Is the SMU difference for real?

THE pioneering cohort of Singapore Management University (SMU) graduates will face their real test as they enter the job market in the coming months.

Can they convince potential employers that their hard-earned qualifications - a much vaunted American-style liberal education from a university still in its infancy - can match those from more established institutions, both locally and abroad?

By every indication, the odds are on their side. The batch of students who accelerated their course and graduated earlier secured employment within a month of graduating. The economic recovery is no doubt a factor. But SMU students have also earned their reputation for being articulate, confident, out-of-the-box thinkers - and it's not just marketing hype about being 'different'.

This willingness to tease out value from the tangential is a recurrent trait.

As an occasional guest at classes over the years, I've been pleasantly surprised by the attentiveness and open-mindedness of the average SMU student. They demonstrated a refreshing knack of engaging with the topic at hand, even when the material ventured into the esoteric, be it Greek tragedy, Filipino erotic literature or blues music. And yes, they were outspoken, probing, earnestly interested in the unfamiliar and its possibilities.

This willingness to tease out value from the seemingly tangential is a recurrent trait at SMU. Apart from the core business curriculum, students must take elective courses in both the arts and sciences - which may include such diverse fields as creative thinking, art, politics and biology.

Two weeks ago, I was invited to an accountancy conference organised by the SMU. It featured activities least likely to be associated with double- entry bookkeeping - cultural performances, poetry readings, even a creative writing workshop.

Of course the fashionable business rationale for these 'soft' events was to provide 'insights into the workplace and the processes of social organisation'. Yet these were by all accounts well-attended and well-received sessions, not token 'feel good' efforts.


SMU takes in candidates from relatively diverse educational backgrounds, applying admissions criteria that leans famously towards the unconventional (one interview question goes: 'If Singapore goes totally 'dry', how will you find laughter in what you do?').

Some might expect more gravitas in a university - as would likely be the case in traditional faculties such as law and medicine. Yet such risk-taking, breadth and even playfulness is entire appropriate for a private institution geared towards developing a new generation of managers and entrepreneurs - equipped to translate today's niche ideas into tomorrow's business opportunity. It's a design feature, not a bug, as some IT pros might put it.

Being able to move easily from one domain to another, says Associate Professor Kirpal Singh from SMU's humanities faculty and author of creativity guide Thinking Hats And Colored Turbans, is an asset in dealing with the 'larger sensibilities' of society and the new global environment.

It's a view long shared by experts around the world. Economists Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane even suggest in their recent book, The New Division Of Labour, that job skills involving complex communication and adaptive, multi-disciplinary thinking are going to be the most valuable and least likely to be outsourced to lower-cost centres.

Students I spoke to had the same eye to the big picture, and were nonchalantly confident about their own prospects. 'I didn't come to SMU only to get a job,' declares Mr Taresh Dhawan, a third-year business student from India. Instead, he's acquired, at a fraction of the cost, a 'comparable quality of education' to that in the United States, with plenty of face-time with professors and opportunities for development.

Mr Dhawan, who is vice-president of SMU's Student Association, is dismissive of the notion that SMU graduates are necessarily a class apart - they too have their share of quiet ones. Still, he thinks there's a higher percentage of those with 'special qualities' in SMU than other institutions and believes the SMU environment 'makes it easier for students to develop in such a manner'.

What does he think about Singapore in general? The sore lack of 'outliers', or individuals who buck behavioural trends to do their own thing. There's 'too much pressure to conform', he feels.


IT'S less of a problem among SMU graduates, it seems. Like many of them, finance and marketing graduate Amelia Quek waited for the right job fit instead of jumping at the first offer - and they apparently get to cherry pick from the best firms. Ms Quek now works for financial giant JP Morgan.

Several others, like Chinese national Zhou Bing, are proudly self-employed.

'We have to look beyond boundaries,' asserts marketing major Elfarina Mohammed Zaid, who wants to apply business management skills to the fashion industry.

Sure, there's no silver bullet to nurturing the outliers, trendsetters and entrepreneurs we will need to get ahead in the next wave of growth, whatever our business. But, speaking as a prospective employer, I'd be inclined to look at an SMU graduate first. Assuming they aren't all already snapped up. Enterprising candidates know how to get in touch.