Thanks for a fun education, Australia

Thanks for a fun education, Australia

It's an honour to be invited to say a few words at this re-union of the university's graduating group of 1963, an honour I readily accepted with humility. Now, the hard part starts: having accepted that honour, how do I deliver? Speak about the changes since I graduated? All the changes in the last 50 years? In 10 minutes? Not even Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan of the old BBC Goon Show could speak so fast. Remember the Goon Show? That's our time. Few if any of our children have heard of the goons, and many of our grandchildren would not have heard of Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra.

If you'll allow me, I'll just ramble along, reminiscing at random. Not everything I say will be relevant to everybody here, especially since I was part of a minority group of Asian students, but there may be bits here and there that strike a chord.

My first two years in Australia, 1960 and 1961, were lonely ones, despite two very kind landladies. I remember how I'd rush to the letter-box each time I heard the sound of the postman, eager to receive mail from home. It's so different now for my daughter, who's a second-year student at this university and resides at Lincoln College. She can text me, e-mail me, or have a face-to-face conversation with me, using Skype or face-time.

I've visited my daughter Shanin in Lincoln College, where I spent my last two years in Adelaide. The older buildings are still there and they look the same, but there the similarity ends. It's a mixed college, and young men and women live not only in the same building but on the same floor. I know of other residential colleges in Australia where men and women share not only the same floor but, heavens forbid, the same bathing facilities (with separate shower cubicles - thankfully or sadly, depending on one's point of view). In my time, Lincoln was a man's college where woman companions had to be smuggled in after hours and sex-starved inmates had to resort to the occasional panty-raid on nearby St Ann's College - all in good fun, of course. It's one part of an extinct Australian undergraduate culture that I never had the chance to imbibe. It's my loss.

Adelaide, during my time here, was very proper. Henry Miller and DH Lawrence were forbidden reading and pubs had to stop serving alcohol at 6pm. Or was it 6:30? I recall how we drank ourselves silly during the last half-hour before the taps ran dry, rushing back to College afterwards to put on our stained academic gowns, and then staggering into the dining hall for high tea, adding more stains to the gowns. That was Lincoln College. I was told Aquinas College and St Marks College were more civilised.

My Australian education was fun. It would be immodest to say it was easy, but it was truly fun, especially with lecturers like the late professors Rene Potts and Eric Barnes, who made their subjects come alive. They debunked very effectively the myth that mathematics must necessarily be dreary and unfathomable. Unfortunately, not every lecturer was like them, but some came close. Even geology, my poorest subject and one that I dropped after the first year, was fun. It was my poorest subject because I could never tell one mineral from another, but it was fun. At least it made Spielberg's Jurassic Park more understandable many years later.

I've always considered Australia to be a lucky country, now no less than 50 years ago. The wealth of the country and the well-being of its people were awesome to the impressionable youngster from a poor family in a poor country newly emerged from colonial rule. Today, half a century on, this grown-up man from Singapore, a member of the so-called first world, remains impressed. This lucky country is blessed with an abundance of natural resources that are dearly needed by others less well-endowed. But there's a difference between then and now: Australia's economy is now linked as much to its neighbours in Asia, China in particular, as to its traditional partners in Europe and America. Has this brought about a noticeable change in its attitudes to people and things Asian, to the way the man in the street regard and relate to Chinese, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Indians and others in and from Asia?

When I was a student here, all Asians were the same to our Australian mates. Malaysians, Singaporeans, Thais and Filipinos were all, simply, Asian, all the same and none distinguishable from the other. I believe Australians in general must be better educated now about Asia and Asians, and more appreciative of the cultures of their northern neighbours, their sensitivities and distinctiveness. Australians are nothing if not open and direct, so I know my friends will correct me over the next two days if I'm being over-optimistic and diplomatic.

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