Call him the prophet of innovation, if you will. Long before it became a buzzword in Malaysia, Lim Kok Wing was doggedly preaching the need for innovation and creative thinking.
“Perhaps it is because I came from an advertising background,” says the founder of the one-time leading advertising agency Wings Creative Consultants. “I was trained to be forward-looking because everything we did in that industry was geared towards competition. It had to be an idea that would be good for the next five to 10 years.
“I could see that if Malaysia didn’t start building the capacity to compete, we would not be able to hold our own against other countries as the world globalized. We needed to prepare the human capital to take us further.”
Lim’s crusade led him to the education sector. “Malaysia, like many of the Commonwealth countries, has taken on the British model of education and tinkered and tempered with it for reasons of nationalism, but has not built it to a point of being relevant to the world today. Even the British have refined their model but we are still using a 50-year-old system.”
Believing that “what got us here is not going to get us there”, Lim set out to transform the private higher education sector. Not attending university (partly because of his family’s financial circumstances) allowed him to redesign the system with refreshing ideas not bound by conventional wisdom and rules about the role of a university.
He set up the Limkokwing Institute of Creative Technology, which later became the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT). What started out as a creative institute to equip locals for the advertising and communications industry developed into an international university with a strong focus on business, design, communications, media and broadcast, multimedia, creative arts, design architecture and information technology.
“I’ve always believed that the real world is outside the classroom,” he says. “To me, there is no such thing as an academic world. Yes, we have academic knowledge but real knowledge is out there in the world. There is a clear distinction between knowing how to design something, and talking about how to do it.”
He sought to put as much of the real world as possible into the classroom so that graduates would transition seamlessly into the marketplace, not just with relevant knowledge and skills set but also the emotional intelligence.
“Education must develop the individual holistically. Young people should not be straitjacketed and stereotyped by the system.”
Lim talks about designing graduates as one would a product: “We started by looking at the kind of graduates we wanted to produce. Then we worked backwards to put in the processes and build the support systems to ensure we get the desired outcome.”
Students are thrust into business incubation units, have to make pitches to corporate partners, participate in award shows, organize events, and work on actual industry projects. A number of the Malaysian government’s public service campaigns, for instance, originated from LUCT’s classrooms.
He also brought the world into his school, believing the intercultural exchange would enrich students’ experiences and lead to unprecedented networking. He built a global classroom from international alliances with more than 170 universities spread over 77 countries. It opened the door to two-way exchange programmes and twinning programmes. At the last count, the main campus in Cyberjaya (Malaysia’s equivalent of Silicon Valley) is represented by over 130 nations.
In 2006, Lim realized the second phase of his global university plan by setting up LUCT Botswana. It marked the beginning of the university’s rapid and aggressive expansion which extends to 12 campuses in Botswana, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland and United Kingdom with 30,000 students.
When the London campus opened in Piccadilly in 2008, Lim’s novel approach to higher education got the attention of the British. In an article, “From Malaysia to Mayfair: The foreign university that is sending out shivers in the higher education world”, The Independent daily noted LUCT’s potential to challenge British universities with its more entrepreneurial and flexible approach.
“We will be entering six more African nations in the next 24 months and have over 20 invitations under consideration,” Lim says. “Central Asia will get started in the next 12 months; Maldives is in the pipeline; and the Middle East has asked us to set up campuses. We are also planning to venture into Europe via Slovakia and Poland.”
He is, however, selective about where he will take the school. The university must first be invited by the government and must have the ability to make a meaningful contribution to the nation. “We have very clear roles to play in countries like Africa, Cambodia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. We contribute directly to their human capital development, and help build people and countries,” Lim says.
In fact, the Africa business is part philanthropy; Lim slashed tuition fees by half to make it more affordable and accessible to a greater mass.
In contrast, he sees China as having little need for a campus, given its advanced education system, highly ranked universities and inherent creativity: “The Chinese are a very creative people. Their antiques and carvings — the immaculate designs, impeccable craftsmanship and sophisticated production techniques — speak of centuries-old capabilities. The speed at which they have been able to respond to market demands confirm their intelligence and talent. They are unbeatable in many ways.”
LUCT has instead opted to set up a creativity centre in Beijing that focuses on digital work, 3D illustrations, animation and related skills which the Chinese market still needs to acquire. Lim sees the university making a bigger contribution to the Chinese development by bringing in students to the Cyberjaya campus where they can interact with a global community.
The Beijing centre is, however, a popular port of call for students spending their semester abroad under the global classroom — much like the United Kingdom campus — especially business students. LUCT has also established several alliances with Chinese institutions for student exchange programmes as part of the global classroom experience.
Two years ago, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation in Malaysia honored Lim with the title “Father of Innovation in Creative Education”. Though there is a lengthy list of awards and recognitions, this holds special meaning because as Lim put it in a speech, “It has something to do with what I’ve been doing in my lifetime.”
LUCT has also been equally prolific. The university was cited by the World Bank and Unesco for innovation in education. The QS Asian University Rankings puts it among Asia’s top private universities and one of the top 14 in Malaysia. It was awarded the International Gold Star Award for Quality and Excellence by World Quality Commitment, Paris, and the Global Innovation Leadership Award in Education by BID International Quality Summit, New York, to name just a few.
Subsidiaries like the Centre for Content Creation multimedia development unit has also been on a winning streak. The most recent metal haul is three awards for excellence and three for distinction at the 18th Annual Communications Awards. The jewel in its crown, the LUCT website, gets some 220 million hits a year and is consistently voted the best university site in the world.
From an aspiring artist who couldn’t afford tuition fees to the founder and president of a university that is shaking up the tertiary education system, Lim has come full circle. “I was just doing what my heart said to me. I followed my heart,” he says.
Copyright © 2013 Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Paduka Dr Lim Kok Wing. All Right Reserved.
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