Putting Singapore first

21 December 2016 | General News
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Mr Wong (wearing a blue tie) and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung (right) mingling with valedictorians during NUS Commencement Dinner 2016

After spending more than 12 years at the helm of NUS, Mr Wong Ngit Liong looks forward to taking on even greater challenges on an international scale.

“There is still a lot to do. I will continue to help Singapore,” said Mr Wong, who steps down as Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the end of this year. “There is much to do for those of us in industry. We need to help to strengthen Singapore’s place in the global ecosystem, to ensure that Singapore’s business sector remains robust, relevant and connected to the rest of the world.”

Mr Wong, who is Chairman and CEO of Venture Corporation, shared his thoughts on his tenure as NUS Chairman at an interview with NUS News earlier this month. On 1 January 2017, he will be succeeded by corporate leader Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, who becomes the University’s 5th Chairman and second after corporatisation.

“When I was first asked to be Chairman of NUS, I asked, ‘Why me?’ The thought of serving at NUS never crossed my mind! But I loved education and I enjoyed my time as a student. Helping out in the area of education would be at the top of the list if I was to be of service to Singapore,” he said of his initial hesitation at the first lunch meeting in early 2004 with then Deputy Prime Minister overseeing higher education Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam and then Minister for Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

The youngest of nine children growing up in Johor, Malaysia, Mr Wong had always enjoyed his time in school. A top student in the state with several scholarships to his name, Mr Wong graduated with First Class (Honours) in Electrical Engineering from the University of Malaya. He later obtained a Master’s degree in Electronics Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley on a Fulbright scholarship. Mr Wong went on to complete an MBA with distinction at McGill University under a Canadian Commonwealth Fellowship.

He spent the first five years of his distinguished 12-year career with the Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) in Silicon Valley in the US, earning the trust and confidence of HP co-founder Bill Hewlett. In the early 1970s, Mr Hewlett asked Mr Wong to set up the HP office in Penang, Malaysia, and later, the HP office in Singapore. Mr Wong became a Singapore citizen in 1978.

He became Managing Director of Technocom-Multitech group in 1986 and started Venture Group in 1989. From its origins as a start-up in manufacturing, Venture Corporation is today a leading global provider of technology products, services and solutions.

Mr Wong’s business acumen and leadership were not unnoticed. He was invited in 2001 to be part of the Economic Review Committee chaired by then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lee Hsien Loong, who is now Prime Minister of Singapore. The Committee was tasked with reviewing policies and proposing strategies to promote the growth and development of Singapore.

Mr Wong found the experience fulfilling.

“I felt that I had contributed and helped to make a difference to the development of Singapore’s business sector. I was open to helping the country in any other way,” Mr Wong said.

Mr Wong continued to share his experience and insights through board memberships at the Economic Development Board, Trade Development Board (the predecessor of IE Singapore), Singapore Exchange and DBS Bank.

He was also involved in the establishment of the Nanyang Technological Institute, which was set up in 1981 to address the shortage of engineers in Singapore. Other members of the group included the late Senior Minister of State for Education, Dr Tay Eng Soon and Professor Cham Tao Soon, who was then Dean of Engineering at NUS.

It was this positive experience and a deep desire to contribute that ultimately led Mr Wong to agree to be Chairman of NUS.

“Minister Tharman wanted me to bring a corporate approach to running the University. He was very approachable and shared useful insights,” said Mr Wong.

Every strong economy, added Mr Wong, needs a strong and powerful university. This flagship university would create a vital knowledge base for business and attract foreign investments and talent.

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Mr Wong addressing the Board of Trustees during a visit to NUS research centres

The immediate priority of the Board of Trustees and management from 2005 to 2006 was to transform NUS from “good to great”, he said. While the University was strong in teaching, it needed to build on its research and entrepreneurship.

“We felt that to be ‘great’, NUS had to be global.”

In the 12 years under Mr Wong’s leadership, the University’s efforts to ramp up research, entrepreneurship, as well as participation in global and regional networks, have earned the respect of the higher education community around the world. NUS is today seen as a leading university, highly regarded globally for educational innovation, research excellence and entrepreneurship education.

Mr Wong credits much of the University’s success to strong support from the Government through the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council chaired by Mr Lee, National Research Foundation and the Ministry of Education (MOE).

He found MOE’s International Academic Advisory Panel (IAAP) meetings particularly useful, and remembers vividly a conversation with IAAP member Mr Len Baker, a partner of Sutter Hill Ventures. Mr Baker is a former trustee of Yale University and serves on several boards, including Youku Tudou in China, Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Investment Board of GIC.

“Len Baker said that NUS had made tremendous progress, and that it was not easy for the panel to tell us what to do next,” said Mr Wong.

Another IAAP member, who met faculty and students during a visit to NUS, told Mr Wong, “Now we have to learn from you.”

Said Mr Wong of the remarks, “The panel members were sincere in their compliments and it was heartening to hear their thoughts about NUS. It showed that NUS had progressed beyond expectations. But as I said to them — we’re not there yet. While NUS has done well, there is room for us to be even better.”

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Mr Wong dotting the lion’s eye during the launch of NUS110 at Taman Jurong Community Club in 2015

Now, after more than 12 years at the helm, Mr Wong says firmly that he is glad that he overcame his initial hesitation to be Chairman of NUS.

“Absolutely the right decision. Over the years, I have come to love NUS. All the things that we do for the country, the students and the difference we make in people’s lives through the impact of our research.

"What NUS does matters. It has made a big difference and will continue to do so.”

Mr Wong shares more…

You have been Chairman of NUS for more than 12 years. What are you most proud of?

That we’ve managed to bring in good people – at the Board, senior management, faculties, and research centres – and that we were able to work together in a collegial environment. It’s not an easy thing to do because they are all highly accomplished and talented individuals! I’m immensely proud and happy that the University has a strong culture of collaboration, and that everyone is united in a common goal to make NUS a leading global university.

Your greatest challenge as Chairman?

How to bring in even better people. Succession planning is vital to the success of any organisation.

Your thoughts on NUS when you first became Chairman in 2004, and now.

NUS has made tremendous progress. Professors have told me that in the past, at international conferences, people would ask them “What’s NUS?” Now, our professors are being approached all the time for collaborations! NUS today has a high reputation. It’s been a total transformation.