Published: 10:51, June 14, 2024
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Creating heroes of different stripes
By Oasis Hu

Being optimistic about China’s future and committed to transforming CityUHK into a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, the university leader aims to leverage his vast experience and solutions-oriented mindset to drive the institution’s growth and contribute to Hong Kong’s technology development, Freddy Boey Yin Chiang tells Oasis Hu.

Editor’s note: Education is playing a key role in nurturing talent, fostering intellectual discourse, and driving progress in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. China Daily will present a series of interviews with university heads in the region on their perspectives, wisdom, and vision for future education development.

Freddy Boey Yin Chiang, who was installed as the fifth president of City University of Hong Kong in May last year, remains buoyant about China and its future.

The Singaporean recalls his first trip to the Chinese mainland in 1988. As he strolled along Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, he was struck by the emptiness of the area, with people and bicycles the only things moving around. Crossing the Huangpu River into Pudong, he found himself staring at vast expanses of farmland that would later become the city’s gleaming financial district and are now home to some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers.

I don’t need a decade. Within five to six years, the academy will have nurtured several hundred young students with experience in deep-tech startups, ready to embark on their entrepreneurial endeavors.

Freddy Boey Yin Chiang, president of CityUHK

Ten years on, Boey was astounded by the metamorphosis Shanghai had undergone — two decades after the nation embarked on its miraculous economic reform and opening-up.

In a one-on-one interview with China Daily, Boey says China has a promising path to the future, and this extends to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region as a vital link between the mainland and the world.

Hong Kong enjoys the distinction of having the largest number of top 100 universities in the world, surpassing London, Los Angeles and Boston. “My confidence in Hong Kong is unshakeable.”

It was this belief that prompted Boey to leave the Lion City and take the helm at CityUHK. He’s confident his experiences align with those of the university, and allow him to contribute to the institution and also develop young people.

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Born in 1956, Boey is an expert in biomaterials engineering, with his work having graced the pages of more than 300 academic journals. His research places strong emphasis on practical values. In Singapore, he spearheaded the application of biomaterials in medical devices. He also holds over 120 original patents and has founded multiple spin-off companies.

Boey’s achievements have won him accolades, such as Singapore’s highest scientific honor, the President’s Science and Technology Medal for lifetime achievements, and the prestigious Imperial College London Faculty of Medicine Fellow award.

The academic also demonstrated his proficiency in management and administration. From 2004 to 2010, he chaired the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, transforming the school into a world powerhouse of materials science.

Boey was NTU’s provost from 2011 to 2017, during which time the university rocketed from 74th to 11th spot in the QS World University rankings and was the best in Asia in 2017.

As deputy president at the National University of Singapore from 2018 to 2022, he launched the Graduate Research Innovation Programme, which provides 12 months’ support and guidance to students aiming to turn research into commercial success. Singapore’s foremost technology startup program quadrupled the number of deep technology startups within three years.

Starting a new chapter at CityUHK, Boey aims to bring vast experience and a solutions-oriented mindset to Hong Kong. “Compared to what CityUHK is, I attach more importance to what the institution will be.”

Fostering innovative thinking

The SAR has been pushing the boundaries of innovation and technology, which, in Boey’s view, requires a fundamental shift in mindset.

He introduced a set of innovation-focused concepts at CityUHK, such as requiring universities to transition from passive teaching to active learning-centered education, and from professor-led lectures to student-led exploration. Universities should also inspire students to nurture their intrinsic motivation and curiosity.

Educators, on their part, need to help students develop strong communication skills and networking abilities as collaboration and interaction are important in this era, he says, and students should be encouraged to discover their unique paths instead of being solely driven by examinations. Exposure to diverse environments and cultures can play a significant role in this process.

Whether students aspire to be athletes, actors or scholars, CityUHK will create an ecosystem for them to find their inspiration and path, says Boey.

To bring these innovative ideas to fruition, the CityUHK chief has launched various initiatives since assuming the post. In January this year, the university set up the Academy of Innovation, offering programs, including doctorates in innovation, the Master of Science in Venture Creation, the Graduate Research and Innovation Trek Program, and the Overseas Start-up Technology Entrepreneur Programme.

Boey says the academy’s emphasis on practical research does not imply a compromise on the level of research conducted. On the contrary, the college will focus on tackling world-class research, striving for the highest level of excellence. It also emphasizes deep-tech venture creation and intends to develop a leading ecosystem to incubate deep-tech startups.

Students at the academy will be inventors creating value for society, and can be entrepreneurs to generate job opportunities for other scientists, not just job seekers. Initially, it may not be smooth sailing for them in their business ventures, but setbacks are valuable learning experiences, shaping their path to eventual success, says Boey.

Among the programs the academy offers, the MSc in Venture Creation program had received 233 applications by late April from students on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. “I don’t need a decade. Within five to six years, the academy will have nurtured several hundred young students with experience in deep-tech startups, ready to embark on their entrepreneurial endeavors.”  

Singapore has made significant strides in advancing innovation and technology but Hong Kong has the potential to run faster despite having started late, says Boey.

He observes that in Singapore, there’s a tendency to deal with the potential risks and challenges first before considering the opportunities on offer. In Hong Kong, it’s the opposite, with people tending to seize the opportunities before tackling the associated risks.

Hong Kong’s proactive and opportunistic mindset has positioned the city well for innovation and entrepreneurial success. “In this regard, I’m upbeat about Hong Kong’s technology development.”  

Global reach, local impact

From Boey’s understanding, the word “university” originates from “universe” and, therefore, a good university should function as a universe that’s well connected with the outside world. CityUHK cannot be a top university without establishing strong global links and collaboration. Boey has visited France, Switzerland, South Africa and Kazakhstan to attract local students. He plans to raise the number of exchange students at CityUHK and provide more scholarships for international students.

Boey believes Hong Kong retains strong appeal to students worldwide. The city’s trilingual environment fosters greater acceptance among students from diverse backgrounds, and its reputation for higher education is a magnet for students from abroad.

He’s committed to fostering closer collaboration with well-known foreign universities. Last month, CityUHK signed a memorandum of understanding with the Lucy Cavendish College at the University of Cambridge. The agreement is to bolster collaboration between the two institutions through more visits by students and scholars. CityUHK students will have the opportunity to study at Lucy Cavendish College for a year as part of their undergraduate programs.

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According to the 2024 Times Higher Education World University rankings, CityUHK was recognized as the “most international university” among 1,900 institutions of higher learning worldwide. So far, CityUHK has admitted students from more than 80 countries and regions and has established exchange programs with educational institutions in over 40 countries or regions. Up to 65 percent of the university’s undergraduates have joined these exchange programs. Apart from having an international outlook, maintaining strong ties with local communities has a positive effect on CityUHK too, says Boey.

He created the Office of the Vice-President (Community Engagement) — a dedicated unit to strengthen CityUHK’s interaction with different sectors of the city, particularly primary and secondary schools, young people and the elderly in neighborhoods. The university also launched the Veterinary Community Outreach Programme, deploying a mobile veterinary unit and dedicated professionals to support the pet welfare of disadvantaged communities.

The focus of academic pursuits, such as publishing one’s works in world-class journals or developing innovative ideas, says Boey, should be on how these ideas and inventions can be implemented in society to benefit the people. “I want to educate my students to be excellent, yet relevant.”

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