To take a dive into the history of SUTD, Information Systems Technology and Design (ISTD) Alumnus Chay Choong speaks to the founding Chairman of SUTD, Mr Philip Ng.
Chay Choong (CC): How did you join the SUTD project?
Philip Ng (PN): I was involved with Republic Polytechnic, and I was also on the National University of Singapore (NUS) Board of Trustees, so I guess I was on what we could call the ‘radar’ of the Ministry of Education (MOE).
When MOE had this project in mind, they wanted to constitute a board of trustees. That is the model of institutes of higher learning today — although the institutes are state-funded, they are led by a Board of Trustees consisting of people from the private sector. MOE asked me to be the Chairman partly because I had already been involved in a few things, and also because I was an engineer. I graduated as an engineer and I did a Masters in Technology and Policy at MIT. MOE thought that I would understand engineering education, so they asked me to chair the first Steering Committee.
The Steering Committee was set up to strategise on how to firm up this whole concept. Usually, when any project is first conceived, it is still not concrete. Sometimes it is a little abstract. So the Steering Committee’s role was to put up a framework on how we want to move forward. And one of the important tasks was to identify the right collaborator/partner.
CC: So at that time MIT wasn’t in the picture yet.
PN: No. When I was on the Steering Committee, we started to evaluate and look at what were the possible collaborators and what kind of curriculum/model and what was/what would fit best in the Singapore spectrum of higher education.
CC: Who were leading the discussions? Was Tom Magnanti there yet?
PN: It was actually — believe it or not — myself and a gentleman by the name of Loh Ngai Seng. He was the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Education. We also had good advice from President Tony Tan — who wasn’t president then. I knew that he knows a lot about higher education and learning because he was really the architect.
MOE also did a lot — MOE knows this space better than any of us — their network is impressive… they know all the people. Tom was not involved. At this point in time, Tom was still on the MIT side.
CC: How did MIT come into the picture?
PN: That was through the deliberations of the Steering Committee. The Steering Committee went for visits and got to know the universities better. We visited a few universities. We were very set on a US university.
PN: I think the US is at the top of the ladder right now. As far as bringing together research and education, US has the best combination. It is also more innovative. Innovation and entrepreneurship are very important for us. We can see that the US curriculum is also the right curriculum for our kids today in Singapore. Our aim was not to do conventional, traditional engineering, but to step forth and break new ground. The sort of engineers we want to produce are not meant to stay as engineers; they are meant to be technically-grounded leaders.
When we looked at the curriculum of the other universities in Europe and UK, they tended to be very narrow and deep. So when you do three years of engineering in a UK university like I did. You don’t do any humanities subjects at all. Maybe there is some engineering economics, and there is something on management, but you don’t do any other subjects that will give you a broader view. Our sense is that for engineers and technologists of today (and the future) — especially if you’re talking about design, technology, engineering, leadership and entrepreneurship all coming together — you would have to broaden the education.
CC: So HASS was very important to the steering committee. Was it unanimous?
PN: Very much so. Especially as a response to what is traditionally taught in NUS and NTU, which tends to follow the British model and is also a bit narrower. But I think they have now changed that, with the Renaissance programmes.
What you are seeing in NUS and NTU is a response to SUTD. If SUTD had not come into the scene, then NUS and NTU would probably remain similar. They see the value in what we do. Singapore always wants to take the best of other places. This is how we learn and progress. We see how people are doing it — and we say that this works, let’s give it a try. And I think that that is the good thing about Singapore.
This endeavour, as I said, was really to break new ground, and we wanted to find a collaborator to help us. We found that the best principal collaborator must be in the US. So we made our rounds, talked to a few universities, and asked them to submit proposals to us. So actually that happened because we had already at that point in time been involved in a partnership with Duke.
PN: Yes, the School of Medicine, which I was also involved in. So I know that the US system can work. We saw the success of Duke-NUS. It was a very good collaboration. We were quite confident that something like that could be achieved again.
The idea was not to reinvent the wheel. The whole idea of having a collaborator and getting them to submit proposals means that they have their own curriculum — they just have to tweak and adjust their curriculum to suit our needs — but with their standards already in place. So finally we found that the best proposal came from MIT.
CC: What made MIT’s the best?
PN: Firstly, the faculty and the commitment of the faculty. Secondly, MIT knows Singapore. They have been here a long time. The professors think highly of Singapore. And of course they are at the cutting edge.
Furthermore, the proposal they gave was in line with what we wanted. We also felt that it was a good thing for our students to be able to go to MIT, to go to Boston, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although there were other universities — we were not quite sure that the student experience would have been as good as going to MIT. So we felt that on all fronts it was really the best.
CC: I heard that they were already interested in looking for an Asian partner at that time.
PN: They probably were because one of the things that American universities want to do today is to globalise. I mean, they are all institutions of higher learning, and they are basically knowledge enterprises. They don’t want their knowledge to be trapped in their own domain — and that is why you see these universities having opencourseware, and you might wonder, are they are doing themselves in? In a way, they are not. If they have knowledge they will want to share it, either through books or whatever. I mean, they aren’t going to give you a degree through opencourseware, but why not avail you of the knowledge? There is a different sort of thinking today.
CC: After MIT, what’s next?
PN: The next critical step that came was this brilliant idea from then Education Minister himself, Dr Ng Eng Hen. He felt that instead of just doing a one or two-way collaboration between ourselves and MIT, why not have a third leg with China, Zhejiang? And that made sense.
PN: Immediately the response was very good, because China is where it’s going to happen. But as far as curriculum development goes, they are not as ready. And of course they do not teach that many courses in English. But the idea of having that reciprocal hookup where students can come to Singapore and students can go to China is very good — it also happened that the university that was most interested was Zhejiang University (ZJU), which is very highly ranked.
We went to visit two Chinese universities, and we picked Zhejiang. Again because we saw that they were very committed. We also wanted our students to go to Hangzhou, which is the capital city of Zhejiang province. ZJU is based in Hangzhou, and Zhejiang province is a very entrepreneurial province. You know — Alibaba, Jack Ma, a lot of consumer appliances makers, they are all based in Zhejiang. So for that reason we entered into this three-spoked or three-legged partnership. MIT also felt that it was a great thing. Everybody felt it… it was unanimous.
By that time, things were already quite cemented. We were quite clear: the curriculum would mainly come from MIT; there would be some curriculum development by Zhejiang, particularly in Chinese architecture and design. There will also be opportunities for student exchange on a bigger scale, because this is a collaboration, not a small exchange. Students would spend a meaningful amount of time in each place. There will also be faculty visits and so on. By then, we were all ready to go except for the fact that the curriculum still needed to be developed.
CC: Was the idea of the four pillars conceived by then?
PN: The four pillars idea was only conceived when Tom Magnanti came. The details — how the university would be constituted — that was all Tom.
Being academicians themselves and dealing with the constraints of being in schools, Tom and his fellow MIT faculty colleagues, decided that if they had this flexibility of a new university, they would not want to segregate it into schools again. This was because schools sometimes tended to be very constraining and territorial. Whereas the education that is being conceived at SUTD is a little bit more fluid, collaborative and relational. It is interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary in nature. The idea of schools might trap people within the school. So that was why they said that pillars seemed to be the more appropriate term for it. And that you should basically be unified by an SUTD kind of education and know that there has to be this kind of fluidity.
That idea was Tom’s, and those were the things they worked out. By that time I think we had already constituted the Board of Trustees. So these were ideas that came back and forth. The Board of Trustees were comfortable with it.
CC: By that time, the steering committee was no longer needed.
PN: That’s right.
CC: Afterwards what were the tasks of the constituted Board of Trustees?
PN: We were in an interim cabinet. A Trustee’s job, being appointed to this Board, is governance — that means to ensure that the faculty and management do their work in line with the institution’s long term objectives. So it was a bit of a check. The Board of Trustees is like a Board of Directors. They are placed there to ensure that there is proper governance — rules, principles and values are put in place and people operate according to the objectives and the goals of the institution rather than be driven by self-interest, because sometimes that can happen. If there is no check and balance, management or operations can sometimes go their own way. So that is the primary duty of the Board of Trustees.
The duty of the Trustees is also to ensure that national objectives are met — Singaporeans first, then next would be the permanent residents, but again ensuring that SUTD is well-positioned and well-resourced to achieve its ultimate objective, which is to be a top university in the area of technology and design. So Trustees are really the guardians and stewards of this objective and major policies should be endorsed or enacted by the Board of Trustees.
As I said, the Government is also a part of it. Hence, there are various committees convened under the Board of Trustees — like the finance committee, investment committee, development & promotion committee, advancement committee — which is fundraising – to ensure we have an endowment. Then there is the IT committee and audit committee. So there are various committees formed under the Trustees. All the Trustees participate in various committees.
CC: Which committees were you involved in?
PN: For me, as Chairman, I was only involved in two. They were the advancement and campus planning committees.
CC: Campus development?
PN: Yeah, planning of the campus. I was initially involved in that and chaired that for a few years. Then I passed the baton to another Trustee who is well capable because he is an architect. I am a property developer so I started that going. I was involved in all the initial planning of the campus. So what you see on the campus — whether you like it or not — is from me sitting on the committee and choosing the consultants and the designs.
CC: Was East Coast Campus conceived from the beginning? Or did it come up only in Dover?
PN: The idea came up when we were at Dover, because we had a competition. Even the selection of the East Coast Campus was given to us for consideration — where do we want. There was an alternative site that was offered but we did not like that site. It was too far away.
PN: No no, not that far. I think it was Punggol. There was some other site, but we found that East Coast was ideal because of the proximity to Changi. A lot of people think that it is far but I think that the proximity to Changi and Changi Business Park and to the city is very good.
CC: Some still consider Changi to be quite far.
PN: It is different. Let’s say it is away from NUS. Of course SMU has got a very good location, but it is a city campus, and NTU is even further away right?
This came under the planning of the Board of Trustees. We had the discretion to choose. Even the choice of the campus design, the choice of the consultants and so on. So it was really driven by the Board of Trustees in that sense. And of course we had to build it using state money. The state only gave us a certain amount of money. So we had to build according to the budget and to ensure there are no overruns as we must look after the state’s money well. That is our job as stewards. At the same time we also conducted fundraising — we have to look at the academic development. We have an academic and research development committee as well. That is under Professor Lui Pao Chuen.
CC: When did you all bring in the senior management? Was it one of the responsibilities of the Board of Trustees?
PN: Yes. We had to recruit the senior management. Basically Tom was first, followed by provost, Prof Chong Tow Chong. Prof Pey was later, followed by the senior directors, Jaclyn, Corinna and Bee Lok. Also, our director of the planning and projects eventually became involved in building the campus. All these had to go through the Board of Trustees. We had to interview them, hire them and put them in place. That is the governance part of it.
CC: Was it challenging, convincing people to join the project?
PN: I think interestingly enough, people kind of prequalified themselves. We were blessed. By the grace of God people that were interested in this project and endeavour came and wanted to be part of it.
CC: How did they hear about it?
PN: In our recruitment we used ads, headhunters, put out the word. Then people who want to be a part of it wrote in and offered themselves. Of course MOE had the academic people available, but we had to conduct the interviews. Those were the days when we had to do lots of interviews.
Once the senior management and senior faculty were in place, they proceeded to hire the people who were lower down. Hence, after that, we did not have to get so involved in the interviews any more, unless it was a senior position. Such hires go to the EXCO committee, which I also chair. So I was chairing two committees — one of which was the EXCO. EXCO is the executive committee that is involved in all human capital decisions.
CC: Who is in the EXCO? Are they external?
PN: So the new chairman will be the Chairman of the EXCO. Usually that is the case. (The chairman of the Board of Trustees will be the chairman of the EXCO.) This is an important committee. It is in charge of the HR aspects, policies, etc.
There is one external person in the EXCO and that is Prof Cheong Hee Kiat from SIM University. The rest of the members are from our Board of Trustees. Prof Cheong was on the steering committee and he knows a lot about the running of universities. He is also still the President of UniSIM. So we benefit from his wisdom.
That was how SUTD came along. I would say that the most challenging part is not so much getting the management and the faculty together. Because by the grace of God we had the right people come and join us. The most challenging part of setting up SUTD has been recruiting students. Because simply put, we are new. Even though we have the MIT collaboration, we have to compete against NUS and NTU who are both very established and have come up very strongly in the rankings. For SUTD it was impossible. There is no way we can get ranked because we are so new. There will always be people that may tell their kids or advise their kids or friends’ children — why do you go for SUTD?
But I think that this curriculum that we have in place is one that is right for the future because it is a fast-changing world, and traditional engineering cannot exist in a vacuum anymore. Of course, there are the traditional hard sciences, yes, but they tend to be more academic. SUTD is also not producing only academic engineers. I mean, there will be some, but by and large we are not producing academic engineers or technologists or designers or architects. Our graduates must be practice-oriented. That is why I believe that the curriculum is right. I won’t say that we are ahead of the curve, but we are appropriate to the time. People have to think not just of next year or five years’ time, but 10 or 20 years’ ahead. The kind of programme that you are doing here is such that you will be much more adequately prepared to grow in different directions. We do not know where your opportunities are, but we have to give you a programme, a foundation that is broad-based and will allow you to grow in different directions. If it is very narrow, you cannot grow.
CC: What were the initial strategies that you all employed to try to convince students to join SUTD?
PN: Well, we used MIT’s name. A lot! (laughter) Look at what MIT has done and what are the inventions and innovations that came out of MIT. Look at how MIT has impacted the world.
CC: They didn’t mind right?
PN: Yeah, they didn’t mind. (laughter) Then secondly we tell them that Singapore itself is moving up the value chain, you know, as we progress, and how Singapore is moving towards the future. Will the traditional kind of engineering courses benefit all the kids or will it be something that is path-breaking? Maybe there is a bit of a risk but this is targeted for the future. We also shared about the low student-to-faculty ratio – which means students will get a lot more attention – and also the quality of the faculty. It was difficult for the first couple of batches because we did not have a campus. So it was tough because we are selling this future even without a permanent campus.
CC: Some of them had to wait one year!
PN: It was tough. It was very difficult to sell the proposition when we were in a kind of interim stage. It was not ideal, but I think there was quite a good spirit. We also have good facilities. So I think the initial selling was difficult, but as we move along, we can ride on the achievements of the students themselves, what they are achieving and how the industry and the community receives them — that means employers. Parents and young kids want to know that when they come out of SUTD their future is quite assured. So that is an important thing that we must be mindful of and respond. Employment must be there. And the takeup. Parents even want to compare salaries!
CC: So was that the focus after the university started up and began running?
PN: Definitely. That is why we put together the industry attachment. We had to get people to give scholarships. There were quite a lot of things that needed to be put in place. We signed up a lot of companies that could offer industry attachments, both small companies and large corporations. We wanted to give the students choices. Some people might want to work in a real small startup, because it is a different experience.
CC: That’s quite a popular choice now.
PN: Exactly. So we wanted to give a whole array. By having the industry attachment we make our kids more ready for industry. Because when they go out there, they know what are the issues and problems. If they started thinking about it, they could become more employable. So the career development part now is something that we have to focus at SUTD. I mean we started that already but we have to do more.
CC: The pioneers… what was the spirit like? Was it optimistic all the way?
PN: Yeah. I would say so. I think we were in high spirits because we were small, compact, we could do things differently and it was particularly at Ghim Moh. Were you there?
PN: It was small! It was a small setup and it was interim. We had to do some renovations and it could not have accommodated everybody you see. It could only accommodate just two or three batches. There was a sense of closeness. A sense of community. It was just like a startup. And we ran into each other more because of the closeness and proximity.
CC: Was there any point of time where you all were thinking that this might not work out?
PN: Yeah. I think yes. There was a point in time — not that it might not work — where there were concerns about the number of students that we were recruiting. That we were falling way short of our old calculations on how much the Government was going to subsidise and give, that we may not make our operating budget. That there would be a deficit — which is no good. It’s not the right way to run anything.
CC: How small was the number at that time?
PN: At that time the numbers were still only 300+ students.
CC: And there was a concern already?
PN: Yes, because we felt that if we project and we don’t see an improvement towards 500 — now we have 400+. But there was a concern because engineering is a tough sell — still a tough sell — but of course the Government’s effort now will help get people to think more about STEM.
CC: Off the bat you all had 500 as the goal for the pioneer batch?
PN: Ok, I mean in our Steering Committee and the deliberations by the Government, yes. 500 was the intermediate number. It was not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal was to have 1000 students.
CC: Per batch?
PN: Yes, per cohort. But I don’t know when that will be.
PN: But 500 we will hit. 500 was always the target to aim for. There must be a certain size that you want to have. And it’s a certain size that gives you the economies of scale.
CC: For the first four batches you all didn’t manage to hit 500.
PN: So there was already a bit of a worry. Thank God we started to see the rise in numbers. So there was this concern. But it was no longer so much about will this work or not. It was more about how do we make the numbers balance out as responsible stewards? We all felt that the education is right, the curriculum is right, the approach is right. So why doesn’t the market agree?
PN: So you see, sometimes it is all about product reception and readiness. You know that the product is right, but sometimes it is well-received and sometimes it is not. You have to question sometimes, maybe it’s not so much the product but is our numbers, our sizing of the market correct? So we asked. But now I think we are quite convinced.
CC: I still remember before this batch of freshmores came in, the numbers were predicted to be above 500 and the campus development committee was quite concerned that there would not be enough chairs. (laughter)
PN: Yeah! That’s a happy problem!
CC: Was it planned from the very beginning that you have to leave in 2016?
PN: Actually when I accepted the job of being the Chairman of the Board of Trustees I accepted it — I wouldn’t say on condition…
PN: No no, with advice — my advice to the Minister was that I only wanted to do this for seven years as Chairman. Because it is my own personal belief that seven years is the right cycle to do things. First of all, I am only an appointed steward. This institution must outlast all of us, and the institution will at each and every juncture have an opportunity to grow, you know. So for us as stewards of something like SUTD, we do not even know how it is going to grow. We have an idea, that this is the right thing fundamentally, but we do not know and we cannot be sure — we cannot put our finger on how it will grow — which area for example of academic pursuit and which area of research are the ones that we must go into. Because this is an academic endeavour you know, and it can surprise us. It can be in various areas of technology, wherever.
I feel that as appointed stewards we have a shelf life. If we are in it for too long, we then become the bottleneck because our ideas can be very fixed. And it is not good. It is not good because I have seen institutions and organisations where chairmen and directors stay too long, and the organisations become very ossified. So I felt that seven years was a good cycle. But having said that, I actually stayed ten years — from start to finish.
CC: You’ve been involved with SUTD since 2006?
PN: I have been in this for ten years but of course not ten years as Chairman of the Board of Trustees. But I think at least seven or eight years as Chairman of the Board of Trustees. So I think there was no fixed plan in the MOE’s mind but then I reminded then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat that it was time for me to go. Because I really feel that way — that there needs to be a renewal, as none of us are going to be here forever. Therefore our job as stewards is just to leave the place better than when we found it.
CC: Do you know the new president personally?
PN: Oh yeah! Mr Lee Tzu Yang is a friend of mine and we have sat on many committees together.
CC: Were you the one who recommended him?
PN: I wouldn’t say I recommended him — the Ministry chose him and I endorsed it. I think that he knows a lot about technology and engineering, and design in a way, through his own job as Chairman of Shell, because Shell is engineering heavy. It is in the energy industry so there is a lot of technology and engineering and design in energy. Also with all the things that energy companies are grappling with today — clean, renewable energy and all that — I feel that he is very suitable.
CC: He was involved in..
PN: NUS. And many more. I was on the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy board with him as well. And in NUS he was a trustee.
CC: Are you still there — at NUS?
PN: No. I left NUS in…2009 maybe?
CC: So that was… three years into the SUTD project?
PN: Yeah. Once I became Chairman of the Board of Trustees they released me from NUS. Because they felt that I cannot be a Trustee of both you see. Although there is no conflict, but anyway, they don’t want to kill me through overwork.
PN: So I feel that it is very important for renewal. The key thing I want to say is that we are stewards. We cannot be here forever. We must always be ready to move on and pass the baton on to someone else and that hopefully generates new ideas and renewal and maybe new ways of doing things.
CC: So are you going to be hands off from SUTD completely from now on?
PN: Yeah. That is how it should be. I am still going to support SUTD in whatever way I can. I would still talk to people to ask them to sponsor.
CC: Fundraising events.
PN: Yeah. And to consider doing industry attachments and stuff like that. I will still be involved in, perhaps lightly; some of the things SUTD is doing, on urbanisation and urban solutions — the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. But all that will be informal. We must let the people that are here do their thing.