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A View From Above

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Exclusive Interview with Mdm. Kay Kuok Oon Kwong, Chairman of the Yale-NUS Board of Governors

 story Joyan Tan

Interview with Mdm. Kuok
Mdm. Kuok is Executive Chairman at Shangri-La Hotel Ltd (Singapore) and President of the Singapore Hotel Association–just two of the many hats she wears. (Pareen Chaudhari)

Walking into Yale-NUS College, it is difficult to miss the words emblazoned on the white walls: “A community of learning, / Founded by two great universities, / In Asia, for the world.”

These words—the vision of the College—are well known by all students. Yet few are aware that along with the College’s leadership and faculty, the Yale-NUS Governing Board was also heavily involved in its conceptualization.

The Board consists of twelve members, of which Yale University nominates six and the National University of Singapore or the Ministry of Education nominates six. In the first of our Governing Board Interview Series, The Octant interviewed Mdm. Kay Kuok Oon Kwong, Chairman of the Board. In 2008, Mdm. Kuok was deciding whether to join the NUS Board of Trustees when she first heard of Yale-NUS. “I had initially said no because I had a lot on my plate,” Mdm. Kuok said. “But when they mentioned that they were going to start a liberal arts college, I was encouraged by it.” She later agreed to join the NUS Board, and was appointed Chairman of the Yale-NUS Board shortly after.

The Board served its first three-year term from 2011–2014. Apart from three changes to the Board, the existing members continued for a second term starting 2014. The Board meets four times a year—twice in Singapore and twice via video conference. When the Board convenes in Singapore, “we meet with leadership and management and they bring to us strategy and policy matters,” Mdm. Kuok said. “We have oversight on strategic issues including budgets … All faculty hires come to the Board for approval … and we work with leadership to ensure that the College fulfills its mission and vision of giving a good liberal arts education,” she added. The next board meeting will be held here in March.

The College’s vision and mission reflect the Board’s attempt to introduce a primarily Western education model while respecting the intellectual traditions of Asia. “Liberal arts is very new to Asia,” Mdm. Kuok said. “It was very exciting because we were introducing this new type of education to Asia which traditionally had its own educational concepts … We had to make sure that we crafted a mission and a vision that would have the best of both worlds.”

Mdm. Kuok is heartened by the progress made by the College. “We’re very encouraged by the number of applicants we get each year,” she said. The attitude toward the College has not always been so positive, especially in its early days. She said, “There were initial concerns, particularly from Singaporean parents because they didn’t fully understand what a liberal arts education was. Some of them thought it was music and visual and performing arts. But once it was defined, they came around very quickly.”

Criticisms from Yale’s side have also “quietened down”. Mdm. Kuok expects this trend will continue, as “we encourage them to come up and see what exactly Yale-NUS is all about.” On the Board’s response to these critics, she said, “Once the Board was committed to the fact that this was something beneficial and it would work for Singapore … It was just a question of following your instincts. We did what we knew was best, and did not waver.”

When asked about allocation of funds, Mdm. Kuok clarified that the Board should not micromanage. “You must remember that the Board is at the very top,” she said. Mdm. Kuok explained that the yearly budget proposal is prepared by the President of the College with the respective department heads. These are then brought to the Board. According to Mdm. Kuok, the Board looks over the total budget, including capital expenditure and overall operating expenditure of the College. Specific funds allocated to each department are determined by management.

As the interview drew to a close, it took on a more light-hearted tone. When asked what she likes to do for leisure, Mdm. Kuok laughed and said, “At this age, how much extreme sports can you do?” After a moment’s thought, she added, “Right now, I’m just very happy being a grandmother.”

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