February 20, 2024

Guided to Lead
Joseph Ernest Mambu’s Three Moments of Doubt


The leadership seminar of the United Board Fellows Program 2022-23 held in Singapore last November did not end with the awarding of Fellows Certificates to the 32 participants from eight countries and regions in Asia.

The curtain fell with the announcement of the recipient for the Elisabeth Luce Moore United Board Fellowship giving recognition to the Fellow who had demonstrated a commitment to learning new approaches to leadership and teaching, a willingness to make constructive changes, and potential for academic leadership within and beyond his/her home institution. 

The honor went to Dr. Joseph Ernest Mambu of Satya Wacana Christian University (UKSW), Indonesia. 

Throughout the seminar, Joseph was known to his mentors and fellow participants as a composed and confident scholar with a disarmingly boyish smile. For a brief moment before he walked down the aisle to receive the accolade from Dr. Pareena Gupta Lawrence, president of the United Board, that composure was disrupted and doubt and disbelief flicked across his countenance.

Guided by God

Joseph admitted he was no stranger to such moments of doubts. When he was about to finish high school in the mid-1990s, he, coming from a devout Christian family, fasted and prayed to God for His guidance on what to major in university.  When younger, he had aspired to study astronomy, and later became interested in international relations. Little did he expect to hear God’s will that he should study English at UKSW. English, at UKSW—the unambiguity of God’s message was only matched by his own incredulity, for English was not his strongest or most-favored subject and UKSW’s reputation was still recovering from some adverse publicity at that time.

But he knew it was God’s calling and since his baptism at the age of 16 he has pledged himself to following God. He studied English at UKSW as an undergraduate. He has been with the university since, first as student and later as a faculty member, except for two stints of further studies abroad, one in Australia and the other in the US. Joseph is currently Professor of English Language Education at UKSW’s Faculty of Language and Arts.


Guided by God, Again

Joseph’s next moment of doubt came in 2006, when he, having freshly completed a master’s in applied linguistics at the University of Queensland, was pondering whether to stay on at UKSW or pursue a different career somewhere else. He again listened inwardly for God’s guidance, which inspired him through two persons close to him.

The first is a professor of English who had converted to Muslim and who was then serving as Deputy Dean for Academic Affairs at UKSW’s Faculty of Language and Literature. That a scholar of the Muslim faith could be given responsibilities as a senior officer in a Christian university made him see the inclusiveness and uniqueness of the place he has known since his undergraduate days. The second is a colleague of his who, like him, had also won a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a PhD in the US. It’s through the fascination and friendship with these two persons that Joseph felt God’s calling for him to stay on the academic career that began at UKSW.

Such “Abraham” moments have only strengthened Joseph’s conviction that he is doing God’s bidding and in doing so he will not only be serving God but would find his own personal fulfilment in some mysterious way. In 2017, he was given the chance to serve as Deputy Rector for Institutional Relations and Internationalization, a position which curiously led him back to what had attracted him years ago and which effectively made him an ambassador of UKSW. 

His encounter with the United Board is nothing more planned or expected.  In 2007, he was nominated by the dean to attend a seminar supported by the United Board, which was rather unusual given his relatively junior status as a faculty member then. The first United Board program he joined is the International Seminar on Gender and Development in Asian Literature held in 2007 at the American College in Madurai, India. The rest of his involvement in United Board programs is history.


Rising to Lead

Joseph enjoyed every minute of the four-day seminar at the Singapore Management University.  He participated enthusiastically in its sessions and outreach activities and made mental notes of many takeaway messages.  For example, he was inspired by what Prof. Joanne Roberts, president of Yale-NUS College, said about “you take care of people, and people will take care of your mission” which he could immediately relate to his own academic setting where paying attention to people and renewing their sense of mission would go a long way to preventing or resolving real or potential conflicts and crises.

Prof. Mark Chong and Prof. David Gomulya’s talk on institutional purpose enriched his view that an institutional leader should examine carefully the founding purpose of the institution, adjust its mission and vision, and translate them into strategic planning and actions in response to existing issues and emerging challenges.

At the session “Building a Vision and the Leadership Team” facilitated by Dr. Lawrence, he jotted down his reflections on his role as faculty senate chair to be shared with his fellow senators at the next meeting of the Faculty of Language and Arts at UKSW.

When the fact that he was named Elisabeth Luce Moore United Board Fellow in the 2022-23 class had sunk in, Joseph felt nothing but humility and gratitude. He said he would make use of the travel grant provided to further his professional development. He also said he looked forward to continuing to play an active part as a United Board alumnus.

Joseph admitted he still asks himself from time to time the question why God has wanted him to do what he has not expected or has doubts about. But he has never been clearer about the purpose of his work which is to expand the Kingdom of God within the academia and in the society at large.