Studying at Singapore Management University (SMU)

By Kerry Dwyer

In order to understand SMU, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of Singapore as a whole. For anyone who has seen or read The Hunger Games, the island’s one party system does not differ hugely. With a rigorous legal system that still includes the Death Penalty, anyone who steps out of line will know all about it. As it is so small, Singapore’s paranoia of colonisation by its neighbours is the ‘elephant in the room’ and this is evident in their severe government and extensive defence systems. As a result, the island is a pretty easy place to live with neighbourhoods planned to have equal proportions of every ethnicity, impressively low levels of homelessness due to HDB [1] provisions, spotless streets (without a public bin in sight) and extremely efficient transport. The Straits Times - the good news newspaper - only portrays the latter with little mention of anything less than ideal.

SMU could be seen as an emblem of Singapore – spotless, orderly, happy, safe, successful but also partially pretentious, rigid and narrow minded.

As SMU is the youngest university in a quickly developing country, their enthusiasm for education is one that cannot go unremarked from the moment you step foot in the complex.

SMU, like any other university, encompasses a wide variety of students. As a management university it is a great place to network, attend talks by different CEOs and gain an insight into the way they think about business and economics from an Eastern perspective but also from a number of other views in a country that is so multi-cultured and has quite a Western focus too.

The modern, high comfort facilities they provide highlight the importance they place on their students and on ensuring they fulfil their potential. With personal study booths, group project rooms, learning labs, multiple lounge and ‘nap’ areas as well as a food court, cafes and access to a brand new gym, they leave you with no excuse to venture far from the library. This excuse however, is not something Singaporean students look for.

SMU could be compared to Wall Street in a way. While the students there are the best of the best, they are under massive pressure from a ‘GPA race’ to get the returns from their investments, or the results from their study. For many SMU students, studying is a form of enjoyment. Overnight stays in the library are not uncommon and in fact, they are considered an achievement to boast about.

From the age of 4, Singaporean students have their futures mapped out for them. Whether they are destined to be a taxi driver or a heart surgeon is somehow expected to be evident from this age with their education and career path decided as quickly as they learn to walk. Like a factory, the Singaporean education system breeds and raises the ideal Singaporean citizens who will ultimately contribute positively to society and helps to set them up for a comfortable future. After hearing a recent story of a 13-year-old boy taking his own life after getting his exam results, it became clear to me that this system is not exactly what they think it is and it has its failings. The stakes are high in terms of future success, employability and career paths meaning Singaporean students are terrified of risk and failure. With academic rankings and GPAs [2] considered the indicators of success, a general work-life balance is not valued as highly as it should be.

Apart from the importance of results, SMU places a major emphasis on group project work.

Unlike at home where we avoid any sort of presentation at all costs, SMU students seek it out and modules with greater result weighting for presentations tend to be in higher demand. After my BOSS Bidding (an online auction for modules) didn’t go to plan, I ended up being unable to avoid presentations even though the majority of my courses were finance based and would usually entail a very small amount of group work. Having had five presentations this semester, I was forced out of my comfort zone and into an area of expertise among SMU students. Even their PowerPoint skills were on another level to ours, meaning I couldn’t even offer to put the presentation together to avoid presenting.

99% of SMU students have already made up their mind on what they want to do in their later life by the time they’ve picked their major at the end of their first year. SMU teaches them to excel in their studies, network effectively, and exceed in their line of career they have chosen. It doesn’t necessarily encourage a change of mind on this decision or thinking outside the box - that is an Asian sense of duty, taking risks and creating your own future. The main differentiator between a typical SMU student and one who has been on exchange is that they don’t fall into the tunnel vision of the Singapore education system. They are more open-minded and interested in making friends with incoming exchange students and these social skills are the difference between those who will follow the systematic path and get a decent job and the those who will make changes. This can be seen in the demand for European people to work in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, where our social skills are needed in order to compliment and enhance the intellectual abilities of the natives.

The campus reminds me of a ‘sci-fi’, modern Trinity in a way. Situated in the city centre, right at the top of the famous, bustling Orchard Road, the discipline not to finish up early and go for a bit of window shopping or for a few drinks with friends is something we could learn from. Or maybe it’s just the outrageous cost of alcohol and shopping that makes the La Ka Shing library more attractive…

[1] * (High Density Buildings, also Housing & Development Board)

[2] Gross Percentage Average

This post written by Miss Kerry Dwyer, a Business and Economics Undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin, first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse 7 February 2017. Do join in the discussion over there if you have thoughts to share.


Guy awaiting university entry scarred by taunting during secondary school days

MOE finally decides to do something about half a billion dollar worth of outstanding tuition loans

The flaws of Singapore’s education system