In conversation with
Dr. Chow Yong Neng

CEO | Han Chiang College

ASEAN Education Spotlight: You’ve been working hard on achieving university status by 2017, how would you identify your personal role in the achievements made by this institution since you came into your leadership role and which developments would you highlight the most?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: One of the first things I did was to introduce entrepreneurialism in order to contain costs. I have also balanced costs in other ways, such as spending on student welfare but cutting things like free photocopying. Our students get a lot of exposure and knowledge, especially from senior students teaching the younger ones. We can establish this kind of system because we are small enough to give the students this chance to develop – the lecturer’s role is to control the budget and steer the students on the right path. The students are also involved in events, PR campaigns and design competitions. They work together and gain hands on exposure and prepare themselves for real world after graduation. We take comfort in that most of our students have found a job before they complete their studies.

How do you ensure your student’s employability?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: We expose them thoroughly to doing things for themselves. This September we have an annual awards event; we even hand over the organization to the students for this kind of event. We focus on getting them work-ready as soon as possible. We heavily encourage our journalism students to write –I am the editor of our news portal, Han Chiang News because I have some exposure in the news and media industry. We send our students for internships with my team’s network of connections in the industry, which gives them real exposure and helps them to secure employment. Most of our students are also from middle and low income groups, so a lot of them work part-time, meaning they have a real wealth of experience by the time they graduate. Vocational education hasn’t flourished in Malaysia, so we are working on some vocational courses and that will help produce graduates with dual certifications, an academic diploma and professional skills. There is no fixed formula; we just try to give them the environment they need to flourish. Our high employment rate is not necessarily because our students are better than anywhere else, but their circumstances are different and we don’t have any graduates who can choose not to work. There are many graduates in Malaysia from wealthy families who can choose not to work for years after they leave, we don’t have any of these graduates.

How would you identify the new role of Han Chiang College since the blueprint was released?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: To be honest most of the points in the blueprint are targeting public universities – of the policies I’d say maybe two or three are relevant to us. One that applies to us is the incentive to set up endowment – we asked the director of governance and he told us that there had been no progress; we have to set up the endowment plan and wait for the incentive, which is not good because financial sustainability should be the most important thing. If you organize financial sustainability, then performance will come naturally. Institutions like Harvard and Yale can afford to run year in year out and not worry about money, because they have a big endowment and they make sure that the incentive given to the alumni and industry is so big that they keep donating. We have a form of official endowment with Penang Han Chiang Associated Chinese School Association – they have tax free status, so we are tapping into that for the future, we’re just waiting for the Ministry to come back with the incentive. We’re just waiting for the formal structure – institutions in the USA have been doing this for hundreds of years and it will really contribute to our financial stability. It’s also good that the government wants to push on with vocational education, but they need to provide more money. The amount of money provided for vocational education compared to higher education is tiny. They also have to make sure MQA and TVET officials talk and align their stance, so if people come to us with vocational qualifications they can join an academic program without barriers such as having to obtain high school English or Mathematics qualifications, as students can in Australia for instance. This has been suggested but the details are still in progress.

How are you planning to integrate TVET into Han Chiang College?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: I just became a certified vocational training officer. We are taking vocational programs from Australia that we don’t have in Malaysia.

Can you tell us about your partnerships with Australia and China?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: We have a long tradition of working with the University of Southern Queensland, they are going to be our key Western partner for our dual awards when we become a university – we are finalizing all of the agreements now. We are also doing a similar thing with Taiwanese and Chinese universities, so we have options for those who cannot afford the Australian fees. This makes our degree more attractive to foreign students because we are not very well known outside of Penang, let alone outside of Malaysia – I’m working on the branding for these courses at the moment.

Now that you are almost at university status, you’re looking to attract more students – with ASEAN coming together, where would be the next step for more students to come in and will you be looking to ASEAN member states?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: We are currently focusing on Thailand because we have over 100 Thai students studying at our high school and they are boarding just a few feet away from us. Also our Han Chiang Alumni Association in Southern Thailand is so strong that they organized the World Han Chiang Congress. We have a similar association in Indonesia; if we don’t capitalize on those groups then we are very foolish. We have an unfair advantage over other areas of Malaysia because the Penang state government has always been very supportive of the higher education scene. We are part of the Penang Centre of Education Tourism, which brings us students from all over the place. We’ve been working with a lot of our partners in Taiwan and China to establish student mobility programs, I’m visiting Tung Hai University in Taiwan next month to finalize a deal. We feel the Taiwanese institutions really see that developing strong relationships will help us sustain each other in the long run; we share students rather than poach from each other. We cannot do all of our own research as we are quite small so we’re teaming up with Chinese institutions to do Chinese heritage research. We focus on how Malaysia links in with that since the Chinese part is very well researched but the Malaysian side is still not well documented. We want to give exposure to what ASEAN really means.

Do you think ASEAN is understood by the Western world and what would ASEAN mean for higher education in Malaysia and other member states?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: I think in the old days we would use the EU as an example, but that’s not so appropriate now. It will be worth our while to have some sort of economic integration, higher education is a good place to start if we in Malaysia, like the rest of ASEAN, can remove the political baggage. It would be fun for European students to study here, splitting their time between Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore while earning degree credits and we can send our students to Europe in exchange – not just in the UK, but all of Europe.

The role of a higher education institution is not just to turn students into graduates, but to create a holistic individual, this is something you’re aiming for at Han Chiang College – what would you identify as the role of Han Chiang College in developing Penang and Georgetown as a destination for people around the world?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: I think our major role is producing people who can someday take charge. I would love to have graduates of a Jack Ma caliber, even 10% of that would be good enough. One area of support that is very important is communication. We should, with the blessing of my bosses, keep producing people for the media industry and some of those graduates will help the state’s ability to attract investors and tourists. Many people in the tourism industry, like hotel communication managers, came through Han Chiang College. We want to be able to supply resources in the same way we tap them from other areas – like fungi, what you can see is small but our roots spread all over. In the future we want to grow and would be happy with 5,000 students. I have been resisting the urge to expand rather than stick to what we are good at and continue to fulfill a specific role, such as communication, Chinese Studies and Business – we can’t be the best at engineering so we don’t do engineering. One thing we do very well is film production. Our students have won awards competing with professionals for short films and features. We want to focus on those talents and provide them with even more skills.

Obviously you’ve dedicated your entire life to education – if you look back across your career, what are the most proud moments that have led you to this point in your life?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: I think the turning point was getting my PhD. I was the first in my family to get a post graduate degree – my parents were very proud. It was something out of the blue for me as well, to realize that education was my calling and I could do a lot more than just the first degree. There is no retirement age and no such thing as unemployment providing what you teach is required. A PhD may not be a requirement in the professional working world but it was a must when I moved into the higher education sector. Getting my PhD changed my perspective, I got a job offer in the UK and almost never came back but I decided to accept a job in Singapore and I am happy as that is what brought me back to Asia.

How do you see yourself develop personally from this point on and what would be the next thing you’d like to do?

Dr. Chow Yong Neng: I don’t know – the world is more fluid and there are fewer barriers for labor movement compared to the 80s – I hope to keep my job until my bosses no longer need me, when I reach 60 I will take a backseat and try to teach my commercial skills. I am a serial learner and I’d like to learn more and see new things. I want to give back and if anyone wants to listen to me then I will teach. At the moment I’m grooming my deputy principle to take over in six or seven year’s time – then move on from there.