- Despite her success, Dr Elizabeth Lee, chief executive officer of the Sunway Education Group (SEG) remains humble and approachable. We spoke to the mother of three to understand what drives and motivates the woman at the helm of SEG.
Much like the hot cups of rose tea she serves to guests in her office, Dr Elizabeth Lee, chief executive officer of the Sunway Education Group (SEG), exudes warmth. A self-professed people person, Elizabeth is ever ready with a smile; her eyes lighting up at the mention of her students, and she proudly enthuses about their recent accomplishments at the SEA Games and the IKA Culinary Olympics.
“University is not about studies alone! It’s more about more wholesome development of the person, where students hone their talents and sharpen their skills. It is so heartening to see them win in sports, culinary arts, dance and all kinds of things they do. They are winners for competing – not just getting the trophies. It’s important for them to learn how to compete. That’s how they become better and improve otherwise they become complacent and rest on their laurels,” she said.
Besides spending the past 28 years with SEG, Elizabeth is synonymous with higher education in Malaysia as she is actively involved in various education-related capacities. She is a 2nd term council member of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency Council (MQA) and chairs both the MQA Investment Committee as well as Disciplinary Committee. Previously, Elizabeth served on the board of advisors of the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN), the Ministry of Education’s premier research arm.
Beyond the education orbit, Elizabeth sits on the Board of Trustees of MERCY Malaysia, supporting their humanitarian work, and also shares her leadership experiences as a mentor for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) global programme for specially selected female corporate leaders.
Having obtained her Honours degree in Multi-Cultural Education in the UK and read her Master of Philosophy in Education at the University of Cambridge, Elizabeth also serves on the Exco of the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Malaysia, of which she was their first female President from 2003 to 2006.
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Growing up with a mother who was a teacher and a father who worked in the publishing industry, Elizabeth said education runs in the family. An avid reader, her earliest childhood memories involved recreating the classroom environment in her bedroom with her dolls and teddy bears, and marking books with a red pen.
Her father was a key influence in her decision to become an educator, she said.
“From a young age, my father would get me to write simple children stories, which he would then print into small black and white booklets that he would sell to schoolchildren for 10 cents at school canteens during recess time. He sold the books cheaply so that more children could afford to read. His passion was to instil the love of reading in children,” she said.
Education of the future
Technological advancement may change the traditional role of educators, Elizabeth said. “The school of the future may actually be devoid of teachers, as we learn more from peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. While the yearning to impart knowledge to the next generation remains, the traditional role of top-down knowledge sharing could become irrelevant,” she said.
However, Elizabeth is confident that universities will not disappear. “Teachers are facilitators and knowledge is not confined to a textbook alone. Young people are becoming more aware of what goes on out there in the world and there is a lot more questioning and hence thinking. You cannot look to the teacher as a ‘know-it-all sage’,” she said.
With the rising popularity of short courses online and monthly subscription models at universities overseas, how is Sunway University keeping abreast with digitalisation?
Elizabeth lists the Victoria University MBA programme offered at Sunway as an example of offering flexibility in education since more than 15 years ago.
“For the longest time I have believed that one should be able to study for a degree bit by bit. Our Victoria University MBA programme offered at Sunway was launched many years ago to offer working adults the chance to complete the whole master’s degree in modular phases,” she said, adding, “Nowadays, they call it micro-credentials.”
Sunway has also been striving to improve their online capabilities to support students’ learning, especially as contingency measures in facing recent public health hazards such as Covid-19 and haze.
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Sunway Education Group’s partnership with French-based École 42 — a teacher-less coding school — to open the first École 42 campus in Malaysia is a nod to the education of the future. Established in Paris in 2013, École 42 now has 23 partner schools globally and is the first digital training centre that is tuition-free and open to 18-year-old students with or without academic qualifications. Students will be selected based on an online aptitude test, followed by a month-long project challenge. Teaching methods are based on peer-to-peer learning without the aid of teachers and classes, allowing students to learn creatively through projects. The École 42 KL campus is set to be launched in Sunway in June this year, with the first intake slated for September.
“The whole idea is to ensure that future generations are not disadvantaged. I love the idea that we don’t need to have pre-requisite qualifications to pursue education. People develop at different stages of their lives. Every person should have the right to be educated,” said Elizabeth.
Woman at the top
Was it challenging to juggle a demanding career with her role as wife and mother to her three daughters growing up? Elizabeth said she made it a point to never miss any major event of her children’s growing up years such as school concert performances, and she travelled less for work when the children were younger. “They need to feel you are a part of their major milestone-moments,” she said.
As part of her job involved entertaining business partners, Elizabeth would host them at her house to expose her children at a young age to be part of mum’s official life. “It helped to actually foster closer working relationships with some partners too”. Keen to give her young children the best while working saw her doing teleconference calls in private while expressing breastmilk for her babies, in the workplace.
“I believe it is much easier today as corporations are a lot more conscious of supporting women at work. Back then, nursing rooms were non-existent! Women are given more flexibility too these days. But it ultimately comes back to the person herself. You have to be creative and make do with what you have. You have to be determined to find a way and believe when there’s a will there’s a way. If a man can be a father and work at the same time, why can’t a woman?” she said.
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However, Elizabeth is quick to credit her husband, her parents, in-laws and her domestic helpers for her success as a full-time working mother. “You must establish a support system. I depended on people I could trust and who were supportive of me. My husband worked from home when my youngest was born. My parents helped greatly with baby-sitting and in-laws would help pick-up my kids from school when needed. Marissa, my domestic helper has been with my family for 25 years, is like family to me — she runs my household!”
Elizabeth said she did not encounter gender discrimination at work, or at least, she never allowed herself to think that way. “Men and women need to learn how to work together, not threaten each other. Nobody would want to work with someone who constantly fights you. I stand for gender equality as I believe men and women bring different strengths to the workplace,” she said.
The mark of a leader
In every workplace, there will be people who are difficult to get along with but the key is to be constructive about it, she said. “We need to inspect ourselves – is there something that I need to change about myself to improve at my work? What does another colleague have that I lack or what can I bring to the table that others can’t? Have a chat with your boss and ask about what you can do to learn or achieve greater things. Make plenty of allies not enemies,” she said.
When it comes to leadership, she looks up to her father for his humility, and as a Christian, Jesus Christ for his servant leadership. “I know it sounds religious and cliché but servant leadership appeals to me because you cannot lead if you do not have followers. Leaders have to command the respect and following of a group of people. You have to be dependable, trustworthy and you need to have values that cannot be compromised. Being a leader is a great responsibility – you cannot let your following down because they have entrusted you to lead them. You owe it to them,” she said.