YBhg. Dato’ Peter Ng is the CEO and founder of UCSI Group, a leading conglomerate that has interests in the following sectors: education, hospitality, healthcare, technology, consulting and property. Starting from scratch, Ng’s entrepreneurship journey has been self-made but it has not been without its challenges. In an interview with Education + TVET Asia, Dato’ Peter Ng shares his journey and experience in developing and transforming UCSI University into Malaysia’s Best Private University, and his views on changing education for the future.
“I’ve always liked education. When I was younger, I thoroughly enjoyed studying and it was never a chore. In fact, it was such a joy for me,” beams Dato’ Peter Ng.
In this light, it was no surprise when Ng made education the starting point of UCSI Group – a Malaysian conglomerate that is synonymous with industry-acclaimed education offerings at every level of study.
A village boy from Linggi, Negri Sembilan, Ng was the middle child in a family of 13 children. His parents alternated between rubber tapping and farming, and the family endured times of hardcore poverty.
“I’m the seventh child in the family,” says Ng. “My older siblings did not continue with secondary school education because my parents could not afford it. My decision to further my studies shocked my parents but they supported my decision as they realised that education could be the turning point for the family.”
Ng initially had his heart set on civil engineering and he earned a seat at the Technical Institute of Kuala Lumpur. He subsequently secured a seat in the same field at Ungku Omar Polytechnic in Ipoh. But just as Ng was packing his bags, a chance conversation with his friends turned the original plan on its head.
“My classmates from Seremban were discussing about studying in Canada and I wanted to go too,” he recalls. “But my parents were not keen at first due to the costs involved. However, I borrowed some money from relatives and worked at a surveyor’s office for four months while waiting for my MCE results. I earned close to RM4,000 and my mother borrowed another RM4,000. That was all I had when I left for Canada.”
The money depleted quickly and Ng was forced to work through university. Selling sofa beds in Toronto’s Chinatown, he also worked as a pizza delivery boy before becoming a teaching assistant for one of his professors.
Graduating with a degree in Computer Science from Lakehead University, Ng returned to Malaysia in 1986. The country was recovering from a global recession at the time and good jobs were scarce, prompting Ng to start his own computer training institute at SS2, Petaling Jaya, located near Kuala Lumpur.
“Due to the recession, many GMs and managers opted to learn more about computers but they did not want classes with large groups of people,” muses Ng. “They did not want others to see their fears or baby steps. This was a good opportunity for me as I could run one-to-one classes on Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect.”
In fact, the one-to-one approach was a result by default and not design – Ng started his business with just one computer. However, personalised attention was what his students sought and he quickly gained word-of-mouth referrals.
As there were very few computer training centres at the time, demand surged and Ng soon gathered sufficient capital to procure more computers. The classes grew to become 30-student lessons and this generated latent demand for other related education programmes. The obscure training centre soon grew into a college, more disciplines were offered and the rest is history.
Today, UCSI University is ranked as the best private university in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Coming out tops in both the 2020 and 2019 QS World University Rankings, UCSI is ranked 442nd – an improvement of 39 spots from last year – placing it comfortably in the top 2% of all universities in the world. It is also ranked as one of the world’s top 70 universities under 50 years old according to the QS Top 50 Under 50.
“We want to be among the top 100 universities in the world one day,” says Ng. “This will take a while but we are patient and committed in pursuing our goal.”
Looking back, Ng points out that one key factor behind UCSI University’s continued rise was the self-realisation that the University had to do much more than teaching and learning. This saw UCSI championing praxis® – a model of learning that is designed by practitioners for practitioners.
The emphasis on the application of knowledge is anchored on relevance and intended learning outcomes. Students must ultimately be able to apply what they learn and the curricula must keep abreast of developments in the industry.
With praxis® in place, many UCSI University academics maintain abiding ties with leading companies and some even practise and contribute actively in the industry through R&D and consulting projects. With their finger on the industry’s pulse, these academics stand out as the ideal educators that can empower students with unparalleled workplace exposure.
“We want our professors and faculty staff to be involved in their fields of specialty,” explains Ng. “For example, a professor might be doing research on a current technology and teaching its theory to the students. But he might not be able to apply that technology in the actual marketplace. So, we provide a platform for them to put the theory into practice through our subsidiary companies.”
Ng continues to share examples of the synergy between UCSI University and other UCSI Group subsidiaries. “Our medical professors must work a minimum of two-and-a-half days per week at UCSI University Hospital, in addition to teaching. In Kuching, we have a five-star hotel that encourages joint hospitality activities between the hotel and the university.”
The praxis® approach is the result of years of deliberation and planning by the University. The end goal is to nurture graduates who will go on to be best candidates not only in the industry, but for it.
Continuous innovation is another matter that is constantly on Ng’s mind.
“Things are moving too fast,” he muses. “The fundamentals that are taught in some courses like accounting and medicine remain the same, but when it comes to technology, things evolve rapidly. You see, 35% to 40% of jobs today will be different in five years’ time. This means what we teach today is only relevant for around half of the student population. By the time the students graduate, things will change.”
In line with the seismic shifts to the nature of how work is done and perceived, Ng advises that parents and students should view university education, not only as a means to secure a job but as a platform for adaptability and an avenue for character-building for the future.
“The course that you study today may not be the field that you work in the future, and that’s okay,” he says. “What’s more important is the training that moulds your character for the future. You learn to be disciplined in meeting deadlines, live and collaborate with others, and to conduct yourself professionally. With these skills, you will be able to adapt and adjust easily”.
Ng adds, “As education providers, we cannot afford to be fixed in our thinking. Instead, we have to learn and unlearn, and take on a position that allows adaptability for the future.”