Profile: Mrs Lee Cheng Ean, University Librarian, National University of Singapore
Mrs Lee Cheng Ean has been the University Librarian at the National University of Singapore, which is ranked 11th in the QS World University Rankings (2019), for more than four years. She therefore holds one of the world’s most prestigious librarian posts. Like many amazing women, she is modest: she says she is not special; that she “just got on with the job”.
She was born and grew up in rural Malaysia, in a small town called Taiping, which is famous for Maxwell Hill, Malaysia’s oldest (and now smallest) high resort. Her father was a Straits Chinese born in Sitiawan, Malaysia, while her mother was born in China. She attended a convent school in Taiping, from Primary One to Form 5 and then attended the King Edward VII School for the 6th Form. She says that she wasn’t a model student and claims she was “more playful than bright”; as a little girl she was a tomboy and loved to climb trees and catch fish in the rivers – perhaps because she was the fourth child but eldest girl of eight siblings. Being the eldest girl also brought responsibilities, as she was expected to help her mother with the younger children. She learnt to cook rice very early on over a charcoal stove, when she was 8 years old, and on several occasions they had to eat burnt rice because she was busy playing and had forgotten to watch over it.
Mrs Lee says that, compared with many others, she feels she was fortunate, although there was not much luxury in her childhood. Her parents ran a small business selling iced drinks – so if it rained they had no customers and there was no money. She remembers having to go to the shop to buy food, with no money to pay and having to ask for credit. At times, she had to go home with no food because the shopkeeper would not allow any more credit until they paid off what was owing. She remembers vividly how they hid and locked all doors and windows when the bread seller on motorcycle came knocking for them to pay up for the bread they took on credit. Those were tough times! When her three older brothers started to work, life became easier: as the children of the family began to earn, they sent money home to support the others.
She was the first of her family to attend university, securing a place at Universiti Malaya which she was able to accept because she could support herself with a study loan awarded by the state. She chose to study creative and descriptive writing, and originally intended to become a journalist. She was one of only two non-Malays in the class; all the teaching was in the Malay language. She graduated in 1981 and was offered a temporary job as a research officer at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the government body responsible for co-ordinating the use of the Malay language and Malay-language literature in Malaysia. She held on to the temporary position, hoping that it would be made permanent; but, despite assurances, it wasn’t.
In the meantime, her eldest brother, who had started working in Singapore, saw an advert for a trainee librarian, as it was called then, at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and sent her the application form. She applied for the post, took the train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore for the interview, sat for the written test in English, and was successful – she still describes herself as “an accidental librarian” – and relocated to Singapore. She soon became passionate about librarianship.
As a trainee librarian she completed a three-month internship, rotating to each of the main departments in the Library before eventually settling in Acquisitions. She says that she had a “lucky start”, with a good supervisor who trained her from the ground up but also encouraged her to stretch herself, by allowing her to write manuals and train staff: tasks normally undertaken by a qualified librarian. (Clearly the supervisor was astute enough to understand her potential, though Mrs Lee will not say this.)
After she had been in the post for about eighteen months, she applied to an Australian university to study for a librarian’s qualification, but, owing to an administrative glitch, the Australian embassy did not approve her student visa and she therefore tried the Library School at Loughborough (UK) instead. She chose Loughborough, where she studied in 1983/1984, because it was one of only two universities in the UK at the time to offer a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science, rather than just a diploma. All the costs were paid for by the NUS. While she was at Loughborough she met her future husband, Francis, a fellow Malaysian Chinese (born in Kuala Lumpur). Francis was a PhD candidate then and he later became an academic. She married him in 1987; their only son was born in 1989.
When she returned to NUS, Mrs Lee was put in charge of the circulation desk, which involved leading a project originating a new, home-grown automated system. On reflection, she says this was one of a number of huge opportunities that came her way; she was fortunate in working at a university where good performance was recognised. She continued to move up the ranks until she was appointed University Librarian in March 2014, having gained a lot of experience from the numerous roles and positions she held over the years.
Mrs Lee has overcome many challenges along the way. She and her siblings were dependent on their parents’ income on a day-to-day basis: she remembers coming home from school and seeing that the tricycle from which they delivered their drinks had not gone out that day and knowing therefore there would be no money to buy food. She had to devote a lot of time to looking after the younger ones and, with her brothers and sisters, share in the task of brushing sugar cane before it could be crushed to extract the juice they sold: her father was very particular that this was done correctly. She also cooked soya beans to make soya milk for the drinks.
She says she couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go to university or how it would change her life. It was a liberating experience: if she had been stuck at home, her life would have been so different. She is really thankful to the university for “breaking the poverty cycle”. Her mother, now widowed, lives with her brother and is a constant reminder of the hard times and that she is now enjoying a comfortable life because of a break in the poverty cycle. It is this life experience that has moulded Mrs Lee to be who she is today – looking out for those in need and to strive for the better.
Mrs Lee says the main challenge of librarianship is a constant: “Ensuring that we have the right budget and the right people to develop the networked services needed by the community we serve”. As a librarian, she most enjoys being able to deliver the services that users like best, but at the same time being allowed the scope to try new things. “There are many challenges – as librarians we continuously have to evolve and make ourselves relevant. The whole education industry is moving so fast that we must remember to focus on that – it is all about making ourselves relevant.” Like the little girl who grew up in a small town to become the woman working in the prestigious National University of Singapore, she aspires to break prejudice by demonstrating that anything is possible. Her message: “Just think and act positive!”