One of the century’s foremost educators, Dr Ralph Tyler once mused “Teaching, is not just a job. It is a human service, and it must be thought of as a mission.” For Dr Elizabeth Lee, Senior Executive Director of Sunway University and Sunway Education Group, as cliché as it sounds, teaching has always been her dream since she was young. “I used to line up my dolls and pretended to be their teacher. I also had a favourite red pen to mark their work,” Lee chuckles while reminiscing her younger days. She was one of the few Malaysians who received her education at the prestigious University of Cambridge, specialising in multi-cultural education. Her Cambridge links subsequently provided her with the opportunity to be actively involved in the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Malaysia. Lee acknowledges that teaching has never been a popular field as she was often questioned on her decision to pursue a degree in education even by her fellow university peers. “Most of them were shocked and retreated when they heard I was pursuing education for my studies. They just didn’t think it was an interesting field to study,” Lee laments. However, she made an important observation while she was at Cambridge. Unlike Malaysia, Singapore had sent their best students to be trained as teachers. She found it strange how our neighbouring country had such an opposite reaction when it came to the teaching profession. That incident inspired Lee to change the mindset of Malaysians even till today. “If you don’t place your best people in the education field, how are you going to nurture the next generation?” Lee deliberates.
After graduating from Cambridge with a Master of Philosophy in Education, Lee took a couple of months off and cut out every single advertisement on teaching in the newspapers to apply for a job. The first organisation who called her for an interview was Prime College and she immediately accepted the job. She left her Principal position at Prime College in 1992 and joined the Sunway Education Group as the Associate Director of Sunway College. “When I joined, my chairman Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah made it very clear to me that he was going to put the Sunway education institution into a foundation. In 1997, when everything came crashing down after the economic crisis, we weren’t sure if we could sustain the college and decided to put it into a trust so that it can never be sold. It was such a poignant moment for me when he asked ‘Are you ready?’ I said ‘Yes I have been ready and I will be alright’.” That was a key decision which led the Sunway Education Group to flourish under Lee’s leadership from its humble beginnings as Sunway College to the dynamic twelve institutions today including Sunway University, Monash University Sunway Campus and Sunway-Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts.
The climb to the top inevitably comes with its set of challenges but for Lee, once you overcome them they are no longer challenges. She prefers to take a different outlook on the word instead. “The things that would hurt me the most would be when I lose a student to death. They are somebody’s child and they become your child once they enrol in university. Other challenges will always be there as laws and regulations change but you just have to find your way around it. It keeps you on your toes,” says Lee who still maintains a close relationship with her students despite her management duties now. A burst of giggles outside Lee’s office reaffirmed this as she had roped in some of her beloved student leaders to pose as extras in our photo shoot. It was no surprise how her easy knack for communicating with the students has commandeered respect and adoration in return.
A leader in her own right, Lee is a frequent presenter at many international and local conferences. She declares that she is not a believer in overnight success as it only lasts for a fleeting moment. “Success should be sustainable and it should affect lives positively,” Lee asserts. Her humble nature is apparent as she credits her superiors for their support and faith that fuelled her to sustain in her determination and passion. Among some of the critical success factors she would attribute to her success today are humility, integrity and firm decision making. Being a woman in a top leadership position, Lee acknowledges that women generally have to prove themselves a lot more. “There’s a general feeling that women will always put their families first before career. One of the difficulties for women is decision making. In a management position, you have to make good decisions and if you make the wrong one, you just have to make it right and move on,” advises Lee.
Her efforts in improving the education system in Malaysia has also been recognised as she sits on the various committees in the private higher education provision and is responsible for charting its direction, strategy and policies. “Education is not just about learning facts but it should be about the process of learning and instilling that love to continue teaching,” Lee affirms. As she harbours great hope for Malaysia to lead in education provision in the region, Lee believes that a liberalisation of the regulation of education in Malaysia is necessary to empower education providers to compete with other countries. “We were leading and dynamic at one point. We brought in credible brand campuses to set up here such as Monash University Sunway campus and Nottingham University. We were also the first to pioneer the idea of twinning degree programmes which enabled students to acquire higher education at a fraction of the cost,” she says. Insisting that we take a group shot of her with her students for memory’s sake, it’s clear that Lee will be leaving behind a legacy for her students to remember. “It is important that we instill in our students the desire to keep learning and be problem solvers. If everyone did their best to solve problems, we will have a lot less problems to deal with in this world.”
This interview was published in Prestige Malaysia’s March 2015 issue.