“The idea of UTAR was born in the air. I was on the plane with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad,” Dr Ling said of a work trip inspecting port projects during Dr Mahathir’s first tenure as Prime Minister.
He said he noticed Dr Mahathir looking contented after enjoying his favourite meals of Kedah-style nasi lemak and mee rebus, and took the opportunity to finally ask a question he had been waiting for a long time to ask.
“I said, 'Sir, I have been the chairman of TARC for 18 years. We have been building up from 411 students to 30,000 students.
“More than half the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) graduates in this country are from TARC, as well as a number of engineers and architects...I asked, 'Sir, can I be rude now to ask for permission to run a university?'”
Dr Ling said Dr Mahathir did not respond, but merely took out a notebook and wrote down the suggestion – that was when he knew he had “struck gold”.
According to Dr Ling, the Prime Minister had a habit of noting good ideas in his notebooks, which he will refer to during Cabinet meetings.
A week after Ling asked the dreaded question, then deputy education minister Datuk Hon Choon Kim showed up at his house.
“He came to my house, put down his bag, and in that bag is a velvet envelope, and in that envelope, there was a letter: Requesting MCA to form UTAR.
“You don't apply to form a university, you know? If they think you are qualified, they invite you to form the university. Basically, we are qualified and invited. So, the idea of UTAR was born on the air, not in the sea or in the bed. It was on the plane," Dr Ling reminisced.
With the permission to start UTAR granted, Dr Ling said he faced another momentous task to raise funds for the construction of the school.
He said he thought about what to do for a week and decided to instruct his then political secretary Tan Sri Ong Ka Ting to purchase two flight tickets to Hong Kong.
"So, we flew to Hong Kong. We went straight to the office of Robert Kuok.
“I told Kuok: 'Sir, I got the letter requesting us to form UTAR, the university. He told me, Liong Sik, you need a lot of money, I’ll start by giving you RM20mil',” Ling said of the university’s first donor.
“I told Ong (in Mandarin), a good start is the halfway point to success. Although this ‘banana’ (referring to himself) didn't study Mandarin, but he know how to say these words,” Dr Ling joked.
The weekend after the successful trip to Hong Kong, Ling said he and his wife set off for Genting Highlands, where founder Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong was hosting a Chinese New Year open house event.
“We went up to Genting. Lim was there welcoming his guests. He saw me and took me into a room, he only spoke to me in Hokkien.
“He said 'Liong Sik, I know you are here to find money for your school', I said 'no, I’m here to eat your food',” he joked.
Lim pledged RM10mil to Ling. “I said 'I am very happy, I came to eat and earned RM10mil',” Dr Ling joked.
The next day, Lim changed his mind and increased his donation to RM20mil.
In the following months, Dr Ling collected another RM10mil each from tycoon Tan Sri Ananda Krishnan and Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, and another RM50mil from the federal government approved by Dr Mahathir.
"So, we had RM110mil within six months," Dr Ling said.
With a nationwide donation drive with the help of Hawker Associations selling char koay teow for RM1,000 to RM5,000, Dr Ling said he managed to collect nearly RM200 million in donations for UTAR within one year.
“With that RM200mil, we built UTAR. The structure you see today, most of it are from public donations,” he said.
UTAR was established in 2002.
Ling was speaking at the launch of the “TARC Historical Series 2 - The Pioneers”, a book detailing the history of TARC.
Produced by the Federation of TAR College Alumni Associations Malaysia, the book records the memories of four TAR founding members - former MCA president Tan Sri Datuk Lee San Choon, former Transport Minister Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik, TARC first deputy registrar Tan Chang Soong, and former principal Datuk Dr Lim Khaik Leang - about the formation of TARC.
The book launch coincides with the varsity’s 50th anniversary celebration.
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