In Conversation with Chong Tow Chong

An interview with our Provost, shortly before he became the President.


Multidisciplinary #

Chay Choong (CC): What did you do before SUTD?

Chong Tow Chong (CTC): I was in NUS for a long time as a professor before I was seconded into A*STAR to run a research institute called the Data Storage Institute (DSI). I became its director. About 5 years later, they invited me to be deputy executive director of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC).

The first task given to me in SERC was to build Fusionopolis to bring an array of research institutions together under one roof. At that time, the research institutes in Singapore – all 7 of them – were spread. The directors hardly saw each other. They didn’t talk to each other.

If we approach companies and tell them that we have seven institutes under one roof, and they have capabilities from material research, computation, device to manufacturing and systems, they will open their eyes and pay attention because the industry actually needs this kind of multidisciplinary capabilities. So we built Fusionopolis. We brought two and a half research institutes there during phase 1 in 2008, and it was quite successful. Phase 2 would bring the rest of the research institutes under one roof. I really appreciated this multidisciplinary idea.

The opportunity #

One fine day, the MOE deputy secretary Low Ngai Seng called me up and asked, “Can we have a chat”. I said, “Why not?” He was the board member of A*STAR, and I thought he wanted to talk about A*STAR, but it was about SUTD. He said they were looking for a provost. They’ve identified the president, and for the role of provost they said they would prefer a local guy who knows the ministries and agencies, and someone who knows how to manage the budget, and so on.

CC: Did you know Ngai Seng personally back then?

CTC: No, not personally. It was my first time meeting him.

I told him, it’s difficult because I’m in the midst of planning Fusionopolis 2, and I’m the anchor person doing it. If I go, how? He said, never mind, let’s just have a chat. We had a lunch together with Tom – it was my first time meeting him there too. Philip (Ng) was there as well.

Tom painted a vision of SUTD which resonated in me: an integrated, multidisciplinary education and research institution. It is something I hoped A*STAR could do. It sounded very exciting. This will be the fourth university. A new one. How often are you given the opportunity to start a new university? I went back and thought about it. I can’t just decide on the spot just because I like it. I needed to discuss with my wife. I knew what I was going to do for the next 5 years in A*STAR, it was all planned out, but for this new job, I’m uncertain. All I’m told is, we’re going to set up a new university. There’s MIT, but really there’s nothing yet.

Risk and meaning #

And also, when I think about doing something new, my priority is whether it would be meaningful. If it’s not meaningful, I won’t have the interest to do it. To me, my work must be meaningful to my family, and meaningful to the people that I’m working for and working with. I thought that this would be pretty meaningful because it is timely for a university to look into multidisciplinary education; that is what I experienced in A*STAR.

I thought that it’s worth doing it, even though we start from nothing and it’s not very clear what we would be doing. I believed that if we put our heart and soul we will see results. It didn’t take too long for me to decide that I want to do it.

CC: So how long did you take to make the decision? It sounded like weeks.

CTC: It was more than that. I needed to find out more.

For example, I needed to find out what was the arrangement with MIT. I knew that they had a collaboration with Singapore, SMA, when I was in NUS. I also knew about SMART and how they work. I knew that if they work using the same model in this new university, it will not work out well. SMA and SMART is MIT centric, and I feel that this university must be Singapore centric because it is a local university, and most students would be locals. I needed to find out how much autonomy we had without being hand-tied to MIT. So I needed to find out all these to know if the work I do would be meaningful. If you tell me that I would be a provost that only takes orders from MIT, then perhaps I may not be too keen, because MIT’s interest may not be our interest.

I went to see the perm sec of MOE, Tan Ching Yee. She explained to me that the objective of this university is to increase the cohort participation – that was back in 2009 – from 25% to 30%. Back in my days, only 5% of my cohort went to universities. Now, they wanted to hit 35% by 2015. There are two ways to do it: one, get NUS and NTU to expand, which is fine but not sustainable. Or two, start a new university. At that time, SUTD was the only university planned, no SIT yet. SUTD had to take on the number to make up the 5% increase. At that time, 5% equals 2400 places a year. That changed when MIT came to the discussions because they wanted a smaller cohort. That’s actually why SIT was set up.

I talked to Philip and one other trustee. I was convinced that we had autonomy and the interest is about Singapore. I made the decision to join SUTD early Nov 2009.

CC: What about A*STAR?

CTC: The chairman said he couldn’t release me because I was working on Fusionopolis 2. But I asked myself, ultimately the decision belongs to me. I told the chairman, I think for Fusionopolis, somebody else can do it. We’ve already laid down all the plans. In fact, F2 plans were already there, somebody just had to execute it. I thought, well, I have maybe another 10 to 15 years in my career. There are two ways I can do it. One is a very certain path. I’m sure I would be very happy doing Fusionopolis F2 and retire happily. The other path is uncertain, but I know that the impact would be very good even compared to Fusionopolis. If I had another 10–15 years in my career life, I want to do this.

A*STAR chairman said, okay since that is what you want to do, I will support you. So I was released. The announcement was made in 2010.

Starting from nothing #

CC: When did you start to be involved in SUTD. What were the first tasks?

CTC: A*STAR made it difficult for me to go immediately. My portfolio was quite big: CRC (Computational Resource Centre) and DSI (Data Storage Institute). I could only go after 6 months. I told A*STAR I was going to leave in Jan, the earliest I could join SUTD was in June. During that 6 months, SUTD was in Gim Moh. I could go there for 2 days a week, because it was near Fusionopolis.

Ngai Seng called me up suddenly one day, just after Chinese New Year. He said “Do you know that you have to start admissions right now?” I didn’t know why. I didn’t realise that we need to admit the boys first – I wasn’t used to the system yet. I thought it was still early – even if we attract the boys, they would have to wait for 2 years before entering SUTD. But Ngai Seng said we had to admit now. I gathered Pey Kin Leong, myself, HR, Corinna and Bee Lok. We sat down together, and I took the leadership role. There was a big board and we started drawing a timeline.

So that was how I started. My first job was the first admissions exercise. That was in 2010. The boys would be expecting to start university in 2011, but we won’t have started then in 2011. The boys would come in knowing that they would have to wait for one year. How are we going to attract these students? We had nothing, we don’t have a good venue. We rented a big ballroom, brought in MIT people. Tom did his sharing of the future, vision, mission, and so on. We had no faculty yet. Guess how many turned up?

CC: About 100?

CTC: 81. Afterwards, Ngai Seng came and congratulated me “You could get 81! I thought it’d only be around 50.” Because we were really trying to sell something that is not in existence yet.

CC: How did you all put out the word?

CTC: Advertisements and mailing. Corrina’s work.

At that time, SUTD already had some publicity. When they announced this, it was quite big news. Go look at the newspapers in 2009. Tony Tan was pushing hard for it. It was signed with the SUTD, Tom and President of Zhejiang University. We had a APAC event. PM Lee, Hu Jingtao came to witness the signing.. it was a big thing! We attracted some students who really wanted to know more about the new university. That hall had 500 seats and we filled up all of them.

The pioneers #

Actually, our selection was quite strict for the first batch. We had to discard many good students – we really went for quality. The UAS cut off point was 78, which is very good.

We also started the practise of delivering offer letters personally to your house. It was quite busy then. I found it interesting, it was my first time doing something like that. So we did this almost every weekend and some weekdays. These were army boys, so most of the time we could only find them at night or on weekends. My weekends were all burnt doing this.

My first student was Leon, the architecture student. Leon Cher. His mother invite me in, and we sat down and talked. So these conversations were opportunities to explain about SUTD. It was very good because through this we clarified a lot of things with the parents.

Sometimes, the conversations were challenging. Some parents could only speak Chinese. I remember there was a mom who could not speak English and Chinese, but only a dialect – Cantonese. It was very difficult.

It’s hard work but I think it’s something that we must do as a young university. When I was in A*STAR there were a lot of people working for me. But here, I had to do everything yourself. We were so small. The start-up spirit is very strong and I thought that was very good.

CC: I’ve always that the pioneer batch was different. I think it’s because they were in the same situation as you right? You all took a risk coming to SUTD because this was a brand new place. Do you find that there’s something special about the environment here in SUTD?

CTC: Definitely. We were all quite close and we could talk quite frankly with each other. We had common goals that we wanted to achieve together.

Nobody ever complained when we had to put in extra work to make things happen. When they joined us we also told them, this is something that we require you to do. You have to burn some of your weekends. Yes, we actually told them upfront. But they were all happy to join. When everyone put in hard work together, it brings people together. You can feel the start-up spirit.

I also miss teaching. Actually I taught the first years before.

CC: You had more time then.

CTC: Yes. Also because I asked myself, if I don’t teach them, how will I know how they learn. At least now I have the confidence to say that I know how they learn.

CC: Do you find that as the university gets bigger, like-

CTC: Right now?

CC: Like right now. How has this spirit changed?

CTC: I think it will change definitely. What actually worries me is, as we keep growing, as people change and so on, will the university continue to embrace this culture? It will be quite challenging.

The senior management has to continue to embrace it. When we bring in a new HOP (Head of Pillar), we want the HOP to be on the same page. If we have a change of president, it is important that this president should believe in the same vision, otherwise he will change it.

The provost’s role #

CC: I think a lot of people do not understand what people at the top do. Can you roughly explain your position in SUTD and how is it different from Tom and the board of directors?

CTC: A provost basically runs the university.

Let’s say, finance. The provost ensure that we have enough funding. Funding given by MOE and we have to spend it in such a way that it does not go into deficit right? That budget discipline must be there. I think my experience in A*STAR helped me a lot, we were quite disciplined and very prudent.

Another main focus is on academics. I am responsible for getting my senior academic team in place. All the HOPs, associate provosts and the key faculty. Who should we hire? What’s our direction? My job scope in SUTD is more than just the traditional provost, which is the key academic officer, because I don’t have a vice-president to take care of administration. But Tom told me that it’s better to do that also because we are small. You don’t want to create another layer right? Otherwise, everything I do that I have to negotiate with the other guy. And if the other guy doesn’t give in, we have to compromise. As a young university, we can’t do that.

It turns out that because of that, our academic side and the administration worked quite well together. In most universities, these two rarely communicate. And they need not work together right – HR should not need to be involved in faculty matters – just focus on hiring. But our HR was quite involved in faculty matters. In a way, we broke down the barriers, the artificial walls between the administration and the faculty.

The thing about a young university is, your leaders… you really have to get an A-team. You get a B-team, you have to do all the job. You get an A-team, at least you can spend time to look at strategic issues, and can sleep better right? I think we had an A-team.

Originally we had only one associate provost, Prof Pey. He took care of education and our curriculum. The next one we hired was Martin Dunn because I need someone to take care of the research work in SUTD.

The next was Seh Chun, he came in much later. He took care of student affairs. We made it such that it was end to end: the admissions team, the registrar office that takes care of all the existing students, the alumni office, and student life that takes care of our fifth rows, all of them are under Prof Lim. I think this is good because we can follow the students’ journey from start to end. This is something quite new, and because we’re small, we can do that here. When you’re small, you can do a lot of things that big organisations cannot do.

CC: Who came up with that idea?

CTC: I came up with that. Because I was running it that way and I found it really useful, so I told Prof Lim, don’t split it, do everything together. I think it worked well so far la.

Of course, we also paid a lot of attention to the pillars. As each pillar grows, sometimes they compete quite strongly with each other. For example, they always claim that Physical World is all about EPD, and Digital World is about ISTD, and Systems World is more about ESD. Then ASD will raise their hand and complain, ‘how come I don’t have more exposure?’ I remember Jeffrey Huang told me that we should have one more course in term three that showcases architecture. But Tom’s concept is not like this. Freshmore should not be pillars-centric, but it turned out like this. I think we need to do much better to make sure that the interests of the pillars should not be too dominating. As we grow bigger it will be more difficult to manage.

As for Board of directors, they are not here full time. But I must say, the trustees have been very generous in giving us their time. Just look at Mr Philip Ng, he really gave us his time. It’s the first time I had to attend a Board of Trustees meeting every two months, i.e. 6 times a year! Philip felt that it was so important for the Board of Trustees to have good oversight of a young university. We also have subcommittees, for example, Advancement, Finance and Audit. The audit committee makes sure that we are prudent, not wasteful, and on track with our budget. I run the university always with a surplus.. I can’t run a deficit budget. You have to accumulate surplus every year so that you can have more flexibility. The trustees help us to do that. Trustees give us guidance.

Bureaucracy #

I also have to make sure that we are compliant with standards. This is quite challenging because of the cultural difference. Those from the U.S., even the pillar heads, are not used to the system here. Our system here is like, if you want to buy something, ITQ, 3 quotes. Above a certain value, there is a tender process. The tender process, must have evaluation report, there’s a format to do that and get used to. And reimbursement! If you want to claim anything, you must have the receipt. We will be audited. My job is to balance this, yet. not making people feel constrained. It takes some time to communicate why we need this, especially when new people join us. We are different from the US, there’s really a cultural difference.

CC: Ah yes. I asked Tom if there’s anything special about Singapore that makes it such that SUTD can only work in Singapore, and if there’s anything he doesn’t like about Singapore. He mentioned about the systems here.

CTC: It’s always the financial procedure. Or procurement. There are a lot of things that people don’t understand. But to be honest we already have simplified a lot of things. For example, every capstone team here gets a p-card (purchase cards). In my whole life in NUS, we were never issued corporate credit cards. Of course, you all had to sign a declaration that you won’t use it for personal purposes.

Protecting our reputation #

We tried to streamline many things to make us less bureaucratic. But bureaucracy always have to be there because we are an organisation, we cannot avoid bureaucracy.

CC: Maybe students are still not used to it. Because we come in with the mentality that this will be a different place.

CTC: We will continue to reduce processes that is not value-adding. The audit chairman always tells me, “we do all these not because we are busybodies, you know. We just want to make sure that we protect the reputation of the university.”

We hear about scandals all the time, even in big universities like NUS and NTU. Faculty plagiarism, etc. They can cushion it because they are big. Imagine if something like that this happens here, say some faculty is involved in a scandal with a student. I tell you, our reputation will be totally destroyed.

Similarly, we have an endowment. Say, if we wanted to take high risks to get high returns, and we lose money because the market is volatile. Donors will be like, I gave you so much money and you lose 30% of it, why should I give you any more?

We call this risk management. We identify what will be the top risks for this organisation that can damage the reputation of the organisation. We cannot afford to have a scandal at this point because we are so small. That’s why I always worry about our hostel. If anything happens and gets reported in the news, it will be very damaging to us. We have females. Young international students. We admitted a 16 year old, and he’s considered a minor. We cannot let anything happen to them. I hope students understand that.

Expectations #

CC: Back in 2009, when you made that jump to SUTD, I’m sure you had a plan in mind. Did everything meet your expectations?

CTC: In this short period of time, these 7 years, looking what what we’ve achieved, I feel quite proud of it. From a single floor in Ghim Moh to this.. It’s better than what I expected.
I bought a Daruma doll, those without eyes. It’s still in my office now. I am into the Japanese culture because I stayed there for 5 years. When you buy the doll, you think about what you want to do, and when you have decided on your objective, you paint the eye on the right side. You leave the left side empty until you have achieved the objective. I bought it in 2010 when I knew what I wanted.

The most important milestone for me is, what will the newspaper headlines say when our first batch graduate in 2015? I waited for that moment. If we achieved our objectives, I’ll draw the eye and complete the doll. Once you have this goal in mind, whatever you do, it will guide you along. Fifth rows, exchange, UPOP, UTOP, whatever. Everything that prepare our students to be received well by the industry.

The first year turned out to be quite good; in fact, it’s beyond our expectations. Our students did well. I drew the doll’s left eye.

The Next Milestone #

CC: Before you complete your journey, what is the one big milestone you want to achieve?

CTC: We have already a few big milestones.

CC: The collaboration with MIT.

CTC: And the graduation of the first batch. Run the undergraduate program for 6 cohorts. Acquiring accreditation.

I originally wanted to do 10 years here. This is already my 7th year, so I’ve got 3 more years. Okay, let’s say 5 years. These next 5 years is more challenging for SUTD now. We have to stand on our own, but we are much stronger now compared to before. But we can’t just keep doing the same thing. Others will catch up with us, like SIT and SUSS. Our cohort size is shrinking. Schools are merging. Who knows, universities may merge as well. Minister Ong said during a talk that SUTD has a distinct role to play in Singapore. We are a unique university.

Moving forward, we want to invest in SUTD by building capabilities, especially in human capital development. We need to build a very strong faculty here. Strong faculty attracts good students, and good students attract strong faculty. Tom calls it a free wheel, what comes around goes around, and once the momentum is on, it will go on by itself.

Another thing is having intellectual capital in the university. Once you have human capital, you can sustain the university. The government gives us money based on capitation, but if we want to do more, we need more money. To get more money, we must have capital, in terms of human and capital.

NTU recently surpassed NUS for the first time in the QS ranking. When they interviewed the president he said that they did well because of the standard of research was very good over the past few years. Only 14% of their faculty is responsibility for getting all these. So it’s not about how big you are, but the quality of the people. Say, I have 600 students per batch, times 4 batches to get 2400, plus all the PhDs, divide by 11. I can hire 280 faculty, by MOE’s budget for us. It is not a small number, especially because we do research. If half of them can generate a big output, we’ll easily catch up with NUS and NTU, there’s no doubt about it.

A small university like Caltech takes in 300 students, with 20 faculty, but they have such a good reputation. The people in there is really good. We have a Chinese saying, “山不在高, 有仙则名”. It’s not how tall the mountain is. If you have a deity in there, the mountain will be famous. It’s really about the people. SUTD must focus on this. We must focus on our niche, which is Design and Technology, and not lose track of that.

So I think a milestone is whether we can continue to do this, without MIT, and say, without IDC. We must start investing in our capital building, then we will be able to sustain ourselves, and our university will then be able to grow. At the same time, we must not forget our ultimate aim. We also have to maintain our uniqueness and be innovative.

I believe we will be in good shape.