It came as an announcement, that there would be a new university. A group of us were brought into an auditorium in the Nanyang Technological University to listen to the then Minister for Education, Dr. Tony Tan, talk about this new university.
I also want to highlight in term of the students empowerment. The fact that we took a risk to bring the first commencement, you know, the first commencement was such a big, significant event and I took a risk to give the video project to a student to do instead of a professional company because he came with this really interesting idea of doing animation involving the students and faculty and staff. That video was played during the commencement and I was just it was an interesting video. But it actually helped that student to get the nomination with the Golden Horse Award, some sort of animation nomination. And also, subsequently, he started his own movie production animation business. I like that sort of story. I would think so. I think it's also it's the whole ethos of the university. I think that sort of recognized students as individuals and wanted to hear from them and wanted to involve them and also empower them to be involved in the development of the university. But it is also the very, I guess it's so contextual because it is that pioneering spirit where the students also feel like they want to be part of shaping the university, and being involved in many different things. I mean they were starting student clubs and they wanted to initiate this and that. And it was that very special energy, I think, that comes with because you are starting in a new institution, you are part of that pioneering group.
The advantage I had was I had been Chair of the Board of AACSB in 2009-2010. I sat on the board on 2 separate occasions from 2002 to 2004, and then 2007 to 2011 so I knew how to do it and I knew all the people there. And I knew how to get reports written and I was able to tutor the people here. The other advantage for Equis was I was also Vice President for Business Schools, which is the senior Business school position at EFMD from 2000 to 2007, before I got co-opted onto the AACSB board. So I knew exactly how to do that. So we used all of my contacts, we did this in breakneck pace. We wrote the self-study reports in 2010 and early 2011, we got accreditation for both in 2011. And in Equis's case, we got 5-year accreditation which was totally unheard of for a young school. So I think we did really well. What we also did was; I was also chair of the board of GMAC which is the Graduate Management Admissions Council, which runs the GMAT test, which is the admissions test for business schools. I was on the board there from 1991-2000 but I was chair of the board from 1997-2000. So I wanted SMU to be a member of GMAC. It's a rank that's achieved by invitation. So I got them an invitation that immediately put them in the top 120 business schools worldwide. So by the end of 2011, we were in all 3. And so that was terrific because that gives you external credibility and it also makes the faculty, the faculty need to be persuaded why the heck they're doing this because they can't see the point. But once they were persuaded, they could see that that gave us external validity and external credibility, just like the University of Texas at Dallas ratings. Rankings gives us credibility on research and subsequently FT rankings, which we've also achieved. So faculty don't always get it, in those respects but you know, you are not only trying to build a terrific business school, you are trying to build a business school which is recognized, not just on this continent but globally. And I think the gain of accreditation is important from that point of view.
I’m happy to see that it’s now firmly established, can more than hold its own with NUS and NTU. From my conversations with the students, with the faculty, with Wharton, and time to time with the parents on my visits to SMU, I think that it’s been a great success. It has contributed substantially to Singapore and it’s also benefitted NUS and NTU because they have looked at what SMU was doing and they felt that they could change some of their practices and I think much for the better.
I would say that what we gained from starting SMU was to recognise the importance of having an open mind—being prepared to take a fresh approach, even an unconventional direction—provided that you discuss it well, provided that you do your groundwork. Ultimately, and this is where the university sector and SMU has benefitted very much, with the very strong support of the Cabinet and the Singapore Government—none of this would have been possible without the support of the Cabinet and the Government—they were prepared to take a risk and I think that the results have shown that the risk has been worthwhile. But there was no assurance from the beginning that this was going to be successful. SMU could have gone another way.
It’s almost like seeing your child being given birth (laughter). It’s the first batch and I think we were very proud, particularly so in the sense that a lot of them got out and got good jobs. As time goes on, we find a lot of them are climbing up the ladders and doing very well. The same thing applied when the first batch of accountancy students graduated. So, there were two commencements that were [a] first for me at least—first batch of SMU students and first batch of accountancy students. For those of us who were involved with them, I think we were all very proud and very, very satisfied that they managed to achieve whatever they have achieved.
Basically on the legal side of it you need to incorporate an institution or organisation, a bit like when you’re doing a business, you know. So you got to get that set up, you got to get your internal constitutional documents done, which is, they call the memorandum and articles. Alright, that is on documentation side. More important is the legal side, it’s whether the government is happy with the model that you’re proposing. So they had to be comfortable with this model of having a so-called private university with some governmental representation but not control. So that’s the tricky part, and so you have to decide the composition of board of trustees, who appoints how many et cetera, the degree to which they have freedom, things like that. Because the government is investing so much money in this it had to be satisfied that this will work and this will be desirable, in that the way it works will be desirable. So you have to put in place a structure that was satisfactory to the government.
In our case the act did not incorporate SMU. In the case of NUS and NTU and all public bodies there’s an act which brings it to pass. So it’s called a statutory corporation. SMU was not such an institution. SMU was a company that was incorporated under the Companies Act. The SMU Act simply recognises SMU and gave it the right to award degrees. Whereas in the case of NUS and NTU the act brought the university into being. So SMU was not brought into being by a statute, SMU was registered as a company, in the Companies Act. And then the act, the SMU Act was to give SMU the power to award degrees. That’s different from the previous model, yeah.
SMU, Singapore Management University, is a private limited company incorporated under the laws of Singapore as a non-profit private limited company with an independent board of trustees. We have a contract with the Ministry of Education for funding. That contract is in the form of a performance agreement where we agree that we will accomplish certain things. Some of them are very straightforward. We’ll be of a certain size, we’ll take students et cetera. Some of them very specific these are redone every five years. Some are permanent performance issues; some are five-year performance things. And in return for our agreeing to do those things, we get finding from the Government, both capitation grants for undergraduate students and research funding for faculty research and then a separate set of funds for postgraduate students who are doing PhDs.
No other country in the world has that form of organisation for universities. And in the case of SMU it was purely an experiment to see how this would work. It worked so well for us that in 2006, both NUS and NTU were reorganised into the same legal structure. And SUTD, the fourth university, same way. So all four universities are now legally the same kinds of entities. And again, there’s no other place in the world with that kind of structure. If you’re a state university in the United States, you are a public body; you’re not a private one.
As a university, I think it’s quite difficult to pinpoint exactly what milestone is significant but if we look at SMU today, the fact that we are taken very seriously, not only in Singapore but internationally as a university that students want to come to, as a university where highly qualified faculty want to come to, the fact that, for instance, our business programme is now ranked, I think, I believe its number 85 worldwide and our accountancy programme is now ranked first in Asia, tenth in the world. If we look at the fact that we have done this in about ten years, I don’t think it is something which any organisation could say is not a big achievement. Anyone looking at where we are today would say that, actually SMU has really done tremendously well in the last ten years. And if you look at what help us to come to where we are today, I don’t think we can say it’s any one particular person, it is everybody within the university playing their part, not just the president and the provost or the deans but it is all the students as a whole, it’s all the faculty as a whole, it’s all the admin [administration] officers, everyone working together as a team with a common vision that enable SMU to be where it is today and I think it is a collective team effort.
Before the start of SMU, I think the, I think the tie-up with Wharton was significant milestone, because we were trying to bring in American education into Singapore, so that’s very important. Getting the approval for city campus was very significant as well. Being able to start in Evans Road was very important to us, to start in year 2000 that was extremely important. And after that the move to the city campus was a big move as well. And over the years so many things were added. You know, first with the accountancy school, economics school, social sciences, law, yeah. So there are so many milestones...yeah. So I think there’ll be more milestones along the way, yeah.
I think there are many milestones. The first one is when we actually become a registered university, with the act [Singapore Management University Act] enacted. And then of course, when we first started teaching, when we were at the Bukit Timah campus and [when] the first batch of students graduated. And then school started, then the first batch of accountancy graduates graduated, then moving here. There are many milestones.
Well I guess, you know, looking at the inaugural convocation, the milestone was actually starting, that the planning effort came to fruition and was able to produce a faculty that could undertake to deliver a curriculum with research and have students.
I suppose that the next milestone which is almost simultaneous was to have a board of trustees and to have them engaged, and I would have to go into detail, but not people who just sit and come for an hour and rubber stamp decisions because the law requires certain decisions be approved. But really involved in the strategy of what’s happening in this university and always trying to improve it and to see what function it should play in Singapore and the region.
The third one I suppose is the first graduation, it was very exciting to see the students graduate, I still remember that. I was very emotional. I was the first speaker -- but to see at the end of the day, these people are going out in the world, this is the first class of many, hundreds I hope, so that was a milestone.
And the planning for the permanent campus. And I have to say, when you see the drawings, the first drawings, I forget what they call them but they’re computer generated and they’re very flat. And you say, “Oh my goodness I hope it looks better than this”. But it does, I mean it’s very beautiful, [like] the architect said, reflecting light and the greenery of Singapore. And it did bring life to the city. When I had first seen it, not the first time, but [with] the architects, we stood in the old Cathay Building, which now of course had changed. I can still remember standing in that building for two hours looking at Bras Basah Park on a Saturday afternoon with virtually nobody walking in that park. And with this view that if we brought thousands of students into this area, we bring life. So that’s true, that’s another milestone I think.
One, we have done well in research. If you look at the…our young PhD [faculty], they’ve been publishing and recognised, I think that’s important. We have sent, quite a lot to the US and did their PhDs and came back and [are] doing well. Also the student population has grown, that’s a good measurement. The people are interested to come to our university. Also exchange, our exchange students have been a lot, quite a lot, our signing of agreements, to have exchange with universities has been tremendous, has been tremendous. So this helps to build your reputation. Foreign students are coming in, not only [on] exchange but really coming in to be [full-time] students.
I think our challenge has always been competing with our [other] two universities and top universities elsewhere. I think we should build our people, our own students, our curriculum, our pedagogy. We build confidence in our students that they are able to stand up and talk. Very few Singapore students can do that. So you talk to friends outside, you’re from SMU, “I like your SMU students, they can just stand up and talk.” Maybe they talk too much but they can talk, better than not talking at all. So our training has been excellent, 48 subjects, every subject they log one hour, so you give them the confidence, you build the confidence. So the way I see it, our students will eventually become top leaders here, because you cannot lead if you cannot talk. So right from the beginning, this is what I will do; every course there must be a presentation, right, to build confidence.
One of the main tasks, in fact the government was very concerned with, was to find an American president. This is very strange to us. We said that, “Okay, why do we need an American president? Why don’t we just get somebody who’s educated in US before? We do have such people around.” But the government was right. We want to portray a very American-type university education that we will or may adapt to local requirements later, but beginning... so it just made sense. So that itself was one of the milestones. Of course for each milestone there are sub-activities, what are the things we need to do, like sourcing for president. We had to get a headhunting firm, all those things around. And when I drew up the milestone [chart], everybody take a look and see that, technically we could achieve it in less than two years, we were quite surprised too, right, so we said, might as well give it a go and see. And so we have actually meetings weekly to monitor the progress by milestone to see what we have achieved and what we have not achieved. And like any project, of course, there are some that get delayed beyond what we thought.
It was surprisingly difficult to get the constitution done in time because it’s a lot of legal requirements etc. And the government has been very helpful including the, the person in MOE [Ministry of Education] who was coordinating with us. Tan Hang Cheong, he’s the principal now of Singapore Poly [Singapore Polytechnic]. He helped to push through the constitution quite rapidly. And of course finding the president turned out to be more difficult than we thought. And ultimately, whether it’s coincidental or not, we did find somebody from Wharton, since we have an agreement with them anyway. Somebody that do buy in to the idea of a third university. So Janice [Janice Bellace] came on board.
With that two things accomplished then the university could be launched within that short time period. The rest are all what I called legwork. A lot of time together spent debating over curriculum, debating over things, how the structure of the university is to look like.
And then the six of us sat down and said, “So now what do we do?” And the first thing that we had done was to map out a roadmap for what we want to achieve between the start point and when the university will start. So we had a milestone chart that was drawn up by Leong Kwong Sin. So at a later stage when you talk to him, he probably will have a lot more to say about the milestone chart. But anyway we had the milestone chart where we mapped out all the major points that we need to arrive at before we can finally see a university being started. So among that, one of the first few tasks was we need to have a mission statement. So there were six of us then and then there was a…by the time we started on the mission statement, it was sometime in October , two other faculty members had joined. Tsui Kai Chong was one of them and then there was another person who has since left. He joined only for about a year or so and then he left. So there were eight of us there. And we basically spent one whole day brainstorming about what sort of a university we want to see being set up and at the end of that we came up with a mission statement, which, actually if you look at it then and look at the mission statement we now have, it’s not that dramatically different, you know. And then we also looked at, if we have a mission statement like this, how are we going to operationalise it, so based on what we set out in the mission statement, we looked at what we wanted to do in the area of research, what we wanted to do in the area of teaching and faculty development, what we wanted to do in the area of curriculum development and then in entrepreneurship and then if we want a world-class university, it’s got to be a globalised one, so where do we go from there. And we spent about two months or so, and came out with a document that was entitled Making Words Come Alive.
Yes, when we first started, of course, we had nothing and we only have an aspiration to teach in a certain way and hope to produce students that the marketplace wants. So it was an aspiration. But when our first batch of graduates hit the marketplace, and from the feedback that we started to get about our graduates, it was in a sense, the first reading that we are in the right direction. We are doing something right. And to this day, I think our graduates continue to give us that good feedback from the marketplace. Of course, there are some areas that we need to improve, but generally, the marketplace like what we produce for them. So, to be able to do that within such a short time is, in one sense, beyond my expectation, to build a university's reputation in a short time like this. I mean, it's something very pleasant to know. I expected it to take longer, but our students have done us proud to a large extent. So, looking back, it has been satisfying. Looking back that we were at one stage a nomad, moving from place to place, now we are right smack in the most valuable part of town. We are the envy of many. It is fantastic and to see the place running smoothly. So that is also very, very satisfying. Also the other part is that to see the university set up to run in the sense smoothly, you know, to meet all the operating needs is also very satisfying.
Some of the things that we created which is quite different from the other universities. For example, to see how we have created services like career placement. That is something quite unique to Singapore, perhaps overseas less so. But overseas I heard that is more done for graduate students than for undergraduates, but we are doing it for undergraduates. That is something quite special and we are known for that. So some of these things are things to be proud of, but things that we cannot take for granted, we must continue to improve.