Straddling Two Worlds



Cruising Beyond

When Professor Irene Ng (PhD 1997) sold her business with an annual turnover of US$250 million to return to school, little did she know that she would stay on to master the art of straddling the academic and corporate divide.

“I wanted a change” explained the founder of The Empress Cruise Lines who took a 75 per cent pay cut to be a part-time student again from 1996. She completed her doctoral studies in NUS Business School in 2002 while leading SA Tours group of companies as Executive Vice Chairman.

While running the cruise line and holding senior leadership positions in the travel industry, Prof Ng felt that she had lived a lifetime. She recounted managing challenging situations such as a mutiny onboard The Empress and a collision at sea.

Yet, despite learning valuable lessons from her corporate experience, she knew that she needed to enrich herself further. “There is a limit to how much you can learn in the private sector,” explained Prof Ng.

“I was hooked on learning.”

Accidental Juggle-naut

Having demonstrated her capability in the industry, few would be surprised that alumna Prof Ng was recently rewarded the prestigious Advanced Institute of Management Research (AIM) Fellowship.

The AIM fellowship is a highly prestigious award in the UK where, in order to support and encourage cutting edge innovation in management research, AIM takes the unusual step of supporting people rather than projects with its Fellowship scheme.

Prof Ng was not only awarded the fellowship, but was chosen to lead a team of six Services Fellows to generate knowledge suitable for academic audiences in scholarly settings while engaging with practitioners and policy makers throughout their research.

Although she had attained success as an academic, Prof Ng felt uncomfortable being labeled only as an academic.

“Some people focus on being very good at either being a corporate leader, or an academic,” said Prof Ng. “I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable being either. I want to craft out a space where I can be both.”

Prof Ng recognized that there would be differences being in the corporate or academic world. Still, she would like to make a difference. “I would like to try and align the interested of both.”

She lamented that it was “ego” that prevented both sides from sharing information and experience which could help build up a shared knowledge that lead to greater things. “If only they can shed their egos!”

Adding Value

Armed with a wealth of corporate experience and a place in academia, Prof Ng successfully straddles the corporate and academic border. “I live in the space between corporate and academic world,” mused Prof Ng.

When asked if she were forced to leave her position that crossed two worlds to focus only on one, Prof Ng revealed that she would pick “industry – the interface between technology and business.”

“I see a lack in this area,” explained Prof Ng. From a technology’s standpoint, how do you build value for the society? From a business point of view, how do you monetize it? It would be interesting for me to be involved in the development of this area.”

No matter which would this alumna decided to straddle, one can look forward to her successful juggling of responsibilities and unreserved contributions.


Professor Irene C L Ng is an Associate Professor of Marketing and the Director for the Centre Research at the School of Business and Ecnomics, University of Exeter (UK). She recently received a prestigious AIM fellowship to lead research on services. She was also previously the CEO of SA Tours, the largest tour operator in Southeast Asia, and the Founder and CEO of Empress Cruise Lines, a cruise company with a turnover of $250 million per annum.

More Than Business Leaders


Successful business leaders are often thought to be citizens of the fast lane and always on the go.
They fly high on the corporate ladder in local and international business scenes and few can imagine them having time on their hands to do anything else other than work.

The NUS Business School has consistently nurtured business leaders who are highly sought after all over the world for their capability and competency. The School too has nurtured a culture of generosity and social responsibility, resulting in a pool of individuals that are not only experts in their fields, but are also passionate about caring for the world and the community. In their own and very different ways, they contribute greatly to society locally and abroad.

Walk the Talk

One such individual is Mr Yeo Keng Joon (MBA 1985), Managing Partner of Global Biotech Singapore. In 2008, under the auspices of the NUS Business School Alumni Association (NUSBSA), Mr Yeo started the ‘NUS Business School Alumni Association Bursary Fund’ to provide financial comfort for needy students of NUS Business School who have shown exemplary results.

When the fund was first set up, Mr Yeo had little difficulty in raising money. Donations poured in almost immediately from 64 members of the alumni, friends and faculty offering various amounts of money when they learnt of the fund. Among the donors were Mr Boon Swan Foo (MBA 1988), Managing Director of Exploit Technologies, A*star; and Ms Janet Ang (BBA Hons 1982), Vice-President, Business Operations, Global Desktop Business Unit of Lenovo Private Limited.

About half a million dollars, including government matching, was raised. Eleven recipients were awarded $2,500 each.

The alumni have expressed their intention of keeping the fund going on so that future under-privileged students can benefit from it. This year’s recipients have said that the bursary really helped them and gave them some immediate financial relief.

First-year student Ms Zhang Wanling, Eileens says: “This has really inspired me. I really wish that the fund will keep going and I will one day have the chance to contribute to the fund too.”

Juggling Work and Passion

In addition to being the champion for needy students, Mr Yeo is also very much into dirtying his hands to help those in need. Gathering a few alumni and friends who are educated and experienced in business, Mr Yeo juggled work demands and his passion to contribute back to society and developed a strategic review for St Luke’s Hospital, a voluntary welfare organization (VWO), to help rebuild its infrastructure. The voluntary group also advised the hospital on corporate governance and management.

With the advice of Mr Yeo and his friends, the hospital now has a new corporate image for St Luke’s ElderCare program. Several elder care centers have since opened all around the island, including the Bukit Timah Center and the Yishun Center. St Luke’s Hospital also now has a new and refreshed image to promote volunteerism.

“This is the first time that we did something like that,” says Mr Yeo, who received a Special Award during the Eminent Business Alumni Awards 2008 for his many contributions to the school. “And I’m glad we were of help. It was a great experience and it laid the foundation for us to take up more of such projects in the future.”

Giving Beyond the Shores

The culture of giving extends beyond the shores of the alumni’s alma mater.

In Jakarta, alumnus Ling Hua Chen (BBA 1973), an Indonesian national and Chairman of his own business, formed the Jakarta NUS Business School Alumni Association Fund in 1991. Through the fund, known as the Yayasan Nusantara Sejahtera, orphanages and nursing homes were showered with gifts and donations during festivals.

The fund was also accessed to build the Jakjiokarta Primary School two years ago in an area that was torn apart by the earthquake.

“It is our responsibility to contribute if we have the resources to,” says the humble business leader.

Over in the remote area of Suichuan County in Jiangxi Province in China, the NUS-Shatian Hope Primary school was established in September 2008 through the donation of more than RMB300,000 from alumni of the Southern China Alumni Network (SCAN) and friends. The school, which has 450 students in nine classes, now solves the basic education problem for more than 6,000 citizens in Jinshi Village and nearby villages of Suichuan County.

“It is only natural for us to extend our helping hand to promote education in China,” says project driver, alumna Ms Hao Yihong (APEX-C MBA 2003). “We wish to change the lives of these students by helping them to obtain knowledge.”

When Ms Hao first visited the school, the premises was dilapidated and extremely run-down. Children of the primary school were thus studying in dangerous conditions. When the alumni heard of the situation, they just had to do something to help.

With the school now being established, the alumni are now looking to returning to Shatian to provide the students in the rural area a taste of international experience by returning regularly to conduct enrichment programs for them.

The work of SCAN has inspired other alumni networks in China to do likewise. As a response to the earthquake that hit Sichuan in May 2008, many alumni contributed generously towards helping victims of the quake. More than RMB700,000 were raised. Plans are now afoot to identify a project in Sichuan where the funds can be used to rebuild an educational facility. A team of alumni and staff were in Jiangyou, a small town one and half hours’ drive from Chengdu in mid October to recce a site which could potentially be the beneficiary of the funds.

Other alumni in China are also looking at similar Hope School projects in other outlying regions such as Xinjiang and Hunan.

Where Work is Passion

Whilst there are alumni who share their time to juggle work and passion to contribute back to society, there are also those such as Mr Ho Sun Yee (MBA 1991) who makes his passion his work.

The former CEO of the Singapore Heart Foundation, a non-profit organization, embarked on a mission to map the health of locals all around the country. A project was launched to educate and train junior college and secondary school students to equip them with knowledge to help locals in the heartland understand the disease better.

Thanks to him, students and members of the public are now aware of the risk factors of heart disease.

The alumnus, who now works for Focus on the Family Singapore Ltd, says that the switch to working with non-profit organizations had left him with no regrets in his life.

“It was a refreshing change initially, but now it is my passion.”

Making his passion his work too is Mr Tay Puan Siong (BBA 1971), who has been on the Board of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) for 17 years. The YMCA has played a huge part in giving locals opportunities to volunteer and enrich themselves.

The YMCA is particularly active in promoting social entrepreneurship amongst youth. The Citibank-YMCA Youth for Causes is their annual flagship program that involves about 400 participants each year, and up to 200 other volunteers.

Each team is given some seed money to run a project to raise funds and public awareness for a charity of their choice over a four months period. The program is sponsored by Citigroup Foundation and actively supported by Citibank Singapore.

“YMCA has given me a great opportunity to be involved in such great projects,” Mr Tay said, “I am honored and happy to be able to contribute.”

Mr Tay also chairs the YMCA-NUS Business School Volunteer Services Management Program (VSMP). The program aims to build capacity in the voluntary welfare sector by combining the resources and expertise of the business school with that of a VWO. Participants are mainly volunteers or staff working in VWOs who are keen to upgrade their management skills. Alumni of the School serve as volunteer facilitators.

Sowing the Seeds of Social Responsibility

The spirit of giving and social responsibility was not consciously taught in the NUS Business School, nevertheless, a giving culture spurred on by alumni and undergraduates themselves seems to have impacted its own undergraduates and alumni by far.

When Mr Trevor Xie (BBA 2005) was an undergraduate, he deferred his studies for two years to follow his heart, and founded the Student Advisory Center (SAC) for less-privileged students.

“I have an interest to help young people which is why I started the SAC,” says Mr Xie, who believes the school equipped him well to run the business operations.

Today, the center offers six key initiatives to reach out to the various disadvantaged young people in Singapore, including giving free meals and cyber counseling. Mr Xie reveals that the SAC will be taking bolder and greater steps to build community partnerships between the local communities, for the benefit of the youths.

Business Leaders With Social Conscience

Be it at a personal level, or through one of the school’s alumni organizations, NUS Business School graduates continue to make an impact on society through their knowledge, skills and contributions.

“We’re proud of our alumni for who they are, and what they do,” said Professor Bernard Yeung, Dean of NUS Business School, at the commencement ceremony of the YMCA-NUS Business School Voluntary Services Management Program in August 2008.

“They have not only done us proud in the many industries they have gone to lead in, but have also made a difference to the less privileged. They are an inspiration to the next generation of graduates to be more than just business leaders.”