Singapore Management University

Singapore Infopedia


The Singapore Management University (SMU) was established on 12 January 2000 as the first American-style and also the first publicly funded autonomous university in Singapore.1 It focuses on the areas of management, business and economics.2 Currently, SMU has over 8,300 undergraduate and postgraduate students, and its programmes include six undergraduate and 27 postgraduate programmes in various disciplines.3 After being housed in two interim campuses from 2000 to 2005, the university moved to its new city campus on Victoria Street in Bras Basah on 31 July 2005, which comprises six buildings: the Li Ka Shing Library, the Administration Building and four for its six schools.4

In 1997, the government mooted the idea of a third university in Singapore to meet the rising number of graduates required to service the economy.5 Then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Tony Tan Keng Yam who was overseeing university education at the time viewed that the new university should be different from the two existing local universities – the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU).6 As both NUS and NTU were developed largely based on the British university model, Tan felt that an alternative model from the United States could be considered for the third university to add a new dimension to tertiary education in Singapore. In addition, the new institution was to focus on management, business and economics, so that it could meet the needs of the country and at the same time complement the two existing universities.7

As the planned university would be a business school, Tan decided to appoint someone from the business world to chart a new direction for the university.8 In 1998, Tan approached Ho Kwon Ping – founder and executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings – to help establish the new university.9 Joined by a task force of academics, the team reviewed many American business schools to find a model for the planned tertiary institution.10

On 2 February 1999, SMU signed an agreement with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a top American business school, to collaborate on curriculum design, faculty development and various other areas.11 The task force believed that Wharton’s versatile education model would best prepare students for the fast-changing business environment, and the Wharton School was interested in the partnership because it needed a base to increase its footprint in Asia.12

While NUS and NTU were statutory boards at the time, SMU was incorporated as a company on 12 January 2000, thus making it the first private university in Singapore.13 Although funded by the government, the university’s private status gives it greater autonomy in faculty recruitment, remuneration and administration.14 Ho was appointed chairman of SMU’s board of trustees, while Janice Bellace, then deputy dean of Wharton, became the university’s first president (academic and administrative head).15

On 29 July 2000, SMU was officially opened with the inaugural opening convocation ceremony held at Bras Basah, the future site for its city campus. Attended by over 1,200 guests, then Minister for Education Teo Chee Hean was the event’s guest-of-honour. In a symbolic transfer of authority from the government to the university, Teo passed the university mace to SMU’s leaders.16

Selection criteria and programme structure
In addition to the conventional formula of using grades and co-curricular achievements to select applicants for the undergraduate programme, SMU is the first local university to practise a holistic admissions assessment that includes an interview, an essay-writing test and the SAT, which is used in the United States to assess students’ academic readiness for college.17

As the first university in Singapore to offer an American-style broad-based university education, SMU allows its undergraduates to choose their own subject combinations, and electives such as music and art are offered to accommodate individual interests and capabilities.18 In addition, undergraduates at SMU typically attend lessons in seminar-style classes comprising a maximum of 50 students, rather than large lectures with hundreds of students. Interactive learning techniques that focus on communication skills, leadership and teamwork are used, and classes are designed to be participative, so that students become accustomed to presenting arguments and stating their viewpoints.19

To better prepare its graduates for the business world, SMU also provides its undergraduates with opportunities for internship, community service, leadership training and global exposure. Overseas opportunities include exchange programmes with universities abroad, business study missions, overseas internship and community service.20

First intake and programme expansion
SMU’s first academic year began in August 2000 with its four-year Bachelor of Business Management (BBM) undergraduate programme. The pioneer cohort comprised 306 undergraduates selected from some 2,100 applicants.21 The university launched the Bachelor of Accountancy (BAcc) degree programme in August 2001. At the same time, it also offered a double degree in business management and accountancy – the first local university to do so.22 Shortly after, in January 2002, SMU commenced its first postgraduate programme, offering the Master of Science in Applied Finance (MAF), with 21 students enrolled in the course.23

In August 2003, SMU saw its first batch of graduates from the pioneer cohort of BBM students – a group of 10 students who had accelerated their coursework and completed the four-year BBM degree programme in three years.24 On 10 July 2004, the university held its first commencement ceremony, during which 309 students received their bachelor’s degrees – 21 of whom graduated with double degrees – and 41 received their MAF degrees.25

SMU has increased its intake capacity over time. As at September 2013, the university has in its enrolment about 7,300 full-time undergraduates, as well as some 1,000 full-time and part-time postgraduates. It now comprises six schools (School of Accountancy, Lee Kong Chian School of Business, School of Economics, School of Information Systems, School of Law and School of Social Sciences) and offers six bachelor’s degree programmes, 19 master’s programmes and eight PhD programmes spanning various disciplines.26

In January 2014, SMU revealed its intention to expand beyond being a business-focused institution. It plans to set up a school of humanities in the next few years, and possibly offer a full degree course in applied mathematics.27

On 10 June 1999, an agreement to establish the Wharton-SMU Research Centre was signed by SMU and Wharton.28 The centre was set up as a platform for the two institutions to collaborate on research, focusing on issues relevant to Singapore and Asia, including technopreneurship, knowledge transfer within organisations, competition in emerging technology-based industries as well as electronic commerce marketing strategies.29

Since then, SMU’s research network has grown to include researchers and universities from the United States, Europe, China and India, as well as the public sector and members of the business community.30 The university currently has 19 research institutes and centres, and is focused on generating high-impact multi-disciplinary research that addresses Asian issues of global relevance.31 The research institutes and centres include the UOB-SMU Asian Enterprise Institute – Asia’s first institute specifically set up to serve the needs of small and medium enterprises – and the Centre for Technology and Social-Behavioural Insights, which was jointly established with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research to tap on high-performance computing technology and behavioural sciences to study people-centric issues.32

On 5 December 1998, the government announced that SMU’s campus would be built in Bras Basah, making it the first university in Singapore to have a city campus.33 The university, however, had to be housed in two interim campuses before the completion of its Bras Basah campus in 2005.34

SMU’s first interim campus was a two-storey building on Evans Road. The purpose-built building was constructed in six months, in time for the pioneer batch of BBM students. Even though it was an interim facility, the campus was fully cabled for broadband Internet access and had computer points installed at every seat in each classroom.35

In January 2001, SMU obtained the keys to the Bukit Timah campus – the university’s second interim campus, located just beside its Evans Road site.36 Previously occupied by the National Institute of Education, the Bukit Timah campus was a historic site, once home to the University of Malaya and the University of Singapore.37 SMU moved to the campus in August 2001, after a S$35-million refurbishment to equip the historic campus with state-of-the-art facilities and a wireless network while preserving its existing architectural features and greenery.39

On 31 July 2005, after the lowering of the university’s flag to mark the end of SMU’s tenure at the Bukit Timah campus, Ho led an entourage of 1,000 undergraduates and academics in a parade to the university’s new city campus in Bras Basah as a symbolic move to its permanent home.39

Purpose-built over 4.5 ha (45,000 sq m) of land, the Bras Basah campus comprises six buildings: the Li Ka Shing Library, the Administration Building and four buildings for the six schools.40 A key feature of the campus is the underground concourse, which provides both students and the public direct access to the Bras Basah Mass Rapid Transit station and various retail facilities.41

On 20 January 2014, a ceremony was held to mark a new chapter in the university’s history: The School of Law will have its own building on the corner of Armenian Street and Fort Canning Link in 2017. It is currently housed in the same building as the School of Accountancy.42

Cheryl Sim

1. Singapore Management University, Leading the Future: Singapore Management University Report to Stakeholders 2000–2001 (Singapore: Singapore Management University, 2001, 7 (Call no. RSING q378.5957 SMURS); “Facts,” Singapore Management University, accessed 10 June 2014.
2. Tony Tan Keng Yam, oral history interview by Patricia Meyer, 20 May 2011, transcript, Singapore Management University, 2.
3. Singapore Management University, “Facts.”
4. Ng Mun Yee, SMU: The New Educational Environment (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2006), 24, 26, 88 (Call no. RSING 378.5957 SIN); “Campus Information,” Singapore Management University, accessed 31 March 2014.  
5. “History,” Singapore Management University, accessed 10 April 2014; Tan, oral history interview; Parliament of Singapore, Estimates of Expenditure for the Financial Year 1st April 1997 to 31st March 1998, vol. 67 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 31 July 1997, col. 1433. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
6. Parliament of Singapore, Estimates of Expenditure, col. 1428; “Dilemma – to Focus on Many or a Few?” Straits Times, 1 August 1997, 56 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Management University, “History.”
7. Tan, oral history interview, 2.
8. Tan, oral history interview, 2.
9. Ng, New Educational Environment, 12.
10. Singapore Management University, “History.”
11. “SMU Links Up with Top US Business School,” Straits Times, 4 February 1999, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Ng, New Educational Environment, 15; Tan, oral history interview, 2.
13. Tan, oral history interview, 3; Singapore Management University, Leading the Future, 7.
14. Singapore Management University, Leading the Future, 7.
15. Singapore Management University, Leading the Future, 7; Singapore Management University, “History”; Singapore Management University, SMU Annual Report to Stakeholders 2011/12 (Singapore: Singapore Management University, 2012), 64. (Call no. RSING q378.5957 SMURS)
16. Singapore Management University, Leading the Future, 7–8.
17. Rachel Ong, “Curriculum with a Difference,” Business Times, 22 May 2001, 28 (From NewspaperSG); “Admissions & Requirements,” Singapore Management University, accessed 2014; “Thank you, Janice!” SMUhub (October 2001), 1 (Call no. RSING 378.5957 SH); “SAT Subject Tests Overview,” The College Board, accessed 2014.
18. Singapore Management University, Leading the Future, 7; Ong, “Curriculum with a Difference.” 
19. Ng, New Educational Environment, 32, 34; Ong, “Curriculum with a Difference.” 
20. Singapore Management University, “Facts.”
21. Singapore Management University, Leading the Future, 8, 24.
22. Singapore Management University, “Singapore Management University Launches the Bachelor of Accountancy Degree,” press release, 8 November 2000; Singapore Management University, “SMU Offers Double Degree in Business Management and Accountancy,” press release, 4 January 2001.
23. “SMU Launches MSc in Applied Finance,” SMUhub (October 2001), 3 (Call no. RSING 378.5957 SH); Singapore Management University, “Singapore Management University’s Pioneer Cohort of Masters Students Graduates,” press release, 23 July 2003.
24. Singapore Management University, “Singapore Management University’s “First Graduates” Secure Jobs with Top Employers Well in Advance of August Graduationy,” press release, 30 May 2003.
25. Singapore Management University, Shaping Tomorrow Today: Report to Stakeholders 2003/2004 (Singapore: Singapore Management University, 2004), 10–11 (Call no. RSING q378.5957 SMURS); “Pioneer SMU Batch Graduates,” Straits Times, 11 July 2004, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Singapore Management University, “Facts.”
27. “SMU's Move to Diversify Is a Positive Step,” Business Times, 14 January 2014, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Marissa Chew, “Wharton-SMU Research Centre Set Up,” Business Times, 11 June 1999, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Wharton-SMU Research Centre,” Singapore Management University, accessed 2012.
30. “About,” Singapore Management University, accessed 4 August 2014.
31. Singapore Management University, “Facts”; Singapore Management University, “About.”  
32. Singapore Management University, “New Research Institute at SMU To Help SMEs,” press release, 21 September 2012; Singapore Management University, “New A*STAR-SMU Centre Combines High-Powered Computing and Behavioural Sciences to Study People-Centric Issues,” press release, 18 June 2014.
33. Ng, New Educational Environment, 76; Singapore Management University, Singapore Lagi Shiok: International Students’ Handbook (Singapore: Singapore Management University, 2013), 24. (Call no. RSING 378.5957 SIN)
34. Ng, New Educational Environment, 24, 26, 88.
35. Ng, New Educational Environment, 24; Francis Kan, “SMU Holds Ground Breaking for First Building,” Business Times, 13 January 2000, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Ng, New Educational Environment, 24; Kan, “SMU Holds Ground Breaking.”
37. Singapore Management University, “RAdm Teo Chee Hean Previews Singapore Management University's Bukit Timah Campus,” press release, 14 June 2001.
38. Ng, New Educational Environment, 24; “A New Home – Bukit Timah Campus Opens Its Doors,” SMUhub (October 2001), 8. (Call no. RSING 378.5957 SH)
39. Ng, New Educational Environment, 88; Arthur Poon, “SMU Bids Farewell to Bukit Timah,” Straits Times, 1 August 2005, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
40. Ng, New Educational Environment, 92; Singapore Management University, “Campus Information.”
41. Singapore Management University, Singapore Lagi Shiok, 13.
42. Singapore Management University, “Breaking Ground for New School Law Building,” press release, 23 January 2014.

Further resources
Jack Yong Ho and Ong Dai Lin, eds., Research Excellence at Singapore Management University (Singapore: Egg Creatives, 2012). (Call no. RSING 378.0072 RES)

National Library Board, Singapore, Singapore Management University Is Established, HistorySG, published 2014.

Rigel Leow Hian Dee, ed., S.M.U.G.: Singapore Management University Guidebook (Singapore: SMU Students’ Association, 2008). (Call no. RSING 378.5957 SMU)

The information in this article is valid as of 16 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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