The late bloomer

Forget studies, it's learning that's important, says KC.

He is a self-confessed late bloomer who has a soft spot for people like himself. Mr Kannappan Chettiar was not one who shone academically in sec- ondary school and junior college. His fa- ther thought he should go to NUS but KC, as he is popularly known, was not keen to study in Singapore. He says he was fortu- nate that his father could afford to let him do his undergraduate studies in the United States.

In his words, his best experience as a stu- dent was when he went to Michigan State University to study law: "I felt the complete freedom to be independent and to study. I prospered very well academically and was the top in nearly every class due to this."

KC comes from a family of lawyers, with his brother and sister following his fa- ther's footsteps in the legal profession. He too was expected to follow them but when he could not land a job on his return to Sin- gapore, he decided to do something for late bloomers like himself. He set up a law school that offered degree courses from the University of London. According to him, in the early 1990s, the percentage of people getting into a de- gree course in local universities was a low 10 per cent. From law, he moved to busi- ness programmes, also from the University of London. Today, his group runs five insti- tutions in Singapore and one in Chennai. "I empathise with late bloomers. Just be cause you did not do well in primary school does not mean you can't get a de- gree. So I started focusing on helping those kind of people to get degrees. Most of my students in the 1990s would be in the age group 30 to 40 and 80 per cent of them were part-time students," he says.

Now 43, KC has strong views about the Singapore education system. He even moved his four children to boarding schools in Los Angeles last year because he felt they were not doing well here due to the system. The problem in Singapore, he says, is that "it has become an education system and not a learning system". "Learners get to choose. The more you teach, the less the children get to learn. Learning assumes that most knowledge is yet to be discovered or found. I believe that the only way to discover more knowledge is to allow yourself the freedom to dis- cover it," he says. KC is a Tamil and his wife a Malayali. The family speaks mostly English at home and his children found it difficult to handle Tamil in school while they were in Singapore. Things have improved since the chil- dren moved to the US and he feels that in just one year his children-daughters Prash- cena, 17, and Shabreena, 16 and sons Kri- shant, 14, and Veshant, 11- have become much more independent in what they want to do With the children away in the US, KC and his wife Cenobia spend most of their time in Chennai focusing on the campus there. She helps him in managing the campus.

India, as KC discovered, is not an easy place to do business but he is determined to make it a success. He started out in India in 2003, signing a deal with a Mumbai group but it did not work out. The Indian partner, he says, did not stick to the agree- ment and so he dropped the plan. He then moved to Chennai thinking that "at least I could speak Tamil". He set up a state-of-the-art campus on Anna Salai near Spencer Plaza. But it has not been smooth sailing for him and that explains his spend- ing considerable time in Chennai. When I met him at the Stansfield Col- lege in Singapore, he told me that even though he comes down to Singapore often, he has been here for less than 20 days this year. "In Singapore I have got good people in place so it is easier for us to run the institutions. But in India if I don't do it myself, things never get done," he says.

When he set out in Chennai, the school attracted a lot of media attention with the then Education Minister Tharman Shanmu- garatnam inaugurating it. But with it, those envious of the school also set to work. It took him two years to sort out the legal wrangles that followed. "In India, I am just learning," he admits. Though he speaks Tamil, he says "cultural- ly, I am very different. My expectations are different". The pace, too, is different and he finds it frustrating: "To operate in India, you need to be very cool and cannot have very high expectations. But my vision in India is big. I don't want to be a failure."

Part of his vision is a school on Ameri- can lines with small classrooms. Why India and not Singapore? "India is more welcom- ing to change, plus it has a large popula- tion," he replies.KC is so passionate about learning that it dominated our conversation. And when I asked him about his home, he startled me by first saying he lived in the Stansfield hos- tel. A man with four children having a hos- tel as his home, I thought, was strange. He then gave his reasons.The hostel is beside the former cremato- rium at Mount Vernon and when it was set up, not all were happy with the location. So to prove that it is a safe place to live, KC gave up his Serangoon Gardens home and moved into a 6,000 sq ft apartment within the hostel.He also has a home in Mylapore, not very far from his Chennai campus. When his children arrive for their summer holidays, they will spend some time in Chennai too, even though they claim there is very little for them to do there. But for KC, it is another learning experience for the children. Not surprising since it comes from a man whose name card reads Chairman/Chief Learning Officer.