UCSI’S Peter Ng: 'Dirty Devil' Who Grew Up To Become Education Angel

UPHILL CLIMB

UCSI’S Peter Ng: 'Dirty Devil' Who Grew Up To Become Education Angel

The hilly slopes of Taman Connaught was the fertile ground upon which Datuk Peter Ng sowed the early seeds of his education empire. It was not a bed of roses as the UCSI Group founder tells AWANI Review’s Cynthia Ng of the challenges he overcame along the route to the top.

Perched on a hill, Datuk Peter Ng’s office at the top of an 11th floor building offers a bird’s eye view of the densely-populated Taman Connaught township in Cheras – which at one time seemed an unlikely location for an education hub.

“No one believed in this place,” says Ng, overlooking the sprawling 20-acre UCSI University wedged between a busy expressway on one side and a hotel linked to the campus on the other.

“Everyone told me to pick either Subang or Petaling Jaya as suitable location for the college, where all the other institutions are. But why do I want to be amongst the competitors?” he says casually, before the start of the interview.

Ng is the founder and CEO of UCSI Group, a company that started out in education; who now owns over 20 subsidiaries with business interests in hospitality, healthcare, construction, ICT, and consultancy.

Its achievements are not merely quantitative; UCSI University was ranked as Malaysia’s best private university in the QS World University Rankings 2019, placing it in the top two percent of all universities in the world.

This is a Journey of Purposefulness, Not a Journey of Entrepreneurship

Ng, ever modest, simply shrugs off the plaudits for the success he has accomplished with UCSI, which began as a small computer training institute in 1986. “When I started, I had no idea about going on an ‘entrepreneurial journey’. It was nothing grand; just a very humble aim with a purpose.”

“I knew education is was something that I want to contribute deliberately. So, it is a journey of purposefulness, not a journey of entrepreneurship.”

I knew education is was something that I want to contribute deliberately. So, it is a journey of purposefulness, not a journey of entrepreneurship

Raised in Linggi, Negeri Sembilan in straitened circumstances, Ng recognised how education can open doors that would have remained closed to many.

“I had a very difficult childhood. My teachers used to call me an jang guai or ‘dirty devil’ because of the dirt on my shoes from walking miles to and from the bus stand to get to school,” says Ng.

“So, I actually welcome the Education Minister’s proposal to have students wear black colored shoes,” he adds jokingly.

Speaking about his tertiary education, he recalls the nerves of telling his parents his desire to study in Canada.

“They almost freaked out! They could not believe that I would dare to have that kind of dream.”

He went on to Lakehead University in Canada, and soon after graduating, Ng decided to return to Malaysia. Armed with RM2000 from his father (‘He told me to go to Kuala Lumpur and find a job’); he used the money to start his first education venture - the Canada Institute of Computer Science.

“We were on a shoestring budget. So, my dad came and helped me out. He is a man of many talents and a good carpenter too. So, he built the chairs and tables from plywood,” says Ng.

“I could still remember the shock on the students’ faces because of how basic it was,” he adds with a laughter. “Those were the early, golden days.”

Under his leadership, the institute developed into a college, university college and finally, a full-fledged university in 2008.

The self-made entrepreneur speaks with a singular vision; he reiterates that UCSI’s foray into multiple business entities is driven by a strong sense of purposefulness and not ‘expansion’ simply for expansion’s sake.

For instance, UCSI’s venture into hospitality - it owns hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Sarawak - is in line with Ng’s vision of creating a university driven by Praxis, a theory that advocates applying learnings in a practical way; in other words, integrating classroom learning with workplace training.

“We went into hotel because we believed in co-op education.” Co-operative education is similar to internship and UCSI has one of the widest university-industry networks in Malaysia.

“A lot of parents and professors objected to the idea initially but we knew our purpose - which is to make UCSI University as a Praxis university. So we pursued that dream.”

“Then we realised our other students in business and tech also needed companies or consultancies where we can call as our own ‘Praxis’ centres, and companies where our professors can work in as well.”

“So, we now have over 20 companies,” he says. “We definitely did not have a grand plan; the expansion grew according to a purpose of what we wanted to do as an institution of higher learning,” adds the father-of-four.

Time is Ripe for the Introduction of University Endowment Model

Ng is no longer running the university’s day-to-day operations, focusing instead on upcoming projects like Springhill, Port Dickson - a 120-acre development that will house a vast UCSI University campus, international schools and hotel.

Springhill - which Ng says is his biggest investment thus far, without revealing the cost - will also launchpad UCSI’s ambitious leap into healthcare and medical tourism.

Its 130-bed hospital, to launch in mid-2019, is Malaysia’s first private teaching hospital. “I believe the community will do well with a major tertiary level medical offering.”

But that’s not all. Ng is is now putting together a masterplan for other supporting sectors like tourism and manufacturing to propel Springhill - a 25 minute drive from his hometown -  into becoming an economic center for the state.

“We will be adding more components. For example, experiential centres to allow people to go behind the scenes to see how products are made.”

All these co-companies that we have created with the university will be able to provide funding for the university’s research and building (development)

“We want it to be a tourist attraction. Because of where we are located, we can actually ‘marry’ the university and the local chocolate industry, for example. People can come and experience how these items are made,” he says with enthusiasm.

“We already have a company that produces skin care and health products. We also have a Faculty of Applied Science. So, we want to go into research that would incorporate Malaysia’s natural resources, and create a collaborative space for it to flourish.”

These plans no doubt are grandiose in scale – thereby requiring huge funds to translate into reality. Relying on university’s tuition fees alone could cripple the group’s bigger goals, says Ng, adding that leaning on endowment fund as long-term source of financing is the way forward.

“All these co-companies that we have created with the university will be able to provide funding for the university’s research and building (development).

“For example, we want to accomodate 40,000 students in our city campus alone. It’s a gigantic aim relying on tuition fees alone is simply not possible,” he says.

“Before I leave this place, my aim to have tuition fees account for only five percent of (funding). The rest will be supported by endowment funds from the dividends from these co-companies we created.”

Your Company Is Only As Extraordinary As Your People

At 58-years-old, Ng is not resting on his laurels, “We are at an infancy stage; there’s still so much more to be done”.

Driven neither by the quest for fortune nor fame, Ng says what’s left behind is far more important than what’s been gained when measuring one’s success.

“For me, success or achievement can only be measured when you’re no longer around, when the people you’ve left behind continue to uphold your vision, and drive it passionately too.”

Despite overseeing over 20 business entities under the group, Ng believes in striking a balance between work and play.

During weekdays, he’s often at the campus’ basketball court by 6.30pm with students and faculty members - a routine he has stuck to since the early days of UCSI.

“Everyone knows that if they want to get things done, or talk business, it better be before 6.30pm,” he says with a wide smile. “The game usually goes on till about 8.30pm.”

“I believe we need to be balance, there are things that are far more important than business,” says Ng, who’s also know to take power naps to balance his intense work schedule. “I can sleep anytime, anywhere,” he says, chuckling.