Ex-president Tony Tan awarded honorary degree for his role in setting up SMU

Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam speaking at the opening ceremony for SMU's commencement on July 26, 2022. PHOTO: SMU

SINGAPORE - Former president Tony Tan Keng Yam started drawing up plans in 1997 to set up the Singapore Management University (SMU) when he was deputy prime minister and overseeing higher education.

When formulating the blueprint for the country's third university, he took the opportunity to give differentiation, variety and new directions to Singapore's higher education sector.

On Tuesday (July 26), Dr Tan was lauded for this and many other contributions with an honorary Doctor of Laws or Honoris Causa degree from SMU.

In a speech at the opening ceremony for SMU's commencement at its Victoria Street campus, Dr Tan spoke about his role in setting up the university.

He said: "I first mooted the idea to establish a third university when I suggested in Parliament in 1997 that Singapore's economy would need 17,000 university graduates by 2000, whereas NUS and NTU could only graduate up to 10,000 students every year."

He and his team decided that the new university would focus on business and management because of the way Singapore's economy was evolving, and it would also adopt a different model of education, he added.

So, SMU departed from the British model used for Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS), and instead took inspiration from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, a renowned business school from the United States, Dr Tan said.

Businessman Ho Kwon Ping, who helms leisure group Banyan Tree and is chairman of the SMU board of trustees, was brought in to head the new institution.

Mr Ho on Tuesday delivered Dr Tan's citation - 25 years after his first meeting with Dr Tan to set up SMU, and calling it a "poignant sense of coming full circle".

In his speech to an audience of about 1,200, Mr Ho detailed Dr Tan's distinguished career, from his days as a lecturer at the University of Singapore - first in physics, then mathematics three years later in 1967.

Two years later, he moved to banking at OCBC Bank, where he spent a decade before entering politics in 1979.

Over the next 12 years, he held Cabinet positions like the finance, education, and trade and industry portfolios, and was closely involved in the labour movement. In 1991, he stepped down from politics to return to the private sector.

He returned to the Cabinet in August 1995 and was made DPM and defence minister. Dr Tan retired from the Cabinet in September 2005 and was appointed chairman of the National Research Foundation, as well as Singapore Press Holdings, among other things.

In July 2011, he successfully contested the presidential election, and was sworn in as Singapore's seventh president on Sept 1, 2011.

Mr Ho said Dr Tan - who received his degree from SMU chancellor and former Cabinet minister Lim Chee Onn - had championed higher education during his time in politics.

He said: "Under Dr Tan's guidance, university education in Singapore became more globalised, and was made accessible to more Singaporeans, regardless of their family or financial background."

In his speech, Mr Ho said that when he and Dr Tan first met to discuss the new university, it did not have a name or logo, and no one knew what faculties to develop or where the campus would be.

Describing themselves as an odd couple, Mr Ho said: "Dr Tan is quite cerebral, soft-spoken but very clear-minded and me, quite brash and rash. Somehow, we clicked."

He added that through this relationship and the contributions of many other people like the pioneer faculty and management team and initial cohorts of students, SMU took off and has never looked back.

Mr Ho also said he will turn 70 next month and will  be stepping down as SMU chairman after more than 20 years. SMU said it will announce a successor at a later date.

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