Quest for excellence drives APU CEO Parmjit Singh
By Kiran Kaur Sidhu & Karamjit Singh August 15, 2018
- US$125m world-class campus designed to strengthen students technical and soft skills
- Especially in education, reputation cannot be proclaimed, it must be earned
THERE are few professions more noble than teaching and within Malaysia’s thriving private education sector, there a few who can match the deep passion that Dr Parmjit Singh (pic) has for education.
It is a passion that has seen the chief executive officer of the Asia Pacific University of Technology & Innovation (APU) education group, literally get down on hands and knees, cleaning toilets, mopping floors, making coffee and even driving his pioneer batch of female students home after night class in the early 1990s.
It is this desire to do anything for his students, to ensure their success, that has driven Parmjit to play a pivotal role in propelling Malaysia’s information technology (IT) and business education to higher quality standards.
It is no surprise that APU graduates are considered to be among the best technology graduates in Southeast Asia. And along the way, the success of his students has also propelled him to the pinnacle of Malaysia’s education industry. A shining testament of that is the gleaming new US$125 million (RM500 million) campus for APU, opened in 2017, in Kuala Lumpur with 2 million sq ft of facilities to ensure a world-class education for all who walk through its doors.
While the media shy Parmjit prefers to deflect any praise coming his way to his students and faculty and staff, he has no problems talking about the thought process that went into designing the new APU campus, about facing challenges, consistently adaptating and facing Gen Z students which marks an exciting and significant point in the university’s trajectory as a technological education institute.
Divinity in design
Not one to conform to mediocrity, Parmjit’s first location in 1993 was a strategic decision in order to provide students with direct exposure to the corporate environment, with offices located in the same building. Thus was the Asia Pacific Institute of Information Technology, as it was called then, born.
Being in the right environment or creating it, was paramount to Parmjit. Even in terms of APU’s current design, Parmjit brainstormed ideas with the architect to create a purpose-built environment to address the developmental needs of students.
“If we were to follow the old physical design concept, we’d be separating students by design and encourage weaknesses in social skills and communication. Instead, APU is created with a central point to bring students together and act as the social heart of the campus,” he shares.
APU’s campus has departed from the traditional design of placing students of different disciplines in blocks far away from one another. Careful thought was given to integrate all university blocks together by joining them to the central spine of the campus, which is an axis spanning diagonally across the campus footprint.
Fascinatingly, when the campus was close to being completed, Parmjit and his architect attended a conference about architecture for campuses in Singapore. To Parmjit’s surprise – and relief, the campus they had designed closely resembled the ideal campus conference speakers spoke of. To him, this served as great validation that APU was on the right track design-wise.
“There was nothing that we needed to change. Our design was almost spot on. It’s almost like a divine message was incepted in our minds throughout the design process.”
Overcoming business challenges through diversification
To get to the stage where he could even think of a new world class campus, required Parmjit to survive some major challenges. A key moment came in 2004 when the entire IT industry experienced a downturn. APU, at the time, was a single discipline IT education provider and needed to diversify to sustain itself.
However, the weakening of the industry in combination with changes in regulatory policy disallowed APU from introducing new courses. The number of students fell from 5,000 students in year 2000 to merely 1,500 students in year 2006.
To overcome this threat to its existence, APU took a calculated risk and entered the international market. With many others already pursuing the international market, APU was late to the game. Nonetheless, Parmjit shares that the circumstances worked to APU’s advantage by providing an opportunity to do more during the downturn, while competitors struggled to further diversify.
Parmjit attributes APU’s late entry into the international market to his stubbornness and desire to help Malaysians, “We were proud to cater to the local market at our capacity. Taking in international students would mean a local student losing a placement. There was a huge need in the local market that we wanted to address first.”
Through gaining the status of University College in 2006, APU was afforded recognition and the platform to go international. However, Parmjit stresses that the name change itself was not enough and the quality of APU’s product was more important.
Standing firm to his principles, Parmjit ensured quality of teaching and learning was never compromised even through the toughest of times, “Especially in education, reputation cannot be proclaimed. It must be earned.”
Face to face with Gen Z at What’s Next
Parmjit likes to tell people to mark January 2018 as a pivotal moment. It marks the first batch of students born since 2000. This is especially significant as these students personify pure the Digital Natives era, being born into the digital age with technology as their second nature.
“We have to be constantly prepared to change the way we, as an education business, do things and evolve,” Parmjit says, promising to share more about what a very high touch Brick & Mortar business does when it faces its Gen Z customers at his What’s Next talk on Aug 30 at LeMeridien Hotel in KL. Further conference details can be obtained here including more interesting Brick & Mortar speakers such as the Global Condom King and how some home grown technology companies aim to be tomorrow’s multinationals.
What's Next is brought to you by EY Malaysia as Presenting Sponsor and Fusionex International and Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) as Supporting Sponsors. Valiram Group is the Lifestyle Partner, Leaderonomics the Leadership Partner, iTrain the Training Partner and REPRISE as Digital Partner.