HE has been called all kinds of names. You either love him or loathe him, there are no two ways about it. His admirers think he is a genius while his nemeses say he is an opportunist, but a modern, more neutral word to describe him would be unconventional.
The quintessential maverick might be another phrase which suits him, and certainly Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing ignores rules, and neither does he care what his critics think or say of him.
He is always dressed in black – which is not the most auspicious colour for Asians – and his staff are required to do likewise.
But that speaks volumes of his style. He is a non-conformist, creative, daring and innovative. He probably frowns on the adage “thinking out of the box” because that would be an archaic description for him.
Now, in his 70s, Lim shows no signs of slowing down. He is still prancing around like rock star Mick Jagger, 75, so it’s not surprising when people see a resemblance in the two. And like his celebrity equivalent, Lim is equally ambitious and aspires to expand his education empire.
Next year welcomes another milestone to his African legacy as he adds LimKokWing universities in Uganda, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa.
His decision to set up a university in Botswana, a country almost 9,000km away and in a continent and culture vastly different from ours, remains a burning question for many, and not just Malaysians, but Americans and Europeans, too.
Tough profiteers have “invaded” Africa to plunder its diamonds and precious minerals resources, and the more modern of them have done likewise using different causes and platforms, while the less greedy ones sell mobile telephones to the huge consumer market.
But Lim has done the unthinkable instead by setting up universities in Botswana, Sierra Leone, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) and Lesotho.
Beyond that, he has cast his sights on Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius and Sudan, as well as Central Asia.
Africa has never been good news, what with its despot dictators, deadly diseases and famines. However, the negatives have not fazed Lim, who believes in pinning his hopes on the people of Africa, and he says he is “on a mission to outrun anger, hopelessness and hostility with education, hope and opportunity”.
And he remains the only Malaysian educationist to have established universities overseas with a true Malaysian brand.
Here are some excerpts from Lim’s interview with Sunday Star and the book LimKokWing – Transforming Africa, which will be launched soon.
It all started in 1995, when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad started the Langkawi International Dialogue to strengthen Malaysia’s socio-economic ties with African countries.
In 2007, I was asked to make a presentation about Africa to an audience of African leaders, and I told them that I found Africa to be a puzzle because this is a continent that is enormously wealthy, with natural resources like diamonds, gold, copper, iron ore and huge reserves of oil and gas.
It is also a continent rich with unique wildlife, not found anywhere on earth, making it a tourist paradise.
I asked, “Tell me, why is Africa poor?” I was applauded, but talk is cheap. Naturally, they wanted to translate my belief into a vision and then translate it into a reality. LimKokWing had to take the first steps and get it done.
On meeting Nelson Mandela and the start of the African journey.
I was introduced to this great man by Dr Mahathir to run a voter education campaign in preparation for the country’s first free elections. It was this experience that planted the seed for my love of the continent.
For two years, starting in 1994, I travelled throughout the country (South Africa). I worked alongside this legend, and the ANC (African National Congress), and saw how he interacted with his people, speaking of hope, reconciliation and peace.
Here was a man who was jailed for 27 years, and never did he speak of vengeance and bitterness. He had no time for vindictiveness. Instead, we found a warm person with a huge heart.
Mandela considered me a South African and publicly acknowledged it. It was very emotional, and LimKokWing was privileged to play a small part in the historic elections, as campaign material of the ANC.
When I landed in South Africa in 1994, it was smack in the centre of tyrannical oppression, and reeling from apartheid, but Mandela lifted the doom and brought hope.
It had a very great impact on me, and what I wanted to do.
On the first LimKokWing university in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, in 2007.
The first campus in Africa was in a mall. We were overwhelmed when 6,000 applicants turned up for 1,500 placements on the first day. We were swamped. The Botswana government had invited me to set up a campus in six months and we did just that. This was then a country with only one university.
There was a hunger for education. When we opened for registration, there were queues so long that we had to turn away thousands. The university had to open a second campus to absorb 6,000 students. Today, the Botswana campus is the biggest LimKokWing campus in Africa.
The second campus in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, a small country in southern Africa in 2008, and what followed next.
It was our second campus, which was set up after a meeting at the Langkawi International Dialogue between LimKokWing and then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili. In fact, he too, created a Vision 2020, as he was inspired by Dr Mahathir then. He wanted the university to offer programmes that would meet the aspirations of the country.
After Botswana, His Majesty King Mswati III of Eswatini wanted to create a similar campus in Mbabane, the capital city. By 2014, we set up another campus in Sierra Leone.
As part of our Transform Africa Initiative, which is well underway, the number of African countries wanting to collaborate with LimKokWing is increasing.
In Namibia, LimKokWing University will be the first private international university, and will accept its first batch of students in 2020, followed by Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania.
The blood, sweat and tears in setting up in LimKokWing in an unknown education market.
When we were invited to set up LimKokWing in Botswana for the first time, the president then was a supporter, but we still needed the buy-in from the somewhat sceptical Cabinet. I remember I had to sell the concept to members of the entire Cabinet.
They had not seen anything like it before because, like many colonies, they had inherited the British system of education. We were talking about education transformation – but first we had to transform their mindset about what the future of education was.
The media was hostile, and some education institutions were not used to the idea of foreigners owning a university in their country.
Although we got attacked in some media, we didn’t spend too much time trying to answer every criticism. It was to be expected, and we knew the best rebuttal and goodwill would come with the quality of the graduates.
The first batch of Botswana’s 1,000 soon-to-graduate could not find internships in 2009. What was done?
There were not enough companies in Botswana to accommodate such large numbers, and some of the fields of study did not even exist as businesses in the country. When it came to our attention, we didn’t see it as a problem but as an opportunity, as we then launched LimKokWing Entrepreneurship Acceleration Platform (LEAPS) aimed at producing entrepreneurs among the graduates and provided them exposure. We wanted these graduates to create jobs, and not merely look for jobs. It was also a major mind shift for them.
Lesotho’s harsh media and lecturers who downed tools in 2011.
The media there are more confrontational than the Asian media and they also tend to make accusations without checking the facts, but we take it in our stride.
In 2011, lecturers went on strike as they were reluctant to sign a five-year contract. It is a norm in most countries, but they were unfamiliar, and thought that it was a sign that the college would shut down in five years, leaving them without a job. Some of the lecturers complained of heavy workload.
So, we had to engage lecturers from outside the country to ensure classes were not interrupted. We know the road ahead will have occasional bumps, but we believe in empowering the young, and making the impossible possible for themselves, their families and their nation.
Launch of Sierra Leone campus, the first West African country, in 2014, to be hit by Ebola.
The spread of Ebola forced the campus launch to be deferred, and it was a great disappointment to the 3,000 students that had signed up. I must single out Malaysian lecturer Sonny Jumpo, who was seconded from the main LimKokWing university in Malaysia. While many expatriates left the country, he stayed on until the last minute.
We were the first institution to offer a helping hand to the government of Sierra Leone. We also ran a cohesive campaign, carrying the Stop Ebola message to the masses.
But as I enter the classes, I see bright and happy faces, something I have not felt in other campuses. They have gone through a very dark period, where despair and pain had clouded their way, but today, the sun shines and we see only happy smiles, and today, a future begins.
On retaining the LimKokWing brand in Africa.
It was never easy. They felt a Westerner should head a university, so the mindset of West is Best was very powerful. Some wonder why the name is after a Chinese, and not a Western name. But on those things, we didn’t waver. We brought in our model of education, but we married it with their African heritage and what their countries were aiming for, for their national development.
What does all this mean to Malaysia?
It means Malaysia is shining in Africa. The Jalur Gemilang is flying on all our campuses in Africa. It is not just about Lim Kok Wing. This is about a Malaysian brand which has successfully gone global and attained acceptance, and it’s also about changing the lives of people in a positive manner.
You cannot know how it stirs my heart each time I see these students holding our Malaysian flags by the hundreds at our convocation. That’s not the only thing, they happily bring the bunga manggar and beat the kompang to add to the festive mood of their graduation ceremonies. In almost all these convocations, their heads of state or governments have attended to lend their support to our work. It makes me proud as a Malaysian.
Lim Kok Wing the man, up close and personal.
My mother, a tailor, was our sole breadwinner. She was very traditional, as in most Chinese families. She could not understand why I love the arts and design. As someone struggling to put food on the table, she didn’t want me to be poor. She wanted me to work in a bank, but I was already doing artwork as a schoolboy. I even won a guitar as a prize for designing a record album cover.
I couldn’t hide it and she was furious. Deeply saddened, I sought the advice of my headmaster. A fierce man but very kind man. He told me to follow my heart.
I left school to become a car salesman, a lousy one as I crashed the car. I sold encyclopaedias, became an art illustrator and a crime reporter in a newspaper. None worked well.
Eventually, I joined an international advertising agency, and rose from within the ranks to become its art director. I was the first Malaysian to hold that post.
It didn’t end there – I set up Wing Creative Consultants, Malaysia’s first homegrown advertising agency, at the age of 29, in 1975.
Why are you always in black?
(Laughter). Believe me, my wardrobe has other colours. Black was chosen to bring people, especially staff, together. I didn’t want everyone to wear a uniform as it will be odd. Black was a standard colour chosen. Black is beautiful and elegant, after all.
I used to wear colours in the early 1990s, but I decided to switch to this minimalist style eventually. I suppose you want to ask me next if I wear red during Chinese New Year?
(Laughter) Yes, I do! But I still match red with black jeans! After all, I am a rebel and non-conformist.I’m on a mission to outrun anger, hopelessness and hostility with education, hope and opportunity