Dr. Foo Yin Fah is a PhD holder in Accounting from Victoria University and a professionally trained accountant by profession. He is a member of Certified Public Accountants (CPA) Australia, Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA) and Malaysian Institute of Certified Public Accountants (MICPA), one of the board of directors for Dialogue in the Dark, and also a huge Star Wars fan. Dr. Foo is a staunch supporter of social entrepreneurship and innovation. In late April, FLY: Malaysia’s Journalism Team had the chance to conduct an interview with him where he shared not only his life story, but also about social innovation with our journalist, Muhammad Ali Imran.
The Origin Story: Making of the Man
Dr. Foo was a practicing accountant for about 10 years, and also spent a few years in the commercial industry where he has had his fair share of roles. He started his career as an auditor in one of the ‘Big 4’ professional services firms before moving out to work with Cold Storage, and semiconductor giant, Western Digital. After working in the commercial industry, he moved on to teaching. As of this year, he has been teaching in Sunway University for 18 years! 18 years!
Dr. Foo is helping student groups with social entrepreneurship in addition to his teaching duties and responsibilities as the head the Department of Accounting the Business School. In fact, he himself is getting involved in social enterprises. “I sit in as one of the Board of Directors for Dialogue in The Dark,” he noted. With that said, it’s no surprise that his research interest lies in social innovation and how it can be implemented in youths.
When it came to the question of the one thing he learned in university that he still uses to this day, he had a very surprising answer. “For this question, the answer will be from my teaching experience since I’ve never gone for university.” It turns out that in his time, there were many people that worked in accounting firms straight after STPM or A-Levels without doing their degrees, working their way up like in an apprenticeship. There are many pathways to becoming an accountant, and his was the professional pathway. The chores he had to do, from making coffee to filing papers, gave him a unique perspective on life and on the profession.
When asked about his work-life balance, he simply replied, “It’s pretty okay.” He said that it was one of the reasons he went into lecturing. He left his job as an accountant for the academics as it affords him a more flexible work-life. Dr. Foo believes that while there’s not really a balance when it comes to jobs, it is important to be able to prioritize and spend time with your family. For him, he enjoys teaching and doesn’t mind it when he has to bring his work home. “I’m not sure if that’s an unbalance but it’s a good unbalance.”
Wise Words from the Mentor
“What I’ve learnt from teaching is that a university is a really good place to learn because it gives you a safe zone to try things.” Yes, he knows that the working world also gives room to learn things but the repercussions are just too high. As students, we can just try again if we fail something; If you screw up in the real world, you’ll anger not only your clients but also your managers, resulting in an “unhappy pocket”.
He also added that students don’t take this opportunity to get involved in things. “Students are missing out on the opportunity to try new things out and learn as much as they can in university, which is going to make it really hard for them when they get to the working world.” Indeed, he emphasized that university provides youth with a safe environment for them to explore and grow as individuals. Furthermore, in university, aspiring entrepreneurs are provided with funding and advisors to assist them in their journey.
When asked about the common mistakes he sees people making, he simply replied: “Dealing with people.” However, he considers that more of a challenge rather than a mistake. He added that when dealing with people, one of the things people always forget to do is to listen. Be it in work, daily life, family, or politics, people don’t listen enough. They refuse to take in the other person’s point of view and disregard their feelings while speaking only cold hard facts. This is why he finds Dialogue in the Dark so inspiring; the blind rely more on their hearing to understand and judge people, and are not hampered by visual biases.
He doesn’t only look up to the blind; he respects many people, both real and fictional, including Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s Father of Independence, and Lee Kuan Yew who took a small country and turned it into the successful and advanced country it is today. Being a supporter of social entrepreneurship, he admires many entrepreneurs. However, he warns us to not put our idols on a pedestal and be aware of their faults as they are only human, just like us. We must constantly be mindful so we adopt their virtues and not their faults.
The Calling: Crossing the Threshold into the Land of Adventure
One might wonder, how exactly did Dr Foo become such a staunch supporter of social entrepreneurship? Well, in true Malaysian fashion, it involved food. Dr. Foo had always believed that businesses can be a force for good despite the commonly-held belief that corporations would do just about anything to improve their bottom-line. In 2012, Dr. Foo had the privilege to visit our southern neighbor, Singapore, alongside his colleagues. There, they dined at a restaurant called Laksania, which, of course, served Laksa. As any Laksa chef would say, the most vital part of this savory Southeast Asian dish is the paste. “To our surprise, the owner has a factory that makes the paste and she employs those with mental disabilities to grind the paste,” he said. What those with mental disabilities lack in social skills, they make up for with persistence, striving for perfection in their tasks. “And the best part? They pay them market wages,” he exclaimed. Dr. Foo was eventually told that the owner was what is known as a ‘social entrepreneur’. “It was my first time hearing that word.”
The next stop: Dialogue in the Dark at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where Dr. Foo and his companions were given walking sticks and ushered into a dark room. Then, they heard a sweet and calming voice guiding them throughout the tour. Her name was Michelle. After the tour, they had coffee. Dr. Foo was emphasizing that they were indeed, in the dark. “We asked Michelle if she had night-vision goggles,” he joked. “It turns out that she had been blind since birth.” Michelle worked as a full-time tour guide and Dialogue in the Dark helps the visually impaired by giving them jobs. “We were impressed by what Dialogue in the Dark is doing, and they can be considered as a social enterprise because they help the visually impaired,” he said.
After experiencing Dialogue in the Dark, they had dinner at Eighteen Chefs. “The chef came to us and introduced himself. His name was Benny and he was an ex-convict.” Indeed, Eighteen Chefs was not your typical restaurant, not unless all the chefs in your typical restaurant are former convicts. “[Benny] brings them in and trains them, and they go on to work at his restaurants or open up their own shops.”
These events opened Dr. Foo’s eyes to the world of social entrepreneurship. “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime; but a social entrepreneur looks at the fishing industry and if it’s not sustainable, he/she will change it… That is what a social entrepreneur is.” He then shared with us the story of Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and the Father of Microfinancing. It had long been a custom of the banking industry that loans were given to those who were relatively well off. Muhammad Yunus then broke this tradition when he founded Grameen Bank to cater for the poor. “The irony of it all, [Muhammad Yunus] found out that the poor are better at repaying loans than the rich!”
Dr. Foo also serves on the Board of Directors for Dialogue in the Dark Malaysia. “When I returned from Singapore, Dialogue in the Dark was already operating in Malaysia.” By then, Dialogue in the Dark had already moved a couple of times. They were once at PetroSains, but moved to Jaya One. Due to a change in management, they had to move again. “After they moved from Jaya One, they had nowhere to go,” he said. In 2015, they came to Sunway University and met with Dr. Elizabeth Lee, Senior Executive Director for the Sunway Education Group, in the hopes of shifting their operations to the campus. “Dr. Elizabeth called me to join in on the meeting and I got them into Sunway. For a year and a half, they were at the 11th floor of the New University Building.”
We then moved on to ask Dr. Foo about a recent social entrepreneurship project that he found interesting, and he was very excited to answer. “It’s not really a social entrepreneurship project per say, it’s more like a social innovation lab that we (Sunway University) are trying to do,” he said. “As of right now, we and another seven universities in ASEAN got a big grant from the European Union to set up some sort of support unit to support the creation of social enterprises.” In light of this, Dr. Foo plans on starting off with a club called the Sunway Social Innovators Club. This student-run organization would be the ones creating awareness and inspiring social entrepreneurship among students in the campus. “I would like to see more students understanding and recognizing what social entrepreneurship is all about,” he said with a smile. “This will also help those who want to do something but doesn’t know how to.”
Road of Trials
No job comes without its own challenges. Dr. Foo elaborated on his previous answer about students not being proactive. “I’m not blaming the students; it’s more towards our education system,” he said. Our education is extremely rigid, and has trained our youths to look for only one answer instead of exploring the infinite possibilities available to us. Dr. Foo related this to accounting, where there could be different profits and they would still be the right profit. There is no definite answer that he can give to his students sometimes, because for some things, everything is the right answer. He then continued with another challenge that he faces: education becoming outdated. His accounting students, for instance, are learning things that have been here for thousands of years. He questions if we are adapting to the changes. “I’ve been teaching Management Accounting and it has been around for about a hundred years now,” he added. “I’m also concerned if I’m outdated”
When asked what is going to change in the next 5 and 10 years within the educational field, Dr. Foo replied that he really does not know. With the increasing popularity of online learning, there is an ongoing debate of whether physical schools and universities are still needed. He admitted that even he himself used the Internet to search for things he didn’t not know. “You can learn anything, from how to make an omelet to how to kill a person!” he joked. He went on to ask how we are using the knowledge at our fingertips. “Is it for good, or for bad? Do they teach you how to be a human?” He then brought up universities that are different from the ones we have now. “There’s a university called Kaospilot and it’s not your typical business school because it teaches real life skills that are applicable in our time and the future.” In Kaospilot, students are taught via solving real life problems as opposed to the standard classroom-based learning. Indeed, Dr. Foo believes that there is going to be more of these kinds of universities in the future. “If I have the chance, I would want to change the way we teach business; make it more humanized. If there’s anyone that wants to start a university with me, you can hit me up,” he laughed.
The Light of the Future
When asked about the strength of the current youths, he did not hesitate in giving his answer: our optimism. “My generation are the pessimistic ones.” Dr. Foo then brought up how this generation’s optimism can help in social entrepreneurship. “The challenges you are going to face are going to be very tough so you need the optimism,” he said. “You will fail. I’m not sugar coating it, but the optimism will definitely help you in rising back up.”
Dr. Foo does not believe that youths these days are apathetic. He believes that if there is political apathy in youths, social entrepreneurship would not have existed. “Social entrepreneurship happens when youths think that the government can’t do it, so they do it themselves,” he said. They may seem apathetic only because they don’t want to be involved in Malaysian’s politics which they may feel is not matured enough.
We ended the interview by asking for a piece of advice to Malaysians who wants to make a difference. “If you want to make a difference, be part of the community, for the help must come from within the community. For instance, if you take an Orang Asli out of their tribe and make him/her live in the city, it’s not going to work. The empathy and sense of community needs to be there instead of just telling the community what it needs to do.”