NUS Alumna Lee Hwee Lian Sets Up Scholarship For Students with Asperger’s Syndrome

Mdm Lee Hwee Lian

Navigating university life can be quite a challenge if you are living with autism. Some take longer to process lectures and copy notes off the board. Others struggle with social interactions as they have trouble maintaining eye contact or reading body language.

Madam Lee Hwee Lian did not let autism stop her. She graduated from the NUS Faculty of Science in 1995. Now, the NUS alumna wants to support her juniors - financially needy students who have been diagnosed with autism - through the Lee Hwee Lian Scholarship.

"Students with autism lack social awareness and this puts them at a disadvantage when they go for interviews," said Madam Lee. "I do not mind if the Scholarship is awarded to students who don't give eye contact during interviews.”

Madam Lee was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum that affects communication and behaviour. Asperger’s sufferers tend to be awkward in social settings, and are vulnerable to sensory overload. They can be easily intimidated by loud noises, facial expressions and voice tones.

Due to her condition, Madam Lee struggled with learning difficulties throughout her time at NUS.

“I can see but I had difficulties in reading and copying from the overhead projector. I can hear but my auditory processing time is longer than others,” recalled Madam Lee, a mother of two grown up daughters.

Processing auditory information is a critical component of social communication, and people with autism spectrum disorders typically have problems processing and interpreting this information. Despite her longer auditory processing time, Madam Lee soldiered on and completed the three-year Chemistry course in five years.

Support from her lecturers and fellow undergraduates helped Madam Lee to persevere in her studies. She recalled how her classmates would take turns to revise with her daily and checked if she had copied the lecture notes correctly. During the June holidays, she would get lecture notes and tutorials from her seniors to read in advance. Her lecturers also took the time to encourage and motivate her.

“The strong encouragement from the lecturers and the unconditional peer support were the reasons I persevered and eventually graduated,” elaborated Madam Lee. “My lecturers assured me that if I was able to overcome the obstacles in NUS, I would emerge as a stronger and a more confident person in life.”

Madam Lee’s fond memories of NUS are not just of her teachers and friends. She met her husband at the residential hall and her elder daughter graduated from NUS this year.

After graduation in 1995, she followed her husband to developing countries to support his corporate career. 

Throughout Madam Lee’s school life, she only commuted between school and home and seldom travelled out of the neighbourhood. Without the confidence and tenacity she had developed in NUS, she would not have been able to overcome challenges during her residence in China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Twenty years ago, corporate bonds were a niche market. Her interests in the capital market led her to discover her knack for trading corporate bonds. Today, she devotes her time to her children and manages an investment portfolio.

Madam Lee credited her experiences in NUS as instrumental in giving her the confidence and tenacity to pursue these interests.  She shared, “Indeed, the challenges and setbacks in NUS transformed me from a timid person into a very confident, courageous and fearless person.”

Madam Lee hopes that her story and the Scholarship she established will inspire students with autism to achieve their dreams. She remarked, “With our innate disabilities, it is an uphill battle for us to compete in the workplace with others. However, we must strive to be a winner and not just a survivor in our society. We are also positive contributors to society.”

On giving generously to help her juniors with the same developmental disorders, Madam Lee quoted a Chinese proverb: “Lose at the starting point, win at the end”, referring to the fact that even if we begin our race with a disadvantage, we are capable of overcoming the odds to emerge as winners at the finish line.