IN THE history of societies, defining moments occur when fundamental social conditions are ripe for change, and visionary men and women read the times, seize the moment and create change. Whether it be a political revolution or a movement in the arts or, as in our case, a new approach towards university education, defining moments are the confluence of initiative and opportunity.
As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of Singapore Management University, I'd like to look back. And in reviewing our past as a guide to the future, I'd especially like to pay tribute to one individual whose vision, unwavering commitment to quality and openness to flexibility has, more than anyone else, made SMU what it is today.
Singapore has justifiably earned its reputation as a nation that places education at the very top of its priorities - as not just a basic human right but also a strategic investment critical to our very survival in a competitive world. Because of this, our national educational system has been academically rigorous and pervasive.
But though it has been a resoundingly successful and critical factor in our economic development, by the 1990s, when Singapore started moving towards knowledge-intensive industries, it became apparent that the attributes of initiative, creativity and entrepreneurship were not exactly in abundant supply in our young people.
It was against this backdrop that I received a call in late 1997, some 13 years ago, to see Dr Tony Tan, then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister-in-Charge of Higher Education. I had been an armchair critic of what I considered to be an overly rigid educational system, so it came as a total surprise when he asked me to head up a new university.
The only thing I still recall from our conversation was the word 'different'. Dr Tan wanted a different university from our two existing universities. I had to infer that since I was one of the most unlikely candidates to start a new university, 'different' was a polite way of describing my lack of qualifications.
I literally was given a blank sheet of paper on which to start a new university. There was no White Paper produced by a blue-ribbon committee of experts. There was only Dr Tan giving me guidance in bits and pieces, not expounding in one go his grand vision, but sharing with me his views on tertiary education in Singapore, as he critiqued our changing proposals.
The various concept papers that finally led to SMU as it is today should be kept in our library archives, if we can find them. They will provide interesting reading on how any start-up goes through very different permutations before a final business model is adopted.
I hope that our early pioneering faculty will also give to the library their various photos of SMU as it evolved. For example, SMU's pioneering faculty and management were housed in small cubicles on the ground floor of Banyan Tree's offices. The first batch of undergraduates occupied a temporary structure - now torn down - in the car park of the Bukit Timah campus. We then occupied Bukit Timah campus for a few years until the beautiful city campus was completed.
Dr Tony Tan encouraged us to be different. He encouraged the idea that SMU be a public-funded but autonomous university, governed not like a statutory board but more like an institution of public character. That is now the model for the other universities.
When we decided to be audacious and to award our own degrees from the outset rather than seek a joint degree with the Wharton School, Dr Tan supported us. When we wanted to have social science and law schools rather than just business, he encouraged us.
Dr Tan's guidance has enabled us to grow rapidly in a short span of time and do many things differently - from university governance to staff recruitment to the way we admit students holistically.
Some observers have said that SMU has redefined the university landscape in Singapore in the last decade. We have been dubbed a 'change agent' and a catalyst for innovation.
SMU was founded upon the vision of developing a new generation of leaders: bold, articulate, resourceful and independent thinkers. Through a highly interactive pedagogy and broad-based curriculum, SMU's approach has produced the type of graduates the Singapore of the future will need.
It is almost inevitable that an institution like ours will be subjected to the conventional quantifiable indicators of success, such as how many job offers our fresh graduates receive, how much they earn, and what the university's ranking is, according to various publications.
Such quantitative measures may perhaps provide an objective assessment of our performance, but they provide far too narrow definitions for success. We should be asking ourselves: Are we transforming the lives of our students through the education and opportunities we provide? Have we instilled in our students a sense of social responsibility, recognising that business success and social improvement are complementary? Are we advancing knowledge through our research and leaving a meaningful footprint within the community?
As we look ahead, we need to remember that just as a life well-lived cannot be measured by conventional indicators of success, so too should it be for a university. We must not become a conventional institution cast in a new mould. We must remember who we exist for, who we serve and what we stand for.
Just as I had told our 10th batch of freshmen at the start of the new academic year last August, a decade may seem like a long time when it spans nearly half a lifetime of our undergraduates. But it is just a blip in the history of a university, even in a country that is as young as Singapore.
We have just started on a long journey where our conduct along the way will be as important as the destination itself. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote: ' Fare forward, voyagers.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.