Portrait photo of TUM President Thomas F. Hofmann and Ambassador Chong Hock Lee.

TUM Alumnus Chong Hock Lee, Ambassador for Singapore in Germany, together with TUM President Thomas F. Hofmann (Photo: TUM Asia).

Alumni doing politics
Ambassador Chong Hock
“We Must Enable Our Best Talents to Develop Solutions for the Future”
18. Dec 2023  |  
Reading time Min.
In the 1990s, Chong Hock Lee from Singapore studied mechanical engineering at TUM. Despite completing a number of internships in the field, his post-university career path did not lead him into the automotive industry but into the world of politics. He applied his skills at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore for many years and was also involved in dealing with international crises. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he was responsible for evacuating Singaporean nationals fromoverseas and reuniting families separated by lockdowns.

In August 2023, Chong Hock Lee became Singapore’s ambassador to Germany, with his position confirmed by German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a ceremony at Bellevue Palace. From his new office in Berlin, he strives to facilitate collaboration between scientists and researchers from Germany and Singapore on the challenges of the future.

Mr. Lee, you recently met Germany’s Federal President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at Bellevue Palace. How did you find it?
Naturally, it was a very moment special in my career. It was very ceremonial; an act of state. It made me even more aware of the significance of the duties I was taking on. I felt very honored indeed. Bellevue Palace is an impressive place and I hold Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in high regard, having known him for many years. I’m delighted to be back in Germany.
You studied mechanical engineering at TUM in the 1990s. How did that come about?
My father worked for a German company in Singapore for 18 years. That isn’t particularly unusual, because many German companies have a location in Singapore and there are strong economic ties between our two countries. Due to my father’s work, Germany was a constant presence in our family – as a topic of discussion over dinner, for instance. However, it was thanks to a scholarship from the Singaporean government that I came to study in Germany.
How exactly?
For many years now, Singapore has actively pursued a very active policy of sending talented youngsters to study overseas. The students receive scholarships that enable them to move to Germany, France or Japan, for example. The aim is for the students to learn about and understand the cultures, people and systems in these countries. The benefit to Singapore is that, when these students return home, they bring these insights back with them. So, it was decided that I should move to Germany. Even then, TUM had an excellent reputation, a long list of Nobel Prize laureates, top companies close by, mountains on its doorstep and, of course, a beautiful city all around it. It was an easy decision for me! (laughs)
Your mechanical engineering lectures were in German. How were your German language skills?
I completed an eight-month German course in Cologne and then took the German language examination for university admission, which was a precondition of starting my studies at TUM. It was also needed for the internship I completed at BMW, at a foundry in Landshut. So, I already had some German language skills. Nevertheless, the first lecture was very sobering. I remember that, after half an hour, I turned to the classmate beside me and whispered: “I can only understand about 30% of what the professor’s saying.” He replied: “Don’t worry. I come from Swabia and I don’t understand it either. He’s speaking Bavarian.” So, I had to battle through that! (laughs) But I had a fantastic time at TUM.
What helped you to persevere through university studies abroad?
I think it was the environment that particularly motivated me. I made friends who supported me a great deal and were always there to help me. After a while, I stopped noticing whether something was said in German or English. I was so immersed in the topic, curious about the subject matter and riveted by our joint efforts to tinker with our tasks. The surroundings and spirit at TUM were also highly conducive to learning. Students are expected to take a lot of responsibility for their learning.
What do you mean by that?
It’s certainly a feature of the university system in Germany and in Europe, which has a very liberal organizational structure. Students can – and must – make a lot of decisions for themselves. They have to search for courses, choose their specialism, draw up schedules. International students sometimes find this difficult because they’re used to things being done differently. But it’s an important lesson: if we want to achieve something in life, we have to take control of it ourselves.
After graduating, you headed back to Singapore. Why?
On the one hand, I had to do my military service. On the other hand, my scholarship required me to work for the government for a few years. However, this work was so varied and gave me so much that I was happy to stick with it. (laughs) Ultimately, it gave me the opportunity to study for my Master’s degree. I opted for political science and chose to study at Columbia University in the USA. I wanted to have a different experience to what I had in Europe.
And did it change your perspective? 
Yes, in two respects. For one thing, the culture in the USA is very different to the culture in Singapore or Europe. Americans aren’t afraid to make mistakes or to fail. They fall down, get back up, fall down again, get back up again, and so on. It’s not a problem for them. They’re very entrepreneurial and can market themselves very well. “Made in Germany” is a strong brand – but Germans can certainly take a page out of the Americans’ book when it comes to self-promotion. (laughs) Studying politics also broadened my horizons.
Every European Student Should Spend Some Time in China, India, Japan or Southeast Asia. 

Chong Hock Lee

In what way?
Engineers are trained to solve problems. When we see a problem, we want to solve it right away. By studying politics and working as a diplomat, I learned and accepted that some problems can’t be solved – or at least, perhaps not right away – or that you might not be the right person for the task. It takes patience and foresight to accept that.
You worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for many years. What did you enjoy most about your work there?
It was a varied, very special job. It never knew exactly what would happen in the course of a day. New developments were always cropping up and I enjoyed the challenges I had to face every day. At the same time, I was able to give people practical assistance. From 2016 to 2020, I was Director-General of the Consular Directorate. There were various crises in which we had to coordinate teams and send them overseas to support our nationals.
Can you give us an example?
The Covid pandemic broke out in January 2020. Together with my team, I had to organize evacuation flights to Wuhan and safely bring families living there back to Singapore. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, though. None of us knew how to deal with the virus or what was really going on in Wuhan. I had to find colleagues to volunteer for the first flight to Wuhan. That was a real challenge. Some time later, I became Director-General of the Europe Directorate and was tasked with reuniting families who had been separated by the pandemic. It was a wonderful assignment because I saw how happy we made people.
What helped you to handle this challenging situation?
Something else I learned in Germany – but perhaps not in the way you think. (laughs) I remember sitting in a car with some of my German friends. We set off and noticed that not all the doors were closed properly. In Singapore, we would have discussed where the problem might be, then stopped the car to see which door was causing the issue. But what did my German friends do? They each opened the door next to them very quickly, while the car was still moving, and then closed them again. It solved the problem within a few seconds. Each of my friends acted automatically, without agreeing how to proceed. It got me thinking: in dicey situations, you just have to act rather than working through things step by step. You don’t always have the luxury of being able to sit down and analyze a problem. Sometimes, you just have to act and improvise as you go, continuously adapting your approach to solve a problem as best you can.
To what extent are you also applying your engineering expertise in your everyday work?
I specialized in energy engineering during my time at TUM. It wasn’t such a hot topic back then – but that’s only made it more important today. Many of the problems we face today are linked to energy generation. Consequently, the topic crops up time and again in my everyday work. We urgently need technical solutions in terms of climate change and to counteract the energy crisis. Achieving this will require us to work together – around the world.
What do you mean by that?
Many problems concern us all as a global community. We need innovations that help us to tackle these problems – and for this we need the brightest minds from around the world. We must give our most talented people the opportunity to cooperate productively across national boundaries. That’s one of the most important aims of science diplomacy and a significant goal I’ve set myself as an ambassador. I want to promote scientific cooperation between our countries. This collaboration should start at an early point in time, ideally with university students. In this context, TUM made an excellent decision by opening an international campus in Singapore in 2002. Its TUM CREATE platform has achieved significant research successes, with researchers from Singapore and TUM cooperating on vital future topics such as electromobility and food research. I visited TUM Asia recently and attended a meet-up for alumni. It’s impressive to see what TUM, its professors and, of course, its students are doing there. I’m very proud of my alma mater.
Would you like to see more exchange between students in general?
From my point of view, it’s essential that German students gain experience of life outside Germany. Each of them should spend some time in China, India, Japan or Southeast Asia. At the same time, students from Asia should move to the West, whether to Europe or the USA. That will enrich learning and collaboration in science so that, together, we can try to develop solutions for the future. Everyone should gain experience of life abroad in their youth. There’s so much to gain from it.
Portrait picture of TUM Alumnus Chong Hock Lee.

TUM Alumnus Chong Hock Lee (Picture: Singapore Embassy).

Chong Hock Lee

Master’s in Mechanical Engineering, 2001


Chong Hock Lee moved to Munich in 1996 to study mechanical engineering at TUM. In 2001, he received his Master’s degree and returned to his native Singapore, where he worked for the government. Over the years, he held various positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also brought his knowledge to bear working in the Office of the Prime Minister. He furthered his expertise by studying for a Master’s degree in Political Science, which he received from Columbia University in New York, USA.

He went on to become Deputy Chief of Mission at Singapore’s embassy in Thailand, Director-General of the Consular Directorate and Director-General for Europe at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore. In August 2023, he became Singapore’s ambassador to Germany and is now based in Berlin.   

Shaping the World Together

This article is part of issue 1/2023 of the TUM Alumni Magazine KontakTUM.

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