A premier university in Asia, the Singapore Management University (SMU) is internationally recognized for its world-class research and distinguished teaching. Professor Arnoud De Meyer sits down to discuss the transformation of Singapore’s educational landscape, the innovative learning approaches developed by SMU, as well as the groundbreaking research happening on campus and its vision to become a iconic global-city university.
Singapore is very well-known around the world for being an economy which – despite the lack of natural resources – has been able to maintain its competitiveness through productivity, anticipating change, and pragmatism. What do you understand by the concept of ‘value creation’ for Singapore? How important is it that Singapore continues this transformation to remain relevant and competitive?
Singapore has been a success story in terms of development since its independence in 1965. In my opinion, Singapore has been successful due to five reasons. First is its strategic geographical location. The second reason is its people. That is why there has been an enormous investment in education over the last 50 years, with a very high level of flexibility in developing this sector.
In the past, the focus was more on vocational education and sending the top-quality students to renowned universities overseas. Now, the Skills Future movement focuses on continuing education and ensuring that people can transform themselves while they are moving through their career. There is a very strong emphasis on education that would add to the flexibility with which the educational system has been adapted and changed over the years.
Third is the high quality of governance and institutions. There is a very strong governance system which provides for predictability and the possibility to enforce your rights. There is a very good judiciary system that works well, works fast and the rules are clear.
The fourth reason is a willingness to kill industries. In Europe, the propensity of the governments there is to defend existing industries. Even when an industry has become less relevant, the governments continue to inject funds to preserve the industry because of the resistance against the reduction of industries. Here, there is a clear policy of closing down an industry which is no longer relevant and moving on to another industry. An example is that Singapore used to be a major manufacturer of disk drives, but since disk drives are not used anymore, the industry has all but disappeared in Singapore.
The fifth reason is the clarity about what are key to the competitiveness of Singapore. Singapore understands that its seaport, airport, logistics and supply chain capabilities are critical to the country’s role as an important node in the international network.
Now, we have a full portfolio of the industries and sectors we want to have. It’s about how to deepen our skills and become better at what we do. The Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) developed for 23 industries in six clusters each consists of a growth and competitiveness plan, supported by four pillars of Productivity, Jobs & Skills, Innovation, Trade and Internationalization. I believe some of these plans will be remarkable success stories but not all will of course be equally well implemented. The key is to be flexible and being open to adapt when changes come.
What lessons can the countries in Europe and in the West learn from Singapore’s attitude towards education?
The main lesson is that education is so important that you make it your first priority. Education is the second biggest investment that Singapore has made and is making, after defense. The second lesson is to allow flexibility in the system, a system that adjusts itself over a period of time.
At SMU, we have had a different approach to education right from the beginning, which we call “holistic education”. The whole idea is that our students learn more outside the classroom than from the inside. We are organized in a way that the undergraduate classes are not bigger than 45 students. There is a lot of discussion and interaction in the classrooms, something which is done only in the Masters courses in other universities, but we do it here from the undergraduate level. This means that our students will have to speak up from Day One, make presentations and become very good in team work, project management, etc. In addition, our students have to undertake internships, community service projects, go overseas. They are also strongly encouraged to participate in student activities because we believe that is a good way to build leadership and organizational skills.
We also have a program called SMU-X, where X stands for experiential learning, in which our students learn by solving real-world problems. The learning environment is about how to work with business, government, NGOs, etc to solve real problems and learn how to learn from solving the problems. What I know for sure is that our students will always have to do projects in future, if I can give them the understanding on how to learn from the projects and conceptualize the learning – that would be an achievement.
I believe we are ahead of everybody here in Singapore and even probably worldwide in applying this experiential learning on a large scale with undergraduates. This is an indication of how easy it is to experiment in Singapore. The education ministry is happy with this very practical approach of bringing the experience from industry, from government and from NGOs into the learning environment.
In terms of working with the industries, there is a lot of research coming out of SMU especially when it comes to economics and business papers on ASEAN and Asia as a whole. Can you tell us more about SMU’s impact in terms of research over the last few years?
When I joined SMU in 2010, I was happy with the quality of the faculty, but it was not very clear then what impact our research had on society because the specialized papers written by our young faculty members in this young university were often very esoteric, they were only read and cited by other academics. We then decided to start interdisciplinary research which will not only bring the best of different faculty from different schools together, but has the ambition of making a difference to the society.
I would like to share five examples of what we did and where we actually made a difference. First, we have the Centre for Research on the Economics of Ageing (CREA). Ageing is an issue not only in Singapore but in many other countries as well. Therefore the research we do can make a meaningful impact. Every month, CREA surveys 8,000 to 12,000 people here in Singapore between 55 and 75 years old to see how they think about their assets, what the major changes are in their lives, and how those influence their views on the economics of ageing. We get an enormous amount of data that is very helpful for the government here to think about policies for an ageing population. This research is not only relevant for Singapore, but the research papers that are written are also useful to other countries such as Japan, China and United Kingdom as the ageing problem affects many industrialized countries. This is an example of where we do research that makes a difference.
The second example is our Centre for Cross Border Commercial Law in Asia (CEBCLA). The legal systems of countries in ASEAN have different origins; hence their commercial laws are also different. To work across borders, the commercial laws of these countries have to be compatible with one another, and that’s what CEBCLA is working on.
Third is our Retail Centre of Excellence, supported by the government and business, looks at the future of retail, e-commerce, last mile delivery and related issues. Fourth, we have been working closely with the Ministry of Home Affairs on cyber security. We have a very strong group of experts on cyber security, not only on the technical side but also the legal side. Fifth, we have commenced research on the interaction between law and technology, not only on how law should regulate the use of technology, but also on how law will be changed by technology as a result of artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc.
Could you tell us more about SMU Vision 2025 and what it means for SMU to become an iconic global-city university in Asia?
For research, in our Vision 2025, we aim not only to do top quality research, which is published in top journals, but also to do well in research rankings. For example, our Lee Kong Chian School of Business came in at number 35 in the University of Texas’ Top 100 Business School Research Rankings. For a young institution like SMU, this is quite a success story because we had to compete with established names such as INSEAD, Wharton, Cambridge, and IMD.
Apart from that, our research must be rigorous; revealing something new, relevant to society, and it must be communicated to the society by outreach efforts.
Secondly, we have moved towards creating a learning environment as opposed to simply teaching. We are also very flexible in the way the students can organize themselves to go through the learning process at SMU. Our SMU-X program, with its practical approach of learning how to learn from projects, exemplifies what we want to achieve in creating a learning environment.
Thirdly, SMU is centrally located in the heart of Singapore; as such we should be open to the community. We want our campus to be integrated with the city, that’s what I mean by being an iconic global-city university, and we should develop our own model of being such a university in Asia.