public. So we decided to take a more colourful approach. We decided to have a colour ad and a more corporate ad to tell the whole world what we are, who we are, that kind of thing—there is this new institution. So year one, year two, the ad copies were pretty ordinary. But then the numbers that we needed for our first batch and second batches tend to be small, so it is ok. We get the number. And from day one, we had been very selective.
What was interesting was the moment we started, our kids—because of the pedagogy, because of the selection, because of whatever that is happening—tend to be a lot more articulate. And I still remember I was on a trip with Tony Tan and that was two years after we started. And at dinner, he said that, “Hey, at the Istana,”—every year, the Government, the Prime Minister, and so on, would invite student leaders from the universities to the Istana for a garden party, tea session and that kind of thing—he said that the Prime Minister asked him, “Why are SMU kids so different from the other kids?” He said that they are more confident, they would approach him, they will ask questions and they pretty much dominate the discussion. So he asked me why. I said, “It could be our selection, it could be our pedagogy and it could be the fact that, we make them talk in class.” And he said that apparently your kids did very well at the Istana party. And again, from all the interactions with business people, from politicians, they consistently tell us that our kids are different. So we decided to use this as an ad campaign. We went out and said: SMU kids are different.
So that advertising campaign did not come from us. None of us could have gotten the campaign right. It came from people from the ground. So, we have jumping girls, we have jumping boys and that became almost like the classic. And subsequently, I think a year later, we adopted the ‘I Love SMU’ campaign. That again didn’t come from us. It came from the kids. The president and myself, as provost, every month, we have lunch with the students. Since day one, we’ve been doing that. And from a lot of interactions with the students, often we hear the kids telling us they love going back to school at SMU. They say, “Hey, I want to go back to school. I love SMU.” So enough of them told us they love SMU, we said, make it into a campaign. So that became a campaign. [laughter] So all these ideas didn’t come from any of us, it didn’t come from the ad agency. So that was the interesting thing.
I think the, the trying to bring in the first batch of students was very challenging, because you are coming up with a product that’s not seen at all. You got no building, no track record, and you’re supposed to persuade these young people who’ve got choices, you know, to come to you. So we had to go and give talks et cetera, and to tell them about the distinctives of SMU. And yeah, and I think part of it is to believe in it yourself. You’ve got to believe in it then you can persuade them to believe in it. So you give quite a lot of talks, and I would say that the first batch was reasonably good, you know. There were those who were adventurous enough to join us, but there were those who preferred to play safe and they went to NUS and NTU. So it was a challenging task trying to get the first batch of students, but I think we did reasonably well.
The recruitment process wasn’t too terribly difficult because spaces in Singapore for tertiary business education was somewhat limited and it’s rather popular. Most of the students and parents were a little apprehensive of this new university. They were very inclined to ask the same question, “Is this university government-recognised?” I think they’re comforted when we told them that there is an Act called the SMU Act passed in parliament, that we are funded by the government. And that the people that put together this new university were originally from the two national universities. There were also parents who asked, “Can we guarantee that after their son or daughters graduate, that he will be employed?” Of course we very boldly said, “Yes, we can guarantee that.” Now think about this, we have three years or four years to work on this child. At the end of three years and four years if we can’t find this gentleman or young lady, a job, I think we should close the university.
Things were a lot simpler for us because of the initial group of students. They like to call themselves the pioneers of SMU. They are obviously a very different lot who dare to sign up for a university. At that point in time when we were marketing, we have no premises. And all we were selling was a dream. I think these are the sort of people with that sort of drive and sense of can-do and adventure, they will succeed. No amount of teaching I think, can teach them that sort of drive. This initial group of students then help us to recruit subsequent batches of students.
What we did was we went to every junior college at that time, we went to all of the polys [polytechnics] and we did a lot of admission talks. We talked to all the students then about this different model of education and we talked to them about the fact that while we are producing, going to be offering business degrees, these business graduates will be quite different from the business graduates that will come from the other two universities. And I think we never worked so hard, the year before 2000, because I remember going to, we were going to all the different JCs [junior colleges] and talking to the groups of students and there were many questions from the students there and invariably I think that those, there were students who were convinced by us and so when we had our first batch of applicants, there were many of them who during the interview who said that, “I went to listen to your talk and I think that this is something new that I would like to be a part of.” It was the result of a lot of hard work on the part of the team going to each of the schools to talk to the students. But if we had not gone out to visit the various JCs and polys, I think it would have been quite difficult to attract the first cohort.
Well, some of the main questions were, “How would employers view a degree from a university that is totally new?” There were questions like, “Are you SIM?” In fact that was a question that continued to crop up even after five, six years of SMU being set up. Because of the fact that we first started off as wanting to be set up under the umbrella of SIM, and so one of the main questions at every talk was, “Are you SIM, if you’re not SIM, what makes you different from SIM?” So we were constantly having to answer that type of question. And then I think the fact that we had a MOU with Wharton, right, also did help. Although in later years, we will often joke and we will say that actually we make Wharton famous in Singapore, rather than Wharton make SMU famous, because we will say, actually a lot of the people never heard of Wharton until we started talking about Wharton. Anyway the fact that we tied up with Wharton that was at that time ranked number one in business education in the US did help us some.