University Years in Australia
I was pretty happy when my parents said they were planning to send me to Australia to finish my high school and study in a university. I was looking forward to it, and boasted to all my friends, and they were probably sick and tired of hearing it.
Little did I realise how much of sacrifice my parents had to make to enable this. My father was a civil servant, and he had opted for early retirement. He took on jobs with a private surveying firm to fund my education.
I worked during school holidays as a draghtsperson for the firm, and I used to wonder why I was never paid. Later on I found out my wages were also used to fund my education.
My father bought me a plane ticket, and he calculated enough money for me to last for my entire stay in Australia, and gave me all of it and said “Don’t spend it all, because there is no more, so you’ll have to return home if you run out.”
High School in Australia
I went to Sydney and studied at Randwick. I shared a flat with fellow students and made many new friends.
At the end of the year, I sat for the Higher School Certificate and managed to get a score of 488, the highest in my school and enough to enable me to apply for any course I cared to study, including medicine.
My father tried to persuade me to take up medicine, but I was squeamish and it didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to study architecture, but for some reason my father wasn’t keen and he said the job prospects were not high in Malaysia.
He persuaded me to study engineering, which I wasn’t too keen on but it aligned with my problem solving skills. To hedge my bets, I applied for a double degree in B.Sc. and B.Eng at the University of Sydney (USyd) and I was accepted.
University of Sydney, Year 1
I chose USyd over the University of New South Wales (UNSW) even though the engineering degree at UNSW was supposedly superior. I was a romantic. I had recently watched the film “Chariots of Fire” and I wanted a university with a Great Hall, gargoyles, and all the pomp and circumstances normally associated with great British universities. I wanted a debating society, a rowing club, a dramatic club (even though I didn’t plan on joining any of these). I imagined myself following in the footsteps of Clive James (I had recently read his autobiography) or Jill Kerr Conway. I thought I might become a bohemian.
The motto for the University of Sydney is “Sidere mens eadem mutato” (loosely translated as “though the stars may be different, some things remain the same”, implying that the university was the Antipodean equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge).
Indeed, in my first year, it seemed the university and students were intent on copying traditions from halfway across the world. The Chancellor gave a stirring speech in the Great Hall, a race was organised around the quadrangle (evoking the famous scene from Chariots of Fire), and there were enough stuffy looking professors speaking in Received Pronunciation.
For the science subjects, USyd ran two streams of courses, the standard stream suitable for most students, and a separate set of “advanced” or “honours” classes intended for students who wished to challenge themselves and wanted to learn more.
I was persuaded to enrol in the advanced or “honours” science classes because of my relatively high HSC result. Later on I found that this was probably the smartest decision I ever made. I found through a friend that they will never fail a student taking the advanced classes no matter how badly they did. The thinking was if a student was brave enough to enrol in an advanced class in the first place, then they should be rewarded with a pass even though they didn’t achieve their objectives.
I was also pleased to discover I was awarded the E. Trenchard Miller Scholarship even though I didn’t apply for it. Apparently it is awarded to the top 5 students enrolling in a B.Sc. It wasn’t a lot of money, but enough to cover buying textbooks. Apparently I was the “unknown 5th” - the other four were private school students who all knew each other (they all ended up becoming my friends as well because we saw each other in classes often).
I remember enrolling for Computer Science, and John Mackin and Ray Loygaza were processing the students. When they saw me, they teased me because I did not look like a typical computer science student (or, at least, their notion of what a typical computer science student looked like). They asked me was I sure I was enrolling in the right class, ”… because the Arts Faculty is just down the corridor…” (it wasn’t).
I really enjoyed my first year at university. It was everything I expected it to be. I made many friends, some that I still keep in contact with today.
I managed to get completely drunk for the very first time in my life. Ironically, it was at a Maths Society party. I was served wine, which I had never tasted before (although I prided myself on my ability to drink beer). I liked it, obviously drank too much, and on my way back home I mysteriously lost the ability to walk. So I had to lean against a wall, and crawled all the way home (luckily, at the time I lived at Darlington St, only a few minutes away).
There weren’t many Asians or females enrolled in engineering. I remember probably seeing maybe less than 20-30 Asian students in the advanced classes, and perhaps a dozen females in the engineering classes.
Some of the professors were quite funny or eccentric. I remember a computer science professor who only wore shades of purple, and he was quickly nicknamed “Mr. Purple.”
A maths lecturer once declared during a lecture whilst doing a proof: “Now it’s immediately obvious that …”
He suddenly stopped mid sentence, and paused deep in thought. Everyone could see that he was gnawed with sudden uncertainty. He started muttering, and gradually his uncertainly became anxiety and fear. He excused himself, rushed out of the lecture, and came back a few minutes later beaming and smiling. He proudly announced “It’s all good, everthing is clear now. It IS immediately obvious that …”
The whole class roared with laughter. It wasn’t until much later I was told he does that routine every year to all the new students.
By Year 2, everything had settled into a routine. I pretty knew who my friends were, and which subjects I liked or disliked.
Little by little, my grades started to slip. Not because I was studying less. If anything, I probably studied more than ever.
But I was starting to realise perhaps I am not as smart as I thought I was. I had done very well so far relying on my memory and problem solving skills. I am now discovering I don’t grasp complex abstract and theoretical concepts as well as others in my class.
I was starting to struggle with completing maths and physics assignments because I often don’t really understand the problems anymore.
The only classes that I still managed to do well in were the computer science classes. I remember getting more than 100% in one assignment because I argued with the lecturer that my solution was superior (my compiler generated no code because it correctly determined the example program fed into it contained only redundant and unused code). The lecturer agreed with me and marked my assignment 110%. It was my finest nerd moment.
I remember crying after the Physics paper in the final term exams. I had done very badly. I had completed barely one third of the questions, and even those I weren’t sure I made the right answers. I was most likely going to receive my first fail grade.
Imagine my surprise when the results were published. Not only did I pass, I received a High Distinction in Physics. I remember talking to my tutor about it, and he chuckled and said “Yes, you did not do well in the final paper, but since you had done so well up until then we thought it was a case of nerves, and gave you a High Distinction anyway. We hope you will return next year to major in Physics.”
He was sad when I told him I couldn’t possibly major in Physics because I wasn’t having a case of nerves, I was genuinely starting to struggle and I don’t feel I have the ability to continue.
Years 1 and 2 were very hectic years because by enrolling in two degrees (B.Sc. and B.Eng) I had to attend two sets of classes. I had a very busy timetable and barely had time for extra curricular activities.
In contrast, third year was a dedicated B.Sc. year where we complete our majors and return to finish the B.Eng requirements in Years 4 and 5. I decided to major in Pure Mathematics and Computer Science.
I suddenly had free time on my hands. I was starting to enjoy life, eating out, watching movies, going to parties. I am finally becoming the bohemian that I’ve always wanted to be.
To my shock and horror, I discovered the pile of money that my father gave me, which was supposed to last me for all my university years, was running out. At this rate, I don’t have enough money to last the rest of the year, let alone future years. I was facing financial ruin, and literally becoming a poor starving student.
I started cutting down on meals and lost a lot of weight. I stopped buying records, or watching movies. It was not enough. I couldn’t face the prospect of asking my father for more money as he had been very clear that there was none left. I began to think I need to get a part time job.
I saw an ad on the university noticeboards looking for a casual programmer. I applied. To my surprise, they asked me to come in for an interview. It was the research and development subsidiary of a building services company.
When I arrived, the manager took one look at me and said “When can you start?” I said I could start anytime, and I could work maybe 2 days a week. He said “Great, we’ll see you next week.”
The work turned out to be interesting. They were building products such as lift controllers and access card readers. They used 8086 chips embedded in their circuit designs (running a proprietary real time operating system) and used a PC as a cross compiler. I helped them test the code was running correctly and enhanced the code if it didn’t work. I remember struggling with the MIL key reader that was commonly used for access control. It was very fiddly. I was paid $10 an hour (it was below the minimum wage, but it didn’t matter because I had no qualifications).
A few months later, a friend of mine got a job as foreign exchange trader for a securities firm (Bain & Co.). They had just bought an HP 9000 minicomputer running Unix and they wanted someone to work as a part time system administrator. He asked me if I was interested. Of course I was, I relished the prospect of having a whole minicomputer to play with.
I went and met his boss, who also asked me when I could start. They also paid better - $15 an hour (around minimum wage).
Very soon, my money problems were solved.
I have the dubious honour of introducing Bain & Co to the Internet. At that time, there was no pervasive TCP/IP network in Australia. Sites in the US connected to each other via dedicated lines and dial up modems using the UUCP protocol.
In Australia, the academic insitutions created an alternative network called ACSnet (Australian Computer Society networtk), and the software for ACSnet happened to be written by Bob Kummerfeld and Piers Dick Lauder at the University of Sydney. ACSnet connected to the ARPAnet and UUCP backbone in the US and other countries to form a mega network that people called “the Internet.”
The cost of getting onto ACSnet was borne by participating institutions. The licence fee for the software was A$3,000 and in addition one had to pay for either a dedicated line or dialup modem.
I convinced Bain & Co in my role as system administrator that there would be benefits of joining ACSnet. I talked about email, and the possibility of downloading open source software. The mentioned of free software convinced my boss.
So Bain & Co became one of the first non-academic organisation in Australia to become part of the Internet (bain.oz.au was our domain name) and I was listed in WHOIS as the administrator. In those days, the number of nodes in Australia were few and a full network map could be drawn on an A4 sheet.
I was supposed to go back to the Faculty of Engineering to complete the 3rd and 4th years of B.Eng but I really wasn’t that keen on engineering, so I decided to do an honours year in Computer Science instead. I did a few hons courses in my 3rd year and enjoyed them.
All honours students were expected to complete a thesis as well as do coursework. Students were allocated a supervisor and generally did some research aligned to the supervisor’s research topics. I wasn’t very interested in any of the topics on offer, which was mostly in artificial intelligence and cryptography/security (two topics that are still very popular today).
I wasn’t really thinking of a career in academia or in computing. To me, computing was a hobby and I had no idea what I would do for a living (in my mind, I was still a hopelessly romantic bohemian who would likely live in poverty for most of my life).
I was very interested in music and I suggested I could do a thesis in computer music. Out of all the computer science courses I did, the ones I really loved were in computer languages and compiler construction. I had an idea of writing a computer language for representing music, that created code that performed music via the MIDI interface to synthesizers.
The Computer Science department was very much against my idea from the outset. I was told it wasn’t very career oriented or practical, and there would be no supervisor who could give me guidance as none of the staff were musically inclined. I was adamant and said I wasn’t interested in any of the topics on offer and if I couldn’t pursue my idea then I would give up on the course and study Engineering.
In the end, the department came up with a solution that everyone was happy with, including me. Instead of having a single supervisor, I would have 4. My formal supervisor would be Prof. Allan Bromley, who was the assistant head of the department. He would guide me with all the formalities of completing my thesis and offer general advice and monitor my progress. Another professor who was doing research on computer automated Chinese language translation would help grade my thesis. A PhD student, Bruce Ellis, who was also a musician, would assist me with my research and offer practical guidance. Finally, the head of computer music in the Music Department would also offer me guidance in matters relating to music and allowed me access to the computer music studio.
I was estatic. I was especially happy to work with Bruce, who I admired greatly as his coding skills were legendary. He once wrote a C compiler in a single night, twice. He almost completed it the first time, but an electrical storm interrupted power and he lost everything. Calmly, he took a swig of Wild Turkey and did it all over again. He had also returned from a stint interning at the famous AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey along with all the Unix luminaries. He showed me all the keyboards and synthesizers he bought in the US.
I was also working a lot at Bain & Co. In addition to doing system administration, I was starting to do some coding and became very interested in the mathematics of the financial industry: bond and option pricing, portfolio management and rebalancing.
At one stage, I was working nearly 30-40 hours per week and hardly showed up at university. The university became really concerned about my lack of academic progress. I remember Dr. Bromley once gave me a stern warning and said I really needed to cut down on my part time job, and start focusing on completing my thesis. When I explained I needed the money, the university offered a solution: I could start tutoring first year students and get paid. I was pretty happy with that.
I got along really well with the other honours students. We were a small group with only about 30-40 people and we were allocated a common room in the basement. Some of us virtually lived there on mattresses, I was lucky to be living close by, sharing a townhouse with a flatmate who had recently graduated and working for DEC.
At one stage the university suspected me of hacking their computer. I am not sure why, but I think they found logs of me logging out just before someone else logged in on a hacked account, and then me logging back in almost immediately after. So they reasoned I must have been the hacker, and testing the hacked account. Apparently the evidence, although circumstantial, was so incriminating even some of my friends believed I must be the hacker.
I was asked to attend a hearing with the university’s security officer. The evidence was presented before me and I was invited to comment. I said I don’t have the credentials of the hacked account, but I did remember someone saying they were in a hurry to print something, and could I log out from the terminal for a few minutes to allow them to start a print job, and I logged back in immediately afterwards.
In the end, they dismissed the charges as the evidence was inconclusive. My friends were really worried I would be expelled from university, but I wasn’t because I knew I was innocent.
Soon, the deadline for the thesis was approaching. I remember my formal supervisor Dr. Bromley was really worried because I had made virtually no progress apart from a literature survey and a preliminary grammar specification for the music language. I promised him I would give up all work and start focusing exclusively on completing the thesis.
I ended up barely eating or sleeping for the next fortnight, and worked almost constantly on writing code. I found bugs in the C compiler and had to implement workarounds in assembler code.
I finally managed to get it actually working, and held a demonstration where I wrote out a song in my music language, have it compiled through my system and then performed on a rig of keyboards I had set up in the basement.
After that, I think the department was much happier, but Dr. Bromley reminded
me it’s one thing to have a working system, I still needed to write my thesis.
So I spent another two sleepless weeks writing hundreds of pages. I was using
troff package to typset my thesis, and I used the
mm macro package.
I found bugs in the
mm code and ended up making a local copy and modifying
I managed to submit an almost completed thesis on the day the first draft was due. I was given the impression the first draft was meant to be 80% complete. It was only later on that I discovered out it was only a checkpoint to find out how students were progressing. Some people only submitted a few chapters. The department was very impressed with my effort, it seemed I had completed almost a year’s work in the last few weeks and all was forgiven. I then had the luxury of relaxing for the next few weeks whilst others were frantically trying to complete their work.
If you want to read more about my honours year adventures, I have a website dedicated to that: Hons87.
When the results were announced, I was very pleased to discover not only have I completed the requirements for my B.Sc. (Hons) degree, but I had been awarded the University Medal, along with another classmate, Mark James.
I was even more surprised that most of the original 5 recipients of the E Trenchard Miller Memorial Scholarships had also won medals in their respective majors - Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. I was very happy for my friends.
I found later on that the award of the university medal to me was highly controversial. The professor who was doing research on Chinese language translation did not understand my paper at all and wanted to fail me. I was told Bruce Ellis made a spirited defence on my behalf and argued that what I had done was highly significant. I believe my software was used to teach music students in computer music for several years afterwards.
My parents and my brother flew over to attend my graduation and we had a wonderful family reunion and they enjoyed visiting Australia.
- Work (1988-2019)