Well, certainly SMU was looking for a different style of student. And in a way that’s pretty well reflected in the marketing, the image programme of the jumping student. The way in which we sought that out, that cultural characteristic out, was through interview. And I think that’s been one of the other major elements, major points of difference, in Singapore, from what we tended to see in the other universities. When SMU was being established, I remembered Tony Tan saying that he wants SMU to be the beachhead for change in higher education. If you can do it at SMU and show it can be done, then the other universities will come along. There are a number of instances where you can point to the extent to which we have been flattered by imitation. The beachhead of change is really working.
It’s a very tricky and delicate issue, but SMU has stayed with the proposition that yes, grades are important, so therefore we can’t come below a certain level. But we are prepared to say to some of the very top performing students in terms of their A-levels, “Sorry, but this is not the place for you,” because they don’t present the other qualities that SMU is looking for. It’s hard to sustain, because you get the criticism from the parents, in particular, of the students who are really strong academic performers and who miss out. But the other thing that it does is that, in a world where universities start to compare admission cut-off scores, we are in a way shooting ourselves in the foot, because we are accepting that the admission score will come down because some of the very best students we didn’t bring in. But of course, even though the admission score comes down, given the competitiveness for strong university positions, that admission score is still much greater, the cut-off is much higher than the minimum that’s really needed to perform, to undertake that course.
For example, in Australia, we use a single scale, 0 in effect to a 100. You’ve got to get 99.9 for admission into medicine. But you can certainly, but if you came down, it’s established as low as 93, and admitted those. If you took every student above 93 and drew the names out of the hat for the number you need, they would still get the same number of high distinctions, distinctions and credits as the ones that come in at 99.9. This is the point I’m making, that there is a natural level of the natural floor above which all students will do just as well, by in large, by the time they finish their degree. I think SMU recognises that implicitly and is prepared to pay much greater attention to the other qualities that will give student life a buzz, a certain lift in the mood. And it will pay the university back in great amounts when twenty, thirty years out, I have no doubt. So the Academic Affairs Committee, working with the deans, identified that as the approach we wanted to take for student admissions.
So the biggest challenge was we could do one of two things. One is we would carry on to the system that we were so used to, by academic grades. And we thought that for a new university to get the best would be a bit difficult because everybody is going to head towards NUS and head towards NTU.
The alternative was to try to formulate a different kind of admission policy. So we thought that because the government's mandate was that we were supposed to turn out graduates for the future, for the new millennium actually, and the IAAP the International Academic Advisory Panel, that was responsible for actually recommending to the government, in 1997, that there should be a new university their recommendation was very clear. It was pretty explicit that the two universities then, NUS and NTU, were essentially training people for the workforce, which was for yesterday and today. They were not very big on training graduates for tomorrow.
So our mandate was to create a new kind of graduate. From day one, our graduate had to be visibly different, absolutely different from NUS and NTU. So everything that we did had to reflect that the way we formulated ourselves, the way we appointed colleagues, the way we structured ourselves, and so this also then permeated into admissions. So we came up with the idea that every single person we take in will have to be interviewed by a minimum of two professors, could be three sometimes, though we thought that three professors sitting and interviewing one poor candidate could be a bit intimidating. And each interview would be half an hour. Theoretically, it was 15 minutes on our side, the profs asking the candidate questions and these things, and the next 15 minutes actually was on the candidate's side. And quite often, we had very good, positive vibes about the person who actually tries to exhaust the 15 minutes on the other side, because class participation was of the essence in the new formulation of assessment. We decided that examinations were pathetic; especially examinations that put 1,000 people in the room and said just do this. That's old-fashioned, outmoded thinking. It still persists, I'm afraid, but what can I say? But our real thrust was professors are going to decide how these students are going to be assessed, but a couple of thing to be put in place, such as class participation was going to be essential. And we were allowed to go up to 40 percent for class participation, with a minimum, minimum of 25 percent. I think this has been modified over time. We can talk about that a bit later.
We also thought that going forward, the individual no matter how super intelligent or genius he or she is will learn and must learn, if he's going to be successful, to work in teams. So the other thing we became big on was group projects. So we tried to see how we are going to make this work. And so when we interviewed potential students, we had the academic results there we had in those days, they sat for the SAT, there were of course cut-off points when we interviewed somebody, we put that aside. So that 30-minute interview became critical to a person being admitted or not. And we offered people admissions on the spot, which I think was very, very good, and I have actually written to Cristina [Cristina Elaurza] now to say that maybe we should bring that back. If some professors were very young and very junior, not so used, may not be happy or comfortable doing that, then at least that privilege should be given to a few of us so that we can compete with others who are now using this tactic which we used in 2000 to get students in. I mean NUS is doing it. Yale-NUS is doing it, those kinds of things. So, in order to compete with them effectively today, we need to bring something like that back and not make people wait a week or two weeks. That's too long for the new candidate who's being offered places from Cambridge to Princeton to NUS. SMU mustn't say, sorry, we don't care who is accepting you, as far as we are concerned, you wait. That does not sit well with parents and candidates.
We were very fond of candidates who could speak well. We thought that in the new world of the new millennium, communication is going to be very powerful. You can have the best credentials in the world academically, but if you couldn't communicate in ways that a good conversation carried itself, for example, you're not going to go very far in the new employment scene. And I think we have been vindicated because our first three, four cohorts were so good in communication that employers loved them, they snapped them up straight away.
One of SMU's missions (then) was to nurture leaders that have a heart and to have the ability to give back to society. And so how do we do this? So we wanted (them) to give back to society, to look beyond the school and to serve the community. So we came up with community service (CS). And we asked, How long should we do it (CS)? We didn't want it to make it compulsory in the sense that oh the students drag their feet. They stand at the street corner selling flags, raising money and they do it grudgingly. So then, we engaged the community that needed help and asked What could we do, with you, for you? And can we adopt projects that are meaningful both to you and to our students? Then, of course, we had to convince the students: Yes, it was important for you and your personal development to be able to look beyond your own needs, to see the needs of others, to be able to empathize, and to give back to community and to do good, not perfunctorily, but to do so with a heart and to really know what it is to serve.
So it's all about service. We don't want them to (treat it as) a kind of a tour, where they think, Oh this is the poor old folk. We feed them a little. (Then bid them) Goodbye. God bless you. And off they go. I told my staff if we want to do a project, we take it on, we sustain it. (In) sustaining it, we hoped the students will continue to go back after they have completed the 80 hours. And many of our students do. You know our students do even a thousand over hours. They continue. And with this, we think it will set them apart even when they go to work, (they can) talk about your community service.
So one of the highlights when they go for a job interview (is that the interviewer says), Oh I see you have done community service. Tell me a little about that. And that is when they can talks (share their experience).And that (showcases) the soul of that student, where they can share. And you see the glimmer in their eyes, their smile, and the satisfaction when they talk about it. And you know, the passion comes out. Don't do something that you are forced to do, choose a community service that actually gels with you and resonates with you and can we support you. And if you don't know what to do, where to go, we work with the VWOs (the Voluntary Welfare Organizations), the Grassroots, the NGOs (the non-governmental organization) and then we tell you their needs. You then decide if this is something that you want to do. Once you signed up, please commit to do it and do a good job. If you don't do a good job and there's a complaint, we will take this seriously and we will talk to you about it, not from the perspective of trying to discipline you, but to change you and develop you. (We would sit and find out): What went wrong? How could you learn from this? And what remediation you could do to make it right? (We intervene) because that's a value that they carry with them when they go to work. So that's how community service started. It's everybody, hip, hip, hurray (moment), I have to do 80 hours of community service. We had to tell them the whys, we had to convince them, we had to encourage them and we had to excite them. And yes it sets SMU apart, this Community service is compulsory and it is about giving back.
I think, like I mentioned before, that pioneering spirit is so precious and the aim of when I am overseeing the alumni relations now the aim is really to nurture this bond that the students have with the university. They may not be at the position now to give financially back to the university, which is why a lot of what we do at alumni relations now is in terms of networking, and in terms of volunteer platform. So the very successful program that we have is the mentoring program where alumni volunteer their time and take on mentorship for four months. They mentor our students, whether in term of their career choices, in term of the courses that they should take, or their curriculum planning. So that is very popular with the alumni. We have every year about 300, 400 alumni participating in that program.
The few years when I was heading up both corporate communications and advancement and alumni, even though it was officially two portfolios, it was actually three portfolios. Because advancement and alumni then, alumni wasn't really contributing to advancement. At most universities, they have alumni and advancement together because most of your donors are your alumni. But in our case, that's not the case at all. So in fact, alumni was a whole different portfolio to engage our alumni, to nurture that bond that our alumni has with the university. So it was really three portfolios. But there's a bit of synergy in the sense that the branding, the telling of the SMU stories to the media, we have to package it in even more sophisticated form to the donor. It was really, again, telling the SMU story and convincing them that this is the place that is worthy of their support.
The first thing which I mentioned earlier was, we decided upon, after consultation with the students’ association, a fixed fee arrangement so that when a first-year student enters he or she knows what the fees will be for the whole time for the degree. So there are no changes while a student.
The second thing was to develop a comprehensive financial assistance plan that would be available to all students who had any kind of financial need. We have some students who win scholarships competitively and those are often generous, they’re usually endowed by some endowment. And those students are well taken care of. But there are many, many other students who will either have continuing needs, or short-term needs, or perhaps need some assistance in going overseas for a study term or some other programme. And what we try to do is make it easy for people to gain access to these kinds of funds by giving out a lot of information to both students and parents about their availability, whether they’re loans or student jobs in the university—students work as research assistants, teaching assistants, library assistants and so forth—or whether they’re straightforward bursaries. We also have some scholarships which are purely merit-based and some which are merit-plus-need. And I think there’s plenty of room to develop in Singapore something that’s done more commonly in some other places where there may be a prestigious scholarship or something, but the amount of it is based somewhat on the need. So a student may have the honour of being called the XYZ scholar and put that on his CV [Curriculum Vitae] and so forth and so on, but if he comes from a very wealthy family, the stipend might be quite small, whereas another student who comes from a family of very modest means might get a larger stipend as part of it, rather than the same for everybody.
Low Aik Meng, who is dean of students, was in charge of developing these programmes, and together with Alan Goh, the director of admissions, they did something about five years ago now which was incredibly effective. This was when there was a lot of publicity going on about fees for universities, and SMU’s more expensive than NUS and NTU. So in one of the regular ads that Alan puts in the newspaper and other places during the admissions season, he put a straightforward statement about financial aid, and how to do it, how to get it, what it’s for—step one, two, three, four, and here we can make this available to you. Nothing complicated, no barriers. And he also sent a letter with all that information to the parents of all applicants and potential applicants. And it was very effective because it just gave people a little blueprint about the options which are available. And in fact we can safely say that no student has been prevented from getting an SMU education by reason of financial need. We try to reach out when we’ve known and somebody hasn’t asked, we’ve gone to them and tried to do things for them.
SMU has a broad spectrum of financial assistance schemes for students. In particular, Singapore students who qualified for admission can be assured that they will not be denied an SMU education because of fees. The schemes comprise loans, grants, bursaries, awards, and scholarships. Students who prefer to earn to fund their studies can also take advantage of the Work Study Grant by working with SMU schools and offices. This grant has both a work and financial assistance element. Recently, an education loan was introduced to assist local and international students to cope with fee increases. To encourage more Singapore students to seek global exposure and to broaden their mindsets, the Government and SMU co-fund an Overseas Student Program Loan. Students can utilize the loan scheme for up to $11,500 for overseas trips sanctioned by SMU such as exchange programs, BSM, internships, and community service. There is also a conference grant for students who wish to present papers at academic conferences. For students facing serious financial difficulties, there is a Student Life Financial Grant available for them. We also recently introduced an Overseas Entrepreneurship Attachment Grant which provides funds to enable students who wish to eventually start their own companies to intern with an overseas start-up venture. In line with SMU’s emphasis on a holistic education, scholarships and awards are given to students based on a list of criteria. Besides GPA [Grade Point Average], these include active involvement in CCAs, contributions to the university, undertaking leadership roles in clubs or in organizing major university events, and contributing to the community at large.
Now our 2010 valedictorian is Russell Tan. He was selected because of his very active involvement in student life. He was the president of the SSU which is the SMU Sports Union. Tan Lay Khim was selected as salutatorian because she was very active, being one of the founders of the SMU’s Advisory and Assurance Team which audits the student clubs for SMU. So, we use a holistic measure when we actually award winners.
These are mid-level executives who work in different areas, some are engineers, some are lawyers—very few are economists obviously because they already know, if you are an economist you don’t need to go through this—but they want to learn a little bit more about economics to enrich their knowledge base and their ability to cope with the demands of their work. They’re not looking to become an economist. They’re not looking to change jobs, but to improve their understanding of economics. And so it’s highly motivated group of people, and as long as we deliver the goods this programme is going to do well. This is just in its third year, and it’s been going up in numbers. Despite the bad economic conditions in the past two years, we’ve been able to attract a reasonable number to make it at least.
We also introduced the concept of interviewing all applicants above a certain level, certain cut-off level. Every spring there are literally thousands of interviews—conducted by faculty and deans and assistant deans, and in some instances students and alumni and sometimes trustees—of applicants and that interview counts for 20 percent. The students also have to write an essay which is done at the time of the interview. Not separately and not at home and not with any assistance, but just at the time of the interview. And that’s a significant factor in the decision as well. So we look at the whole person because what we want to do is attract people who are intellectually curious and who are going to change the world when they get out. Now, not everybody will, but we hope enough will.
What SMU has looked for from the beginning is something more than just the grades. Now obviously there has to be some recognition of how a student has performed either in JC or in a poly or in an IB [International Baccalaureate] programme or somewhere else before gaining admission. But we also look at how a student has developed his or her life, what other things interest the student, what co-curricular activities has the student been involved in, not just a member of eighteen different clubs, but has a student done something serious with one of them, been a leader, come up with a new programme, been a star athlete, something of that sort.
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.
To groom responsible prospective global business leaders and entrepreneurs, SMU saw the need to introduce a compulsory community service component into its undergraduate program. We felt that this will shape their outlook on volunteerism and giving back to society when they finally graduate. Students have the choice of doing their service in Singapore or overseas. In total, on the 10th anniversary of SMU [Jan 2010], students have performed more than a million hours of community service. A substantial number have rendered service totaling hundreds of hours. Initially, some students showed reluctance but eventually most saw the value of community service in helping others and contributing to their own personal growth.
In Singapore, community service projects include visiting the elderly in old folks home or those living alone in one-room HDB [Housing Development Board] flats, as well as helping the sick at hospitals and hospices. Overseas, the students have been involved in a variety of projects in needy communities. Project Argali in 2007 consisting of 14 SMU students who partnered a local NGO [Non Government Organization] in South Sikkim to improve the living standard and quality of life of its people. The project involves manufacturing chlorine-free paper from the Argali plant which grows profusely as a means of economic livelihood for the community without polluting the environment or cutting down trees. Our students assist with product development and the marketing plan for the paper products.
Another project was a Dare to Dream expeditions in 2007 – 12 SMU students partnered five hearing-impaired youths on a project in India. To better understand the silent world, our students learnt sign language to communicate with the youths. Through this, they learnt about the challenges faced by the hearing-impaired in their daily lives. The group collaborated with an organization in the village named Yuksam to promote eco-tourism as an alternative income source for the villagers. Our students assisted in developing merchandising ideas and marketing strategies for the products to woo eco-tourists to Yuksam. Then of course in the 2004 Asian tsunami, a group of students spent a few weeks in Khao Lak in Southern Thailand to assist in building a children’s home for orphans who had lost their parents in the tsunami.
The idea of a student gift, that people collect money and give to the university, that’s all started [by the students]. I’m saying this to you because I think there’s a philosophy behind it. My meeting with student alumni and asking the student alumni to start new things, because eventually there will be a big alumni club and you must start it. All along the way we’re having students starting new traditions, keenly aware of them because they will take root. And it’s good because even after only ten years now I meet new students today, and they’ll say, “Oh, those oldies, they did it that way so we’re...” You know, there’s already a sense, ten years is a long span for a young person. So that’s as far as students are concerned.
I keep in touch with alumni, because I think they are—in fact about six or seven of the old alumni see me every year. They get me to give my views about their careers. I’m kind of like an uncle. “Is it good for you to change this job? Is it not good for you to change this job?” Young people need guidance, so I keep up with them. I listen to pitches by SMU students who want to start a new business. So it’s my way of, for me, it’s useful. For them I guess it’s useful that they have mentors around. For me it’s useful because it’s one of the ways I try to keep tabs of how young people are thinking, how SMU students are thinking. Of course I always ask them about complaints and this and that and so on.
Whilst camps in NUS and NTU were planned by students, with fun as the primary objective, the planning team decided that SMU’s freshmen leadership and teambuilding camp should also have a learning objective in addition to fun. As there were no senior students, staff & faculty volunteered to be instructors and were trained by an expert on team-building techniques. They served as group leaders leading the freshmen in various team-building activities. The activities were designed to get students working in teams, interacting and strategising on the best approach to completing a task, and having fun at the same time. Each activity was intended to impart one or more of the CIRCLE Values. For example, there was the trust fall activity involving a person falling backwards from table height into the arms and hands of a group. This demonstrates the importance of commitment, responsibility & excellence without which it could be disastrous. Each activity was followed by a debriefing to discuss the lessons learnt. The first camp took place at the site of the current Copthorne Orchid Hotel at Bukit Timah. After 2005, with the increase in student intake, the camps were moved to the Outward Bound School. Currently, senior students take on the role of group leaders leading the freshmen. They are trained by managers in the Office of Student Life. The safety aspect is handled by the Outward Bound School.
Some are different. One thing that I wanted and which has been done since the beginning was that the university would not be deemed a success unless students could get jobs. Since we were a new university without a reputation I thought it would be very, very important from the very beginning to have very good contacts in the business community, to have our students doing internships so they would be known and be able to get jobs and to work with them. And the Office of Students Affairs, Life. Aik Meng, does a fabulous job. They started from day one with the students. It wasn’t like, wait until your final year and give you some interviews and get you practiced on how you do this, it was from the very beginning.
And that was the same thing with Alumni Affairs. This was not so well known but I said you get people to identify with the university and with their class from the day they walk in. So one of our first things was to have your class flag and with your year on it that you walk into convocation and you’ll walk in with that at graduation and at all your alumni reunions. So we did that from the very beginning to build up that spirit. I was going to say the other spirit was donors from the very beginning. Coming from the Wharton School which was founded by Joseph Wharton with a very large gift, I’m accustomed to people wanting to support education and some people being able to do that financially. So that was a focus the first year and has continued to be.
The SMU Ambassadorial Corps was set up in Aug 2003. We found that students were excellent and they are probably the best ambassadors in showing the SMU uniqueness. The ambassadors are trained and hone their skills as external relations representatives of the university. They engage external guests, parents, and prospective students, during their visits to SMU and at important school functions. Many distinguished visitors were very impressed with the calibre of our ambassadors and this contributes to a very positive image of SMU.
Besides hosting distinguished guests, the ambassadors also organise and manage projects that reach out to the university's external stakeholders, such as the annual Evening@SMU for parents the HPAIR conference in collaboration with Harvard students. The ambassadors have been involved in a project on environmental sustainability for the last 3 years. Seeing how de-forestation, poaching and bad urban planning have depleted the elephant population in Thailand from 100,000 in the 1900s to 4,600 today, The ambassadors have been visiting an elephant park in northern Thailand to teach the hill-tribe living near the park on re-forestation as a food source for the elephants, as well as building a well for the tribe, teaching them how to package products for sale, and producing a film documentary to promote public awareness in Singapore regarding the plight of the Asian elephant.
Yes, to be very honest, there are differences. I don’t think people have framed it in the way that I am going to frame it. I think in a large university, and it’s statistical, in a large university, the students are actually quite heterogeneous, because if you have hundreds and hundreds of students in your discipline, you will get all kinds of students isn’t it, you get the whole range. But statistically, whenever you have smaller a class size, then the students are more homogenous because there would be less chance for them to differ. It’s just a matter of statistics. Now but statistics aside, again maybe because I teach research methods, we interviewed each and every student before they come into the school, before they join the university. Now what does that mean? I am not saying this is bias, but it means that you tend to focus on certain skills. Now if you come to an interview and you keep quiet, no matter how intelligent you are, it’s going to reduce your chances of getting selected. So you end up with students, right in the beginning, that we selected, of people who are composed, people who are able to operate under stress, able to think on their feet, and able to talk articulately, and probably present themselves quite well even just physically, not in looks, but in the way they dress, the way they sit, the way they carry themselves. So you already started off with a group of students you selected, who are quite homogenous, but not in the bad sense, in a good sense that they probably fit today’s economy and the future economy. So I think that is the difference, and I am not saying whether that means SMU students are better or worse than NUS, but they are just different - both by our selection methods, and of course, subsequently our training. Because the way we train them, we make sure that they get involved in team projects, so they need to learn team skills, and we also make sure that they speak in class, and because the class is small, it does force or allow them to speak so then you hone your interactive skill and so on. And all these of course does not replace but they are over and above what you expect of having a breadth and depth of academic knowledge, technical skills and so on.
The pioneer class may be described as entrepreneurial, loving challenges and willing to think out of the box. Immediately they started forming clubs to enhance the level of student life. These students set the tone for future student leaders, which is why student life in SMU today is very vibrant. Many of the clubs such as Eurythymics and Guitarrissimo continued to flourish today, setting high standards for themselves and even organizing public concerts each year. Having taught at other local universities, I would describe campus life there as impersonal, with little interaction between faculty, staff and students. In SMU, at the outset, we decided that we would encourage a ‘family’ concept with fewer barriers between faculty and students. Our small classes and interactive teaching pedagogy also enabled faculty to know students better. Students were not afraid to approach faculty to discuss issues. It was not unusual for faculty to participate in activities of students. Many of the faculty, for instance, joined the pioneer students on a 3-day cruise at the end of their first year.
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.
SMU Residences at Prinsep was opened in 2007. It is within walking distance from campus. It consists of three blocks of four storey apartments in a tropical setting with landscaping and abundant foliage and can accommodate 260 students. Each apartment has a lounge and dining area, equipped with refrigerator and microwave oven. The hostel is primarily for first year international students as well as senior students who act as mentors. Before the hostel was opened, OSL used to source accommodation for international students in locations such as Chip Bee Gardens and in Farrer Road with hostel providers. SMU believes that hostel living is an essential part of university life for students. Living together on a daily basis ensures that both local and international students integrate, accept each other as people and forge closer relationships. In the context of Singapore, it supports the Government’s national agenda of community engagement and foreign talent retention.
Living together enables students to learn about the importance of diversity, form friendships, and eventually entice foreign students to stay on in Singapore after graduation. Now for our first hostel, we decided that someone trained in counseling was important as many of the international students are young and needed a father figure. In fact, we had two who were about 16 to 18 years old. Timothy who is our first residential master or housemaster is assisted by a group of students called residential seniors who mentor the students in their apartments. We wanted the SMU hostel to be a home away from home. As such emphasis was placed on residential life, with regular activities organized to bring the hostel community together.
In fact, because the SMU hostel has been so successful, we are now requesting the Government to give us land to build hostels for both faculty and students. Currently, a proposed concept has been finalized and we hope that the MOE as well as URA will be convinced enough to give us the land in the near future.
Students also volunteered their time in service to the university. The peer helpers, for instance, are SMU’s eyes and ears on the ground and provide basic counselling to students who are lonely or in distress. The Council of Student Conduct comprises students who educate the student body on the SMU core values. A group of accounting students who called themselves the SMU Advisory and Assurance Team volunteered their time to audit the accounting records of the 130 student clubs. OSL also introduced an excellence program whereby clubs that are committed and excelled in their activities are provided funds to employ coaches and to stage annual public concerts and performances. Leadership programs are arranged for student leaders to ensure that they excel. To encourage clubs to aspire to higher standards, funds are provided for high performing clubs to participate and compete at international competitions and events.
In my early days, I worked with them because I taught them for a while when I was just running finance and the dean of accountancy say, Hey, we need people to help teach this particular subject which you are doing as part of your job. So, I had some time then, I say, Ok, sure, let me help. But, I also wanted to experience what it is like to be in the class interacting with students, something that we say we are very proud of, so I wanted that experience. And, of course, personally I enjoy teaching. So, I did it for three years, teaching in accountancy school. That was my first part of interaction and gave me an understanding of the class dynamics and what goes on inside there and the needs and all that.
The other part is because most of the things that I run impact students; the facilities side in particular impact them because they are the users of facility from classroom to group study room to space for CCA [co-curricular activities] to car parks. These are all areas that impact them and we get constant feedback from them. There are two ways you can manage them. You can just shoo them away and say, you know, Live with whatever is there, which is not a very good thing. Or you can engage them because they are all members of the community. And if you put yourself in the service perspective, we are here and the facilities are here to serve them as they study here. So, what is a more constructive approach if we engage them. So, all these, in the last few years, we embarked on a journey where we treat them as partners in the SMU way of using facilities. So they are our source of feedback where we need to improve.
And where we need to change, we also want to engage them so that the change is not a surprise, worst thing is a shock, and the change is accepted by them, it's adopted by them. So, we rather have it that way. Again, you also find that it is not practical to engage six, seven thousand students. So we say a more sensible way to approach is that they have student representative, which is basically the student association. These are their elected leaders. So we will engage them and say, you, as their elected leaders are their mouthpiece. But we also want you to be our mouthpiece, to engage the students for feedback on any changes that we want to do, to communicate new policies, new changes to the student body, so that everybody is aware of what's going on and we can work together.
The interesting thing about SMU was our students had always been the strength of SMU. We are able to get quality students and we are able, over four years, mould them, evolve them, shape them into somewhat different human beings, I would say. I think largely because of the fact that we insist on many things that you don’t typically get at NUS and NTU. You know the mandatory internship is one, and many kids do multiple rounds of internships. The mandatory voluntary service is another one. And we find a lot of kids after doing two weeks of voluntary work, they enjoy doing voluntary work and many of them had gone back for more. You know the four years of education is something that we strongly emphasised. The fact that you have four years education, you are able to clock in many interesting times. So our kids, after four years, have more impressive looking CVs. So, yes, the fact that they are more confident, they can talk, those are value-add. I think, before they even do anything, they have a better-looking CV than many of the kids graduating from other universities. Because you have four years and because we push them out. Things like fifty percent of them would have spent a period of their life outside of Singapore, is something that we push very hard on. Isabel [Isabel Malique-Park, Director at the Office of International Relations] from day one, has been out there knocking on doors. And very early on, who would want to have a partnership with you on exchange? You are unknown. So it was tough. But over the years, we probably now have something like three hundred-over universities. What that means is that, our kids can literally go to anywhere in the world as exchange students. And if you look at the so-called study missions and every year, annually, we probably have ten to fifteen of those kids [who] can go to those things, our kids spend a lot of time outside of Singapore. That again, shape and evolve them into very different human beings. And we’ve heard from parents, you know, coming to SMU has changed their kids. So I think that is the major value-add.
The other thing I noticed very soon, very early on, was that students who would be these bashful, shy, innocent ones coming in, within about three, four months were talkative, questioning, engaged, involved, not all of them, but most of them. And that had to reflect to some extent the experience they were having in the classroom. This is not a situation where you can put off your homework to the end of the term, or just write a paper, or just study for some big exam. You’ve got to be prepared everyday that you go to class, which is more like going to work. When you go to work you don’t get to put it off for three months and just read a magazine while you’re at work. And having to speak in class, having to be responsive, having to be engaged, having to do these group projects and so forth, really does make a difference in the maturation of eighteen-, nineteen- and twenty-year-olds. And it’s amazing to see how they blossom. These flowers here are fake [refers to artificial flowers in the recording studio], I know that, but in a real amaryllis, you can see, you can almost see it blossom over a short period of time, and that’s what you see with the students who come in and experience this kind of intense exposure.
And there’s a lot of experiential learning that goes on. It may vary from subject to subject but there’s still a lot of that. I also think that there are two components to undergraduate education here that have proven themselves to be really important. One is the internship, the other is the community service project. In an internship—whether they get paid, whether they don’t—at least they operate within an office or a structured business environment for some period of time. Very few late adolescents have had that experience. And much better that you have it when you’re a student than when you just go to work. Those little things like learning office protocol, or learning how, what the rules are within an organisation, and how you function and all that, terrifically important.
So I think the public reaction has been good. I must say that, and after the second, third batch we never have problems anymore.
They knew. We showed we delivered. I keep saying we must deliver, we must deliver. I know it’s all fun here. Exam, exam is no fun. Take away the exam, fun, the exam part of it. Fun. We can have fun and study at the same time, “Why must you make education so miserable?” Let’s enjoy it, that has always been my motto, let’s enjoy it. A lot of kids enjoy it.
One of the things that I find very valuable is the fact that a lot of our faculty have developed a very close bond with our students and so, as a result of that, the students also in turn develop a very close bond with the university. And if we build on that and also the fact that we take a lot of effort to make sure that we give our students a holistic experience—you can have seminar-style, you can have class participation and so on—but it’s the total experience in the university that the students take away with them.
And if we make sure that we maintain that and when our students leave the university, they feel that we have truly value add to them, then I’m not so worried about the fact that the other universities will catch up with us. They can catch up with us in terms of some of the methodology and so on, but what is personal is the relationship that the students build with the university and with the faculty. And of course, we have to continue to innovate. Every so many years, we have to sit down and relook what we have done, we have to relook our curriculum to see, “Are we still relevant? Are there areas we need to change?” and if we continue to innovate, then I think we should be able to stay maybe one step ahead of our competitors, maybe not three steps like we had before but at least, always one step ahead of our competitors. Then I think we’ll be all right.
We wanted students to be participative in class because we wanted to groom a group of students that will stand out when they graduate. We made a very deliberate decision that the students coming to SMU may be not much different in terms of their schooling, but when they get out, they must be very different. So in our selection process, we interviewed every student. So if you came to an interview, if you just kept quiet, chances are we will not have that student. So it’s a selection process, we decided to put students together. We also know that if a group of people who know each other for a while, and if they sit in class, they will be naturally noisier, because you’re comfortable with. So what we did was before term started, we have teambuilding with the students. The first group, the pioneering batch, the faculty went with the students to do the teambuilding. Subsequent batches we send them to Outward Bound School in Pulau Ubin. So once you get to know each other there, in class they will naturally be noisier, you know choose to speak. But what we also very deliberately did was that when we go for all of these team buildings, the teams, we kept them intact. We put two or three of this team into a class.
The students were rather enthusiastic and so and then, and one week before the exams, nearly died of heart attack, because they’re obviously not studying. And I was walking around telling the students, please study, you know, we do kick you out if you don’t do well. Their view is that, no it’s an American system; no one fails in the US system. I said, no we do kick people out, this is still Singapore. And as a result of which, after the first semester, I remember having an emergency meeting in the Tanglin Community Club in the backroom with now judge of the appeals, Andrew Pang, Phang Sock Yong and a few other senior faculty about the results. We had one third of our students, a hundred plus of them, with a GPA of below two. That was term one.
Yes...that was term one. We could’ve, obviously, moderate the grades such that more of them would pass but we decided against it, because that would not be a true reflection of, not the abilities, but the efforts. With that in mind, we also made the rule, there and then, in that basement, that three strikes and you’re out. And that’s how that rule came about. That they allowed three terms with GPA of three and below, and thereafter, we’ll have to ask them to leave.
They were always a very good bunch of people to be with, they’re extremely open. We also did something that the other university did not succeed in doing, which is to have an open dialogue with the students every time. You will notice that none of SMU students write letters to the press to complain about SMU. Not yet. The rule then was, if we have a problem, let’s discuss it, and let’s solve them together.
The school was small, for goodness sakes, and students were all around. We had spaces where they would work—I was always a believer that…there should be space around for students to use, that…you know it’s a little noisy, chaotic, this, that, but that’s what the university is for—it’s to have places for students to do their thing. That time we only had undergraduates. So students would be around all the time, and they’d be talking to us all the time, and they’d be commenting, and observing, and complaining, and all the wonderful things that are just what you want students to do.
One student walked in once, year 1, year 2, something like that. It was great. He said, “We shouldn’t have classes, let’s do away with classes. You should give us assignments, and then just for each assignment teach us what we need to know. What are we wasting our time in classes for?” You know he’s not entirely wrong, actually, so you couldn’t just dismiss it out of hand. There are some reasons why it’s nice to have classes to—from people like to do things in groups and not just to do things alone, to you’re able to plan, you can give people some foundations and whatnot—so we did not throw the whole curriculum out with the bathwater. But students had ideas, and it’s like, “Oh, you got an idea? Go do it!” And there’re various ways to improve labs, to improve this, to improve that, to form special interest groups, to get people involved in stuff. So the issue is, we need help. You have an observation, something’s wrong, go take it. And students responded well to that.
The focus in the early years was to encourage students to participate more actively in student life. There was less emphasis on student life as an instrument for student development. OSL’s [Office of Student Life] role was to assist students to set up clubs and advise them on systems and procedures. With a small student body, there was less pressure to compete with the other local universities in the area of sports and arts. University-wide events were then spearheaded primarily by OSL managers with the assistance of students. With the increase in the student population, the university began investing more heavily on co-curricular activities as an integral part of student education, and co-opting students to spearhead university wide events. The students rose to the occasion. Today, some major activities organised by students include the freshmen teambuilding camp for 1,700 freshmen each year. Each year some 100 students undergo months of training under OSL managers to become instructors and to lead groups of freshmen in teambuilding activities. Convocation and Patron’s Day are other university events organised by students under the supervision of OSL managers.
I think the greatest part of SMU is the students, without a doubt. I think our kids are the best thing about SMU. And you see them being transformed. You see them doing very well and I do run across them, you know, in various forums, different platforms and they all have done very well. It's just amazing. For a young university, our kids can do so well in the industry, it is actually quite mind-boggling.
We had a group of junior college teachers with us. They were interested to find out what we are doing and our selection process and the sort of people that we want to select for the programme, because we had a bunch of rather noisy, enthusiastic and very articulate students walking around campus. And one of the teachers among that group asked me, “Where do I get those students from?” “We got it from you.” She replied, “But they are not like that when they are with us in JC.” Well I answered, “Because you don’t allow them to.”
In terms of a [economics undergraduate] curriculum NUS is doing a very good job as well, as well as NTU in terms of their design. But it’s really the whole university experience, the fact that….as a student of economics you’re also involved in the many, many different aspects of life as an SMU student that really distinguishes the experience. The other thing is about our programme and about our faculty; we’ve put together a very strong, strong faculty. It’s still majority are young assistant professors but what the students are learning from them is real exposure to the frontier of economics in terms of research topics in macro, micro and the courses that they’re teaching. And that’s a very important foundational development for the student that they may not realise now but later may …if…when they’re faced with problems, practical problems at work or when they decide to apply for graduate studies, this kind of training is going to be precious. And it’s showing already.
After year one, we received an invitation to participate in a case competition organised by NUS. Typically we would send year three and year four to a case competition because these students would have gone through most of the programme and would have probably have done strategy. You must remember we only finish year one. I was asked to send a team. So we trained a team and send that team to NUS. And that team emerged champion, beating year three and year four, from NUS and NTU. We also had another success one semester later. We send another team to Copenhagen. Another team, not the same team.
Not the same student. We beat I think, 11 other international teams in Copenhagen to emerge champion. The strategy there is the same. All we did was tell the students, “Go there, please don’t be last.” Because the case competition is a mere game. If you succeed at the case competition does not mean that you will succeed in life. Winning is fine, not winning is okay. Go out there and make friends. And that’s the reason why we do not send the same team twice. We want to expose this experience to as many students as possible.
There was a considerable amount of push back from current students and concern from the admissions office in particular about prospective students and how this would play in the heartlands and everywhere. And without going through all the details, I’ll say that this was an instance in which student government in particular was extremely important. There were some leaders of the student association who were very mature, thoughtful, young men and women. Ford Lai was then the president of student government and there were several others involved. And they came forward with two or three proposals about the way this could be implemented over some period of time that would not be so disruptive. And they were very good ones, and they were consistent; one of them was consistent with what we’d done at Emory, which was to have a flat tuition for an entering class. So if you came in the first year and your fees were X dollars, they would be X the whole time you were a student. For the ones who came after, they might be X plus N but you knew exactly what it was going to be.
And what we did was in a sense grandfather in existing students, and then implement the 15 percent increase in stages over time, and also introduce the flat fee notion so that a freshman would know my fees are four times X and that’s not going to change. That’s remained constant over time. And we really can credit the students’ association for being deeply involved in that, and it established as a result what has since turned in to be an excellent working relationship between the students’ association and the administration through successive student leaders. So it was very positive in the long run, [although] it was a little painful at the time.