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Smith Students Travel to Singapore and Malaysia for Global Immersion Experience

Feb 26, 2012
Experiential / Reality-based Learning

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Each January dozens of students from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business use the winter break to their best advantage and embark on global immersion study trips around the world.

Read about the January 2012 trip to Singapore and Malaysia with faculty advisor Dr. Mark Wellman in the words of Smith School undergraduate student Douglas M. Kletter.

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With a population of only five million people, Singapore is just a small dot on a world map. However, for those who look for models of success in public policy, business, education, community development, crime control and urban planning, Singapore is a role model. In less than 50 years, Singapore transformed from a tiny port on the southern edge of Malaysia into one of the most developed Southeast Asian nations.

Forty-four students visited Singapore and Malaysia in January 2012 to gain an appreciation for the culture, customs, and practices of the region. An important outcome was to develop an understanding for how Singapore has emerged from a backwater third world economy into a world financial, urban planning and educational leader. The global immersion experience included: 1) preparatory activities that covered cultural, economic, and political issues in the region; 2) a 12-day trip to the region; and 3) assessing the impact of the experience by requiring students to submit a journal reflecting on the course events and completing a final examination that requires application of the assigned readings.

The in-country component of the course included organization visits to companies such as the Media Development Authority, Corporate Executive Board, Housing Development Board, BBC, Economic Development Board, Exxon, Asia Pacific Brewery, Singapore Airlines, Marina Bay Sands, Universal Studios, Discovery Communications, Petronas, and Air Asia. Students also had the opportunity for many cultural visits including Singapore’s Parliament, School of Hard Knocks, Singapore Zoo and Night Safari, Port Discovery Tour, National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Flyer, Titanic & ArtScience Museum, Kuala Gandah elephant sanctuary, and Batu Caves.

The experience began with a visit to the Media Development Authority where the group met with the Deputy CEO and University of Maryland alumnus, Michael Yap. He was a very insightful speaker that stressed the importance of creativity and entrepreneurship within the economy. By reflecting on his career path, students could easily grasp that hard work, determination, and passion can lead to success. Before joining the MDA, Mr. Yap was a Managing Director for Oracle and Vice President of Business Development. He also started many of his own business including Commerce Exchange, a software product company that now has a strong regional presence in more than 30 countries across Asia.

At Nanyang Technological University, students met with Melissa Bailey, a Managing Director at Corporate Executive Board Asia. Melissa graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Engineering and immediately joined Accenture after graduating. In 2005, she joined Corporate Executive Board where she helped launch CEB’s Asia Pacific headquarters in Australia and the recently opened office in Singapore. The students were able to gain an understanding some of the difficulties of starting an office in a completely new country. Melissa explained that many programs offered by the CEB needed to change, including the actual educational teaching lessons. It was very interesting to hear how Melissa helped bridge a corporate strategy working in the West to the very unique region of Southeastern Asia.

Since being founded in 1960, the HDB has been providing affordable housing for a large percentage of the Singaporean population. The visit began with a presentation and tour led by a representative of the HDB who described the mission of the organization and its structure and policies. During the Q&A session that followed, he addressed many of the questions the students had regarding the affordability of the housing, financing policies, ethnic distribution, and future expansion. It was interesting to hear that over 80 percent of Singaporeans receive their housing from the HDB at a great annual deficit to the government. The presentation was followed by a tour of model apartments that were exact replicas of HDB flats.

To learn more about the broadcasting and network business, students had the opportunity to meet and talk to a BBC anchor and University of Maryland alumnus, Sharanjit Leyl. Ms. Leyl is responsible for the Asia Business Report and Newsday for BBC World News. BBC World is one of the world’s most trusted news sources offering unmatched, impartial, in-depth analysis of breaking news and events from around the world. The channel is a trusted source of international news to viewers in more than 200 countries and territories. It is broadcasted to around 300 million households worldwide. Ms. Leyl explained her career path, the day-to-day activities of her job, and also offered great insight into the different developing economies of Asia. Students were very interested to hear how the financial crisis of 2008 had resounding effects across the world, even in the small country of Singapore, and how dynamic the broadcasting industry can be.

Students were able to better understand Singapore’s economic success through a visit to the Economic Development Board. The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) is the lead government agency for planning and executing strategies to enhance Singapore's position as a global business center. EDB dreams, designs and delivers solutions that create value for investors and companies in Singapore. The EDB’s presentation stressed three main elements: (1) attracting investment in manufacturing and services from both local and foreign investors, (2) expanding and extending existing industry verticals by exploring new growth areas, and (3) enhancing the business environment through feedback to other governmental agencies.

The visit to ExxonMobil, the largest foreign manufacturing investor in Singapore, provided an opportunity to visit the world's largest integrated chemical and refining plant. The class was received by Christabel Tsai who gave a tour of the chemical gallery which provided students a panoramic view of the operations. The tour then moved on to the control room where every facet of the operation was monitored through sophisticated computer programs and cameras. Plant Manager Derk Hartgerink, along with two other managing directors, gave presentations to the group regarding the manufacturing site and energy outlook until 2040. Students asked many questions and had the opportunity to learn from some of the highest ranking executives in the Singapore plant. By 2030, ExxonMobil expects energy demand to be 35 percent higher than it was in the year 2005, driven primarily by higher standards of living in developing nations. The presentations increased the students’ awareness of the dual challenge facing energy companies of meeting the world’s growing energy needs while reducing the environmental impact. The tour concluded with a guided bus tour of the plant through which the students gained an appreciation for the vast size of the operation.

Asia Pacific Breweries, producer of Singapore’s award-winning Tiger Beer, is ranked as one of the top companies in Asia with a reputation for being a top value creator for its customers, consumers, and shareholders. The students learned about the steps of the brewing process and the natural resources that are utilized. The Tiger Beer brewing process incorporates approximately 250 quality control checks, which is 50 more than most other beers, to ensure the smooth and consistent flavor. The storage facilities were so well organized, automated, and technologically advanced that only four to five people were needed to monitor them at one time. In addition, the logistics involved with bottling and distributing the various products are very complex, as the students were able to witness first-hand. The tour guide was very informative and knowledgeable about the entire process and provided well thought-out responses to all of the students’ inquiries.

The visit to Singapore Airlines was hosted by Nicholas Ionides who is the Vice President of Public Affairs and extremely knowledgeable on the airline industry and Singapore Airline’s strategic positioning within the market. The visit started with a tour of the facilities where flight attendants are trained and licensed. Learning about how each type of plane and each seating class had a separate curriculum was very interesting. In addition, students learned that business class and first-class flight attendants are given that privilege only through years of experience. In fact, first-class service often require over ten years of flight experience. Nick led the presentation on Singapore Airlines and the airline industry around the world. Students were interested in how Singapore Airlines achieves strong customer service, manages costs effectively, fosters innovation, uses information technology to create a competitive advantage.

The course also provided an opportunity to interact with several Robert H. Smith School of Business graduates, including Vickum Nawagamuwage and Ivan Szpakowski, who started a private equity fund and work for Credit Suisse analyzing the commodities market, respectively. Vickum also brought a friend who worked for a company that seeks young talent for large accounting firms. Over dinner, students were able to network and socialize with three highly successful individuals from different areas of business. Additionally, they addressed the living conditions of American expatriates in Singapore. It was interesting to hear about Singapore from a different perspective and the students learned a great deal about the treatment of expatriates, their living arrangements, and their financial condition.

Marina Bay Sands was developed by Las Vegas Sands and is billed as the world’s most expensive standalone casino property at S$8 billion. With the casino complete, the resort features a 2,561-room hotel, a 1,300,000-square-foot convention-exhibition centre, an 800,000-square-foot The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands mall, an iconic ArtScience museum, two large theatres, seven “celebrity chef” restaurants, two floating Crystal Pavilions, an ice skating rink, and the world’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. The complex is topped by a 340m-long SkyPark with a capacity of 3,900 people and a 150m infinity swimming pool, set on top of the world's largest public cantilevered platform, which overhangs the north tower by 67m.

Several executives led an extensive visit of the awe-inspiring complex and students were exposed to the complex operations of such a huge resort. Joe Malnerich, Vice President of Casino Marketing, led the presentation and was extremely informative. Students were split into two groups based on age (21 was the minimum age to see the casino) to view the different aspects of the resort. All groups toured the hotel and rooftop, but more importantly, learned about the techniques and strategies imposed by management to maximize profit. The presentation covered many different areas such as VIP players, hotel management, risk management in casinos, and rewards programs. The topics were very unique and included information that is not easily assessable to the public or business students. To conclude, the group visited the Titanic and ArtScience Exhibits, which were fascinating and showed why Marina Bay Sands is one of the best leisure resorts in the world. With such a unique visit, many students thought this to be the best organizational visit of the trip.

To learn more about the entertainment and leisure businesses in Singapore, the group visited Universal Studios and met with John Hallenbeck, the Vice President of Park Operations. Students were able to learn about the extensive amount of planning and strategy involved with making a theme park. Each theme has to be thought about from many perspectives including financial, demographic, corporate expectations, etc. In addition, John explained some of the steps that go into deciding on new rides and exhibits. For example, the students were given a free ride on the new virtual reality Transformers ride and were later told that the ride cost over $150 million.

The class gained a unique perspective regarding how the world's top nonfiction media company, Discovery Communications, adapts its programming to suit local markets. Tom Keaveny, Executive Vice President & Managing Director of Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, provided an informative overview of DNA with a focus on how Discovery has emerged as the leading channel in the region. The regional and global strategies of Discovery were outlined. DNA has developed an impressive broadcast infrastructure that allows for customization of over 30 Asian countries. Catering to individual market needs, programs are broadcasted in nine different langauges on 18 unique feeds, with a cumulative reach of over 439 million subscribers across Asia-Pacific. DNA’s portfolio includes Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Travel & Living, Discovery Home & Health, Discovery Real Time, and Discovery Science.

The journey to Malaysia provided some memorable experiences including a visit to the Petronas Towers - one of the most well recognized symbols of Malaysia. The steel and glass facade of the twin buildings is an iconic part of the city's skyline. Students had the opportunity to visit the company for which the towers are named - Petronas. Wholly owned by the Government of Malaysia, the corporation is vested with the entire oil and gas resources in Malaysia and is entrusted with the responsibility of developing these responsibilities and adding value. It is also the most profitable company in Asia and thirteenth most profitable in the world. During the organization visit, the students learned about Petronas’ organizational strategy and values. Arif Mahmood, Vice President of Corporate Strategic Planning, portrayed some of Petronas’ strategy moving forward along with the importance of the company to the Malaysian economy.

The last organization visit of the trip was to AirAsia. AirAsia is sometimes referred to as the “Southwest” of Asia because the airline is a low-cost carrier with a very light-hearted and nontraditional culture. The group was given a tour of the offices and then a presentation by Ahmad Faizul who works as an assistant to the CEO, Tony Fernandes. The office spaces have no walls or doors, including the CEO’s office, to help promote open communication throughout the company. The AirAsia group operates domestic and international flights to over 400 destinations spanning 25 countries. AirAsia won the Skytrax World’s best low-cost airline award in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011. It had the world’s lowest operating costs at USD 0.035/seat-kilometer in 2010 and is also the first airline in the region to implement fully ticketless air travel.

The visit to Singapore’s Parliament gave students a glance into the political system of Singapore. Students took a tour of the building in many areas that are usually blocked off to the public. It was interesting to see the similarities and differences in government structure between the U.S. and Singapore. The Singapore Parliament is modeled after the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy where Members of Parliament are voted in at regular General Elections. The leader of the political party that secures the majority of seats in Parliament will be asked by the President to become the Prime Minister. The PM will then select his Ministers from elected MPs to form the Cabinet. They also stressed the importance of Sir Thomas Raffles, the “Father of Singapore,” in its economic and political development.

When visiting the world’s largest pewter maker, Royal Selangor, the students heard the story about the company from its founding in Kuala Lumpur over 100 years ago to its current success with a presence in over 20 countries. With a factory tour, the students had a chance to witness the various steps that are involved in the creation of pewter products, including casting, shaping, and polishing. The visit concluded with an interactive experience at the “School of Hard Knocks” where everyone made their own pewter dishes using traditional methods and tools.

No trip to Singapore is complete without a visit to the award winning Singapore Zoo. The Singapore Zoo was truly unique in that it took the effort to completely re-create the natural habitats for each animal that is hosts, allowing visitors to have an all-encompassing experience which resulted in an excellent learning opportunity for the students. In addition, the Zoo is involved in interesting conservation, rescue, and research efforts that were described to the group on the tram rides available within the facility. The experience at the Zoo concluded with the Night Safari, which is rated as one of the top sights to see in Singapore. The students boarded a tram with a knowledgeable tour guide who took the group around the dark Zoo that had scattered exhibits of various animals including gazelle, deer, tigers, hippos, and elephants. The guide discussed the nightly habits of all these creatures and the students were able to see the animals interact within their natural environment at night. This was an unforgettable experience and an excellent conclusion to the Singapore Zoo visit.

The Port Discovery Tour was a multi-facet tour where students had the opportunity to learn more about the history of Singapore while witnessing the massive development the country has accomplished. The tour started with a guided Chinese Bumboat ride along the Singapore River where the students could see Singapore’s origins.

A bus tour showed different aspects of Singapore’s port. The Port of Singapore is the world’s second largest container terminal hub and handles one fifth of the world's container traffic. In addition, it has earned the best container award in Asia for 20 years. Lastly, students were able to oversee Singapore in a cable car ride. The sights were breathtaking and the group was intrigued with the amount of construction still occurring in the city. Even with Singapore's rapid expansion in fifty years, the country continues to find ways to improve and enhance their offering to the world.

The National Museum of Singapore tour provided important information regarding the history of Singapore, from its early settlers to the more recent developments. An entire exhibit was devoted to Sir Stamford Raffles - a 19th century British politician who is considered the founder of Singapore. The tour assisted in providing a historical and culture perspective to address how Singapore has defied the standard models of economic development and political structure. Despite the single-party government, the island-nation has remained free of corruption for nearly half a century, while developing its industrial capabilities, infrastructure, and education. To this day, the country attracts billions of dollars of reign investment annually, and provides its citizens with one of the best educational systems in the world and ranks in the top 20 countries based on its GDP per capita.

At night, the students took a ride on the Singapore Flyer, the tallest Ferris wheel in the world at 541 feet. Constructed from 2005-2008, the Singapore Flyer offers some of the most beautiful views of Singapore. From the financial center to housing clusters, students could see how Singapore utilized the limited physical space to create a thriving country with a growing economy envied by most of the world.

GISTo better understand the local culture of Malaysia and experience the rural lifestyle of Malaysians, the group visited the Kuala Gandah elephant sanctuary led by Mr. Zali. The students learned about the rapidly decreasing Malaysian elephant population and the many different ways to help rescue them. Mr. Zali explained the different techniques used to rescue the elephants and how poachers are to blame for brutal murders of elephants. Throughout the day, the students helped the sanctuary with different tasks including feeding and bathing elephants, making sandbags, painting the security house, and preparing the food. It was a truly unique experience that the group will never forget.

The last event of the trip was a visit to the Batu Caves. The large limestone formation formed many caves which contain temples and sacred Hindu sites. In order to reach the caves, the students had to scale 272 steps. All visitors to the Caves are greeted by a 140-foot gold-plated statue of Lord Muruga - the Hindu deity of war. The Caves serve as a pilgrimage site for the annual Hindu festival, Thaipusam, which celebrates the birthday of Muruga. Students had the option to explore the cave through crawling, climbing, and sliding their way to the end through the adventure package. Even though the adventure ended in a muddy mess, everyone had a huge smile on their face as they reminisced on the 12-day cultural journey they had just completed.

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, MS in business, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.