President - Career in Singapore prior to joining SMU
When I was an undergraduate in my final year, the head of department said to me, “Would you be interested to be an academic?” and I had not really thought about that. I was always interested in teaching, I was very interested in education as a line of work. And my mother tells me that when I was three, I lined the dolls up against the wall and taught all the dolls. I have always wanted to teach, and I was headed directly for that. But my head of department said, “Well, you know, as an academic, you get to do that, but you also get to do more. And you have demonstrated an ability with research even as an undergraduate, and wouldn’t you want to be an academic where you could balance both of those things?” And I thought, well how interesting is that? I get to teach, and I get to do the research that I have come to quite enjoy.
The National University of Singapore was good enough to give me a scholarship that took me to London for my PhD. And those were three very memorable years. I learned a great deal about what it meant to live independently. I learned a great deal about what it meant to navigate different cultural contexts with students from all over the world. I learned what it meant to develop relationships with people from scratch, and I think it was quite instrumental in shaping my approach to education and people in general.
So, I went away and I came back. I had a bond to serve and that was six years of it. I thoroughly enjoyed the six years, but even during that period and after, I would sometimes get offers from other universities to say, “Would you come?” And I remember two offers from the UK, and one from Australia and one from the US, and it was always family that kept me here. It was always family that I wanted to be with. The role of being an academic in a university means that you nevertheless get to travel for conferences, you nevertheless get to collaborate with people across boundaries, and go on fellowships for extended periods to other universities. And so the tremendous experience I had overseas as a student was further augmented through the international collaborations and international visits.
So, I stayed on at NUS as a faculty member despite the overseas offers of faculty positions, and in my third year back from London with a PhD, the then dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences called me up one day and I thought, “What did I do now?” And he said, “Would you like to be sub dean?”, as we were then called, assistant deans, in effect. The assistant deans at that point in time were all faculty members unlike the SMU context where they are professional administrative staff. And I took that on thinking, oh yeah, sure, I have got time on my hands, I can take on something more. And I did a lot of things that today in the context of NUS would be done by high-level admin staff—organizing open days and producing the faculty newsletter and so forth.
A couple of years after that, I had another call from the then dean who said, “Would you like to be vice dean?”, and that is associate dean equivalent. And I thought, well, all right, we’ll give it a try. And I did that for a short period, and the then vice-chancellor called me and said, “would you like to be dean?”, and I thought, oh, this is getting serious. I took that on at a young age of 35. It was not easy. I had senior colleagues with many years of experience in their 50s, even 60s. And they would say to me, “Well, you know, I’m used to working with people with 35 years of experience, not 35 years of age.” So, I sort of took that, and I said, that is all right, I will show them that it is not the biological age that matters. Was there something about the gender? Maybe, because these were senior male professors. And it was not entirely easy at the beginning because the university at that point in time was deeply into change. It was a teaching university that was shifting to become a research-intensive university.
It was a point in time when there was a new president, the position had morphed from vice chancellorship of the British tradition to presidency of the North American tradition. The then president was a Singaporean who had returned after decades in the US and used to a very different environment and ambitions. And he was ambitious for the university, rightly so, and it was about steering change of a very large, very established, very historical university. And I was dean right then at that point in time. And it meant that I had to learn about change management. And it meant that, while I embraced the ambitions of the university, the new university in that sense, I also had to be mindful that colleagues had different expectations of them in the past and so forth—a familiar story about change management. And so I learned how to hopefully, successfully, straddle a path between pushing for ambitious goals while being empathetic to individual needs.
I was dean for three years and a bit, and then the president called me again and said, “Would you like to join the Provost’s Office?” And at that point in time—a little confession—as dean at that particular point in time, I had a lot of people management to do. There were the intellectual things to do about devising curriculum and so forth, and that was the fun and easy part in a certain sense because it was an intellectual exercise. But effecting that change was about working with people and bringing people along with you and a lot of hand-holding, a lot of cajoling, a lot of persuasion, and it was tiring. And the role in the Provost’s Office, which was much more policy-oriented, was a welcomed one because I wanted a rest from the daily engagement with people and so forth. Even while I enjoyed and relished that, and saw the importance of such engagement, it was tiring. So I switched then to a much more policy role.
My first role as vice provost was vice provost for education. And I looked after everything from undergraduate to postgraduate education which included masters and PhD programs, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. I learned so much. I learned so much because I chaired a committee that looked at all curricular proposals from across a comprehensive university. I learned about engineering and dentistry and medicine and architecture and everything else. I had a group of people in the curriculum committee who were experts in their own domains and forged a really nice partnership with the committee members until today, and this would be about 13, 14 years later. The group would still say, come, let’s go together for lunch. I reminisce about the days when we talked about curriculum centering on better dental care or building bridges or whatever it was. So that was really nice.
Then I was invited to concurrently head up a research institute. When I was dean, I had convinced the president to put in money to set up an Asia Research Institute. I had thought, how can we in Singapore not be the voice for understanding Asia from Asian perspectives, whether it is by Asians or from an Asia perch as such? And he was good enough to put in quite a bit of money for that. And so, at that point in time, I took on the directorship while concurrently holding a vice provost role. That was fun as well. There were difficulties of all kinds which I won’t go into, but the ability to shape a research agenda was tremendous.
I then was asked whether I would take on a different portfolio from the education one and the research one, and that new portfolio was to do with global relations. It was about the university looking outward, establishing its relationships, collaborations and so forth. And it came at a good point again because I had spent some years doing the two pieces of work, and I have realized now that every three or four years, I was changing portfolio in NUS, and even though I have been with NUS for 24, 25 years, it felt like I was changing jobs more frequently than that. I went and I did the global relations role which was amazing. I met so many wonderful people from different universities around the world, and made good friends. I went to many meetings of presidents and vice chancellors accompanying my president. I learned what it meant to think about a university’s future, chart the paths, forge collaborations.
The biggest project that I did in that capacity was to work with my then president to tie up with Yale in establishing Yale-NUS College. And that again taught me so much about how to see things from a different cultural perspective, not to take what we know for granted, verbalizing things that are tacit knowledge, navigating different cultures, politics, negotiating with a partner institution, negotiating with the Ministry of Education, looking at legal documents, editing every last word, looking at financial spreadsheets, hiring people. That entire journey was a five-year journey even though the work with Yale in particular was for about three years, because the two years prior to Yale coming into the picture, we were studying the feasibility of setting up a liberal arts college in Singapore and the best model for that. We were studying liberal arts colleges in the US, and we were actually in conversation with the Claremont Consortium as well. So I learnt to deal with disappointment when negotiations don’t go the way you hope. I learned that getting on the exercise machine was really important at the end of a day, to keep healthy and alert. And just observing an amazing president like Rick Levin at Yale and his vice-president, Linda Lorimer, taught me a great deal, and I think those kinds of relationships and experiences stay with you forever.
After I finished with that, I was asked whether I would do another portfolio at NUS, back in the mothership, so to speak, not the Yale-NUS, but back in the mothership. And this was back to being vice provost, but this time with the academic personnel portfolio, which basically dealt with all faculty matters. I was really thrown into all the pleasures but also pressures of whether you tenure someone or you don’t, and the aftermath when somebody is not successfully tenured. I looked into policies to improve the lives of faculty members. At that point in time, if a female faculty member went on maternity leave, it wasn’t a matter of course that they would get the tenure extension. I wrote in policies to make all of that possible. Working with many colleagues and in consultation across the university, I’d like to think that I also contributed to the lot of the education-track colleagues, who always felt a little bit—how shall I put it? —a little bit tentative about what their role was, whether it was truly valued as opposed to the tenure-track and so forth. And with the blessings of my provost and president, put in place policies that helped to put them where they rightfully deserved to be, which is respected members of a community, because of their ability to communicate with and educate our students really well, that research was not the be-all and end-all in a university.
And that was about the time that a search firm came knocking at my door, and they said, “You know, there is a position at SMU that might use your experience,” and I thought, oh, but I haven’t finished my work at NUS. I still have many other policies that I want to try and introduce and so forth.” And they said, “Come, come, just have a chat.” So I had a chat with them, and then I said, “No, but I haven’t finished my work,” and then they said, “No, no, why don’t you talk to Arnoud?” So I ran along to Raffles City or Fairmont or wherever it was, and we had a coffee and I said, “I haven’t quite finished my work,” and he said, “I understand, but think about it, we’ll chat again.” And we went again to that same coffee lounge in Fairmont hotel, and he said “You know, these are the sorts of things we want to do at SMU. Your entire portfolio shows that you could do all of this. Think about it.” And I went away, and I thought, oh, this is tough. This is really attractive because if you look at what I’ve done over the years, I’ve sort of always been involved in new developmental projects, and this was one of them, except it’s a whole university. Oh my, isn’t that exciting? And then, of course, truth be told, there are all the personal ties, the friendship ties that you’ve cultivated over 25 years. It is my alma mater. I’ve always imagined myself eventually retiring from my office in the Geography Department, right at the corner with a wonderful tree right in front as I look out of the window. I thought this was so difficult. And Arnoud said, why don’t you speak to a couple of our trustees? So, bit by bit, he reeled me in, and I must say he did a really good job of it, and that’s what happened. I went to speak with Paul Beh, and I spoke with Timothy Chia, and I remember it was around Christmas time. As it turned out, those conversations were much more about persuading me to take on the job, than in assessing me. And that was very flattering, if nothing else. I was very grateful for the trust, having just met me over coffee, for them to sort of try and persuade me to take on the job. It was something that I should not take lightly, I thought to myself. I spoke with my family, and I decided that I would try. I would take the step and move ahead.
And that was when I was told, come and meet with the faculty senate exco, come and meet with the deans and so forth. And I felt that if I were to do that, the news would be out that I was going to come to SMU or contemplate it. And I thought it only fair that I spoke to my president and provost back at NUS, and that is what I did. I went to them, and I said, this is what has happened. I want to be very transparent even though, you know, it wasn’t a done deal at SMU. I might come across terribly and the deans and the vice provosts at SMU might revolt and say, “No, don’t take her”, or maybe things will work out and I might actually leave NUS. And I remember I was quite close to tears when I was talking to them because, “Oh, how can I leave NUS?”
And so started the journey where they talked to me about whether I should go, and, there were two things that were said to me that were countervailing, but which I took to heart. One was a comment that, “As your provost, I must do everything I can to retain you at NUS, but as your friend, I think you should take this challenge up because I think your potential is above being a vice provost.” And I thought okay, it is very kind of you to say so, I will take that on board. I had another piece of advice which was, “As your friend, I think you have the potential to do more but as your president I want you to stay. And even if you’re walking down the aisle to get married to someone, you can still turn around. Don’t feel obliged because you’ve had all these conversations with SMU.” It was true that I had gone quite far in my conversations with SMU, that I felt it was very bad form, first of all, for me to take SMU quite so far and then to back off. But it wasn’t just obligation which was the point of my then president’s message to me: “Don’t do it out of obligation. Do it because there’s a difference you want to make.”And at the end of the day. I thought, I will try. I think there are things I would like to do, ideas that I would like to bring to a new institution, and I will try. And so I took my life in my hands and crossed the road. So then I ended up in SMU and have learned a lot in that process as well. It has been humbling and gratifying all at the same time.