If we were on target then what we would normally do especially in the afternoons is that, a group of us would go to what we called Meeting Room 3, all right. At that time in Wah Chang House there were two meeting rooms, Meeting Room 1 and 2, and those were meeting rooms which belonged to Banyan Tree and we could use them if they are not being used by Banyan Tree, and we wanted a meeting room out there so, if you go along Upper Bukit Timah road there’s a row of shophouses that included some eating places and there was a coffee shop that was owned by an Indian stallholder who made this teh tarik and this Indian coffee and so on, and we would normally go there just to drink coffee or tea and then to brainstorm on certain aspects of the curriculum we want to develop, or we would debate on what core values we want to see in SMU and so on.
Immediately before joining SMU [Singapore Management University] I was in NTU [Nanyang Technological University], in the Nanyang Business School. I was the head of the law division at Nanyang Technological University. So, that was just before joining SMU.
I think you’ve got to have somebody who’s enough of a non-crusty, old, traditional person to understand that a university also has a key task of being an exciting place for young people. Thankfully, although my ‘years’ may be advanced, I think perhaps more ‘young’ in meaningful ways, I don’t know how to do Facebook and all that, but in more critical ways I might be more young thinking. Critical in which I challenge—young people challenge things, they challenge norms—generally I challenge norms, more than most people of my generation and my level of establishment. If I were looking for a replacement to myself, I would look for somebody whose outlook on education, outlook on young people, outlook on life, and outlook on what he wants to create within the corporate culture here is novel, who is excited by and passionate about creating that kind of environment. I think that individual attribute is more important than the technical attributes of whether that person has ever run a university before, et cetera.
A lot of work. It has meant for me, personally, an avenue for me to have channelled many of my more activist inclinations of my past, which used to be channelled towards somewhat more destructive stuff like throwing stones at police and writing about articles that get me into jail. I have always been wanting to make...I’ve always had views right or wrong, about a lot of things, besides my work. I’ve always, as a young person, been very unhappy about a lot of the things that were around me in my environment, unable to make changes in any constructive manner. I have to admit that most of the things I did in my late teens to twenties that got me into trouble were relatively destructive and didn’t change the world.
Now at my age, dealing with young people, I have the opportunity to try to perhaps give them an environment that can challenge them, can inspire them to be what they want to be, and I think it’s deeply satisfying. These are the things I would have wanted to have grown up with in Singapore. If I can challenge our young people to, within the environment of SMU, become a future leader in whatever they choose to be, then that’s really deeply satisfying. So, I hope that will continue.
But if we can, if some of them can be leaders, and I don’t necessarily mean political leaders, but leaders meaning you think for yourself, and you do something new, and other people are tempted to follow you because what you’re doing inspires them to want to do the same thing. To me, that’s already a leader. If SMU can provide that kind of thought leadership, I would have been deeply satisfied.
Can’t speak for the rest, but I think there is a lot of similarity in personality among the core group. Most of the people are quite adventurous type, not the death-defying stunt type of adventure. Among the group, we come from NUS and NTU, more from NTU than NUS. I don’t think it’s by design, as I said, people [who] volunteer in that sense, are already running parts of the business programme in their respective university. Of the 12 of us who came, I think we’re all deans, divisional heads, director of MBA programme, from both universities, NUS and NTU. And in some sense, we’re all very comfortable, but comfort also create some form of boredom, so you can say that I used the word adventure because I think we are more or less bored to death running the same thing, that is quite successful. Both NUS and NTU has very good business and accountancy programmes, but then to do something new, especially from scratch is very attractive.
We’re saying that, “What type of programme would be really good for Singapore and to be more selfishly, for our kids?” That’s one of the phrases we bounce around. We said that, “We would like to design a university programme that we will send our kids.” I think that actually borne itself out later. Quite a lot of SMU faculty and staff send their children to SMU for whatever reason but I think it’s because it’s an attractive type of programme.
So to start something from scratch, I don’t think we’ll get the opportunity given to you every time. I don’t think I will get another opportunity again. That’s speaking for everybody. Personally, I think we had to suit the, our characteristic too. I’ve never enjoyed doing the same thing over and over again because my whole career in academia, I’ve changed subjects deliberately so that I teach new thing. I’ve always been involved in projects rather that running administrative work. I do get administrative position, head of division, but as I said that gets very tiring, very fast.
And then I continued until 1999, and this is where we're coming to SMU. Early in 1999, Low Kee Yang, who had himself just been inducted into the provisional set up for SMU, saw me one day and he said, I need to talk to you. So we sat down and talked a few days later, and he interested me in SMU, and said, I think we all make a very nice team and we need somebody like you to just provide us with kind of extra perspective and looking at things and all of that. So I said, sure, I'm always ready for a new adventure. And so that's how, in July 1999, I was formally interviewed. And by then the president had been more or less appointed, President-designate Janice Bellace; and Chin Tiong, Tan Chin Tiong, was also designate provost; and Kai Cheong [Tsui Kai Chong] was designate dean. And so we had this interview in a wonderful little room called Committee Room 3, which was next to the Banyan thing, Upper Bukit Timah Road. The formal meeting took place in this thing, and then, of course, we adjourned to the sarabat stall which was next door to have coffee and tea and just talk about things. And that was more or less when I sort of became a part of the SMU founding team.
So in 1996, ‘97, that’s the year that you mentioned, it was when the government asked whether we, a group of us want to write a paper on the need for a third university in Singapore. And of course, a lot of us were very biased already because we have seen that there was a great need. In fact, I don’t think we need much justification since I think the government also knew. It’s purely from the demographic in Singapore, although we are getting less babies but the number of people needing university education has increased. So it was quite easy to justify. It’s more the form of the university that the government wants. Of course, they did not put any constraint.
So a group of us, both academic as well as some outside people, were asked to form the task force and write the paper on the need for a third university in Singapore. As I said, that is an easy paper to, easy project to justify. Of course, we throw in ideas [on] what it should be. So even in the early years we look at the existing two universities and said, what else is necessary. So to jump the gun, ten years later it was very obvious that both existing universities have very great British, Australian influence as a matter of necessity because Singapore was a colony before. And some of us who have experienced education as well as having friends from European and American universities, see that it’s good that Singapore may benefit from having a different type of university education. So that got put into the taskforce project quite early, American-type education and [the Singapore] government seemed to be very happy with it. So that was the start of it.
Well, you know, I think it is probably one chance in a lifetime to get involved in starting a new university. At that time, there were two universities in Singapore. When I say two universities, I’m not talking about, there were other universities around, you know, that were privately run and so on, but state universities, there were only two. And this initiative was of course fully supported by MOE [Ministry of Education], so I actually considered it quite a privilege to be invited to be involved in something like this because in the Nanyang Business School there were a few hundred faculty members and not every faculty member was invited to be involved. It was just a group of about maybe ten of us. So certainly it was something interesting, it was something exciting and something definitely different from what we were doing on a day-to-day basis. So yes, I was quite excited about that.
In that early, at the early stages, the idea was to upgrade the SIM into the third university. So those of us who formed the working groups, the main responsibility was for us to review all the degree programmes at SIM and to look at the rigor of those programmes, the coverage of those programmes to see whether or not those could be re-packaged and enhanced into business university. So the skill sets that were required were mostly the skills that were possessed by senior faculty members who have many years of experience in teaching, also experience in administration and running of programmes. So the ten faculty members that were appointed were the existing heads of divisions at that time and other senior members who were involved in different aspects of administering the programmes at NTU.
At that point in time when I was involved in the workgroup, I had not thought that I would leave NTU. I thought that it was just something extra to do beyond running a division so I wasn’t thinking of any risk at all. I was just looking at the opportunity to see whether an existing university that was run as a second chance university could be upgraded into a state-recognised university so all I saw was excitement and something really new.
I believe it was about late 1996 or early 1997. What I was told at the time was that Singapore had embarked on a strategic plan, one aspect of which was to make Singapore the education hub of South East Asia and that that meant that Singapore both would want to attract foreigners into Singapore to avail themselves of higher education services and also that internally they wanted to increase the percentage of the cohort going to university themselves. Partly because the economy in Singapore had changed so much that it sold as a service economy, it really wanted to increase the percentage of young people going to university. So it was both that was happening and that the Wharton school had been contacted because Singapore was interested in bringing in an outside institution to run a business school of its own.
I first came in the summer of 1997 and I came because we had been approached and we should seriously consider this invitation. And I was going to be in Asia, going up to Hong Kong and the dean of the Wharton School said to me, “Why don’t you go down to Singapore first and meet people?” And so I came down here and in my very first visit in about three days I saw so much, I now laugh about how much I saw.
I was a Director of Education for the last ten years of my service with the Ministry of Education. I started out as a teacher, became a principal and did various portfolios at the Ministry of Education, from curriculum development to personnel work and so on. I spent the last ten years as Director of Education, looking after the professional aspects of teaching and learning, particularly at the Primary and Secondary levels. Of course, there is also involvement with polytechnics, the ITE, as well as the universities.
I was retiring at the end of December 1996 and I was approached by an HR firm, whether I would like to be the Executive Director of SIM after the previous director left. It took awhile to decide whether I should really take on the job but I was very interested in adult education, or further education for working adults. I was very passionate about the fact that there were people out there who had no opportunities for further education. So after some consideration I met with the Governing Council then, was interviewed by the Governing Council then. They asked me about my ideas and subsequently they said they would take me on and that’s how it went. I was very happy to be able go to SIM and continue to look at education but this time education for working adults.
To me, it’s the start of something that is great. Actually [looking at] the conception of the university at that point in time and what it is now, I think they were two totally different things. We started on the basis that we wanted to become a huge university and, to some extent, to provide for, not just the A-level students, but also people who have graduated [from polytechnic], like the university [Singapore Institute of Technology] that Chin Tiong [Tan Chin Tiong] is heading at this moment in time. So the role has shifted tremendously from the time we were told about it till what SMU is today. I think it’s a totally different thing entirely. SMU today is more like a boutique university. Then, it was meant to be a ‘mass’ university, in the sense that it’s a university for the masses, just like NTU and NUS [National University of Singapore]. We’re supposed to be a full-fledged university with all the various things coming in, but with primary focus on business and management education.
As you probably know, I had always been with NUS [National University of Singapore] and I’m doing reasonably well and out of the blue, I was called to be in the committee that will look into the creation of the third university. And it was interesting how this whole thing was concocted.
Professor Tan Teck Meng was a member of the steering committee and chairman of its working committee. He requested us to join him in the committee. We were both excited and concerned. Firstly, the deadline was very tight, about two years to set up the university. Secondly, the new university was to be converted from the Singapore Institute of Management into the proposed university. Then there was the question of location as well as the budget. As it was to be established as a private university, the basis under which the Government was to fund the university was uncertain. However, we said yes, as the proposed university was to replace the existing business schools in NUS and NTU. Further, with Tan Teck Meng playing a key role in planning the new start-up, we were confident that it would be successful. He had after all transformed the NTU School of Accountancy to become a full-fledged business school. We decided to resign to show our faith in the start-up, and to show that it was not going to be a half-hearted effort. As it was a Government decision to create the new university, there was no objection from NTU.
Yes, taking a step back, I’ve been the dean of NTU [Nanyang Technological University] for eight years and to tell you the truth, I was so comfortable [there]. By the eighth year, you know, everything had been set up. We had 3,500 students, we had some 300 PhD faculty and at least another 300 faculty and staff, so I was very comfortable. So I said, “Okay, take one more year, probably I will step down and let somebody take over.” Then lo and behold, sometime in May 1996, Dr Tony Tan, DPM [Deputy Prime Minister], called for a meeting with the deans and the president, vice president, registrar of NTU—all the deans, including the engineering deans and, of course, including me, the business dean.
All the deans in NTU went for a meeting, not knowing what is going to happen. Then in the course of the discussion, Dr Tan mentions the establishment, his idea of an establishment of a business university. You know, I was leaping with joy, inside my heart. I said, “This is the best thing to happen in Singapore because everybody wants to study business in Singapore.” And everything, plenty of students wanting to do business. [The] business school is full in the two universities, NUS [National University of Singapore] and NTU, and even SIM [Singapore Institute of Management] was very popular at that time. So I said, “This is great for Singapore,” and I was really thrilled by the possibility.
Where can you find that kind of opportunity? One, it’s a business university, purely for business. At that time, we had a discussion, we also talked about law, we also talked about accountancy, we talked about all the businesses. And in my business school, in NTU, its huge and we had a lot of specialisation, like, for example, actuarial science, insurance, we had marketing, human resource, and it’s a huge business school. So in itself, it’s a university already. So I thought, “That’s wonderful, it’s a great thing to happen.”
When we first came, six of us faculty members there, we were all camped at Wah Chang House, that’s the offices of our chairman’s company. And it was quite interesting because when we walked in, we had rented the ground floor of Wah Chang House and we were looking at that and said, “That certainly doesn’t look like a university office at all.” So the very first task we did was to rearrange the ground floor, so that we could form workstations so that each of us could sit, so that took us about a week or so, we had to get new partitions, we had to redo, you know, all the offices and so on. And then we got that done and then we settled down.
Let me start with early 1980s when National University was established, I believe, in 1980 as through the merger of the University of Singapore and the Nanyang University. That served as our only university in Singapore for about ten years. We only had one university. Singapore was different from other newly developing countries in the sense that we never proliferated the number of universities. We always felt it was very important to maintain very high standards, both in the teaching as well as in the student body and in the faculty.
By the late 1980s, it was clearly recognised that the demand for university places far exceeded what was available in NUS and therefore we started to establish another institution, first called the Nanyang Technological Institute in the late 1980s which eventually evolved to become the Nanyang Technological University in 1991 I believe. And between NUS and NTU these provided enough places.
But again, every ten years demand grows, so by the late 1990s it was quite clear that we needed another institution at university level. I was involved in studying what type of institution would be suitable. My view at that time was that rather than simply establishing another university, we should take the opportunity to further develop our university sector—provide differentiation, provide variety, provide new directions. NTU was different from NUS, so I felt that the third university should be different from NUS and NTU. There followed many years of discussion with the public, among the ministry officials, members of Parliament about what type of university would be suitable. It has to be something that’s relevant to Singapore, something that meets the needs of Singaporeans. Eventually we narrowed it down to a university that would be focused on management, on economics, on business which we thought would be complementary to NUS and NTU.
However, I thought that we should not just repeat what has gone before and try and take a new direction. Because both NUS and NTU had developed essentially from a British model, I felt that it would be good to look to the US for another type of university with a different model which could provide a new dimension to university education in Singapore.
So when I visited the US, I visited a number of universities, to discuss with them, to find out whether any of them were interested in partnering the Singapore Government in establishing a university in Singapore. The University of Pennsylvania and its Wharton School were extremely enthusiastic about the possibility. At that time the Wharton School, recognising the growth of Asia, was trying to find a means of increasing their footprint here, and they felt that they needed to have a base here, but as usual they’re not quite sure how to proceed. Partnering the Singapore Government to form a management university in Singapore seemed to be the ideal. From the Singapore Government point of view, we would be in partnership with a very prestigious and well-known school of management in the US, the Wharton School.
Then the question came to establishing the actual structure of the new university in Singapore. Here, I felt that if it’s going to be a business school, we should look beyond the traditional sort of establishment people in order to form the council. I wanted to find somebody from the business world, preferably someone young. We had originally thought that we could build this university on the foundation of the Singapore Institute of Management because they had a school. But it was realised quite early that this was not possible, because it was quite difficult to graft something onto an existing establishment, and it’d be much better to start of completely new. I talked to Mr Ho Kwon Ping and told him, this is what we are going to do, and I think you could start the university on a new direction. Mr Ho’s response, quite understandably was he knows nothing about education. This would be something new for him, but I told him that this is what I thought would be very useful. It was also crucial at the time that Janice Bellace, who was then the deputy head of the Wharton School and who was a very strong champion of this joint venture, agreed that she would take on the role as the first president of SMU. I thought that was very significant, because with her appointment this would ensure very close nexus between SMU and Wharton. She did an excellent job in conceptualising the whole university, essentially starting from scratch, I mean, when she first started.
We decided that we would not establish SMU on the same legal grounds as NUS and NTU, because NUS and NTU were statutory boards, and in fact, they had to be established by Acts of Parliament. For SMU we thought it would be better to start something new, and therefore we established SMU as a company, not as a statutory board. As a company there would be more flexibility but since SMU would be dependent on the Singapore Government for funding there has to be some relationship to the Ministry of Education, so this has to be discussed with the MOE officials. Eventually we agreed that what MOE would be involved in would be to approve the budget, very broad guidelines. As far as the staffing was concerned, the only two appointments which the minister of education would need to give approval to, or would have his agreement for, would be the chairman of the council and the president of the university. All other decisions would be left to the SMU council and the SMU management to work out. I think that is a very good direction because subsequently both NUS and NTU were established along this model and I think the results have been very beneficial.
We want to be a world-class research university. We want to be distinguished in our education. So those are very broad. But at which level do we want to be benchmarking ourselves was the thing that will determine the kind of financial commitment that you need. So, earlier on, we were aspiring to be the top private US universities, the Harvards and the Whartons or whatever. It requires a different level of financial commitment. And truly when we looked at it and we say, Wow, it's a very expensive proposition, for which, when we turned back to MOE, they say, No, we will not give you that kind of resources to sustain that. So we had to make adjustments to our aspiration. We would still want to be amongst the top, but we want to be amongst the top public US universities who are no less eminent. We have a lot of help from our own management, the president I mean in terms of Janice, Ron Frank [Ronald Frank] they are very experienced academics. They have seen different models of university in the US. They come from well-known research universities. They know what kind of resources are needed, so they played a big part in helping to shape that.
We also brought in a couple of consultants who are very experienced university planners from the US to help us look at all these as well. And one particular one actually helped us build this model, this financial model. Professor Bill Massy [William F Massy] who was formerly a chief financial officer of Stanford University. He came and helped me build that model and together with the president. And we also engaged the board in that whole planning, because in the board we also had academics, who gave their insights and all that. And that's how we shaped the whole thing and say, yes, this is a reasonable model for us to adopt and these are the projected financial commitments. So that's how we did it.
If you look at [it], in hindsight it looks a bit frightening. SMU was set up within less than two years. I don’t think any university has been set up in less than two years in that sense, from the word go. The first employee was Teck Meng [Tan Teck Meng] of course, in March 1998, and then in April, May the other two [Tan Chin Tiong and Low Aik Meng] joined. Then the rest of us came in August.
And I’ve always been involved in tactical planning for projects, for things. So it was naturally given to me to plan out the various major stage that our activities that we have to achieve to be able to launch the university. So what I did was use a simple, what I called PERT, Programme Evaluation [and Review] Technique. It is a project management tool [used to] translate into a milestone chart, because it is easier for lay people without all the maths and things involved. And essentially we identified about a dozen or thirteen major things that we have to achieve. Things, we had to get the constitution done, that was assigned to Kee Yang. We had to get all the curriculum designed which I think Yang Hoong was involved with. We had to get all the infrastructure approved. The most important thing of course was the funding, that came to me. I was the first CFO [Chief Financial Officer] and we had various other tasks in that sense.
I felt it was such an exciting opportunity. How many people ever get the opportunity to start something from scratch, that I couldn’t imagine not accepting it. That’s the way I think I thought at the time. I mean, some people might have thought I was crazy, I’m sure they did, some of my colleagues thought I was crazy. On the other hand, to say, it’s just, it’s a unique opportunity. And the decisions that were made in the first year, and they weren’t [just] the buildings -- we’ve been talking about buildings -- but how to structure the faculty, which school to start with, what size classes are you going to have, who are you going to hire, and so many decisions. They’re decisions we live with today.
They were really wonderful. I have to say, Tan Teck Meng had organized a very good team, very competent and willing to learn anything. So I’d say, “Well why don’t you go to Wharton and talk to the people who do X?” and off they’d be on a plane and would just like a study trip, that’s the word that’s used here, but do it. So why doesn’t somebody go over and look at the curriculum? Why doesn’t somebody talk to the IT? Why doesn’t somebody look at the admissions etc?
My great difficulty was that we had certain slots that were very difficult to fill here; I’ll mention one, Director of Admissions. I’m used to an admissions process in the United States where students apply to more than one university, each university sets its own standards, decides what it wants on an admissions application, and in a sense, one has to sell the university because there’s such competition. So Director of Admissions partly is a marketing person, partly has to know how to run a large operation. I’ll give you an example, Penn this year had 27000 applications and maybe…well anyway, we’ll take in the first year, class of 2500, so I’m used to that but it’s a profession in the United States. Here, there was no one. NUS and NTU, at that point had, I don’t know the term, Britain calls it UCAS. The students file one application, they didn’t interview, they looked at your ‘A’ Level results and in a very short period of time, you get made an offer, that’s it, and the student has no choice. If you don’t get what you want, I guess you left Singapore. And it was very close to the start of the year so classes were going to begin in September, I think it was July. So trying to find somebody who could be a Director of Admissions -- there was no one with the background.
The level of commitment and energy and people being just very passionate about being involved in something new that was going to change the face of tertiary education in Singapore was palpable.
Well, we all chipped in, in everything that needed to be done but later on, I was tasked with the HR [human resources] department. I was the acting HR director for a short while, until we got a full time HR director in. And I was working on things like the faculty and staff manual, handbook for faculty, and handbook for staff. I had to go for a course, SAP [business management software] course because we wanted to buy the SAP programme, the ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning] system and I had to attend the module on HR since I was tasked with HR, as the HR director. Teng Aun was there with me and I think he was doing the accounting module if I’m not wrong. It was actually the most frightening experience, not having done an exam for years [and now] having to sit for an exam, and knowing that you have to pass the exam was actually more daunting than anything else.
I was more involved in the legal and incorporation aspects of SMU. Because it was, it was said that SMU was supposed to be private, which is very different, because at that time, NUS and NTU were not private, they were public. They were institutions incorporated by statute. And the intention at that time was to make SMU a private university, which was a new concept. So I was supposed to work together with people from Ministry of Education and the, I think it’s the AGC, it’s the government authority Attorney General’s Chambers and our lawyers, and to come up with this creature, which is supposed to be so-called private university.
I suppose it’s driven by two different things. One is, I’ve come to realise that, especially when I see that SMU has become what it has become—and in the beginning it was nothing more than a piece of paper, a simple concept—it’s one of the few projects I’ve been involved in that has come such a long way from zero, and it’s finally dawned on me as it would probably to many of our early pioneers that the actual history of the beginning of SMU could be of interest to people way, way down the road. An institution like a university—unlike a company or even a government department—is a living community with changing constituencies all the time. As we find with other universities, people are very interested in the beginnings of the university one hundred, two hundred years afterwards, and inshallah, Singapore and SMU will be around two hundred years from now. So that’s on one side. I think it’s important for pioneers not to see themselves as important, but to see that the events they were involved in will be of interest and significance to others, and it behoves us, as part of the responsibility that we had to even start the institution, to ensure that this history remains.
I’m hoping that what we do now, when many of the people who were involved are getting older, we should lay the same groundwork, so that people in the future can make use of our memories and continue keeping alive the origin and tradition of SMU.
Oh yes, we had a long discussion particularly with the officials in the ministry, with Mr Ho Kwon Ping, a lot of possible names were discussed. What would you call it? Singapore University of Management and so on. It’s very important that when you find a name that you also realise it has to be a good acronym because people will have to refer to it and eventually, like many of these things, we ended up with the first suggestion which was Singapore Management University after going around, several months.
[Initially] we were just given very general tasks. I am numerate, so I’m asked to look at some of the numbers with Leong Kwong Sin. Later I was put in charge of IT, and so my role was look after the IT programme [infrastructure] in the new university.
When we first started, the idea was to review all the SIM programmes to see if those programmes could be upgraded and so all of us in the workgroup, we each came up with a report after reviewing all the various programmes. And then we came up with a report recommending whether it was possible for SIM to be made into a university. And the recommendations from the various workgroups was no. The existing programmes in SIM had to be radically changed if they were to be good, rigorous enough to be recognised as programmes in a state-run university. So the recommendation was for us to run our own university.
About early 1998 I think and so then, at that time, Dr Tony Tan still felt that well, maybe those programmes that were being run there could not be upgraded, but we could run our own programmes under the auspices of SIM. So when a group of us were invited to form the start-up team to run SMU [Singapore Management University], it was on the premise that we would run our own programmes under the umbrella of SIM then. Right, so we came and three of us, that is Leong Kwong Sin, Low Kee Yang and myself joined SMU 1st August 1998. And at that time SMU already had three other employees, that was Tan Teck Meng, Low Aik Meng and Tan Chin Tiong. So we were the next three, so there were then six of us there.
The beauty of starting a new university is you start with a clean sheet of paper, you have no baggage. No constraint, with the exception of a rather tight budget but we can always work around these problems. I think the initial group of people were people with very good ideas, very driven, and so things worked very well. When we hired people, we attracted people who were keen to make changes and introduce new ideas. So that helped.
It’s a new university, and so there were no societies, no groups of any sort. And we have very little money to start some of these societies with. But we have very enterprising students who form their groups. They will come and through Professor Low Aik Meng, ask for permission to form clubs. And the answer will always be a yes, provided they don’t ask us for too much money. So that’s how they got started.
There were clubs of all sorts. I remember asking some of them, why don’t they merge. There was a group that wanted to form to play chess. There was another group that wanted to form because they wanted to play Chinese chess. Of these groups that formed, they were all students led. Some of them were rather successful, and some of them are still running today. There was also a very different attitude among the students. I give you an example. One day a group of students came to me and said, “You know Kai Chong, the food here is not very good,” he used stronger language than that. “Can we do something about it?” When he said we that means the students want to do something about it. Quite unlike other places where, you are the dean, “Why don’t you go and do something about our food?” So obviously you have a very different group of students. And so what the students did was, to take orders, drove out, pack the food and bring it back. And it’s deliberate. When they say that we will charge 50 cents more upfront and many of us were very happy to give him the 50 cents, because he would use the money for something else, but because he was running some other club. And they are very enterprising young people.
The first time I ever knew anything about this was at lunch with Cham Tao Soon. He’ll probably have different recollections of the lunch, if he recollects it at all. I was certainly intrigued by the idea. As you’ll know later on, when we talk about the events, the Government didn’t even really have an idea as to what kind of university they wanted. We went through so many permutations—from a comprehensive university with twenty-five thousand people, to a business school and a business school alone which would be the monopoly business school for all of Singapore and all the other universities will shut down their business schools. We’ve gone through many, many permutations so it’s clear that they had not a clear idea what they wanted at all. It was Tony Tan, who was then deputy prime minister, who I think has got really radical views about education and to me, is really the person who’s shaken up the entire tertiary landscape in Singapore. And to whom Singapore really owes its greatest debt regarding what our educational system overall has become at the tertiary level.
It was the most illogical choice. Okay because, I barely managed to get a bachelor’s degree, and I’ve gone to three universities and I end up with only a bachelor’s. You would normally assume you’d get somebody who’s a little bit more acquainted with university education, but I do think probably the reason that they asked me, the big bet from Tony Tan’s perspective, was because I had very clear and very strong views about university education, untainted by expertise. We all know that sometimes expertise gets in the way of trying to do something new. So I met Tony Tan, and I think there was general discussion about a third university. What I do remember well was that the very starting point was that this should be a private university, but he had really not much of an idea as to how to go about it. That I know, because after some degree of discussion, the device he wanted in order to start SMU—there was no name even of the university—was for me to go in and, take over SIM, Singapore Institute of Management. And then use SIM and make it into a third university.
Then for quite a while SIM was to be the vehicle for the third university. We recommended otherwise, government accepted, then we set up SMU, and then I became chairman of both. Then after a while, I decided that look, I’ll stick with SMU, and I gave up SIM.
The planning team was still employed at NUS and NTU until 1998. Therefore, we met in the evenings and on weekends to do our planning at each others’ homes before we resigned. From 1st March 1998, after Teck Meng, Chin Tiong [Tan Chin Tiong] and I had resigned our respective positions at NUS and NTU; we operated at the ground floor of Wah Chang House in Upper Bukit Timah road, the office premises of Mr Ho Kwon Ping who was the chairman of the steering committee. The members of the working committee, 12 of us, comprised, Teck Meng [Tan Teck Meng], Chin Tiong [Tan Chin Tiong], Kwong Sin [Leong Kwong Sin], Yang Hoong [Pang Yang Hoong], Kee Yang [Low Kee Yang], Thian Ser [Toh Thian Ser], Soo Chiat [Hwang Soo Chiat], Michael Gan, Kai Chong [Tsui Kai Chong], Teng Aun [Khoo Teng Aun], Wee Liang [Tan Wee Liang] and me.
The group of 12 operated as a team, but each had specific functions ranging from strategic issues such as the vision and mission of the proposed university, core values, curriculum, teaching pedagogy, marketing and recruitment of the first cohort, finance, human resource, faculty recruitment, space planning, IT, legal matters such as the Constitution of the Students Association. I had oversight of the curriculum, as I had earlier whilst in NTU been responsible for the design of the Nanyang MBA curriculum when it was launched in 1991. However, all decisions were based on consensus after much debate and deliberation. All of us felt privileged and honoured but it was a huge load on our shoulders. We knew that the future of the proposed university as well as its eventual image and success depended on the rigour of our planning.