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Prof Cham hands UniSIM baton to Gerard Ee

When Professor Cham Tao Soon helped establish SIM University (UniSIM) in 2005, he had a hard time convincing faculty members to embrace online teaching.

SINGAPORE: When Professor Cham Tao Soon helped establish SIM University (UniSIM) in 2005, he had a hard time convincing faculty members to embrace online teaching.

“They were reluctant to use it to teach students, but I insisted that e-learning was the way to engage students, many of whom are IT-savvy,” recalled Prof Cham, 74, who also had a hand in the formation of Nanyang Technological Institute, which later became Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and the Singapore Management University.

Nine years on, with online learning a buzz phrase among top universities here and abroad, Prof Cham’s persistence has paid off.

“I am not trying to boast, but I dare say UniSIM is quite advanced now in providing online courses for students,” he said.

Yesterday, UniSIM announced that Prof Cham had retired with effect from Friday as its chancellor and chairman. Former Public Transport Council (PTC) chairman Gerard Ee, who previously headed the SIM governing council, has taken over the positions.

Looking back on his tenure at UniSIM, Prof Cham recounted the challenge of gaining the confidence of employers in the university’s early years. It also took some effort to convince students of its credibility, he said.

UniSIM relied on a large pool of part-time faculty members, many of whom “have strong industrial knowledge, but may not be able to teach as well”. Extra efforts were required to teach the teachers, said Prof Cham. To that end, a teaching and learning centre was set up for faculty members to learn from one another.

Prof Cham added that UniSIM’s efforts were vindicated in 2012, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in his National Day Rally speech that it would be granted national university status.

“I was very happy,” he said. The good news did not end there. A year later, it was announced that UniSIM would host Singapore’s third law school.

Before helping to set up UniSIM, Prof Cham had been NTU president for 22 years, during which he oversaw its transition from Nanyang Technological Institute.

He noted that the challenges he had faced in NTU’s fledgling years were similar to those at UniSIM. “When I was with NTU, I thought about how we could differentiate ourselves from the others and that led to the creation of a more practice-oriented university. Likewise, with UniSIM, we started from scratch, so we had to be different from the rest and establish ourselves as a credible university.”

In contrast to Prof Cham’s extensive experience in education, Mr Ee, 65, is relatively new to the field, despite having worn many hats in public service over the years.

Having stepped down as PTC chairman at the start of the month, Mr Ee is also president of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants and chairman of the Council for Third Age.

Conceding that being chancellor and chairman of UniSIM, which is taking in its first batch of full-time students this year, will be “something new”, Mr Ee said he hopes to bring a fresh perspective and tap his experience in social services.

“Evolution happens by having new and fresh ideas and I think I bring on board a better understanding of what the community needs. It will definitely be a refreshing change,” he said.

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