Remembering Khai Sheang, My PhD Supervisor

Yesterday, I was informed that an old friend, my mentor, my PhD supervisor, Khai Sheang Lee died in his sleep. I’ve been busy and ill the last few days but today, finally, I have some time alone to reflect and grieve.

NUS Business School ran an American-style PhD so I was Khai Sheang’s student from 1998-2003 after which I left to take up an academic post in U.K., returning to submit the PhD in 2004 and graduating in 2005. When you spend 6 years with someone who nurtured you intellectually, you learn a lot about the person. The fact that he was close to my age, just 4 years older, and was the same age as my husband, made the relationship more congenial. Khai Sheang was also a chain smoker for all the time I knew him and in the first 3 years of that relationship, I was a smoker too (I quit 8 Nov 2000). The two of us got along well. Supervisions were usually outside of the building with the 2 of us puffing away.

Khai Sheang’s research is in application of Game Theory to Marketing. It was because of him that I ended up studying Industrial Economics and Game Theory, together with my second supervisor Lim Chin, a brilliant Economics professor who passed away 2 years ago. Both my PhD supervisors are gone now. It is sobering to realise that your academic ‘parents’ would not be around to see what you might achieve.

Back in 1998, it was a practice that you looked around amongst the faculty members for a suitable supervisor as you came to the end of the taught modules. The department had intense research seminars across the different topics of the discipline (Marketing in my case) where doctoral students would critique the 5 most influential papers of the topic and a research seminar to debate and discuss these papers will be held with a faculty member who researched into that topic. It was a great way to develop depth and breadth for a discipline, and to get to know faculty members. I was very keen to study pricing, in particular, pricing in services. I went to see Khai Sheang because his field was in Industrial Economics and Game Theory and I felt they were  core foundational knowledge to study pricing and economic models. I remember the conversation well. I told him of my interest and said I was carrying 2 ‘virtual’ chickens to 拜师傅, a Chinese saying to mean that I was asking for him to take me on as his apprentice. He laughed at that.

Khai Sheang didn’t care about structure of my thesis. In his words – ‘you can tie 3 published papers together in a string, I don’t care’. As long as he felt I have reached the mark in his head, I would be allowed to submit. The first chapter of my thesis was empirical, case based ‘theory-in-use’ method that leveraged on my practice and published in Journal of Service Management. My second chapter was an economic model I worked with Khai Sheang, published in Journal of Business Research. I finished both chapters in 1999. The third, my solo, original economic model, took me 5 years.

Let me tell you a little bit about doing economic modelling for a PhD. You either have a model, or you don’t. If you do, you’ll be able to write it up and graduate within 6 months. If you don’t, you might be there for the next 10 years. Lim Chin used to comfort me by saying that he himself didn’t have a topic until the third year and when he finally found one and got his model, he submitted it within the year. I remember telling him that his suffering did not in any way gave me any comfort. But he just laughed and dismiss me with ‘it will come’. The models were all mathematically calculus and algebra based – no data at all – and I remembered being so envious of my empirical classmates who had a lit review, some qual research, some quants research – a process to which they could say they were 50% done, or 70% done. My thesis (at least the last chapter of it), was binary. Either I had it or I didn’t. I would wake up some nights at 2am and scribble at a model to wake up later to realise I scribbled rubbish and it was back to the drawing board.

I remember the year when ‘A beautiful mind’ came out in the theatres. Finally, I could explain to my friends and family what Game Theory was and what I was studying. There was a line in the film and it was when John Nash said to his friend about his model: ‘how do you know? How do you know you have what it takes to come up with one. How do you know?’. I had nightmares for weeks. Something happens to you when you live with that level of uncertainty. When you go back to the same drawing board even after 3 years, or 4 years have passed. It’s an albatross you carry around your neck that creeps into Christmas and New Year celebrations, hangs over your day to day life of bringing up kids and generally sucks you into a black cave. Self doubt, insecurities, low esteem, everything negative creeps into the head to fill the vacuum created by that uncertainty and poisons you slowly. My mind was in a dark place for years and I don’t think I actually recovered from it. You just become stronger and move on, aware of what it does to you and harness it for something productive.

Khai Sheang’s supervision style was not conventional in any sense of the word. It’s hard to condense 6 years of supervisions into a blog post but in his memory, I want to document it. His style was not one that was nurturing, gentle and supportive. Where I delivered a flawed model, his reaction was full of scorn. He would be disdainful when I showed any signs of weaknesses, or even talked about giving up modelling. Khai Sheang’s style was brutal in the way that he offered no guidance on what to do next – because solo, original economic models are meant to train the independent mind. I know I asked for it, because I said my third chapter had to be mine. I said it at the beginning of the third chapter in 1999 while I was sitting on the laurels of 2 published papers and I regretted it with every passing year without a viable model but Khai Sheang took it to heart. He never helped. He didn’t even tell me what I could do. Whenever I showed him a model, he would shoot it down, claiming it wasn’t good enough, flawed or not ‘sexy’. His was a brilliant mind. Sharp, mathematical, logical and very rational.

Every PhD student wants to finish the thesis. For Khai Sheang, whether by design or not, he wanted me to be better. He saw an arrogant and proud person who would not back down from a challenge and he turned that into a battle to strengthen me. He knew I could have collapsed under mental strain but he also saw that I was too proud to admit defeat. So he scorned me. And shot down my models. And I became crushed, pained, and depressed. But I came back with another one. And another one. With each new model, I defended it rigorously, thinking I finally saw all the possible ways he could shoot it down. Yet, he saw new flaws. And heaped scorn on them. And so my models got better. I became better. I also became hardened mentally both analytically and emotionally with every model I delivered. I became more rational, more logical and much, much sharper. Under his watch, I learned to be a social scientist, and an academic. At the end of 5 years, on a day in August 2004, he looked up from my latest submission and said ‘OK. You can write it up’. I thanked him. We joked about how age is weakening him. I then left him, went back to my car and broke down into tears. I would like to say it was smooth sailing after that but that is a story to be told at another time.

If I was doing my models independently, you might ask what would the supervisions with Khai Sheang be about then? It was mostly conversations on Economics. In my quest for a model, I explored many aspects of the industrial economy. I learnt games after games after games. The 5 hardest concepts to grasp in Economics, which I would argue is elusive to many graduates in Economics unless you move on to grad school, are Marginal analysis, Equilibrium analysis, Boundary Conditions, Information asymmetry and Rationality. Over six years, Khai Sheang and I would talk about strategic games, game theory and mathematical models; the theoretical, philosophical and strategic concepts fused with the practitioner part of me made me a different person. I am not a compliant learner. I often challenge what I am told, rebel at rules and generally detest people feeding me information that I have to ‘learn’ for learning’s sake. With Khai Sheang, I found learning easier, since his sharp mind would be the first to suss out contradictions. His disdain for bad work (useless and nonsense, he calls it) made me understand what good research looked like. I came to see the beauty of economics from its elegant and so-called perfect models, only because it served to help us understand, in real life, what was imperfect, and where it was imperfect. I became someone who understood so much more the underpinnings of markets, the meta narrative of industry, the games companies play. Of course, I could only appreciate this much later when I discarded all the PhD angst and  reconciled with the fact that the fusion of practice and academia called for a reinvention and not discarded for its potential irreconciliability.

Perhaps because we were closer in age, he didn’t pull back his punches. Or perhaps he saw something more in me that I couldn’t see in myself then. Only years later do I now understand the dilemma of a PhD supervisor, caught between pushing a student towards his/her potential and pulling back to save the student from a mental breakdown. I could gloss over the painful parts and romanticise his style but he won’t appreciate any of it. He was truly a man who would call a spade a single function tool of little use for anything else but digging dirt. He was deeply cynical, hated being disingenuous, disliked politicking, called anyone who made decisions based on emotion an idiot, and therefore ingratiated himself to very few people. His abhorrence for the powerful made him stick up for the underdog. If I am not mistaken, I was his only PhD student over more than 25 years in academia.

For me, he was and will always be, a great educator, a thinker and a sparring partner who transformed me. Who knows what I would have become without his tutelage, but I do know that who I am today is very much attributed to him. Rest in peace, Khai Sheang, you will be sadly missed.

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