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Gift of knowledge

Published on Friday, 08 Nov 2013
Bernard Yeung
Photo: NUS

From his HK roots, NUS Business School Dean Bernard Yeung has gone far

This is the story of a daydreaming boy who made good, of a young man who found the right mentors just in time, and of a brilliant Hong Kong educator who got away. But the story continues to unfold, and it may yet have a happy ending for the city’s education sector.

A true global citizen and peripatetic scholar, Bernard Yeung grew up in Hong Kong, worked, studied and taught in at least four countries, and has held three nationalities. He is currently a US citizen – owing much to the 30-plus years he spent in North America – where he studied at the University of Western Ontario and Chicago Booth, and taught at New York University (NYU) Stern, the University of Alberta in Canada and in Michigan.

Currently the dean and Stephen Riady Distinguished Professor of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, Yeung, now 60, was born into a modest Kennedy Town family of four siblings, a housewife mother and a self-educated father, who supported his brood working as a clerk for HK$300 a month. This barely kept them above the poverty line in 1950s Hong Kong.

“My father only had two years of formal education because of the war, but he educated himself to a level that he was able to read classical Chinese,” Yeung says. “My parents left me with three important things: the way they valued education, their devotion to the family, and their insistence on honesty, integrity and good values.”

His parents’ focus on education has paid off well – Yeung’s siblings are all university graduates, with two younger siblings securing architecture and law degrees from the University of Hong Kong. (In gratitude, Yeung and his siblings bought a condominium for their parents in Toronto, where the couple – now in their 90s – are based, close to two of their daughters and their families.)

Yeung, now 60, has not done badly either. In August this year, he won the Irwin Outstanding Educator Award. This made him the first person from an Asian institution in the 26-year history of the award to win the prestigious honour, conferred by the business policy and strategy division of the Academy of Management in the US.

It is a long way indeed for a boy whose first taste of education was through the so-called market, or district, schools. “[My first school] wasn’t really a good school and not a really exciting experience. So my grade-school days were spent day-dreaming in class. There was just no stimulation,” he says.

An early big break came when he somehow got into the St Louis secondary school in Sai Ying Pun, run by the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Roman Catholic religious institute.

“I was very lucky to get into this Catholic school. It was a very stimulating form of education. Also, I came across people who encouraged me to ask questions and to question authority – not in the sense of being rebellious, but to be critical-minded,” he says.

The young Yeung also felt inspired as he was being allowed to explore initiatives, such as forming the school’s basketball club and other student groups.

He remembers a particular social studies class under an Italian priest. One of their projects was an exhibition on the famine in Ethiopia that was claiming hundreds of thousands of lives at the time, mostly children and women.

“That was a very moving experience for me,” Yeung recalls. “We asked why we had that kind of human suffering if there was God. Our teacher priest then read from the Bible and told us that even the sparrow will be provided for, but that human beings suffer mostly because they mess up in their organisation. That launched me into my search to understand society. We started thinking about justice, not from our textbooks, but on our own.”

Yeung remembers going to the City Hall library to try to understand the meaning of justice. “Along the way, I found economics,” he says.

But shifting from a market school to a high-standard institution like St Louis wasn’t that easy. “My main challenge was English. I barely made it through my English class, but I managed to fail in almost all my subjects because the medium of instruction was English,” he says.

Yeung says he did try hard to learn English, but it was an uphill struggle and in Form 2, he was booted out of the school. He was forced to transfer to another school, but a few days into the first semester, he was summoned by Father Peter Dean, the priest in charge of academic affairs at St Louis at the time.

“He asked me to come back to St Louis. Many years later, when I was starting to do well in my career, I had a talk with him before he passed away, and I asked him why he took me back. ‘You are a good and very smart kid,’ he told me, ‘but you are not exerting yourself. And I wanted to give you a shock so you’d wake up.’ And he did.”

Yeung finished his high school in Hong Kong and eventually found a job at an international bank in Central. He worked there from 1974 until he had saved enough money to enable him to study abroad a year later.

He studied economics and mathematics in Canada, where his sister was also based, but in a different city. “It was the best time of my life,” he says.

To support himself temporarily, Yeung worked at a local McDonald’s branch. “After one month, I had enough money to go to London, Ontario, to enrol for my undergraduate course at the University of Western Ontario,” he says.

With barely enough money after paying his tuition, Yeung eventually found a job at a local pub, serving drinks for two nights a week from 8pm to 2am. In summer, he did extra shifts at the pub and cleaned toilets to shore up his school funds. “It really was fun,” he says. “I really had a good time.”

In his second year at the university, Yeung got a scholarship while his teachers gave him paid research-assistant work.

“This contributed to my decision to become an academic. I got involved in doing research early on and I was able to publish a paper when I was an undergraduate. My professors encouraged me to consider being an academic,” he says.

In 1979, he secured his double-degree in mathematics and economics, even as he was finishing the first-year courses for his PhD. He was given admission to Harvard, Princeton, MIT and the University of Chicago. He chose the latter, as it would allow him to pursue his MBA and his doctorate simultaneously. Funded by a scholarship, he finished his PhD at the age of 29.

But why did he not opt to study in Hong Kong? “In my time, there were only two universities – the Chinese University and HKU – and I felt that the local learning environment just wasn’t right for me. When I went overseas for my studies, it was basically just a hunch. But I think my hunch was correct,” he says.

In Chicago, Yeung also met a fellow graduate student – Wei-Jun Jean, originally from Taiwan – who would become his future wife.

“I am very lucky to have this lady as my wife,” Yeung says of Jean, who has a PhD in sociology from the University of Alberta. “She has high EQ, she’s very balanced. She would give me good critiques for what I do. She has high moral value. She focuses on family education and I appreciate her work very much.”

They have a son who works as a banker in Singapore and a daughter in her final year at Duke University.

Before joining NUS in 2008, Yeung was the Abraham Krasnoff Professor in Global Business, Economics and Management at NYU Stern School of Business. He was also a member of the Economic Strategies Committee in Singapore, and the Financial Research Council of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

He is a key player in enhancing the scope and prestige of the NUS MBA programme – which is a consistent top-ranker in the region – especially in highlighting the importance of “soft” business skills and experiential learning to help produce business and community leaders with strong values and vision.

He has also brought NUS into the Global Network for Advanced Management, a Yale-led global alliance of more than 20 business schools.

Another of his important achievements is the development of the Asian Bureau for Finance and Economic Research, described as a virtual network to help promote research relevant to Asia-Pacific.

“I believe that academicians produce more than just knowledge. It is really about establishing and nurturing a scientific spirit. As an academic, you need to care. You don’t do things because of their transactional value, but because you can help bring the world to a better stage,” he says.

Yeung also believes that the academic world rests on integrity. “What’s right is right, what’s wrong is wrong,” he says.

Another thing that attracts Yeung to the academic world is its constant drive for innovation. “This spirit is very important for humankind to move up,” he says.

However, as far as Yeung is concerned, the idea of change is not as simple as that. “Sometimes, when you are not happy with something and you want to improve it, it’s a transaction-based kind of change. But it you want to innovate for the sake of changing things, it has an intrinsic value,” he says.

Yeung says learning is all about teamwork. “Out of every Nobel prize would be 99 colleagues who comment on the person’s work,” he says.

Finally, there is this sense of striving for excellence, Yeung adds.

“If you add these five values – the drive for excellence, integrity, teamwork, innovation, the passion because you care about you do – it’s the making of a national spirit,” he says.

Reflecting on his Irwin Outstanding Educator Award, Yeung says: “I feel very humbled and honoured, but I also feel I was very lucky to have all these people to work with – my former supervisors, my peers, my students,” he says.

The annual award – based on nominations by individuals – honours scholars for their commitment to, and expertise in, imparting strategic management or educating others about strategic management.

A prolifically published researcher in finance, economics and policy, Yeung was cited for his role in nurturing other scholars through mentorship of doctoral students and colleagues, and for coaching students and junior faculty members.

“Yeung has developed many outstanding scholars and is inspiring in his dedication to mentorship,” said the chairman of the awarding body.

Yeung concedes that the contemporary world is different from the world he grew up in, and that young people today have different values. “However, I feel that some things never change. We still care for humankind and, as teachers, we have to maintain our sense of humility,” he says.

He recalls that during a stint in Shanghai to help set up NYU’s Shanghai campus, he felt the urge to return to his home region and be part of “the Asian renaissance”.

Now, he feels that more and more scholars based in Asia will be gaining international recognition. “Many Asian scholars based in the West are returning and they all want to contribute. I think we can only go up from here. I think we can lead the world based on what we have here in Asia,” he says.

Is he entertaining any thoughts of coming back to his birthplace? “Everyone will be sentimental about where they were born and where they grew up. My brother, sisters and friends are still in Hong Kong. I miss Hong Kong, and in my mind and in my heart, there will always be a space for Hong Kong. Do I see myself retiring in Hong Kong? I do not know if I can afford it,” he says.

“There are two types of leaders. I am the very peanut type. The really great ones are those who can move a whole village. If I don’t have that capability, I know that it will be very hard to live in Hong Kong, especially in trying to make the necessary changes.”

However, being based outside of Hong Kong has not stopped Yeung from contributing to policy debates involving the city and China, mainly through his research reports, proving that knowledge is a gift that keeps on giving.

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