Interview of the New Master

“Fountain Pen or gold nugget’?

The little boy stretches out his insistent hand as the clan watched with interest.

“Pen again!”.

When the boy grasped and played happily with the fountain pen, leaving the gold nugget aside, granny shook her head and and sighed with disbelief.

“How can he make this same stupid mistake again!” recounting her memories of the same scene almost a year ago.

Being the commander in chief of the Chong clan, grandma gives this test for every baby boy when they are one month old and repeat eleven months later.

“Is he a deviant, or a god send?” murmured grandma. In her memories, none of the babies she tested before go for a fountain pen. Why is this baby so special? She decided to break the naming tradition of the family for this little boy. Whether that incident shaped the future path of “Chee Min”, literally a scholar with heart and wisdom, this naming reflected granny’s wisdom.

Fast Forward almost (- or more than) half a century, the little boy succeeded Rev. Paul Tong, one of the longest reigning master in the history of St John’s College and an icon almost synonymous to St Johns College in the eyes of most alumni. Faced with choices from decades of St Johnian cultural legacies, Eric Chee Min Chong stunted the bystanders once again by accepting everything. With his widely opened arms, Eric embraced all.

Perhaps the training as an Anthropologist shaped Eric’s mindset. He sees things differently from lots of alumni, who might be too quick to adopt the role of Eric’s clan members decades ago. To anthropologists, everything are valuable, nothing is to be thrown away.

The path leading to Eric’s academic career in archaeology and anthropology seems inevitable despite his upbringing. A member of a big and affluent ethnic Chinese family in Malaysia, which planted its root there for more than six hundred years, Eric was expected to follow the footsteps of numerous cousins and siblings to manage the family’s farming business. Yet series of events, whether incidental or arranged by a higher authority, guided the “deviant” away.

During Eric’s childhood, whenever any artifacts are dug up from his family farmlands, antique or otherwise, it’s required by law to report to the Government. A team of field archaeologists would then be dispatched to excavate the site. Little Eric always watched their work with awe and help out every time. Subsequently, the archaeologists invited Eric to help dig other sites.

Pawn shops may mean old fashioned financial institutions to many, they were young Eric’s Treasure Island. Many a times, young Eric was allowed to inspect various deposits in the pawn shops owned by grandma’s family. Unusual antiques, especially “old jade”, difficult to find elsewhere may find their way to the pawn shops, which opened up Eric’s eye and built up his knowledge bit by bit.

Though determined to pursue study in archaeology and anthropology, Eric didn’t disappoint his family when he entered University. Like many traditional Chinese family, Eric’s family expect their children to become professionals or businessmen.

Yet Eric’s first degree in Engineering was only a disguise. It’s unusual for an archaeologist or anthropologist to hold an Engineering degree in metallurgy, but the knowledge Eric acquired definitely help his future pursuit.

His subsequent studies in London University, Cambridge of U.K., Columbia in New York and Chinese University and University of Hong Kong established him an acclaimed scholar in archaeology and anthropology. His knowledge on literature, philosophy, mythology and a number of modern and ancient languages, to name a few, German, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, Malay and Greek, all revolve around his desire of knowledge in his favorite subject.

When Eric decided to pursue a career in Christian ministry after a successful academic life, his grandmother called him the biggest disappointment of the family and a beggar / rubbish man. As a fourth generation Christian of the Chong clan but the first and only clergyman, Eric knew she meant exactly the opposite. Grandma was very proud of his decision.

If the anthropological approach of Eric with regards to managing St John didn’t surprised alumni, his laissez-faire style certainly did. Eric sees his role as Master a guide and mentor, rather than the guardian of students.

This thinking probably originated from Eric’s beloved grandmother. Eric lived with her since he was eleven after his parents’ marriage difficulties.

May be every cloud has a silver lining. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Eric considers the mishap the best event in his life that shaped his future. His grandparents, the chief of the clan has ingenious philosophy in managing subordinate and teaching children.

“Give children enough rope to let them establish themselves” was the motto of Eric’s grandmother. That means allow them to learn from their own mistakes. With regard to making mistakes and learning from them, Eric had been there.

From Eric’s résumé, an acclaimed scholar, you can never imagine his inglorious past. He was kicked out from primary school for misconduct in his early days.

It happened when Eric was eleven and a primary six student. Bullying in school was common then. When Eric had enough, he decided to strike back. Together with two German Shepherds, Eric made an appointment with the assailants for a fight. Although he won that battle, he lost a war. All involved in that event was dismissed from the school. It’s the first time and probably the only time Eric saw his father, a staunch ex-military man, cry in front of him. Through this incident, he learned that violence isn’t a way to solve problems.

Though he came from an affluent family, the children of the Chong clan were far from spoiled. Young Eric had to do all sorts of farm and rubber plantation jobs unimaginable by city kids during summer holidays. He had to get up at five every morning to clean the pig-sty and sweep chicken manure in the afternoon. Later, he had to clean the family boats and cook for workers. Yet Eric has fond memories of those farm days and thinks that the experience helps his future life.

As the master of St John’s College, Eric will not try to prevent St Johnian from making mistakes. Instead, he allows them to embark on the decisions they have made, sometime it may be a wrong path. Eric will keep a watchful eye on them, when they realize the decision was non-productive, then he is there to help them seek a better solution.

Eric does not see the over emphasis on sports a few years ago a devastating mistake. Although he thinks the College need a more balance hall life (between sports, culture and studies), he let students to make their own decision, realize their mistake and correct themselves. What he has done is to build a team of academic tutors to help students when needed.

When St Johnians became infamous in forcing everybody to participate in sports disregarding their aptitude and interest, applications dropped to new low. There were still vacancies when the semester started. Students realized the mistake and learn a lesson.

The Student Association in the last two years began to shift to a balance between character-formation through sports and cultural activities and academic pursuit. The tutor-counselor and academic tutor systems will help St Johns to reestablish its reputation and attracts high quality applicants again.

On the development of St Johns, Eric has a long term view and will not expect to see immediate results. He will not play an authoritative role and enforce a specific direction. He tries to create an environment to attract new applications and that would encourage students to stay.

Though he holds an elitist view and prefer admitting students with good academic results and strong extra-curricular activities, he will admit a small percentage of students with lower standards to help them.

Sports are still important in hall life and Eric won’t expect a swing of pendulum to anti-sports. Yet he desires the students not to focus too much on results, but to pay more attention on doing their best. Sports team captains will meet with Eric and he has appointed an alumnus (a sports management expert) to guide sports team on sports-psychology, perseverance and sportsmanship.

One of Eric’s concern was financial difficulties of some students in recent years. He tries to provide financial support so that they won’t quit St Johns.

About the role of alumni on college affairs, Eric thinks that we need to support and advise. Decisions should be left to current students. He hopes that alumni understand that society evolves with time, so does the culture within St Johns. While keeping tradition is important, St John needs to evolve to adapt to the new situations. The problems current students face are different from our time. Eric strongly believe that the core value of St Johns will remains despite changes. The spirit of St Johns will perpetuate in generations to come.

Interviewed by Dr. Steve Cheung and Ms. Lee Huen Yee