Born and raised in Singapore, Professor David Koh received his Bachelor’s degrees from the National University of Singapore, then pursued further studies in Australia. Boasting a vibrant and diverse career, Professor Koh has worked as a copy-writer in an advertising agency; a medical records clerk; a radiography stenographer; a prisons officer; a high school teacher; a foreign service officer; a researcher and research program leader; a journal editor, a conference/seminar organizer, and moderator; a university lecturer; a World Bank & UNDP consultant; an academic entrepreneur; the Board Chairman of an NGO; a Town Council member; and last but not least, a businessman. Although his interest in Vietnam started more than 20 years ago, his professorship in VinUniversity’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences is his first full-time job in Vietnam.
Professor Koh’s many different jobs, his abundance of experience, and his inquisitive mind promise intriguing stories waiting to be told. Among them, working as a consultant is arguably the biggest eye-opener. Consultants provide expert knowledge, in-depth analysis, and recommendations to clients from various backgrounds. They constantly manage heavy workloads while delivering high-standard outcomes. Therefore, as a consultant for the World Bank, there were times that Professor Koh felt stressed, since his recommendations held the responsibility of uplifting a whole country. Failing to deliver a report was never a possibility. A consultant’s work, to Professor Koh, is therefore extremely different from working for other corporations, or in education. Consultants for government projects can create impact in the widest circles possible. Millions of lives could change for better or worse as a result of his work. For example, if you made a policy suggestion based on your research to raise or reduce taxation in a region, many people would stand to gain or lose.
Another source of stress comes from the quality of work expected from a consultant. The content knowledge being provided by a consultant should be at least up to par if not more insightful than what the organization already had access to. A cross-cultural, transnational mindset, stemming from experience working in different places, is of paramount importance, because the consultant should be open to seeing things from multiple perspectives and considering various policy options, including especially best practices from all over the world.
The World Bank not only pushed Professor Koh to his mental limits, but also demanded that he speed up his learning curve in a short amount of time. At the same time, the World Bank gave him the privilege of working with many brilliant teammates from different nations and backgrounds, each with a different role or related expertise. “It was truly an amazing experience. You might not have been the best, but you also felt like you could never fail. There were always people and resources to support you,” Professor Koh recalled his joyful moments at the World Bank.
Continuous learning is crucial for consultants that need to satisfy the rigors of work. Due to their work and travel schedules, consultants often have to rely on on-site learning, especially when working on new challenges. Professor Koh did have butterflies in his stomach when he took part in projects in areas that he had less knowledge in. When facing the fear of being out of his comfort zone, Professor Koh instead embraced the power of curiosity, which boosted his courage to work on projects that he did not fully have the prerequisite expertise for. “I may not know everything, but at the end of any project, I will become an expert in that subject.” Teaching full-time in Vietnam is also a first for Professor Koh, even though he has taught in many countries prior to coming to VinUniversity. Every day, he picks up new things about teaching in Vietnam that he did not know before.
Talking about how to become an expert in a particular area, the first step that our professor believes in is to increase one’s knowledge base through Google, reading deeply, and gathering basic information on international organizations’ websites. The second step, which is more important, is to stand on the shoulders of giants by consulting a network of experts and good friends. For example, when given a project on public administration reform in one province, knowing a person who has done the same thing in another province or another country and getting them to share their experience with you is extremely advantageous. The experience and expertise of others not only saves our time, but also prevents us from reinventing the wheel. When resources are readily available and colleagues are supportive, we can be tremendously confident going into any project.
Professor Koh has a great passion for explaining particular problems to others, either through teaching, writing, or presentation. In consultancy, people come to him about gaps in their understanding, asking if he can explain the topic to them or write a research paper about it. He is trying to fulfil this passion in most of his work, including consultancy, teaching, and research. “It does not mean that I have bright ideas every minute of every day. Standing on the shoulders of giants, I can borrow their knowledge. I fill up knowledge gaps every day. It is my earnestness to explain this knowledge to the crowd that drives me,” shared Professor Koh.
Other than paid work, in the past ten years, professor David Koh has also been participating in the non-for-profit sector, serving on the Board of Directors in a Vietnamese NGO named Supporting Community Development Initiatives (SCDI). How this special opportunity came to David is an interesting story.
Non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding in Vietnam are required by international organizations to set up a Board of Directors to implement accountability. The Board will then scrutinize the organization’s expenditure, manage its funding, and plan its strategic direction. Corporate management as a Board Chairman was totally new to Professor Koh, but he took up the challenge for a good cause. Learning about good practices that he could use as reference points became something he had to constantly think about. Organizational transparency is now built into the core of SCDI, which means that every single penny spent is being accounted for, and acknowledged as so by international donors.
To facilitate interesting classes, both breadth and depth in knowledge play a role. Therefore, besides his heavy teaching schedule, Professor Koh finds time to read about a variety of topics, even those not directly related to his work, such as natural sciences, astronomy, economics, or technology. Reading this way broadens his horizon and supplies him with diverse perspectives. Max Hastings’ Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 is his current read. After this book, he will move to Stanley Karnow’s A History of Vietnam to understand how another writer would deal with the same period of history and the same subject. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of his favorite books, and he likes to return to it every 10 years to see how his view of the messages in the book has changed. After these books, he will learn about psychology. In the past year, he has also read novels in Mandarin. One that he remembers very well is the two-part Xiong-ti (Brothers, Yu Hua, 2005, 2009), which captures the essence of urbanization and pre- and post- market reform life in China’s peri-urban areas. While reading the book, it was difficult to ignore resemblances to the Vietnamese experience, although our professor had not personally experienced either.
Aside from reading, Professor Koh is interested in classical music, golf, and guitar. Tennis is his most recent adventure, in which he is reversing teacher-student roles by learning it from a student. He shared that when he was 17 years old, he ate instant noodles for every meal to save money to buy his first guitar, which he still has to this day. Another one of his hobbies is talking to other people about their lives and experiences, especially in small groups of two or three. Our professor is curious about how other people think, what keeps them awake at night, and what motivates them to keep going.
“If I had continued to be a bureaucrat or a foreign service officer, I could have become an ambassador and perhaps retired at 60 years old. But I knew that if I became an academic or a researcher, I could work until the age of 80, or 90, and perhaps beyond. Work is just as rewarding in experiences as it may be hard and frustrating. Why stop at 60?” Clearly, what drives his life is not money (although a certain amount of it is necessary) but a passion for work that interests him and keeps him awake. Professor Koh said that this was how his research about Vietnam started. Therefore, he decided to pursue a Master’s and Ph.D. in Australia, leaving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore. For his Ph.D, David chose to study about Vietnam because of its emerging market during the 1990s. He started to learn to speak Vietnamese and found a natural liking of the language and Vietnamese culture, and his relationship with Vietnam took flight from that point onward.
At school, professor David Koh is well-known for his ability to network with not only international figures in academia, but also local people. To him, networking is simply reaching out to people to build real, long-lasting relationships. The important thing is to help others without demanding anything in return, and not be shy about asking for help when one needs it. Nobody can know everything.
“It is important to be prolific. People might not remember what you say, or your hairstyle or clothes, but they will recognize a respectable track record of conferences attended, classes taught, research papers written, and video interviews given,” explained Professor Koh. He thinks that every student should seriously contemplate building a quality track record that becomes synonymous with their name, a brand that will create a wellspring of opportunities down the line. In their own intellectual development, students can focus on a specialization (depth) to differentiate themselves from the crowd, while still remembering that a broad overview (breadth) will facilitate rare insights and research breakthroughs. Interdisciplinary expertise can help not only to compete as a candidate in the marketplace, but also to offer unique value for projects or organizations.