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Born and raised in Malaysia, Dr. John Lai began teaching international and Asian business and management in Hong Kong after years of study in Asia and the US. On being awarded the University Education Award in 2018—the ninth accolade in his two-decade teaching career, he spoke with CUHK Newsletter about his passion for teaching, the importance of networking—and his particular fondness for Winston Churchill.
Appreciation for your teaching is well captured in the minds and hearts of students. What are some of the principles you preach?
I believe in reinforcing workplace professionalism and developing good work attitude. One thing that springs to mind is my insistence in inspiring habits of punctuality, which translate as an outward representation of respect for others. Taking responsibility for their own learning is another of my core values. Students should be focused and engaged in class, ready to listen and constantly reflect on the knowledge that is imparted. It is of utmost importance to develop good workplace habits and professionalism before entering the workforce.
Why are you so passionate about education?
My passion was ignited when I was around 17. I was lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling when I realized I wanted to teach in university and impart my knowledge to students. I wish to inspire and be inspired through the meaningful conversations I have and relationships I develop with people. Recently, an exchange student sent me a quote, ‘The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.’ This quote aligns with what I’ve always aimed to do. To me there is no greater satisfaction than to teach, inspire and make a difference in someone’s life.
Do you have any role models in education?
My two colleagues, Prof. Dennis Fan who retired two years ago, and Prof. Shige Makino have inspired my move from teaching to administration. Dennis exemplifies how the core values of trust and autonomy are the soul of good administration, while Shige emboldened me to step forward and ‘make a difference’.
You have close ties with students and alumni. Can you share some of the keys to success in this area?
I believe in developing meaningful relationships and close acquaintances. With that in mind, I try to stay in close touch with alumni and current students even if it means having many WhatsApp contacts and groups. I truly treasure these relationships and try to get together with them once in a while to see how they are doing at work and in life. I often receive a great deal of inspiration from them and channel that inspiration to my students in the classroom.
Your emphasis on interest and the process of self-discovery rather than money, power and fame deviates from the supposed values of business education?
The essence of business education and education in general is to encourage students to critically reflect and develop a better understanding of what they would like to do in life. Money, power and fame are not unimportant, as they define us to a certain extent. But the process of self-discovery is much more invaluable as it drives our constant improvement in any aspect of life, and success will follow. At the end of the day, following your passion is important as it makes us wake up every single day and throw ourselves at the different fun challenges ahead of us, while learning and growing in the process.
Any advice for your students, the entrepreneurs-to-be?
The world is full of challenges and will not make it comfortable for you. However, ‘Life starts at the end of your comfort zone’. Learning to adapt and taking on challenges will make your life more meaningful. Failing will likely be a norm, but it is learning to fail forward that is the key to a better life. Failures are merely lessons that teach us to come back stronger after every hit we take and to move forward in overcoming the challenges. Think about KFC founder Harland Sanders and Tesla’s Elon Musk. Success only emerges after repeated ‘lessons’.
You have a whole set of Churchill’s The Second World War on your shelf. Are you a fan of political books?
I am an avid reader and take an interest in a wide range of disciplines. Politics and business are closely intertwined, and the former relates to the subjects I teach—international and Asian business. I admire politicians’ tact and study how they make their countries great. Their leadership and ability to inspire people to work towards a common goal are examples we can all learn from to become leaders and educators. Their rhetoric, of course, is a pure joy to read.
This article was originally published in No. 538, Newsletter in May 2019.