Talking leadership: Lily Kong on not trying to be Harvard or Oxford

Singapore Management University president Lily Kong says the country’s institutions ‘must carve their own path’

June 16, 2023
Lily Kong
Source: Singapore Management University

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For decades, Singapore’s higher education system has modelled itself on the Ivy League in the West – and it’s about time for this to change, according to the president of one of its leading institutions.

“There’s a danger of always looking to universities elsewhere,” Lily Kong, president of the Singapore Management University (SMU), tells Times Higher Education.

“It is very easy to say the Harvards and Princetons and Oxfords and Cambridges are like this and we’re striving to be like them. There’s plenty to emulate, but also we’re in a different society, at a different stage of our historical evolution as a nation.”

While Singapore’s universities are not alone in looking to top Western institutions for inspiration, the concern about regional context is especially valid in the country. Established in 1965 when it separated from Malaysia, the nation state is just decades old. Nearly everything in it is imported.

“Singapore as a whole has always learned from somewhere else,” explains Kong. “If you’re going to build the MRT [Mass Rapid Transit system], you go to other cities to learn.”

The country’s higher education sector is also relatively new. The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University – its most prestigious institutions, which have a strong reputation abroad – were founded in 1980 and 1991, respectively. SMU is an even more recent arrival on the scene, with its first cohort starting in the year 2000.

Young though they are, these universities have come into their own in recent years, ranked among the top in Asia and the world. Now, Kong would like to see them carving out their own path, pursuing research topics even when “nobody else of the big players is doing this”.

A redoubled regional focus

Singaporean institutions should be responding to their geographical context and building strengths in areas that “might not be thought terribly sexy” but which are critical to the region, she believes.

“We’re here in the tropics…so rather than picking an area everyone’s competing in, let’s say cancer, should [we] be studying dengue fever instead?”

She cautions against “navel-gazing” and is firm in the idea that the nation’s universities must have a local impact.

“We want some of our research to be directed towards the region, and not necessarily an academic, intellectual or policy audience sitting in some other part of the world.”

Just as Singaporean universities must distinguish themselves from the world, SMU must set itself apart from its peers, she believes.

“As a teen, I read that the most dangerous time to be right is when everyone else is wrong. I’m not suggesting everyone else is wrong in this case…but we mustn’t all conform or gravitate to a mean. The value is in having diverse institutions, and the moment we all try to be the same as everyone else, we lose the opportunity to contribute something different.”

While she concedes that SMU simply does not have the breadth of research of its larger colleagues, its position as a “smallish” institution means that it must punch above its weight – “everyone needs to row together”.

According to Kong, SMU distinguishes itself from its larger peers with its emphasis on teaching, its smaller classes – groups of 30 to 40 rather than 140-seat lecture theatres – and devotion to a social mission.

The institution also puts a premium on the impact of its research. Kong is well aware that academics put a lot of stock in their h-index and the prestige of the journals they publish in, but she believes these metrics must sometimes take a back seat to more critical priorities.

It’s important to her that the university not just be “ensconced in the world of academia”. Kong is keen for SMU’s research to challenge “intellectual received wisdom” and also to be translated into real-world solutions – an aim reflected in the direction she has taken the institution.

When Kong stepped into the presidency at SMU in 2019 from her post as provost, she already knew the institution well. At that point, much of the institution’s development had been “organic rather than strategic”, she said. Her goal was to “get everyone to pull in the same direction”.

She settled on three broad priorities: digital transformation, sustainability and growth in Asia.

“I very much drive our university in the direction of research that makes a difference to business, government and society – that’s not going to be measured necessarily by citation counts,” she says.

Meet the neighbours

Kong is keen to form more links with other Asian countries, but it has not been easy convincing her students to focus on the region; when it comes to spending periods studying abroad, many are reluctant to choose neighbouring countries.

“Many students in Singapore think about an overseas experience as going to Europe, Australia or the US; our backyard is not always the first choice,” she says. “There’s a sense that there’s nothing to learn from the region, and I think that’s a terrible shame.”

While Singapore has gone from “third world to first” in a short time, the region has not followed the same trajectory. Kong sees opportunity in the places some of her students might dismiss.

“In Jakarta…the entrepreneurial and innovative ecosystem is thriving, the market is huge. If you had a good idea in Singapore, you’d never be able to scale it up; but 45 minutes away, the opportunities are immense.”

Back in the “old days”, if someone was posted to the Indonesian capital from Singapore, they would insist on a hardship allowance, she notes. That mentality still prevails. For many Singaporean students, their perception of the region is tied to their volunteer experiences in neighbouring countries.

“They’ll go deliver some form of voluntary service: build a toilet, teach English. That reinforces [the idea that] there’s nothing to learn from them,” she says. “We have to change that by changing the types of activities students go for.”

Kong is determined to reshape such attitudes by exposing more of her students to nearby nations and, on the flip side, by attracting more students from Asian countries to take classes at SMU.

“Building that trust at a young age leads to building more relationships, and that can only be good for the region,” she says.

This winter, SMU took steps towards this goal, opening its first overseas centre in Jakarta, which it plans to follow up with outposts in Thailand and Vietnam.

“It will function a bit like an embassy for a country,” she says, noting the importance of face-to-face interaction, especially in Asian cultures.

Already, the venture seems to be going well: “We’re getting so many knocks at our door.”

Yet Kong does admit that there are factors that prevent some types of collaboration.

“We’ve been pretty strategic in terms of types of relationships we build – we’re not looking for straight student exchange,” she says, given potential obstacles such as language barriers and different approaches to teaching.

Instead of a typical student exchange, the school is seeking to enrol students from nearby countries in its courses to learn alongside SMU students. In one course offered by SMU-X, the university’s experiential learning programme, SMU students and their counterparts at a top Indonesian university worked together on a project with an Indonesian organisation. The course was taught by an SMU professor and included an industry mentor.

Closer to home, too, the university is expanding its offerings, especially in the area of lifelong learning, which Singapore’s government has recently emphasised.

In the past five years, the SMU Academy for professional and continuing education for adults has grown “very rapidly”, thanks to strong connections to industry.

Still – ever focused on keeping up quality – Kong cautions that these advantages could quickly be cancelled out if she and her team miss a beat.

“Opportunities can very quickly fall flat on their face if we don’t deliver well,” she says.

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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