One of the joys having been dean in two institutions and president in SMU, for me, is to look back. Sure, I have an ego, I'm pleased with what happens when I was in office, and all that nice stuff. But what really gives me joy is to see what's happened since, and that things have stayed in place, and that the institution is of higher quality; better staffed; better, broader in its offerings, in its competencies; than it was when I left. It just kept on progressing
My daughter was the first child of a staff to enrol in the school and it was in its third year. From what I heard and saw in the first one, two years, I say the system of education that SMU provides is different. Of course, my daughter went through the normal twelve years in our normal school, which is basically one way of learning. So, understanding my daughter and the way she learns, I'd say I think SMU will suit her learning style. Despite the fact that it's new, I say for that I'm prepared to enrol her here and so she came. True enough, the way we teach the interactive environment, the way we train them to express their views, to be ready to engage in class discussions, to exercise initiative in managing their projects, to pick up enough courage to stand up in a class and do their presentations and speak up all these things are so much more relevant to just taking in that knowledge. And because of these other ways of learning in her case, she has found it to be so much more helpful and less restrictive and all that. It suited her so well and we've seen her change from a frustrated student to a student that was aspiring to do well, and in one sense, did much better than we expected. In the final term, she was on the dean's list and that built up her whole confidence, which is something that she was struggling with for years when she was in school, struggling through the school system, so that changed everything. Today, she's a different person. Yes, we are very proud of her.
It make me more convinced about the way we teach our students here. The way we do it allows different students of different capabilities, learning styles, learning abilities, to apply themselves in the learning process. It's not a one-way learn, intake, spit it out in exam. So our way of learning, there are so many ways for them to use their own talent, their own skills and all that to excel in their own learning journey. So, I think that's something I am very convinced that the way we do it is correct. And, of course, all these other things who are going for overseas exchange open up a completely different world to them, it's not just Singapore. Now they see something else, they see another place, they see how they do things, they see the environment, how they operate. It's opened up a completely new world, you know. That's the other thing that our system helps our students.
I think SMU has given me the opportunity to grow. I don't think anywhere else in the world I would have had the opportunity to do such a mix of things. At one end, Center for Management Practice, starting a DBA program, getting a DBA program approved in 3 months. We are going to start it in October. Just tremendous opportunity to do new things and we've done things that other universities have not done. Although we started by looking at what other universities were doing. Many of the things we have done are kind of unique: our executive MBF program started out with a focus on Asia, not with a focus on the West. Now other universities are beginning to do that. So one is tremendous growth opportunity.
One of the peculiar characteristics of my career is that whichever ministry I was in, whichever capacity I was serving in, either in the public or private sector, the Singapore Government had always asked me to look after university education. I mean, my day job may change from time to time but my interest was in university education, and I was happy to have the opportunity to work with successive ministers of education to help to develop the university sector grow.
It’s been a great satisfaction to see SMU grow—from basically what was a piece of paper into now a thriving institution—well recognised in the world, well accepted by Singapore parents, Singapore students welcomed by employers. SMU graduates being very well regarded, making a contribution to our economy and to our society.
I would have to say of all the other things, of everything I’ve been associated with other than my own company, SMU’s probably been the most deeply satisfying because of two things. One is the nature of the work is a nonprofit, so therefore it’s hugely satisfying. Even if you give me a chance to start a new company, it’s not that much fun. I have to run my own company every day; I’ve to work on profits and loss. Here you really feel—and I know all my other trustees feel the same thing—that you are helping to change something in Singapore. Especially if it’s young people, it’s all the more gratifying. Having a chance to do something where you’re doing it from scratch, really is, well, pretty scary. When you’re younger, you don’t, when you’re so small—I guess if you were to tell me today that this is SMU, this is what you’re going to eventually have, now you’re starting ten years ago, can you be sure you can get there? I think the task would seem so daunting and the responsibilities are so huge, that I might not want to accept it, especially since its all free time and everything else. The beauty of it is when you start with something small, you have no idea what it’s going to be, and the beauty of it is you dare to take more risks. The beauty of it was we were never told by Tony Tan or by anybody else, “This is the blueprint and this is what you’re going to become.” As we grew, we evolved and the sense of ownership was huge. So to me, yes, it’s been deeply satisfying.
In the main, it’s been just tremendously positive for me. And it’s been fun. And it’s been fun because of all the real impacts, in terms of helping people whose parents could hardly afford to go to school when you see the first jobs that they get. Or just making things possible for the students, the faculty, the staff, even like the research staff who spend a year or two or three with us, they go on and do neat things that never would have been possible if they haven’t spent the time in our environment.
So it is inspiring, to be able to create this thing that actually helps a lot of people, in a wide range of ways. And, you know, the tiny little corner of Earth where we focus our time and attention, and because of the SMU experience and what we do, and SMU’s role in Singapore, and just the way we work with ecosystem—it’s really a connected feeling. And that’s neat, because why do people want to live? To have some sense of connection—it need not be through one’s work, people can find this in various ways—but in this case the actual work experience has been a very connected sense because of all these things we’ve been able to do.
I would say the whole time, you know, the ten years at SMU had been interesting. And it's very different from what I used to do. I was an administrator at NUS, but it is very different. Starting a new entity is very different from working as an administrator in a big organisation. And the journey had been fun. But in SMU as an administrator, I don't look at myself as an administrator. I look at myself as working together with a group of people doing new things. There always new things and as a provost or deputy president, I worked with all the presidents and they are all very different personalities. The Janice, the Ron Frank to Woody, they are all very different in their own right and it's been fun.
I think it was very exciting to be involved in the start of a new university and to know the highs and lows you go through, because there will be and to see how an organisation changes. So, it was very exciting being involved in SMU, and also very exciting being involved in the start of the law school. So I think I was involved in a lot of university administration in my career. Too much, if you are thinking more in terms of your research and things like that. But it’s inevitable that once you do administration, something else gives, yeah.
Well, I think it has been quite an incredible journey. When I first resigned from NTU in 1998, I must say that there were, at that time a lot of uncertainty because at that time we had no idea what this SMU is going to turn out to be like. We only knew that here is a chance of a lifetime to start a new university and how it will turn out, nobody knew, and what is it going to be like individually for each one of us, we also didn’t know. So at this juncture, looking back I think it has been very satisfying. Personally for me, I would say that I didn’t know that I had it in me to do all of these things, really. All I knew was that I’ll give my best, I do whatever I can, I’ll play my part and then hopefully we will succeed. So I would say the university and the school actually has succeeded beyond my own expectations and I’m just glad to have a part in it, that’s all.
I worked too hard. (laughter) No, I think it impacts me in the sense that, you know, certain joy, you can’t describe. It is like, “What a challenge! What an opportunity!” Not only to me, but it’s to the community, to all the people that come here. We all benefit from it, not only me. My children benefit from it, like my son benefits from it because it’s an opportunity. And I always tell my staff, whatever we do, we do well, okay. Let’s do well because [when] you do well, you contribute to the community; you never know when you are contributing to yourself. So it’s a real joy to do it.
I think the responsibilities are much greater in the sense that the future of the younger generation literally is in your hands. How you mould them and how you shape them is something that’s going to impact on what they are going to be in the future. Basically I enjoy teaching and the university gives me this opportunity to do what I enjoy and the fulfilment comes when students come back to you after graduation and say, “I really appreciated what you have done for me.” I’ve got students who come back years later to tell me that when we were in your class, when you are saying certain things, we sort of say, “Ahhh! It’s one of those things,” but then [when] we go on into the real world, we suddenly realise, “My God, this guy said exactly what is happening to me now and what he has advised is something that I actually am doing.” And that gives me a lot of satisfaction and a lot of sense of fulfilment. So, in some ways the [SMU] students are different compared to NTU and NUS students that I’ve taught before. I’m still maintaining contact with some of the first batch of students but the distance seems to be greater with the later groups of students. So, if you talk about impact, I don’t think there is really that much of an impact in terms of what I do in my life and how I feel about my life. Yeah, that’s about it.
Well, many but I think looking at having a better feel for how universities contribute to society. When you’re part of an organization you only see it from your part what you do, rather than thinking what the entire organization does, and how you have to mobilize all parts of it. And I mean that in that sense, that did it for me. Another one is coming to know Singapore, I really love Singapore.
To see efforts coming to fruition. My most memorable moment for SMU, was coming here, at the opening for this building, seeing KP Ho and telling him, “Look at the success.” I felt really great about it for the little part I played in this venture. SIM, I still keep in touch with the people there. There is a big difference between working in SIM and working in Ministry, Government. It’s very hierarchical in Government. All of it is seniority-based to some extent. [At] SIM, I worked with very young people. And it was a refreshing change. And I feel young myself.
We have quite a lot of fun. Of course, I say it again, this is selective memory. There’s a lot of stress. Maybe this is the time to introduce that statement that the chairman made, Ho Kwon Ping told us from the beginning, his own company has a lot of projects, they build things. He said traditionally when people are involved in a big project, on average among all the staff, they lose fifteen pounds each, right, in weight. Using his statement then I don’t think I worked very hard because I gained five pounds in the first three years in SMU. Of course I can quote other social science studies, when people stress they eat a lot more okay, so they put on weight. But stress is both good and bad, but stress reflects that there are challenges at that time, whether we want to live through the same stress again is a different thing.
Ah! Never got time to think about that. I’m one of those people that, given a task, I’ll just go and do it. How did I change, perhaps ask some of the people around me. The two things that were important to me, one is obviously have a very good group of students and privilege to have met those students, admitted, and some I’ve taught, they remain friends and we are in contact. The other group, the early group of faculty members who were very passionate, very unselfish about spending time in building a university.
To me, personally, it's the people I’ve met, it's the connections I’ve made. My wife and I have had some great weekends at Banyan Tree Resorts, which I would not have been aware of had I not encountered KP. That’s not exactly a flippant comment, but it shows that there are a number of different dimensions to what you draw. But it's primarily the people, primarily the networks that you manage to build up. And for me, it's not just coming in and sitting in the fourteenth floor board meeting.
For example, Ean Kuok [Khoon Ean Kuok], trustee member is based at Hong Kong and his family runs and owns the Shangri-La Resorts. There’s nothing like having dinner at a Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong with Ean Kuok; I’ve never seen such service. So it extends to that. It’s getting to meet Victor Fung and then doing the whole Hong Kong University arrangement. The connection with Janice. At the time she called me, I had been president of the professional, international body. She is now the president of that same body. So those paths, connect and cross. I say that personally, that’s the biggest single thing I have taken away from being on the board of SMU.
The second is, I am—in order to be interested in policy, strategy and change process—I’m not interested in the world being the same when I go to bed as it was when I get up. SMU fits that drumbeat very nicely. It's in an area, it’s in a region, it’s in a country which pays respect to higher education. Coming from Australia, the funding constantly seems to be cut. The difference I find is this. In Australia I go into a meeting with ministers and you walk into the room knowing—well, you’re figuring you know—that they’re trying to work out how to tell you no. You go into the room in Singapore—they certainly don’t say, well, here’s the money you want—but you get the sense that they’re trying to work out how to meet what it is that you’re putting up. So that was a refreshing experience, breaking away from what I was seeing in Australia to what I saw in Singapore. So it’s been a really a really great experience.
Personally, has been a wonderful, learning journey. But also, it's a place where, if I look back, I have basically through my whole career, I have gone through three industries, from banking to real estate, now education. But I see SMU as a place where all these skills are brought to bear. None has been wasted. My years in the bank taught me about financing and financial management. My years in the real estate company taught me about property development, property management. So that is very, very, very valuable. And now seeing all that being put into use here is something that I would say is beyond my own imagination. It has been fun to me, and satisfying to see myself being able to use all that skills in my job here. That's been satisfying. Of course, to see what is being created is also satisfying. To see that the university is in good financial health is also satisfying. But, like I say, not to be taken for granted. So this all and to see that I'm building an institution, that it's not just for today, that will impact the lives for the future and for perpetuity is also very satisfying. To train the next generation and to be a part of this is satisfying.
Now, in the beginning I don’t track them at all. After an article is published, of course many of my friends will either send me a text message or an email and to say why they like it. There will be a couple who say they don’t agree with what I say, at least some parts of it, never with the whole article, but maybe a sentence or so about a point. And I really value that because it will be terrible if everybody agrees, it either means that you have found the real truth and everybody understood, which can’t be the case, or that you’re only mixing with people who share your same views. So what was important is that, for most of the time, I will have people saying nice things, agreeing and how it has helped their work and affected their lives, have a few who say, well, David, with this point, do you really mean that, or this point I actually disagree with you. That is helpful. Sometimes it allows me to realize that I was not, maybe as clear as I could have been, allows me to think about the issue, and maybe after I explain, then the person actually agree with me after all, or maybe they misunderstood my point. But sometimes, I would actually realize that, oh indeed the way I frame it, I may not change my mind now, because I think I would have still said the same thing but could have framed it in a different way, or there’s another perspective that I had not thought of. So those reactions were very helpful, they were constructive. I’ve never received a disruptive comment, what was interesting is that I do look at social media every day, and I don’t recall a situation where the article gets posted up, and you know you get the hate, being bashed by social media. There was once, an article on trust, and the tittle was “Trust is a many splendored thing” and I talked about trust having the dimensions of not just integrity but also trust in competence and benevolence that got picked up quite a bit by lots of people and in fact, as a result of that article, I also went on television in a forum where Mr Gerard Ee and I spent half an hour or so on TV live, talking about public trust. And that happens to be at a time around the 2011, post-2011 election, where the issue of trust in government and public servants was an issue. So those reactions, it has been always positive, it has been good. I need to tell you this story. The typical reactions that come to me are from civil servants, private sectors, I would say so-called the people who read The Straits Times, and you would think that they are your middle class, English speaking, maybe dominated over-represented by intellectual people, and that indeed you would expect the readership of The Straits Times to be. And one day, I went to the Ministry of Education, and as usual, before you go up to certain floors, you have to exchange your identity card at the security counter. I exchanged mine, I gave my identity card to get the visitors’ pass. The security guard looked at my IC, and it says of course David Chan and he looked at me and he said “You are the one who wrote in The Straits Times, those articles, I have read it,” and then he started talking about the articles. I have to say the joy and the satisfaction I got from that episode was more than the Prime Minister praising the article. Because ultimately, you’re not writing for the Prime Minister to see because you can access the Prime Minister through other projects, you are writing for the general public. And this is not to make any discrimination, but for someone who is a security guard, who saw your IC and read your Strait Times article, I think most Strait Times columnists will not be targeting them as the reader. But actually if you ask yourself, those are the people that should be of ultimate concern of what you write. And I thought that was a very good and humbling experience. That actually changed me a little bit and after that day, which was relatively recent, I decided that, moving forward, my articles should be even simpler then the way that it has appeared because I want to reach a wider audience.
That's a tough one. I guess while we were riding on that excitement of a new institution back in 2002, we were never quite sure of how successful we would be or how far we would come. And I must say that the success of SMU is in its people, the commitment of the people who want to create something, and a very nice ethos of openness, of diversity, of kind of pushing the boundary. It's a little naughty sometimes when we do want to push things a little and be able to do things a little differently. And I think that has helped us in creating things that are a bit different from the norm, where people would find it more exciting and more dynamic and want to be engaged with and involved in. We have been able to bring on board a lot more people than we imagined, you know, who want to be a part of SMU. Now that I am doing advancement, it's a bit more externally oriented to a different community apart from media and the public; we can see individuals, influential individuals, who really like the idea of SMU and want to be a part of SMU.
Well, I’ve learnt many things from the students. When I teach first year students, in their first few weeks, they actually don’t speak a lot, whatever we said about selecting people from interviews who speak because you’re in the presence of strangers and you’re still in the presence of the professor, who is an authoritative figure. But after a while, when you give the opportunities where you so called initially perhaps force them to speak up, and when they speak up, initially it maybe because of embarrassment of not speaking up, the threat of your grade of class participation. But after a while, you internalize and you begin to speak. And then when people begin to realize that there’s no such thing as a stupid comment or a stupid question, and I’ve always said, the most stupid comment is the one that you did not articulate, you know when you will forever be wrong because you don’t know. Once you articulated it, you can share and you can improve on it and so on. I think what I learnt from students is that once you overcome that initial reservation of fear, you are able to express your views freely. Of course students are more sheltered than us, who in the working world, and they tend to be able to say whatever things that come to their mind. I think what I learnt from students is precisely that, the ability to be able to say, not just anything that comes to your mind, but the ability to express what you truly believe in, talk about it within the constrain of the possibility that you might actually be wrong, and be proven wrong. And I think sometime the older we get, the smarter we think we get, we tend to have a stronger confirmatory bias that oh we know it all, therefore, the question is how to select the evidence to support my point, how to convince you that I am right. I think what we learnt from the students is the ability to speak up and then the ability to test their own assumptions and the ability to change their view in the light of new information. I think that is something that all adults need to learn from students. I think they’re better at that than we adults are.
Oh, I think the legacy is really in terms of forming this school into a very internationally competitive unit, both in terms of the students that we’ve produced, and in terms of the faculty that we have put together, and in terms of the research that they produce and how those impacted the profession, what kind of recognition they get and their teaching as well. So that in the end, I would hope that this kind of direction will continue so that it’s not just personality driven, but institution driven, and regardless of who is running it, it will still accomplish that main mission. That’s to me the most important legacy—to be able to establish the structure, the foundations for that and produce, and show that the results can come out. And it’s satisfying to see that there is very concrete evidence of this kind of accomplishment.
Interestingly, I think the wonderful thing about SMU is we were attracting all the people like the first batch of our students. Even the faculty that joins SMU has plenty of risk inclination. But as you recall, I'm a forex [foreign exchange] trader. I love taking risks, but calculated risks. And I really thought that if the Government is going to be investing in prime property and building up an institution, it's not going to let it go under. So, definitely it's a calculated risk. And it's also at a stage of my academic career when I thought it's been great being a teacher, having lots of students, and they are still meeting up with me up till today; but this is building it from a pure business point of view, from an administrative point of view and having an impact. And maybe there are things in the previous way in which business education is being conducted and offered to the market where you could not have a decision to make a change. Whereas this is one window of opportunity where, if you didn't believe that things can be made right, this is your chance to make it right. So, I think the benefits and the impact outweigh the risks. And I guess I was a lot younger, so when you are younger, you are willing to jump and take that risk.
Not at all. I mean, you know that this is supported by MOE [Ministry of Education] and you know you come in fresh. But I guess to be part of that early team of management was really, you know we were small and we were committed and it was the thrill of a pioneering team to be able to start many things. I mean, we started, in my department specifically, we started the corporate identity guideline. We sort of laid the foundation for many things that we do in terms of branding now. We did sort of a big brand review and exercise in terms of how we want to position the university. I think the success of SMU's branding was the fact that it's authentic. We were able to look within what the university was trying to do and we were able to hear what the students wanted the university to be, how the team wanted the university to be and to create that profile. It was really, really quite exciting.
The only risk as Kee Yang [Low Kee Yang] told me was if the government changed its mind and shut down the university a year after it was formulated or whatever. But he said that the Singapore government is known throughout the world for one thing that once its made up its mind to do something, it's decisive, its resolved, and usually it doesn't like to admit that it failed. So he said will at least have a ten-year run, and he says, since a few of us and I saw the names and I knew Chin Tiong [Tan Chin Tiong] from the old university and I knew Kee Yang, most of these people, Pang Yang Hoong and Michael Gan, they were colleagues in the old university and so I said, well, if you guys think it's ok, who am I, I'll join you guys. We're all together in this. So that was it. So, I saw lots of opportunities because they knew about me, and they knew my positions about certain university policies and all that, and they said, SMU is going to do away with everything that you didn't like in NUS [National University of Singapore] or in NTU. It's going to be a brand new university; it's going to be totally autonomous. We're going to be powerful, we will have the say; we will forge a new tertiary landscape. So I saw that, wow, at last my day has come, that kind of thing.
So in the same way when I built MEC [maritime economics concentration], I need my fix of that first batch. I will continue to launch new things because I want to continue to attract the early believers. And I think that's what's going to keep SMU different.
We must never be scared to launch new programs, new ideas, because that will keep our people alive, and we will get new believers. We will get new students who will say, Hey, this is different, we've never done this, no track record. Let's try and build this together with SMU. So within that four-year program, I hope that along the way, even those students that came in looking like the other two schools, something will spark with them and they will take a different path. And we've got great anecdotes, great examples.