My early education was at St Xavier’s Institution, a Catholic brothers’ mission school. My mother was draconian about education, and I suppose I did have something more than air between my ears. I did very well in school, and for O-Levels in 1974, I was among the top 5 students in Malaysia. I wanted to be an engineer, but my parents would not hear of it, as top students should study to become doctors. I could not imagine the rest of my life tending to sick people, as I was rather squeamish at the sight of blood. After a very difficult negotiation, we agreed that I would study to be an accountant. In those days, there were only 2 chartered accountants in Penang, and they both lived in mansions. There were not many jobs for engineers in those days in Penang as nothing much was being built.
I had no idea then what I was getting myself into. From a top student in O-Levels, I ended up as a marginal student at university. In those days, Australia and New Zealand gave free education to selected students from Malaysia, which was an underdeveloped country. I managed to get offered a place both at Melbourne University and the University of Auckland. On my father’s salary, there was no way that my parents could afford my living expenses overseas. One of my uncles had to provide a personal guarantee and I ended up going to New Zealand on the misguided notion that I could not work as a student in Australia.
My father reached the age of 50 at that time and could withdraw one-third of his provident fund, which paid for my one-way ticket to Auckland, and six months’ living expenses. I did not do well in university because I really did not like most of the subjects for my Bachelor of Commerce degree. But those three years of struggle as a poor student with up to three part-time jobs at the same time, presented some of the most profound learning for me.
I did finally make it as a Chartered Accountant but never got to live in a mansion. But as it turned out, taking accountancy was a good thing. With a solid science background from school, and a passion for science, my career path as a finance person in an industrial/engineering environment was rather stellar.