heading article1s dr choong kam kow

Chief Executive Officer of Malaysian Institute of Art

(From Who' Who In Malaysian Education (Volume 1) 2009 - The Inspiring Stories of Institution Founders and Leaders)

How true the saying goes “A Picture Paints a Thousand Words” for Mr Choong Kam Kow, the CEO of Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), and an artist of international fame. From his paintings, his 18 solo exhibitions and nearly 100 national and international group exhibitions since 1961, we can appreciate Mr Choong’s journey from the time he made his first sketch to his present position as a prominent academician in the field of art and design education. It was not a smooth journey (as conveyed by Mr Choong himself) as things were not offered to him on a silver platter. It was a journey of determination, of knowing what he really wanted and the desire to achieve it.

“There was some influence by my brother. However, art was a natural interest for me,” said Mr Choong.

From this humble beginning on a farm where nature spoke to the artist within him, Mr Choong Kam Kow began to draw.

Daring to Venture

In 1954, he attended a normal Teacher Training Scheme which qualified him as a primary school teacher. He taught mainly art subjects because of his artistic talent. However, he still aspired to pursue fine arts and so decided to apply for further studies overseas.

“For two years I felt I had not completely settled down, so I applied for further study in Taiwan. With my interest in Chinese Art, culture and western art, there were only two places at that time that I could go to – Singapore or Taiwan, so I decided to go to Taiwan in late 1957 to take up fine art studies as I could study both oriental and western art there.”

Mr Choong received partial sponsorship from the University and spent four years in Taiwan studying western and oriental art. Upon his return to Malaysia, he became the Art Teacher at the Perak Girls’ High School.

Again, his interest and passion for the fine arts had him actively participating in exhibitions in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. In 1965, he had his first solo exhibition in the hall of an association in Ipoh. (There were no art galleries then).

Just as any other artist, Mr Choong yearned for overseas exposure and was always thinking of being exposed to influences beyond the shores of Malaysia, in places like New York, Paris or London. However, financial constraints were a deterrent.

With a ‘never say die’ attitude, in 1964, Mr Choong applied for the Fulbright Scholarship at the Malaysian-American Committee on Educational Exchange (MACEE) when it was first set up in Malaysia in 1964. He obtained the scholarship the following year and this provided the pathway to New York, USA.

The Turning Point

The Fulbright Scholarship turned out to be the ‘Turning Point’ for Mr Choong. In 1965, he proceeded to New York, USA under the grant - initially for a year of residency

- to study modern art. However, with his determination to widen his knowledge, he also enrolled himself at the Pratt Institute where he obtained his Master’s Degree. He found New York a great learning experience in all aspects with constant exposure to international art. Those were the years when the US was booming economically and was a centre of reference for art besides being a centre for many things, especially finance. Many European artists had fled to the US due to World War II, bringing with them the best of visual art. It was an opportunity for him to widen his knowledge as well as deepen his understanding of art, culture and even other aspects; an occasion to gain a better view of life.

During his second year in the US, Mr Choong was offered a position at the United Nations International School in New York as the Head of the Art Department. With the teaching job later extended another year, he decided to stay longer to widen his experience. In order to take up the teaching job, he switched to part-time study so that he could cope with the full-time teaching and part-time study and extended his study from 2 to 2½ years.

“If you are an artist, you must be an excellent artist; if you are an educationist, you must be an excellent educationist; if you lead the institute, the institute must be a center of excellence.”

The Path Begins...

Returning to Malaysia, he joined Universiti Teknologi MARA,(formerly ITM), now known as UiTM and taught for 20 years until his retirement in 1989. From the starting position as a Lecturer, he became the Head of the Fine Arts Department and then senior lecturer. Based on his outstanding performance in visual arts and teaching in 1980, he was awarded another Fulbright-ACLS Fellowship to do research on modern art in USA. During his stay in USA, he also gave guest lectures at numerous universities. In 1989, he was invited to be a senior lecturer and later the Dean of Fine Arts at the LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore. He spent five years helping to re¬structure the school, putting in the proper academic structure, curriculum and system.

He came back to Malaysia in 1994 thinking that is where he could be a full-time artist –

something which he had waited a long time for.

However, another offer came up and he was invited to be the Vice President of the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA). So Mr Choong joined MIA in 1995, a position which he held for five years until he became the CEO. Even though MIA had existed for 30 years, Mr Choong decided to join believing he could help bring MIA to a higher level. From the start, he envisaged that there was room for further development in the areas of syllabus content, teaching approach and administrative system.

At that time, the private education industry was booming. When he joined MIA, Mr Choong decided that the institution had to have some new input so that it moved along with the times to avoid being lagged behind. In fact, MIA was opening up to the many changes in the education world. The medium of instruction at that time was already English but needed to be strengthened. Mr Choong decided to take measures to change the public perception, especially of parents, that MIA was not entirely for the Chinese community and the medium of instruction was not in Chinese but English!

The first thing on his agenda was the academic aspect. He spent a lot of time meeting the Heads of Department to review and develop the syllabus. Meetings were held to re-evaluate the objective and rationale of MIA and where it was heading. Mr Choong started with the re-structuring of courses and the syllabus of every subject. “Every subject must have a complete syllabus. From the rationale, the pre-requisite, the description of the course, weekly syllabus, assignment assessment method, evaluation system to the assigned credits, they had to be properly structured,” said Mr Choong. For this exercise, he had to mobilise all the lecturers and their heads, advising them on the most updated syllabus structure and teaching approaches. It took two to three years to revamp eight departments and over 400 subjects. He also increased the intake of non-Chinese academic staff through recruitment exercises.

Such is the determination of a learned man who wants the best for his students.


It would appear from Mr Choong’s experience that one important element in being successful is foresight. It was foresight on Mr Choong’s part that established the standing that MIA has right now. “My experience in USA, UiTM and LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore taught me that we cannot conduct a course without proper syllabus that must be constantly updated. Education is an organic entity and not a rigid thing. Every year we go through each syllabus to update and review it according to current needs. Our job is to make sure the students graduate with the most relevant knowledge and skills and are able to secure jobs. In order words, all the subjects are career driven. So the syllabus has to be relevant.”

In his mind, Mr Choong knew that there had to be a proper evaluation system to determine the performance of the students. At that time, many colleges and universities in Malaysia had already adopted and accepted the American evaluation system called the Credit System.

Mr Choong decided to implement the credit system at MIA to facilitate international recognition and credit transfer. He wanted to tell all parents that MIA offers quality education which is at par with many other outstanding colleges in Malaysia and overseas.

It was later that LAN (National Accreditation Board), now known as MQA (Malaysian Qualifications Agency) was set up after the implementation of the new Private Higher Educational Institution Act which requires all educational institutions to register with the Ministry of Education and to have the courses to be approved, monitored, validated and accredited by LAN. With an already established credit system and new course syllabus, all Mr Choong had to do was to adjust the assigned credits to correspond with the regulations set by LAN/MQA without having to start from scratch.

Thus, with his foresight, Mr Choong led MIA to achieve full accreditation from LAN in 2002 for all its seven courses, resulting in recognition by overseas universities and even by Singaporean firms from where offers of positions are extended to his graduates.

It is only right for him then, to feel proud of this great achievement. However, he gives credit to his staff, academic and administrative, in achieving this goal.

Thus, at MIA, Mr Choong has restructured the management system, consolidated and strengthened all the course curriculum and syllabus, and implemented the credit system for all the course programmes to provide the pathway for the pursuit of quality education.

The Future

He was also instrumental in establishing international links with foreign universities in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan and China to provide pathways for MIA graduates to further their studies abroad.

Mr Choong’s vision and ultimate goal is to make MIA a centre of creative excellence. “That’s our mission, our goal. This goal will continue to be challenging.”

Mr Choong will continue to actively collaborate with foreign universities so that students who want to further their studies can go via this pathway. They can pursue their final year at overseas universities if they have a very strong portfolio (a collection of work and design) and good examination results. Some universities even offer students direct entry to Master Degree programmes. MIA’s syllabuses are structured in such a way that they match well with degree programmes in many linked universities. He believes that overseas education and exposure to international practice in music, art and design is of utmost importance. In his opinion, to have received education partially at home and partially overseas will provide a strong foundation for the students’ career development and their pursuit of creative excellence.

The Way to Success

Mr Choong’s success is due to his determination to further his talent (besides being able to recognise opportunities) and to keep up with the latest development in the area of his profession even though he is from a country and a family background that does not prioritise art.

He defines success as having reached one’s ideal goal. “When you achieve what you want to be, it’s your success. But, the degree of success differs from time to time and success can be reset. Then, there will be new goals.

“My ideal goal is excellence. In my case it’s creative excellence. If you are an artist, you must be an excellent artist; if you are an educationist, you must be an excellent educationist; if you lead the institute, the institute must be a center of excellence.” And, to achieve this excellence, Mr Choong works long hours with maximum efforts and leads by example.

Besides major group shows, he has held numerous solo exhibitions at art museums including the Guangdong Museum of Art, China; the Frederikshavn Art Museum, Denmark; the Taipei Fine Art Museum, Taiwan; the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan; and the Art Gallery University of Brighton, UK. He has participated in and was the curator of the Annual Art Exhibition of the Federation of Asian Artists from 1985 to 2008, liaising with the host organisation and all the participating countries. He was also the curator of a contemporary art exhibition from China at the National Art Gallery, Malaysia as well as a contemporary exhibition of Malaysian art at the Guangdong Museum of Art, China. He is well recognised internationally as his works have been acquired for permanent collection by important art museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Art Gallery, KL; Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan; Singapore Art Museum; Taiwan Museum of Art; Frederikshavn Museum of Art, Denmark; Taipei Fine Art Museum; Guangdong Museum of Art; Kyushu Sangyo University Art Museum, Fukuoka; and many private collections.

He has been written about in various media, especially the newspapers on his exhibitions. For example, when he took the New York art world by storm as reported in the Malay Mail on 11 Aug 1968; a local exhibition reported by a Malay tabloid on 20 Aug 1972; a personality article on him in the Sunday Times on 31 August 1985; Exhibition in Denmark reported by New Straits Times on 2 October 1988 and a personality write-up about him in Sin Chew Jit Po Sunday Special on 7 July 1996 and in the Sunday StarMag on 2 March 2003.

In 2006, he received an honorary doctorate from Robert Gordon University, Scotland for his contributions in the field of art education.

“There is no one fixed norm. Keep abreast of the changing times. Changing times demand changing strategies to meet the changing demands. You must continue to chart new directions.”

His Family

Mr Choong also credits his success to a supportive family and in turn he is a supportive husband and father. “Total freedom to do my work. My wife is very supportive of me. When we had our children, she stopped working to stay at home to nurture them. Being Asian, family values are still important. The values are reflected in the respect in the family – the young respect the old but then the old must also respect the young. In terms of career decisions, I let my children make their own decisions. None of them are artists or studied art. It’s their choice.” Mr Choong admitted that one reason could be the fact that his children had seen him struggle during his earlier years in art.

His Management Style

Mr Choong believes that being successful also depends on the staff. One must motivate and encourage them while still putting in the demand for work. He believes in delegation of duties, then grouping those involved at different levels to centralise and strengthen on a continuous process – as an “assembler”. Mr Choong himself works more than the regular length of time with his team and expects them to be very duty conscious –utilizing all the normal working hours effectively to achieve their goals. He believes in leading by example and approaching all things in a diplomatic way. His motto is “to maximise and economise”.

He encourages teamwork with one common goal “To be excellent”. He believes in a Unity of Spirit - staying together with his staff, that is working together like a captain with his crew on a boat sailing together in the same direction.

His philosophy

“Education is a changing organic entity”, said Mr Choong philosophically. “Education is not set and unchanging, challenges are always there. One comes and goes; another will come again.”

When asked, he said he wants “to be remembered as an artist and an art educationist. I’m an artist by profession and because of my professional knowledge; I am able to serve in art education.”

Parting Advice to Youths

Mr Choong parted with this advice “Always think of excellence in whatever you do.”

“There is no one fixed norm. Keep abreast of the changing time. Changing times demand changing strategies to meet the changing demands. You must continue to chart new directions.” Mr Choong also advised that one must always be patient and try to find alternative solutions, He also stressed that there was no room for complacency. His tips for achieving creative excellence are to work hard, be innovative and always be ready to accept challenges.

His advice to youths interested in art is to give it a try. He explained that even if one thinks that one does not have the skills for it. Creative skills can be learnt and ideas can be developed. It is never too late if one is determined to learn.

“The challenge in creative art for an artist is to create something reflecting distinctively his own style from nothing.” “The challenge in creative art for an artist is to create something reflecting distinctively his own style from nothing.”

(Original printed in "CHOONG KAM KOW RETROSPECTIVE - Cross Culture • Trans Era",
 National Visual Arts Gallery, Malaysia 2014)

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drchoong kam kow
Dr. Choong Kam Kow is a well known
senior contemporary artist,
a leading art & design educationist and
an independent curator in Malaysia