“Without integrity, nothing else matters.”

Fall 2011

Student recruiters like to highlight four points about life at McGill: the quality of our students, the commitment of our professors, the special ambiance that only Montreal can provide and the international character of our University.

In talking to alumnus Choong Kong Chen, BEng’67, MEng’69 and PhD’72, you realize that those descriptives were equally valid back in the mid-’60s and early ’70s.

A highly successful food industry executive, property developer and environmental engineering consultant in Australia, the Malaysia-born, Singapore-raised Chen is a true Renaissance man who combines professional interests with a passion for music, painting and sculpture.

And he says he owes it all to the professors and classmates he got to know during seven years studying Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics at McGill. “The man that I became was shaped to an incredible degree by my time there.”

Powerful bridge

In a telephone interview from his home in Toowong, near Brisbane, Chen vividly recalls listening to chamber music for the first time at the McGill Faculty of Music, visiting the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and experiencing his first opera — La Bohème.

“They were all little things, in a way, but they grounded me, particularly during my graduate years, and taught me the importance of maintaining a balance in life. It is a precept I have tried to respect ever since.”

The philosopher in Chen comes to the fore when he says that engineering can be a powerful bridge between nations and the more rounded engineering graduates are, the easier it will be for them to connect people and nations.

As the memories flood back, Chen recounts how concerns he had about leaving Singapore to study in far-off Canada were quickly brushed aside. “I was never made to feel like an outsider. My classmates were all wonderfully welcoming — fellows like Paul Janiga, Dick Williams and George How. There were students from right around the globe — Nigerians, Brits, Trinidadians and you name it.

First job

“They had a bit of trouble with my accent at first, but they accepted me for what I am.”

More than anything, it was Chen’s teachers who had the greatest impact on him, and he has kept in touch with several professors over the years. “People like Stuart Savage and Dan Selby, the man who welcomed me warmly on registration day, helped me choose my options and later arranged summer employment with an engineering firm that worked on the monorail system for Expo ’67,” the World’s Fair that Montreal held to celebrate the Centennial of Canadian Confederation.

“That job was my first hands-on experience with a real engineering project, and I’ve never looked back.

Intellectual honesty

“All of my profs were impressive and all were incredibly helpful,” but the individual he cherishes most is Emeritus Professor Raymond N. Yong, MEng’58, PhD’60.

“Raymond, who now lives in Sidney, BC, was a man ahead of his time in many ways. Pollution and environmental concerns were only starting to enter the public consciousness back then, but Professor Yong was a superb and committed environmental engineer.

“On a personal level, he and his wife, Florence, were the most caring and supportive of people. They would invite grad students to their home time and time again for absolutely delicious meals. There was never any formality. We were encouraged to relax and enjoy ourselves — a big plus when you’re facing research deadlines. Mrs. Yong made the best fruit cake I ever tasted!

“More importantly,” Chen says, “Professor Yong taught us the importance of intellectual honesty. He made us realize that engineers, as true professionals, must always follow the highest moral and ethical standards. That lesson has stayed with me in everything I have done since.”

Appreciation for life

Chen chose to honor his mentor recently by establishing the Dr. Raymond Yong Scholarships in Engineering. It is the first time an alumnus in Australia has provided such a major gift to the Faculty of Engineering.

“My success in life would not have been possible if I had not benefited from others’ kindness and support,” Chen says, and he hopes his scholarships will help future students learn what he did four decades ago about combining expert training with a broad appreciation for life.

“Young people are fed a lot of information these days, but that doesn’t equal knowledge. I hope the Dr. Raymond Yong Scholarships in Engineering will encourage students to take a little time to discover thinkers and ideas outside their areas of specialization.

“Over and above academic training, society should enable and empower every human being to reach his or her full potential,” Chen says, “so I hope and pray that McGill Engineering continues to be a leading light in education by imparting to students a full range of values.”

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