A generous donor for decades, Mr Yeo Keng Joon (MBA ‘85) also inspires others to follow his lead. He speaks to undergraduate volunteer Ms Hew Yee Ling on his own journey of service.
You have been extremely active in giving back to NUS – share with us your experience of doing your MBA at NUS and how it has made NUS a special place for you.
Since young, I have always been an active member of the communities that I am in. Similarly, when I was doing the part-time MBA at NUS as part of their third- ever cohort of students, I joined the MBA club and was elected the President of the MBA Alumni-NUS, the Founding President of NUS Business School Alumni Association (NUSBSA) and became an inaugural member of the NUS Alumni Advisory Board when it was formed in 2005. The one-and-a-half year MBA programme was done alongside similarly ambitious people. Some became ministers, others were appointed CEOs of multinational companies. As a Malaysian coming to Singapore and trying to move up in my career, the network was certainly useful. However what I treasured most was the camaraderie among our class of around 40 people, all facing the same challenges of having to juggle work and study, keeping awake through lectures. It was a very enriching experience.
In 2007, you raised about half a million Singapore dollars to set up 10 bursary funds. Following that, you helped to launch the Singapore Polytechnic Graduates Guild Endowment Fund to help needy students in SP Alumni. And in 2014, you initiated the NUS Campus Couples Bursary Fund for needy students in NUS and raised more than $340,000, enabling more than 13 bursaries to be awarded annually in perpetuity after government matching. What spurs you to continue giving?
Helping needy students is close to my heart as I came from a very humble background and relied on financial aid to pay for tuition fees. I wouldn’t have made it so far otherwise. It started all quite simply. I had wanted to make a donation to commemorate my youngest son’s wedding in 2006, and my initial donation of $25,000 became the seeding fund of sorts when I later roped in nine other friends who also believed in the cause to donate. The government matching structure also made it very easy sell – the money you donate will help needy students in perpetuity! That’s very good ROI!
How has your tough childhood shaped you into who you are?
I was the youngest among three children, and the only son in the family. My father passed away unexpectedly when I was six years old and my mother had to provide for us. It was difficult: few women worked in the 1960s, and on top of that, my mother was illiterate. Still, she stretched her means to provide for us, and even though we were young, my siblings and I would do our part to help too. One of her jobs was the caretaker of the Melaka coffee-shopkeepers association, and I would help her by running to every coffee shop – perhaps 70 or 80 of them — to collect their monthly subscriptions! We still managed to have fun as children, and though we could see that our friends and classmates lived in much better houses and went for holidays and such, we just lived with it. I do hope to let all students know that there is no shame in being poor. I certainly didn’t have that social stigma, because at the end of the day it is what you do that counts , and not how rich or poor your family is.
Those days did teach me to be frugal, as money does not come easy. Beyond that, I also learnt important values from my mother. Despite our circumstances, she was a very giving person who would always lend a helping hand to those around her. Giving doesn’t always mean donating money, but simply caring and doing what you can to help.
What were the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your journey of giving back?
The biggest challenge I face is getting people to realise that there are people who need financial help in Singapore. I simply invite the sceptics to come to a bursary interview session. The stories of unexpected tragedies and hardships from the applicants always draw tears. Of course, I understand that some might not want to donate money as they have different priorities or financial commitments. But those who have the means, I always say “Just give la.”
Apart from donating funds, how else do you think alumni can give back to the school and the society in general
With their experience and resources! With so much life experience, our alumni can to guide a younger generation of students. I think this makes the NUSBSA bursary fund the bursary with a difference. Our bursary recipients can tap into the resources of very established business leaders – be it to open doors, give career advice or for mentorship. I have personally engaged some 30 recipients through the years and keep in touch with them, giving them guidance wherever I can. Veterans in the business world can also help to consult non-profit organisations and help to review their financial operations.
How do those around you view your efforts?
Apart from convincing my friends to also give back, my eldest daughter (Yeo Suan Wei, 40) runs a social project called CampVision, which is now in its 14th year. It helps empower underprivileged youths from neighbourhood schools – to live their dreams. I like to believe that her work is influenced by what I do.
The younger generation today are often called the “me” generation. How do you think youths can be encouraged to give back in their own ways?
With relation to giving back to the school, the key thing to do would be to first engage them, and NUS is trying its best to reach out to younger alumni through the class ambassadors. Only when they are engaged would they think about giving back financially once they are in the position to do so. From a larger context, Singaporean youths will probably be more giving if they have the opportunity to see the lives of those who are not as fortunate as they are, be it within Singapore or in neighbouring countries. Igniting compassion takes an awareness of the fact that there are those who need our help.
THE NUS CAMPUS COUPLES BURSARY FUND initiated by Mr Yeo in 2014 has so far raised more than S$340,000, enabling more than 13 bursaries to be awarded in perpetuity after government matching.
This article is first published in the AlumNUS Oct-Dec 2017 issue.