Kai Nargolwala lives by the Zoroastrian principles of Huxta, Humata, Huvarshta (Good Words, Good Thoughts, Good Deeds).

kai-nargolwalaKai Nargolwala in his office in 2021 // Credit: Kai Nargolwala

Espousing the Zoroastrian principles of “Huxta, Humata, Huvarshta (Good Words, Good Thoughts, Good Deeds)”, Kai Nargolwala’s parents and the Parsi community he grew up in left an indelible mark on his outlook on life.

“My parents would often perform good deeds by helping the less fortunate with charitable donations,” said Kai.

“So, it’s part of my DNA that’s ingrained in me—to look at society, the community and across all groups to help people wherever they are,” added the immediate past Chairman of the Duke-NUS Governing Board.

Even while Kai received his education at the Doon School—a boarding school in Dehradun located at the foothills of the Himalayas—giving remained an integral part of his life.

There, he learnt how to contribute to the community through other means too, such as by giving his time or applying his skills to help others.

“As young students, we devoted ten hours a month to social service projects,” said Nitan Kapoor, a long-time friend of Kai’s. “It was not looked on as a task. It was looked upon as a privilege and responsibility,” added the businessman. 

“We were encouraged to adopt a village near our school and went from the school to surrounding areas in the mountains to help villagers and farmers clean their houses, paint their houses, build their houses, work in the fields with them,” said Kai.

“To get to the villages, we would walk between 10 to 15 kilometres sometimes. Or we may ride on a bus or even a truck,” added Nitan. He recalled how their class would often share a meal with the villagers when they broke for lunch.

The two boys and their classmates formed strong bonds as everyone worked together and to this day, the now men gather regularly for reunions where they raise money for different charities.

“We are the Class of 66,” Kai said, referring to the 66 boys in his cohort who— coincidentally— also graduated in 1966.

Other than the friendships, Kai also cherishes the invaluable life lessons that he learnt from helping the underprivileged at school.

“It teaches you humility. That apart from the accident of birth, you could have easily been in that situation,” he said.

It’s about the people

After graduating from the Doon School, Kai didn’t take long to choose his path in life.

“Career choices at that time were very limited. Basically, you could become an accountant, doctor or lawyer, a civil servant or go into business,” he explained.

“I ended up doing Economics at the University of Delhi and then straight after that, I went to England to become a chartered accountant.”

As a newly minted accountant in 1970s England, Kai drew a modest income of £750 a year (the equivalent of $1,400 SGD today), spending about half of it on rent.

“I had very little money left over to live,” he recalled.

Despite that, he made regular contributions to a charity that supports blind and visually impaired people with a standing order of £5 ($10 SGD) each month.

“Even a small amount makes a difference. And doing it regularly is more important than just doing it once a year,” he added.

After a few years working as an accountant, Kai moved into banking—a decision that was largely influenced by family. “In those days, there were banks that had operations in the UK where I was but also connections to India, which I thought I’d eventually go back to,” he said.

The rapid growth of the financial industry in the mid-70s soon propelled him into management. Kai had to pivot from an operational role to one that involved managing processes, risks, business expansion plans and people.

It was not long before he found himself going places—from London to New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Singapore, where he settled down. He felt so at home on the little red dot, he even became a citizen.

Having worked in many of the world’s financial capitals, he was struck not by their differences but by the similarities that they revealed.

“What I took away from that was basically that although on the surface, things are different in different places, people are the same everywhere. And if you relate to people on an individual basis, you can build bridges in any culture.”

Bridging the ties between Duke, NUS and SingHealth

When Kai retired in 2010, he had accumulated a wealth of experience in governance and management from working in different parts of the world and steering companies through cycles of hardship, such as the United States Savings and Loan Crisis in the 90s, the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and the more recent Global Financial Crisis that struck economies around the world between 2007 and 2008.

But he wasn’t ready to stop yet. He had more to give.

So, he took on non-executive director roles, drawing on his previous experiences of serving on the Singtel Board, the board of Tate and Lyle and the Asia Supervisory Board for Visa.

About ten years ago, he was approached by Yong Ying-I, then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health, to take over the helm at the Duke-NUS Governing Board from inaugural Chairman Tony Chew.

“I was excited to take on the role because it was something new, and I’m always interested to learn something new,” he said.

As the role involved managing relationships between Duke-NUS and other stakeholders such as Duke, NUS and SingHealth, it was not one that was entirely foreign to him. After all, he had years of experience collaborating with people from different communities and countries.

What was new to him, however, was having to learn about issues relating to medical education, science and research.

“Kai worked hard to become fluent in the key pillars of the School—including medical education, research and academic medicine—while developing a deep understanding of our strategic partnerships and collaborations in order to provide wise guidance to the management team as we confronted complex issues across our missions,” said Professor Thomas Coffman, Dean, Duke-NUS.

Besides strengthening the ties between Duke-NUS and its partner universities—Duke and NUS—Kai was also instrumental in cementing Duke-NUS’ partnership with SingHealth through the establishment of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre (AMC).

“The SingHealth Duke-NUS AMC has, over the last decade, brought clinicians, educators, researchers and administrators closer together to strengthen the drive towards our common mission of ‘Transforming Medicine, Improving Lives’,” added Coffman. 

In 2019, Kai received the Meritorious Service Medal at the 2019 National Day Awards for his inspirational stewardship of Duke-NUS during his seven years as Chairman.

Looking back at the relationships that he had built and the amount that he has learnt, he shared: “I enjoyed my time tremendously at Duke-NUS. I have a tremendous gratitude for the people at Duke-NUS who helped me and were patient with me while I learned.”

Kai in a discussion with students during then Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung's visit to the School.

Helping students pursue their medical education

Kai continued to give back to the School even after he stepped down from his role as Chairman of the Governing Board in 2019, choosing to support a cause that he and his parents strongly believed in: education.

“My parents always emphasised education and went out of their way to make sure that I got a comprehensive education,” he said.

Another key influencing factor in his decision was a belief that he held in common with Singapore’s Founding Father, Lee Kuan Yew, who once shared how people should be given “equal opportunities for education and advancement regardless of class or property”.

That motivated Kai to give everyone an equal opportunity to prove themselves.

Therefore, in 2019, a non-endowed bursary was established that was named after his late mother—Mrs Dhun Nargolwala—whom Kai remembers fondly as a devoted mother who spent most of her time caring for her children, shuttling them tirelessly from one venue to another for lessons and contests.   

“She was also charitable, always making it a point to reach out to help the less fortunate,” he added.

The bursary supports Duke-NUS students from Singapore and less affluent Asian countries who are in need of financial aid to pursue their education at the School.

Pal Vipul Shah, who was awarded the Dhun Nargolwala bursary in 2020, is the bursary’s first recipient.

“Receiving the bursary has allowed me to pursue the path of medicine, keeping my training my number one priority. It has inspired me to give back to the community in whatever way I can,” said Pal from the Class of 2024, who embarked on her medical education when the pandemic struck in 2020 last year.

Kai with students at the Annual Giving Campaign 2013.

Giving back to support research

Serving on the Duke-NUS Governing Board also made Kai realise the importance of research and the potential benefits that it could bring to society, prompting him to make a gift that would honour the memory of his late father-in-law, Mr Madan Gopal Kaul.

Kai is full of admiration when he speaks about his father-in-law, a “very, very successful” civil servant who ended up as Finance Secretary in India and was responsible for the reforms under the Indira Gandhi government.

Mr Kaul’s passing was—in some ways—unexpected as he was still working and nowhere near retirement when he died. But living with diabetes since the age of 30 and, later on, a heart bypass finally took a toll on the India director for the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Here’s a man who was absolutely at the peak of his career, who could have contributed a lot more but who died at the age of 56 because of the debilitating effects of diabetes,” said Kai.

Losing his father-in-law to diabetes prompted Kai to support research into ways that could better manage or even eradicate the disease by establishing the Madan Gopal Kaul Diabetes Research Fund in 2021.

“Diabetes is a disease that is prevalent in the world, including Singapore. So, if there’s a small way in which we can help further basic research around diabetes, I hope to do that,” he said. “It’s small steps you have to take.”

He continues to follow Duke-NUS’ progress and is proud at how the School has contributed to Singapore’s and the world’s fight against the pandemic by spearheading research projects in testing and vaccine development.  

“Duke-NUS has really shown how it can add value to the country and society,” said Kai.

“I think that is not yet finished,” he added. “Everybody should be encouraged and proud of what we’ve been able to achieve at Duke-NUS.”

It is the act of giving that matters

Reflecting on the past year, Kai was touched by Singaporeans who had stepped forward from all walks of life during the pandemic to help others—not necessarily with their money, but with their time and skills.

“It’s enormous,” he said of the many grassroots activities that had sprouted to show support for frontline workers.

Along the same vein, he believes that fostering a community spirit of giving is the way to inspire more people to give—a movement that Duke-NUS has been building on by encouraging students to participate in humanitarian and community-based initiatives such as Camp Simba.

Stressing that his contributions are humble, he still gives in whatever way he can. “It’s the act of giving; it’s the generosity of spirit that matters—it is not the amount of money that matters,” said Kai, who is now the chairman of the Singapore Pools Board.

He added, “That is important—don’t say ‘I don’t have enough to make a meaningful impact’. Even a small amount makes a difference. Do it regularly and start the process [of giving].”

This story was first published in MEDICUS 2021 Issue 4, The Duke-NUS Magazine. Click here for more MEDICUS stories.