I would hope that students go away from here and keep that holistic attitude and that will have an influence on society, that society is not a collection of a bunch of silos but society’s about interaction, integration. 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.
So that’s the advice I would give to students. That is, education is something you make yourself, and there will be trade-offs to be made. You can’t do everything here and don’t be worried about it. We offer you opportunities, build your own education. Two, it’s an opportunity to hone your leadership skills, and three, see an undergraduate education as broadening your options, not as narrowing yourself down to one particular job.
If I can challenge our young people to, within the environment of SMU, become a future leader in whatever they choose to be, then that’s really deeply satisfying. So, I hope that will continue.
But if we can, if some of them can be leaders, and I don’t necessarily mean political leaders, but leaders meaning you think for yourself, and you do something new, and other people are tempted to follow you because what you’re doing inspires them to want to do the same thing. To me, that’s already a leader. If SMU can provide that kind of thought leadership, I would have been deeply satisfied.
I expect SMU to be recognised worldwide for the quality of graduates and the quality of the research work that’s being done. To some extent that’s already true. If you go on the microsite that’s been done for the QAFU review, there are statistics about ratings and rankings, and, while I’m sceptical about a lot of that, it’s nice to see that our economics faculty was rated number one in Asia and number eight in the world. The accountancy faculty was ranked in the top ten in the world. And this is based on the quality of the output of the faculty themselves. This is not a measure of students but of faculty. So that’ll continue I think.
I would say that what we gained from starting SMU was to recognise the importance of having an open mind—being prepared to take a fresh approach, even an unconventional direction—provided that you discuss it well, provided that you do your groundwork.
It’s been a great satisfaction to see SMU grow—from basically what was a piece of paper into now a thriving institution—well recognised in the world, well accepted by Singapore parents, Singapore students welcomed by employers. SMU graduates being very well regarded, making a contribution to our economy and to our society.
Your schooling really starts when you finish school, you know you’ll never finish learning. And you’ll forget most of what you learnt in college, but you won’t forget that you were able to learn things that you never knew you could learn. And if you don’t give up, you could really do quite challenging things so, if the students keep that attitude, and, you know commit themselves, and remember that in any field of endeavour, to be a good tennis player, to be a good chess player, to be a good Warren Buffett, nothing is easy. It, it just takes a lot of dedication.
So if the students remember that they have good training, and a good experience, but really no one owes them anything, and it’s got to be be through their own capability and competence, what more, you know, then they’ll do the best that they can do.
My role, I usually do change management but in this case it was building. We spent a lot of time building and putting infrastructure in place which I think right now is a very strong infrastructure. We really have gotten the best of what’s out there. We have a very good integrated library management system - world standard - we have got a world standard platform for our repository. We have most of the databases that we need.
The beauty of starting a new university is you start with a clean sheet of paper, you have no baggage. No constraint, with the exception of a rather tight budget but we can always work around these problems. I think the initial group of people were people with very good ideas, very driven, and so things worked very well. When we hired people, we attracted people who were keen to make changes and introduce new ideas. So that helped.
When we had our very first batch of students, I suggested to Kai Chong, I said, “Let’s do something different.” So what we did was that, I went to buy boxes of Fuji apples – red, juicy Fuji apples, and went into the first class and just gave each student an apple. So we did that for our first batch, the first class of the first batch. So every one of them – if they can recall – received a nice, juicy, red apple. We wanted to do that because it’s special, you know. So I think they might remember that.
it’s coming to be recognised that you need actually, in order to solve as many disputes as possible, you need to have a range of techniques and that for many purposes, litigation is a very expensive way of doing it and therefore other forms should be tried first. And this has not only sort of domestic but also international implications. Singapore has serious ambitions to be a major regional centre for arbitration. We’re also helping with the training of people doing things of this kind, arbitrators and mediators and so on.
There was some sense of an excitement there because a lot of these students also knew that they are the first cohort, they are pioneers in a new university and pioneers in a new programme, the business programme. So there was enthusiasm there and throughout the term and as the term passed and we looked at the first cohort of students, one of the things that strike us was that these were students who were willing to learn.
And you could see among some of the students those who had leadership potential, they just stand out because in an environment where everything was new and you needed someone to take the initiative, then those who had leadership qualities, the opportunity was there and they just developed.
It was right along the kind off institution that I would like to see develop in Asia that would have international credibility, and be competitive with the top [economics] research and teaching institutions in the world. And that’s an interesting opportunity and an interesting challenge, something that is quite different from the usual mode of teaching. This is the kind of flexibility and agility that our graduates can really, to me it’s real luxury to be able to do that so that you are not just pigeonholed into one profession.
What balanced excellence stands for is basically—a university is about two things as I see it—it’s about the generation and the dissemination of knowledge. Those are our roles, not one, not the other, but both. And I fully subscribe to that. And what balanced excellence is about is you got to both well.
I think the other thing that’s been brilliant about this strategy is that, unleashing a management university downtown like this, with the sort of creative way where people have to participate and, the innovations that were done, have unleashed the creative forces at the other two universities, which is exactly what they had in mind.
I think they were a very unique bunch of people. By nature I think they were more risk takers, to be willing to join a new university without any history, without any so-called benchmark that they can use. And they were more go-getters, people who were willing to try anything and everything.
But here I think the responsibilities are much greater in the sense that the future of the younger generation literally is in your hands. How you mould them and how you shape them is something that’s going to impact on what they are going to be in the future.
Well the [most important] quality was a commitment to this new vision and a willingness to take the risk -- I would call it the high-risk high-return sort of strategy. And to get people who say, “Yes, I want to be in Singapore and I want to try a university where we’re going to have this interactive style of teaching and really have students who were going to be entrepreneurial and articulate and not just regurgitate material. I don’t want to do big lectures and I want to have more collaboration among the faculty”. I tried to find people like that.
So to me the challenge in the next ten years with faculty particularly is to innovate, to keep up the energy level and this passion for excellence and to increase quality. That saying that Rome wasn’t built in a day, that’s really true of universities. If you think of whatever you think of as a great university, you’re probably thinking of a university that’s100 years old. A lot of universities fall into the second or even third tier and they deliver a solid education but they don’t become world class. And we started out from day one to be world class. So that’s the challenge and that’s my hope.
I think SMU will grow even more. And it’s good because you have amassed good practices that other universities can look at and say, “Hey, why can’t I do that?”