The areas of excellence, at least in my mind, different people will have different interpretation, but the reason I was pushing it out of my office is because I have always believed in research, education and practice. If you saw, that was the orientation in faculty, you know, we have three kinds of faculty. So to me, an area of excellence is where have thought leadership, meaning where we are one of the leaders in research on a topic, where we have recognized academic programs in that area, and where industry or government respects us enough to actively seek out our opinions on the topics. So to me, it's a three-way intersection: Do we know what we are talking about? Can we teach it well so that the world thinks that this is a leading academic program? And then is our opinion solicited? If I take some of the areas, one is financial markets and institutions; we are number two in Asia in Financial research. The Wealth Management program is number three but in terms of academic research, we are number two in Asia. And many of our faculty are invited to provide commentaries and financial performance of companies and so on and so forth. So that to me is an area of excellence. And then what we are trying to do within SMU's areas of excellence is to also look at these areas as they cut across the schools. So let's say within financial markets, I pick an area like mergers and acquisitions. Mergers and acquisitions is of course a financial issue. It is also a legal issue, regulatory. So we need faculty from School of Law. It is at the same time, a valuation issue; one company is buying another, therefore it's an accounting issue. It is an organizational behavior issue, because one company has to merge with and absorb another. It is a strategy issue. So this is an example of an area of excellence. And from my office, I have been encouraging, for example, the Center of Management Practice to put money in course development for a course that is jointly taught on mergers and acquisitions by four faculty members from four different schools. And it's a very expensive course but it's a very unique course. And that is the kind of course that is going to lead to unique differentiated output coming from Singapore Management University. Again the areas of excellence are multi-disciplinary and it is where we do our thinking, where we put it in the classroom. Another area is in Information Systems, where we have LARC as the center anchoring the activities in financial markets, it's going to be the Sim Kee Boon Institute. Another area is in the context of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, where IIE is the center. Then the School of Information Systems has started some additional initiatives, let's say in urban sustainability and that will develop into an area. And more recently, we looked at the financial health and wealth issues related to aging. So the aging area is also going to cut cross not only economics but school of social sciences and frankly also school of business. These areas of excellence are to really help integrate the schools and to taking advantage of the opportunity. It's there for everybody but because SMU is small and nimble I think we can do it faster and better.
The research effort has to be, of course, coming from the faculties. What I can do as provost and what the president can do is to encourage things that happened across schools. And so I cannot tell a senior member from economics that I know economics better than they do. But I can encourage them to cooperate with somebody from finance and work on issues that cut across disciplines. So my personal emphasis has been to encourage cross-disciplinary work. Fortunately, that's the same priority for the president Arnoud De Meyer, we both believe very very strongly in that. And consequently, there has been a tremendous amount of support from us on cross disciplinary programs. Beyond that, we have to encourage the schools to do the right things. Now one way of managing research is to spread the resources and say there are so many faculty members in this school, so many faculty members in that school, and we simply take the amount available and then divide it by the number of faculty and spread it around. That cannot be the case. What we have to do is that we have to make sure that we water those plants that are growing. And we occasionally have to trim things in order to make them grow better. There has been a strong focus on performance and I have stood behind the Deans that had been pushing the envelope and that has led to a situation where the schools cannot take things for granted and think they are going to get this money anyway. Now we have almost all the schools performing, you know, pretty well because the ground rules are not based on history and number. The ground rules are forward looking in terms of what they want to achieve and backward looking in terms of what they have achieved.
I thought it would be nice to set up a centre for cross-cultural studies. And so I met with Chin Tiong and I said, I've got this idea. So he said, why don't you write it out? So I did a preamble and everything and shared it with Kai Cheong. And they were very excited, they said, wow, this is great, why don't we do it?
And this was a new initiative, and this was November 1999; we were ready to go, you know.
The centre for cross-cultural studies sounds a little bit pedantic, sounds a little bit academic. And what does the man in the street have to do with a centre of cross-cultural study? So I was talking with Kwon Ping [Ho Kwon Ping], and I said, KP, maybe we need a name for this centre, which is not like this, named after a person. We came up with a few names, and Mr Wee Kim Wee, his was one of the names. And KP, myself, Janice [Janice Bellace] and Chin Tiong, the four of us met and we talked about it. And we finally said, Mr Wee is a good example. Because basically, he came from nothing to something, his education was pretty low, and then he educated himself. Then he joined the media, and he rose from a rookie to the head of state. This was an example of a cross-cultural, inter-cultural person. You know, he looks Chinese and all that and yet he hardly spoke a word of Chinese, he was so comfortable in Malay. So he really embraced the whole idea of diversity. And so we approached him and asked to use his name and he said okay with two conditions. One is, my name shall not be used to make profits, and he said, my name will be used to educate the larger community. Because he said, you're already educating your own students, they're there and they're yours. But he said, people outside the university also need to benefit from the university's expertise, knowledge and all that. So those were the two conditions. So we agreed. And that's how the Wee Kim Wee Centre came to be.
When we decided to work with Wharton, as you know Wharton has very strong research standing, so that becomes a good opportunity, plus we were only hiring PhD from mostly from Ivy League schools and top schools to attract these people. You don’t have good research, they won’t come. So we need to work on having professors [and] researchers who want to come to do research here.
Yes, we got to create an environment, so we have the Wharton-SMU, Wharton Research Centre. That was the first centre that we started. So we need to give them the environment to work, you see. No point talk, talk, talk, talk, they come here, they can’t do anything. So we fund them, fund them, we give them a critical mass so that they can work together, plus trying to link with other universities and people. So the research environment has been very good. In a short ten years, we have done very well.
That was a given, the people that I was recruiting understood it, and it was also made clear to them that in order to get promotion—even renewal of midterm reappointment and eventual promotion to tenure—that they have to do research and that’s why these three programmes are being set up to really help them. It is also understood that it’s built into the budgeting of the schools that the university would support the research activities. There’s a very generous allocation of school money to support presentation of papers in conferences. In many universities in the United States there is not as much support for this simply because funds are limited, but here we give the [standing faculty] budget to support the trips abroad, to go to conferences and present papers.
Supplementary research funding up to as much as two-ninths of the base salary is also provided on an application merit basis, and sometimes this research funding support is automatic and built into the contract, written into the contract.
So all of these are really to support the young faculty any faculty’s efforts to produce research, but on the other side of it is a very strong statement that you are there expected to produce research. It’s very difficult, it’s a lot of pressure on the faculty because in addition to that they also have to teach well because of the requirements of our pedagogy—we’re still predominantly an undergraduate [institution] and so we cannot neglect teaching, teaching has to be important as well.
We have the enormous advantage of being a city campus, being here in the centre of the city and thus being a visible presence of an academic institution. Visible for everybody, everybody knows the buildings of SMU at the end of Orchard Road. Perhaps we haven’t really exploited and leveraged that position as well as we could, in terms of having impact on the business community. We are a university for the world of business. We’re not a business school—we’re a university, but for the world of business with the different components that I referred to a little bit earlier. We can make a difference in the way people manage, whether it’s in business, whether it’s in government, whether it’s in NGOs. For example, in NGOs, what the Lien Centre is doing is very important, in my opinion, in trying to influence the quality and the professionalism of management in NGOs. And I hope that in the long term we will be successful in influencing them.
My first point about society and SMU is that we need to take our research and see how relevant that is to businesses and see how we can influence the way they think and they work. That’s not going to happen automatically. We need to make a serious effort in communicating that. And that’s one of the reasons why I come back to that—we haven’t probably leveraged our closeness to business or to government or to some other organisations here around us, that we haven’t completely fully leveraged that to influence them, to communicate what we’re doing in terms of research. We also need to use much more social media to communicate the results of our research. And not only from the faculty but also some of the great ideas that some of the students have. I’ve seen some student papers that I was really very impressed with and I thought—we need to make sure that this is known by the community around us. So that’s the first point, that is, communicate better through our physical presence, but also through social media and anything else that can help us communicate better, the results of our insights of our research.
The second way that we relate to society is through our students’ and staff’s and faculty’s community service. As we all know, our students are required to do eighty hours of community service but many of them do a lot more. And we celebrated in September a million hours of community service, which is when you think about it, impressive as a university, a small university. But I would hope that through that community service and what students learn there, they get an attitude of helping the communities in which they work for the rest of their life, so that we can educate our students in continuing their education, so that they feel that as citizens they have a responsibility to the society in which they work and have to give back to the community. And this goes beyond our students. It’s faculty, staff, but also our alumni. And I would be very happy and I see that some of that is already, happening, where alumni and the students are working together on some of these community service projects. So I hope that, that again is something where we can influence society.
And the third one is something about the holistic experience that we provide to our students. Our educational system is one where we provide a holistic experience to the students, where we tell them, yes, you’re studying accounting or you’re studying business or information systems or law, or whatever you’re studying that—but then at the same time you should understand what’s going on, a little bit of what in the other schools is going on. You should understand how your domain fits in the broader world of business. And at the same time we stimulate our students to participate in the CCAs [co-curricular activities], do some cultural work or some sports or whatever. So we provide a holistic experience. I would hope that students go away from here and keep that holistic attitude and that I think that will have an influence on society, that society is not a collection of a bunch of silos but society’s about interaction, integration. And I would hope that one of the ways SMU can influence society is through our alumni who will keep that attitude of thinking broadly, thinking in an integrated way and perhaps influencing the way their colleagues and their organisations in their communities in which they work.
Well, my research interest is pretty broad. I am an organizational psychologist, but I also do research methods, statistics and psychometrics. To put it simply, it’s applying the rigour of research design and data analysis into addressing social and behavioural issues. So that kind of permeates all my consulting work, my advisory work and my research work. But in terms of substantive area, it doesn’t actually change, or didn’t change, but what changes is the additional areas, each month or each year goes by that those gets applied onto. So for example, I do work on adaptability, I’ve written quite a bit on it, I developed measures, I’ve constructed framework and edited a book, worked with award-winning authors on adaptability. But in recent years, I‘m beginning to try to apply that notion into our context as we move forward where there’re going to be new jobs, and notion of skills future, what does that mean? Trying to combine this to the notion of adaptability. So that’s a new application while the substantive area remained the same. Another quick area to share with you is on well-being, when we look at what I call subjective well-being, the idea of what make a person satisfied, at the same time make a person happy. And those things have been well-researched, how it applies to organization, peoples’ lives and policies. But in the case of Singapore, I’m beginning on some new research to look at the distinction between satisfaction and happiness. That you can be satisfied but not necessarily happy, and you can be happy but not necessarily satisfied because your satisfaction is quite a cognitive component that I want certain things, and did I get those things. That’s about satisfaction. And then happiness is more about emotions, a presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions, the two are correlated, satisfaction and happiness but they don’t always go together. This is quite important as a cultural element because people in Asia including Singapore, maybe not score very high on happiness if we give them a scale to rate how positive your emotions are. So we end up with very bad findings and bad interpretations to say that Singapore is the most unhappy country in the world, which is complete rubbish. I’ve written a Straits Times article to falsify that, that the data was interpreted wrongly, and soon enough from the same database, Gallup, the agency itself came out to say that, yes we are now the top, in the one third in the entire world. Now you can’t move from 160th position to the top one third, it was a methodological flaw in interpreting the data where Singapore was presented as the most unhappy country in the entire world. It’s just can’t be true. And the data showed itself.
Well behavioral sciences, as the word suggests, is to approach from a scientific perspective to understand how people think, how people feel and how people act, or behave. How people think is about cognition, and there’s a science of thinking. And how people feel is about emotion, and there’s a science of emotion. And of course how people act is a science of behaviour. So you look at A, B, C, Affect for emotions, B for behaviour, C for cognition. And together then we are asking the question that, at different levels of analysis, whether it’s an individual, a team, and organization or even a society at large, and for different stakeholders, whether you are members of public or policymakers, a leader or a follower, if you do not understand how people think, feel and behave in these various contexts, you are not going to achieve whatever aim or a task that you’re doing. If you’re going to have a policy, and if your policy does not understand how the public perceive things, how they feel, then no matter how great your policy content is, you will fail in your policy implementation. So if you’re a leader of an organization, you again need to know how to function, right? So those are the abstract principles that you first need to understand, then you apply it in the real world context. As to the substantive areas, then you can think about the actual areas you apply. So if you look at health for example, if you’re trying to get people to stop smoking, or we ‘re trying to deal with the problem of obesity or we’re trying to look at health, we want people to exercise and be more healthy, it is not just going to tell people the good things about why you should do it, and the bad things, or the consequences if you don’t. There’re issues about messaging, about lifestyle, about choices. So you need to understand people’s judgment and decision-making processes and how you frame things. So whether you’re changing health behaviours, whether you’re looking at public hygiene, trying to control the spread of diseases, or make people return their trays at the hawker center or pick up litter. These behavioural changes actually require us to understand people’s thought processes and emotions and the context in which they operate. So you can, this may sound a bit ambitious, really in any domain, you could apply behavioural sciences and Singapore has come far in the last few years, the government, the public among academics, even the private sector business leaders have all realized the importance of behavioural sciences and that has factored into how people evaluate even research grants on technical issues, such as urban planning and also into how people make decisions, how government do policies for example. And that’s very good news for SMU because the social sciences or behavioural sciences used in the broader sense of the word applies to all the six schools.
Well obviously one of the research area of excellence in the business school is finance. It is also one of the research areas of excellence in the university and it will be completely stupid if we didn't have a strong finance area, which we do. I think it's stronger than any other school in Singapore. Not only do we have a strongly functioning PhD program, which was the only PhD program in operation when I got here. But it also has a core of faculty, who are research oriented faculty. We have programs like the Master of Science in Finance which has roughly 250 people in it every year. Master of Wealth Management which has 50 people in it a year. We have a stable suite of finance programs. And we also have a Master of Quantitative Finance, which we do with Cass Business School in the UK. We are known for finance; we have a very good finance faculty. So linking that into the areas of excellence here was completely, relatively a smooth thing to do. And you know, to greater or lesser degree, the other areas are integrated into those areas of excellence. And I think what that has done is made the faculty more aware across schools but I don't think there's as much research collaboration across schools as there should be or ought to be. I think academics will always tell you a tale about the importance of collaboration but they stick their head down and do the things that they want to do and it becomes much more difficult. What tends to oil the process there is very much research grants that cut across and therefore requires those kinds of skills. I think that in the other areas of excellence, we've done a fair share. But clearly in terms of finance, we've been, you know, a very strong deliverer. But if I look across the areas in SMU now and look at the quality of what we are doing, the UT Dallas ratings will tell you our research is about equivalent in terms of quality. And the other question you asked was its linkage to Singapore. I think there's probably been less within the business school than it has been elsewhere. However I would say that this university has one thing going for it, which cuts across all the schools, which is the community service project that the students do, in the 80 hours they have to do. And students grumble about it but they get involved in what I would call community outreach. And you know we are heavily involved in those projects in the school. We are also heavily involved in research in the near regions as well as in Singapore on social and financial inclusion. I mean I just recently got a grant on that subject from Mastercard. I am going to push that even harder. So I think we are making inroads into Singapore. But obviously Singapore grew through Lee Kuan Yew's vision as a global city state. I mean for it to grow as a global city state, it needed finance faculty, marketing faculty and so on, of the quality SMU has. And he was smart enough to know that he couldn't get all those people initially from Singapore, he knew he had to bring them from outside. The skill is blending those people into the Asian context and making them aware of the issues in Singapore.And as a university, I think we are different. And what we are trying to do is, you know, I don't know if we will ever get to this statement of philosophy, but I don't believe in the word business schools, I don't believe in the word at all because they should be management schools and actually schools for management, not management schools. Because the management issue is not an issue in just the business industry, it's in public sector, and most economies I know, certainly in Britain for example, 44% of the population are employed one way or another by the public sector. Even in United States where they hate public management, there's a significant proportion in public management. And then you have this whole sector of NGOs and civil society. I mean management is important there and frankly I've seen it in Africa, I mean, just under-skilling of managers across Africa which need to be attacked. Here it's a much more mature economy but at the same time, we should be calling them schools for management, not business schools; I mean it's an old-fashion term, actually it's an American term by the way and it got coined by the Americans. I say as a once dual citizen who is now no longer a dual citizen because, for various reason, eventually, if I ever retire, though my wife will never let me retire, because she realizes that, until I run out of ideas, she said once if I ever come back, and we live in Stratford on Avon and I cant find a job in the academic pursuit, she's going to send me off to Walmart or the equivalent to be a greeter or a shelf stacker to get me out of the house. So I don't think there's any chance of me giving up. I mean I think in a sense, we should be talking about schools for management. And the other important thing here in SMU is the Asian identity. We are going to be known internationally because we are a strong Asian school.
Well, our projects are quite long-term and programmatic. I can give you examples of the work that we’re working on. One of the areas that we, I can give two quick examples, one of the areas is obviously social media, as I mentioned. And the notion, that for example, if we put up images, pictures, as opposed to words, saying the same thing, what happens? Would that actually affect the flow of the postings and conversation that proceeds? Now that sounds like something just interesting to do, but it is extremely important, because it means that you can look at the spread of behaviours, how people start and look at collective movements being formed, and you can look at how rumours spread and also how truth propagates. So the idea then is that when certain people say something, could you make a prediction of how the thread is going to move in one direction or the other. It also tells you and tells the agencies and maybe other stakeholders, that say if you want to put up a message, you may be technically correct in what you say, but how you frame it will matter and affect the conversation that follows. And this is not a political manipulation. This is about understanding and predicting behaviour in order to achieve a positive assumed desirable aim. So those are very important issues to understand behaviours in social media. And how does the technology come in? Because now you’re dealing not with traditional data. You’re dealing with data that are constantly evolving, they are high velocity, they move very fast in time, they’re full of variety and they’re voluminous, so the 3 Vs if you like, variety, velocity and volume. And that defines big data and the question then your traditional statistical methods, where you can sit back and then look at the data, analyze, then tomorrow come back and analyze again, completely will not work. So you will need to able to have the research method skills, the content knowledge and understand how technology works to bring them together, and that’s why we needed the expertise from these two institutes, A*Star and BSI, and fortunately, I know something about both areas, and that was the main reason why I agreed to do it, so that we can bring the interface together. This again is translation but now it’s translational across disciplines, so that disciplines don’t just operate within their own boundaries and think that only your discipline can solve the world’s problems, which you obviously will be wrong to think that.
Well, I actually approach the President, Woody Hunter, at that time, and of course I talked to the Provost, and I said I would like to set up this institute and then I decided that its named should be called Behavioural Sciences Institute for various reasons. And because I think it is a science that we need to understand and it is important that I emphasize on behavioural sciences, and not behavioural science. That’s because it’s multi-disciplinary and as the word “sciences” suggests, it’s really bringing disciplines, different disciplines, not only psychology, together to try to solve a real world problem. So the focus was on translational research. And we don’t just organize conferences or seminars. We do that but we want to focus on how to do research that can solve real world problems, which again goes back to my life-long belief of a scientist-practitioner model, whether it’s teaching or research. The president Woody Hunter, was very very supportive, he said yes, and so we started it. We were given some temporary office space, more or less that this is your space, and you can start recruiting. And very soon, a few months, somehow the Public Service got to hear about this, and people from the Civil Service College approached me to try to find out more and maybe partly because of the work I’ve done with them, immediately in the first meeting they said, well we would like to fund you, is that okay? And I said, well, sure, why not? And then it started off and we actually got some good seed funding from the Civil Service College for three years. It was around 4.5 million dollars, which was certainly a lot for a startup research institute. That allowed us to hire staff, allowed us to run conferences and so on.
So now we also support research for faculty, master’s students and hopefully undergraduates because this is something that I can remember doing in the US when I was a student, was something called inter-library loan. You cannot expect any university to have everything that everyone needs. Inter-library loan is interesting because if you look at the statistics of the major research libraries in the US that have collections of two, three, four, five million books, they are very heavy lenders and borrowers because when you are encouraging research, you are going outside your boundaries. With our small collection, I had envisioned, quite honestly, much more active inter-library loan than [what] we are doing. When I came here, faculty were asked to pay for articles if they wanted them. Not to anyone’s surprise, they were not asking. So the first thing I did was say, “If we don’t own the book, it is not their fault.” We have made the decision not to own the book or not to own the journal; it’s our responsibility as part of our collection development to source for it. It is not that easy in Singapore, there is no consortium in place. I have come from places both in Philadelphia and in Atlanta where there were inter-library loan systems in place, where there were many mechanisms to get books from different libraries, the university librarians within Atlanta, if you came to your library, you can get a card and go to any other library and check out a book. Philadelphia had a little truck that went around from library to library. Here the main source of materials was NUS and we had a corporate card and that was the only way we could order books. One of the other things we had to do - it was very difficult - was to try to breakdown these barriers. Finally, a couple years ago, a system was put in place that NLB is actually managing because it’s administrative, where it’s easier to get books from other libraries. There’s a fee involved which we are happy to pay.
That was very interesting. Channel News Asia came to me one day, of course they happened to know my work, they know about the Behavioural Sciences Institute, maybe not much, and they say that well they want to put together a five-part programme series, and they asked me if I could be their consultant to basically not only advise them on certain things as a typical consultant of a series would be, but to actually be also featured in the programme. So they have five parts, five episodes. But more important to actually help them to design the entire study on the experiment, collect the data, analyze the data and work with them closely to see how to deliver that to the members of public. What we decided to do, we did experiment because we felt that Singapore and the public at large, even policy makers are familiar with survey methods. They tend to think about social sciences in terms of just surveys, oh you go and just ask people questions, or you do an interview and a focus group. But what they probably have neglected is that a large part of social sciences involves experimental methods, where you can actually, what we use the word, be a nice sense of “manipulating”, where you put people in to different circumstances, or we call them “conditions”, and then you are able to see what happen to the differences among them in some variables of interests. And then you know for sure, because of your design that the difference is due to the things that you sort of manipulated. So it’s a very good method to try to find out what can cause certain behaviours or certain attitudes and emotions, in a way that surveys are limited to do. So we decided to do that, and what we wanted to do was to replicate very well established phenomena in social psychology. Of course then they needed an expert, and they came to me and these are very basic phenomenon, well established, but may not have actually been replicated in Singapore. So it’s still something new to test out whether it will work out in Singapore. So together with Channel News Asia, we sat down and I shared with them, and we picked the well-established phenomenon that we want to replicate. And we did it but in our way and our methods. So it actually produces new knowledge such as looking at stereotype of male vs female drivers, for example, which has never been looked at before, so we replicate a phenomenon called stereotypical threat behaviour and how that actually affects somebody’s behaviour when we activate the stereotype. Very interesting. We collected the data, analyzed the data, it was very taxing. Again it’s one of those things where now you literally bring the phenomenon from the laboratory to out there in the real world to address a current issue that people find interesting. And that gets spoken about. Sometimes when I was having lunch and all, I noticed that I get people pointing at me and then when I look over and I kept quiet, continued eating, I do hear the word David Chan, and then followed by “social experiment”. So people apparently do watch those programmes and maybe, hopefully learn something from it
It allowed us to bring in, on a regular basis, Wharton faculty and it also allowed our faculty to work with Wharton faculty. So they come together, they proposed research ideas and they would work as collaborators. And so it is funding for Wharton faculty to come out to Singapore to work with our faculty and it is an incentive. And also part and parcel of this is to get them exposed to SMU so that the hope was that some of them will come back on a regular basis and, I think, the concept was useful. It also gives us that branding angle, you know in SMU there is this Wharton thing.