Early Childhood through to university
I was born on 8 August 1964 in Klang General Hospital (now renamed to Hospital Tengku Ampuan Rahimah). Klang is a royal city and former capital of the state of Selangor, Malaysia. Port Klang is the 12th busiest container port in the world (according to Wikipedia).
My father was a land surveyor attached to the Survey Department of Malaysia. Every few years, he will get posted to a different city. So I did not get a chance to stay in Klang long, because soon after we moved to Kuala Terengganu.
According to my mum, there is an interesting story connected to my stay here when I was about 1 year old.
We moved to a rented house and the rent was apparently surprisingly affordable. However, I would wake up every night crying at around 11pm. No matter what my mother did, she could not calm me down. She said a neighbour then told them the previous occupant was apparently stabbed and murdered at 11pm. After that my parents decided to move elsewhere and I stopped waking up at 11pm.
We then moved to Penang when I was about 2-3 years old. My brother was born in Penang. My earliest childhoold memories were of my brother’s birth. I was in the car with Grandma whilst my father went up to the hospital to see mum. For some reason, I was not allowed to go and I was very annoyed. It was stifling hot. I kept crying and demanded to be allowed to witness my brother’s birth. My Grandma could not calm me down.
Finally my mother gave birth. According to my parents, my father proudly held out my brother so that I could see him from the window of the ward in the hospital.
Another early memory was my Grandma painting my nails red. I was so proud I rushed out and showed my nails to all my friends.
We moved to Taiping for a brief period when I was in kindergarten, just before I started primary school. Taiping was an old tin mining town that developed in the 19th century when tin was discovered there. The original mining ground was converted to become the Lake Garden, the first public garden established during the British rule in Malaya.
Taiping is nestled in a valley between mountains, and the unique geography collects moisture from clouds and results in rain nearly every afternoon. Taiping is the wettest town in Malaysia. As a result, the Lake Garden is stunningly beautiful and green.
Taiping is probably my favourite town in Malaysia. When we first moved in, we had temporary accommodation in one of the old colonial houses originally built by the British. It’s a large crumbling house with a really old tree in the courtyard. I loved that house - I used to explore it and it was a fascinating place. I still dream about the house.
However, we soon moved to a more modest bungalow on the outskirts of town. Behind us was the jungle. My mum said snakes used to make a home in the storage room and garage.
Once I was peddling along in my toy motorcar down our driveway. According to my mum, a very large snake crawled across the driveway. I patiently waited for the snake to finish crossing the driveway, then proceeded along as if nothing unusual has happened.
I remember getting a picture book of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and it was my favourite book. I was fascinated by the coloured pictures in it. I took it everywhere with me. One day, we parked the car at the Lake Garden for an afternoon stroll. Of course, I had the book with me. I left it on the roof to tie my shoes, then forgot about it completely, so when the car drove off, I lost the book. I cried for a long time and to this date still miss the book.
I started primary school in Taiping but we soon moved to Kuala Kangsar, the royal town of Perak, Malaysia, where the Sultan of Perak has a palace.
I completed most of my primary school here. We lived in a tiny Malay village called Kampung Talang. As far as I remember, we were the only non-Malay and non-Muslim family there. A mosque was directly behind our house, so I was used to the call to prayer blasting from PA speakers 5 times a day.
My brother and I made many friends here. I remember we would pretend to be part of the crew of Star Trek and had many fantastic adventures with our friends. We also played marbles.
I had a Raleigh three speed bicycle. I loved cycling and used to cycle through the paths of the village. One day, I crashed into a fence whilst racing with someone. Although I did not break any bones, I destroyed the bicycle and had a very big hole in my right arm and there is a massive scar there to this day. Sadly, my parents forbade me from cycling again and did not buy another bicycle. I ended up not cycling again until my 40s.
My appendix burst when I was 7, and I had to be rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. The surgeon was a friend of my father, and by all accounts the surgery was successful. I was hospitalised in bed for nearly two weeks, and to my shock and horror, I discovered I had lost the ability to walk and had to relearn.
According to my mum, I had a friend in the royal family who went to school with me. My parents used to drop me off at the Royal Palace in the afternoons after school so that I can play with my friend. I don’t remember any of this.
I also discovered much later that my father was a friend of the Sultan and a member of the sultanate’s tennis team. He has played tennis for the Sultan in several interstate tournaments, and was frequently invited to the sultan’s many parties. According to my mum, my primary school teacher used to flirt with him at those parties.
Kuala Kangsar was when I started becoming interested in music and high fidelity
audio systems. My Dad was an avid audiophile who would regularly visit Penang to buy the latest gear, and he has upgraded his system many times. I used to come along with him, so I gradually learnt all the finer details of turntables, amplifiers and speakers. I was the only one my father entrusted to use the system, so I was charged with all the maintenance - cleaning the records, calibrating the turntable speed and arm alignment, and replacing a blown valve tube.
I remember my father started with a Thorens turntable, but upgraded to a futuristic looking Transcriptors Hydraulic Reference Turntable (a design so unique it was used as a prop in the Stanley Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange”). In practice, the turntable was incredibly finicky and had to be aligned and adjusted almost before each use.
I started having a real appreciation for various kinds of music. When the quadrophonic craze swept through the late 1970s, my father invested not only in a fully configured quad system, but he had multiple units capable of decoding not just one Quad format, but three different ones:
- JVC’s CD4 system (the only discrete quadrophonic system where the rear channels are frequency modulated with a 30kHz carrier and a special Shibata stylus that can track ultrasonic frequencies is required in the turntable),
- The SQ system promoted by Columbia Records
- The QS system promoted by Sansui
I also started playing music, by learning the classical guitar, and also the mellodion. I was the melodionist in the school band and remember performing in school concerts. I also started composing music, mainly on the guitar.
I also became an avid reader in Kuala Kangsar. My mum used to buy me Enid Blyton books when I was young, and I was addicted to the Secret Seven, and later on Famous Five books. When I accompanied my father to visit Penang on his many audiophile trips, I would spend time at the second hand bookshops on the beach and bought many books there.
I stayed at my aunt’s room for several weeks during one school vacation when I was living with my grandma. She had gone to the UK to study. I discovered she had a whole bookshelf full of romance novels, primarily Mills and Book but also some Harlequin. I devoured her entire bookshelf, and read a few other books as well.
In my last year of primary school, my parents finally moved back to their hometown, Seremban. I finished my primary school here and enrolled in the same school as the one my father attended, the King George V School, or KGV as the locals call it.
KGV is one of the top schools in Malaysia, and had facilities that few schools had. It had its own full sized athletics ground located across Birch Rd (a major road). There was a special tunnel underneath the road connecting the field to the main school buildings. The school was also unique in that it featured a swimming pool, something that very few schools in Malaysia would have had.
In my father’s day, the school was staffed by British teachers who were Oxford and Cambridge educated. Strong ties to the British legacy still existed during my time there and the school had rugby and cricket teams. In my father’s time, it would have been a boys school but in my time it was one of the few premier schools in Malaysia that was co-educational.
In Seremban, I continued my book reading habit and typically read one book a day. I borrowed books not only from the school library but also from the library at the Sungei Ujong Club which my father was a member of. I became addicted to Agatha Christie mysteries, discovered science fiction and soon became addicted to all the “masters”: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein etc.
I studied in KGV for 6 years, became the school monitor in Form 6, and the editor of the school magazine.
I became interested in calculators and computers during my high school. I remember my Dad bringing home an HP calculator that the department was evaluating home with him. It was the HP 67, an advanced programmable scientific calculator that stored programs on a magnetic strip.
I was totally fascinated by the idea of programming a machine to execute a sequence of calculation steps automatically. I devoured the operating manual and taught myself how to program. The HP salesman visiting my father was impressed and left me with a few copies of the HP Calculator Journal.
My father then took home another calculator, the TI 59. I managed to program it to do traverse survey computations based on a geodesy textbook my father lent me, and my father was impressed enough to use it at work.
I started hearing about computers in the late 1970s. The Apple ][ was probably the most popular personal computer that had just been released, and my father borrowed one for me to play with. I also read the manual from cover to cover and was fascinated with the machine. Unfortunately, my father couldn’t afford to buy me an Apple, so he bought a second hand Tandy TRS-80 instead.
Still, I managed to learn a lot from the TRS-80. I taught myself how to program not only in BASIC but Z-80 assembly language.
I wasn’t a spectacular student in my early years. I wasn’t that interested in studying. I had reasonable grades, enough to place me in the top class, but I was probably an average student in that class.
Sometime after Form 3, I discovered the ability to recall information almost perfectly. It started when I was studying for an exam whilst on a holiday with my family at Port Dickson. I discovered a technique where if I associate something with a page of writing - a smell, or a colour, or some memory fragment, I can then recall everything on that page almost as if it was right in front of me.
This made it easy for me to memorise lots of text, and my grades improved spectacularly. Suddenly, without much additional effort on my part, I became the top student in the class, earning almost perfect marks in nearly every subject. I was also a good problem solver, which helped me in mathematical and scientific subjects.
Indeed, I was so good at one stage my teachers suspected me of cheating. My mother was called in to school, I was forced to resit an exam under close supervision, but I managed to prove I could reproduce entire class notes and lessons without too much effort.
I did really well in the Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) exams, which all Form 5 students had to sit. The exam is very important, and either guaranteed students a place in Form 6 and subsequently university, or determined what their likely future in life would be when they leave school.
Not only was I the top scorer in my school, but in the whole state of Negeri Sembilan and rumours had it I was placed 3rd or 4th nationally. Newspaper journalists were trying to interview me but my parents whisked me away safely.
I think it was around that time my parents decided they should send me to Australia to complete my high school and university.