Oral History Collection


Tony Keng Yam TAN

Publication Type


Date of Interview



Patricia Meyer


Singapore Management University, SMU, Tony Tan, Singapore education, university places, history, university founding, beginnings, management school, economics school, business school, British education model, American education model, differentiation, university administration, university admissions, university president, infrastructure investment, Singapore Institute of Technology SIT, National University of Singapore NUS, Nanyang Technological University NTU, Ho Kwon Ping, Janice Bellace, Singapore Ministry of Education, university campus, Bukit Timah Campus, city campus, Bras Basah Road, business education, naming of university, interdisciplinary research, university admissions, marketing, university curriculum, University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School, pedagogy, student development, initiative, creative thinking, decision making skills, confident graduates, autonomous university, personnel management, successful experiment, quality of graduates, SMU alumni, integrated thinking, convocation, commencement, third university, government policy, education policy, Yale-NUS College, personal satisfaction, American-style education


The interview covered: higher education landscape, setting up SMU, naming a new university, different university, admission criteria, student interaction, first graduation ceremony, future of university education.


Patron, SMU, 2011–present
Visionary and architect of SMU

Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam steered the development of university education in Singapore and was instrumental in the creation of Singapore Management University. Involved in higher education in Singapore for over three decades, he served as education minister (1980–1981 and 1985–1991), vice-chancellor of the National University of Singapore (1980–1981), and was appointed deputy prime minister of Singapore (1995–2005). He is credited with restructuring Singapore’s educational system to make it more responsive to the modern demands of the society and the economy. Guided by Dr Tan’s vision of an autonomous, American-style university the start-up team set out to make this vision a reality.

Elected president of the Republic of Singapore in September 2011, Dr Tan also serves as SMU’s Patron.

Early in his career he taught physics and mathematics at the then University of Singapore. In 1969 he joined the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) and worked there for ten years. He served as vice-chancellor of the National University of Singapore (1980–1981) and later as chairman of OCBC from 1992 to 1995. Dr Tan held various portfolios with the Singapore Government from 1979 to 1991 and from 1995 to 2005, including defence minister, finance minister, education minister, health minister, and trade and industry minister. After stepping down from the Cabinet in 2005 Dr Tan was appointed chairman of the National Research Foundation, chairman of Singapore Press Holdings Ltd, and executive director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation Pte Ltd. He held these posts until 2011 when he became president of Singapore.

In recognition of his role as a visionary architect of Singapore’s university sector Dr Tan was presented the NUS Eminent Alumni Award in 1995.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics at the then University of Singapore; his master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA; and his PhD from the University of Adelaide, Australia.


Asian Studies | Higher Education | Higher Education Administration

Page Numbers



This is an abridged version of the original interview. Please contact the Library at library@smu.edu.sg for access to the full version of the transcript and/or audio recording.

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