Published on 05 Nov 2021

Honouring Professor Cham Tao Soon

NTU's founding president Prof Cham Tao Soon shares his views on the legacy of educators, and the positive cascading impact on students and communities over time, with Ms Yap Su-Yin from the University Advancement Office.

By Yap Su-Yin
Professor Cham Tao Soon’s extensive contribution to education is recognised near and far. Under his leadership as President of the former Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI), the Institute was named one of the best engineering institutions in the world, by the Commonwealth Engineering Council in 1985, just four years after NTI’s establishment. 

As NTU’s founding president, Prof Cham laid the foundations for NTU to be ranked among the world’s best young universities today. Lesser known are the stories behind certain donations that supported these efforts, with lasting benefits till today. Executive Director for Alumni Engagement and Annual Giving Ms Yap Su-Yin speaks to Prof Cham Tao Soon (NTU President 1981 – 2002) on the legacy of educators, and the positive cascading impact on students and communities over time.

NTU is setting up the Cham Tao Soon Chair Professorship in Engineering, with the appointed Chair Professor being a world-renowned academic with a demonstrated passion in mentoring younger researchers and academics. Why should donors support this professorship?

 

Prof Cham Tao Soon, in his prefect blazer, seated next to his form teacher Mr John Lippit for a class photo when he was Form 5A (Year 4) at Raffles Institution, 1957.

 

I am 81. In my lifetime, I have worn different hats with varied responsibilities. Looking back, I am proud that I am first and foremost, an educator. If we say we benefited from a good education, then it follows we should say who were those educators that left their mark on us?

Especially in Singapore, state support plays an important role in education. My father was a civil servant and my mother a primary school teacher. Sending me to university was beyond my parents’ modest means. I needed a state scholarship for university. I didn’t even know what engineering was at the time. It was my father who told me to study engineering. In those days, children did as they were told.

At Raffles Institution, I was one of the top students. The expectation at that time for one who has done well at the A-level examinations was to get the Queen’s Scholarship which enabled the scholar to study at the University of Cambridge. But Singapore’s political winds changed, and all state scholars had to attend a local university. In 1964, I graduated from the University of Malaya as a civil engineer.

Many people decline donating to fund professorships because they think universities are rich enough and in the case of our local universities, the government will provide the funding. However, if we can raise professorships through donations and public support, the community will be supplementing this role of government funding and have a stake in the outcomes.

In the case of this new Professorship, on top of elevating NTU’s thought leadership and research excellence in Engineering,
the donations will go towards appointing world-renowned academics with the passion to mentor younger researchers and students. In addition, the donation attracts Government matching grant, a portion of which benefits the NTU General Endowment, to support areas of greatest need. I see this as a duty of an educator, to be able to make a big impact to nurture the younger generation.

The late Mr Lee Wee Nam was an eminent businessman, a well-respected community leader and philanthropist. What is the S$10 million story connected to Mr Lee that amazed you? 

The year was 2001. I remember standing at the canopy area of the Tan Chin Tuan Pavilion. Quite unexpectedly, a middle-aged man approached me, and said: “I wish to donate to NTU. S$10million.” I was taken aback. That was a lot of money that didn’t come so often to a local university. The man was chemistry academic Dr Lee Hiok Huang. His next question shocked me further. He asked: “Is that enough?” He revealed who his late father was: Lee Wee Nam. 

Born in Guangdong, China in 1881, Mr Lee Wee Nam passed away in Singapore at the age of 83. Mr Lee was a strong advocate of education who emphasised to his family the importance of giving back to one’s alma mater. His son, Dr Lee, made the donation to NTU, it being the nearest cousin to Nanyang University. I was truly humbled by the generosity of the family’s gift to education. The bulk of the family’s largesse enabled NTU to push forward with key programmes in Life Sciences by establishing the Lee Wee Nam Professorship in Life Sciences and Research Fund in Life Sciences. To honour Mr Lee’s philanthropic legacy and his commitment to education, a library on campus was also renamed the Lee Wee Nam Library.

What are the key takeaways from these stories that you wish to share with educators and alumni? 

 

Prof Cham reuniting with Accountancy alumni over a meal in 2020.

 

To educators: Contributing to society is a must. For educators, teaching is a given, but you must contribute to the community. Contribute not only to those who need help but to help some of the industries that need nurturing. Connect with alumni. They are students for four years, but learning is lifelong. Encourage them to do further courses. To do that, you must make them feel what they are learning and applying is part of society. 

I am glad that NTU will launch its inaugural Service Week next January as part of UAO’s We Belong 2022 campaign. The name is apt. It brings students, alumni, faculty and staff together to serve critical needs within society and raise funds collectively as a family. Modern universities have strong links to their communities.

To alumni: When you think of being an alumnus, is it as alumnus of NTI, Nanyang University or NTU? The fact of the matter is that these institutions are all a part of this university’s history. Present day, we belong to an inclusive society made of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Whatever our histories, we belong to the same family. Recognising that we are part of the same large family makes us stronger and keeps us united as we face life’s challenges bravely. 

To support the Cham Tao Soon Chair Professorship in Engineering, click here