Engineering a new Nafa

SINGAPORE - An engineer turned academic administrator, he started his career 37 years ago designing sewers and overseeing night soil collectors at the then Ministry of the Environment.

In July, he will oversee a mammoth strategic review of the arts academy, looking into matters from more overseas study trips for first-year students to examining the vision and overall direction of the 76-year-old school.

"The key thing is to be able to come to a consensus on what we want to do," he says in an exclusive interview in the academy's library, declining to specify changes he would like to make.

"I see lots of opportunities to do things differently but we have to talk with everybody to see their point of view."

Mr Chia, who turns 62 this year, joined Nafa on April 1 after 14 years as the principal of Ngee Ann Polytechnic. He took over from veteran arts administrator Choo Thiam Siew, who was chief executive officer of the National Arts Council from 1997 until joining Nafa in August 2003.

Under Mr Choo's leadership, Nafa increased enrolment from 1,600 to 2,500 and became the first overseas institute to offer a degree from London's noted Royal Academy of Music.

Mr Chia is similarly known for engineering overseas tie-ups: under him, Ngee Ann Polytechnic became the first Singapore tertiary institute to offer a course on an overseas campus, with the Wuhan University of Science and Technology in Hubei, in 2008.

A music-lover and theatregoer, Mr Chia appreciates the value of the arts. A 2004 memorandum of understanding between Nafa and Ngee Ann Polytechnic saw arts and engineering students working together to design items such as vending machines.

He initiated such arts-related diploma courses as animation & 3-D arts, digital visual effects and, in 2010, an arts business management course, which trains students to be curators and arts managers.

So the married father of two daughters in their 20s felt "excitement but still some apprehension" when the Ministry of Education approached him last August about the Nafa presidency.

After this first month at the academy, he is confident he and his new team "speak the same language". He says: "My job is really to make sure it's a nice campus with all supporting structures so the arts professionals can do their job."

He knows the value of education, as the third of 12 children born to a shopkeeper and housewife- turned-factory worker.

A Singapore citizen for many years now, he was born in a small village near Johor Baru and studied in English-medium schools there before receiving an ASEAN scholarship to National Junior College.

The $100 monthly allowance paid for his board, lodgings and school fees and he gave tuition to pay for extras such as a bicycle for transport.

He did his bachelor's in engineering at the National University of Singapore, thanks to a Public Service Commission scholarship. A Dutch government scholarship paid for postgraduate studies in environmental engineering at the Institute for Hydraulics & Environmental Engineering in Delft.

He spent 23 years in the civil service, in senior positions in the environmental engineering, public health and environmental management divisions at the then Ministry of the Environment.

His tasks ranged from helping to design the sewage system for Tampines New Town and overseeing night soil collection system until it was phased out, to managing the crematoriums and cemeteries.

He was also the ministry's point man when the MRT system was being planned in the 1980s.

The move to administering an educational institution in 2000 did not seem very different from overseeing about 6,000 people in his earlier roles.

His focus at Nafa will be ensuring that graduating students are employable, hence the upcoming strategic review.

"The best thing would be for them to graduate and say: 'That was a good education, that was three years well spent, I have good skills, I'm marketable and can move on'," he says.

"Nafa has the advantage in terms of heritage, multi-disciplinary things are already happening. We'll be asking ourselves questions to make sure our courses stay relevant."

This article was published on April 29 in The Straits Times.

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