A $2 Billions New Campus：University of Macau is undergoing the unthinkable transformation in the 21st century!
Da Hsuan Feng 馮達旋
Senior Vice President for Global Strategy, Planning and Evaluation
National Tsing Hua University
“…No one in the 20th century would think that, this sleepy town known as Macau would one day “hail Mary” to the front line of higher education. Who would have thought in the 20th century that by the early part of the 21st century, Macau would “rent” land from the Mainland in order to build a world class university? The fact that this is now a reality within grasp tells us how far Asia Pacific has come along, POLITICALLY, CULTURALLY AND ECONOMICALLY!
For me, the University of Macau should be viewed as Asia Pacific’s higher education window for the world. If successful, its impact will be global! The World must focus on this development of Macau!”
On March 6-8, 2013, Vice Rector of University of Macau, Professor Haydn Chen（程海東,）graciously invited me to visit the university, and to deliver one of the “Liberal Arts Lectures,” a series he initiated several months ago since assuming the position.
In land mass, Macau is tiny. It has roughly 30 square kilometers. This “minuteness” is only matched by its small population of about half a million. Politically, Macau was a Portuguese colony since the 16th century. In 1999, it became a Special Administrative Region（SAR）of the People’s Republic of China. It is the second region（the first is Hong Kong）to take on this special feature under the now world famous auspices of the so called “one nation two systems”（一國兩制.）Since becoming an SAR, Macau has made enormous stride in economic development. Its “gaming” industry, a euphemism for “gambling” industry, has grown exponentially. Indeed, today, Macau’s gaming revenue is many times larger than its closest competitor, Las Vegas in the United States.
The higher education history of Macau is a short one. Prior to 1981, there was for all practical purposes, no tertiary educational institutions. Secondary schools’ graduates of Macau either would go to Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Mainland or overseas for advanced education. This situation was altered somewhat when University of Macau（UM澳門大學）was founded in 1981 as a private institution. Later, in 1991, some eight years before the “political hand-over,” UM’s ownership was transferred to Macau’s government, thus becoming a public university.
I suspect that with the looming hand-over in the horizon, the Portuguese colonial government probably did not have the time or the resources, and maybe even more important, the need to seriously considering building UM into a modern university. For these reasons, UM’s campus, just as Macau, is minute. It is roughly 1/20th of a square kilometer. It must be one of the smallest, if not the smallest, land area universities in the world. Indeed, there would be no area to expand even if the desire was there, and I suspect there was not!
Hence, just as 20th century ended for Macau rather quietly, so was the University of Macau!
There are a number of regions of the world who made gaming industry its primary or sole economy. The one I mentioned earlier, Las Vegas, is one. Atlantic City in New Jersey is another. On a much smaller scale, Monte Carlo in Europe is another. Then there is Macau. All the others are situated in North America or Europe. Macau is the only one in Asia and it is the only one that in the 20th century had undergone monumental political transformation.
That transformation would be nothing extraordinary if Macau merely leveraged the opportunity to render it from a small gaming center in the 20th century to become a mega size gaming center in the 21st century. If that were the case, Macau could be considered as merely a larger Las Vegas.
But something in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century made Macau absolutely and stunningly different from all its counterparts in North America and Europe. The leadership of Macau, having now acquired a very deep financial pocket, began to think of how to leverage this “new found wealth” to transform Macau into something that it was not before.
They realized that what was sorely missing in Macau was a world class university. The leadership of Macau inherently understood that for Macau to reach the next level of being a world class city, it must become a city of “knowledge!” Not having a world class university could be and was the major stumbling block in having that eventuality to occur!
So their attention turns to the only public university in Macau, UM!
Building a world class university needs at least four major components:
- Financial resources;
- Strategically minded and sustainable leadership team with courage and vision;
- Land mass to expand.
- Hire world class faculty and attract world class students!
The first Macau now has. The second, it launched a worldwide search for a new Rector（a Portuguese terminology for a President）of the university.
The third became a major challenge. As I mentioned, Macau, with only 30 square kilometers, had absolutely no land to spare. If UM could not expand land wise, then there was no hope that it could one day become a world class university.
There is a Sung Dynasty poem by the famous poet Lu You, in which two lines read as：山重水複疑無路 柳暗花明又一村. Essentially, it means that however hopeless the situation may appear to be, there is always a way out. This philosophy, it appears to me, is the underlying reason why Asia Pacific today is one of the most robust regions in the world. People always seem to find a way to mitigate difficulties.
The solution to the problem of land sounded almost like a miracle.
The following is a map of Macau and the surrounding area, which is entirely within the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China. There are two parts of Macau, a northern part which is a peninsula linking with the Mainland and a southern island known as Tum-Zai（Cantonese pronunciation氹仔.）Sitting on the western side of Tum-Zai, just across a narrow water of about 250 meters wide is a large and totally underdeveloped island of the Mainland known as Hengqin Island（橫琴島.）
Apparently someone in Macau’s leadership in the fledgling era of the 21st century figured out that perhaps the university could acquire land there for expansion. There were two problems which needed to be solved.
First, the land is not in Macau.
Second, even if UM could build a campus on Mainland’s land, the legal jurisdiction would be Mainland’s and not Macau’s. That means in that scenario, the university would be a Mainland university and not Macau’s.
Facing these two challenges, the Macau’s leadership decided to “kill two birds with one stone.” That is to negotiate with the central Government of the People’s Republic of China of “renting” 1 square kilometer of land in Hengqin Island to Macau. The land would then be utilized by the Macau Government to build a new campus of University of Macau. This was a very complex issue because by doing so, Macau and the Mainland de facto would have to redraw their border. The laws in this 1 square kilometer will be that of Macau’s. For example, the currency would be Macau’s dollars and not Renminbis!
Another interesting feature about Macau as an SAR：it has no water rights. So the surface of the water between Tum Zai and Hengqin is under the Mainland’s jurisdiction. This means that if one were to utilize a boat to cross from Tum Zai to Hengqin, then the passenger would have to cross the “Mainland,” and presumably obtain whatever travel document that is needed to do so. One can easily imagine the bureaucratic nightmare associated with that scenario!
Remarkably, after several years of negotiation, the government of People’s Republic of China accepted these conditions. To ensure that one could overcome the issue that China owns the surface of the water, it was negotiated that building a tunnel under the water would be in the jurisdiction of Macau!
Hence, in 2009, pumping into close to $2 billion dollars（U.S.）, with a “b”, into the construction project, a new campus of more than 80 very large and ultra-modern buildings on the “newly acquired land of Macau” on Hengqin Island broke ground! In the following photos which I took a few days ago standing on the side of Tum Zai, you could see that breathtaking view of the new campus is near completion!
It is worth pointing out that all the mountains in the background behind the buildings belong to the People’s Republic of China!
In the Q&A session of my speech, I made the comment that going suddenly from a 1/20 square kilometer campus to a 1 square kilometer campus is analogous to what we learn in thermodynamics, and that is the “non-adiabatic expansion of a gaseous system.” When expansion of a gaseous system is very fast, faster than the system has no time to readjust to the new conditions, chaos is inevitable! But, this is certainly preferred over the alternative in this case, which is no expansion at all. Facing such an immediate and somewhat uncertain future, it is no wonder that everyone I talked to in my two days at UM, from leadership to students, was full of enthusiastic anticipation!
Will UM eventually become a world class university? I think only time will tell. The fourth challenge I outlined earlier should not be underestimated. In discussing with the leadership and many faculty and staff members, I sensed that all recognized the fundamental challenges UM faces. But I do sense there was palpable and ubiquitous sense of optimism. With that, I think the battle is half won already!
I have often said lately that it is really incredible, and perhaps purely because of serendipity, that there were many things that were simply “unthinkable” in the 20th century are now “thinkable” in the 21st century. For example, building international high-speed rail in Asia Pacific was unthinkable in the 20th century, be it economically or politically. Yet in the 21st century, it is now thinkable.
No one in the 20th century would think that this sleepy town known as Macau would one day “hail Mary” to the front line of higher education. Who would have thought in the 20th century that by the early part of the 21st century, Macau would “rent” land from the Mainland in order to build a world class university? The fact that this is now a reality within grasp tells us how far Asia Pacific has come along, POLITICALLY, CULTURALLY AND ECONOMICALLY!
For me, the University of Macau should be viewed as Asia Pacific’s higher education window for the world. If successful, its impact will be global! The World must focus on this development of Macau!
How exciting indeed!
Da Hsuan Feng
Senior Vice President, Global Strategy, Planning and Evaluation
National Tsing Hua University
a member of the University System of Taiwan
資深副校長 馮達旋 教授