Although I am now an Australian national, I grew up in Malaysia where I was born in the tin-mining town of Ipoh (also the hometown of Bond girl Michelle Yeoh) to parents descended on both sides from peranakan stock. This is a fast-disappearing community and culture that had its origins from the 1600's when male Southern Chinese migrants intermarried with Malay women. The intermingling of these two cultures manifested itself in many ways -- my mother's cooking, dress, superstitions and folk medicines were all Malay. I do not know the real Hokkien words for things like "cough" (it's the Malay "batok" for me), and for "wonderful" or "puzzling" (it's the Malay "hairan" for me). I spoke this patois Hokkien of Penang and rather inferior bazaar Cantonese and Malay as a child, and learned standard (Johor) Malay in high school as a second language. My father's dialect group is Hakka, and my mother's Hokkien, and my surname Foo is rendered differently in other dialects as Wu (Cantonese), Hu (Mandarin), Aw or Oh (Hokkien/Teochiew). My Chinese name in Pin Yin is Hu2 Yao4-Quan2, with Chinese characters as shown here , the given name meaning (please don't laugh too loudly) "brilliant power/authority". In school these were rendered in the Hakka dialect as Foo Yeow Khean. My Western name "Norman", by which I am known to my family and relatives, was chosen by my paternal grandmother, a formidable matriach of Roman Catholic persuasion (with the improbable name of Josephine Matilda Lim Kim-Eng) who also chose the labels of my two brothers (one was named Victor after the Allied Victory over Japan). I was never confimed in the Church, a narrow escape indeed. I now profess an agnosticism that accepts Buddhist morality in most things that are beyond science and am guided by the values of the Western Enlightenment.
Due to the fact that I was sent to English language schools, by the time I was 12, all my thinking was in English unless I was speaking to elder relatives (all cousins of my generation now have English as their first language) -- such was the effectiveness of the educational indoctrination of our then colonial masters. Unrepentently, and very incorrect politically, I think they did me and my friends a great favor: we were exposed to Western Enlightenment by being raised on the history and culture of Greece and Rome, but not denied the history of Asia and SE Asia. The Athens of Pericles was undoubtedly idealised for us, and the significance of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis sanctified. But then so was the noblility of Asoka in India. Look, we weren't nerds -- our teachers made sure we had lots of fun, with stories like Little Red Riding Hood (go back and see my jokes page for a version), Theseus and the Minotaur, Hansel and Gretel, Rustum and Zohrab (I remember weeping on hearing this one -- evidently a simplified prose version of the great poem of Sir Edwin Arnold that I read later), Hans and the Dutch Dyke (no, it's not about new age sexuality), Cinderella, Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal, Admiral Cheng Ho, Parameswara and Melaka, King Alfred and the burnt cakes, ... yeah, a fantastic dose of multi-culturalism from the word go! And the songs! Would you believe they taught a bunch of multi-colored colonial kids songs like "Home on the Range", "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", "Marching Through Georgia", "Loch Lomond", "Auld Lang Syne" and (of course) "Rule Britannia".
My high schooling was completed at the Victoria Institution (VI) in Kuala Lumpur where I took the Cambridge University "A" Levels in pure and applied math, physics, chemistry and English. I was lousy at athletics, managed to learn to swim, played mediocre badminton, worse soccer, and was an annual joke in the cross-country. I compensated by hanging around the art club, the debating society, and the science society, and found a soulmate in Young Tay, now a retired physicist in Birmingham and previously an advisor to Paddy Ashdown. Young introduced me to Beethoven (still love everything he composed) and Wagner (now loath him), and we read a helluva lot of poetry and philosophy (discovered Plato and Toynbee then!). We had an eccentric Scotsman, Mr Milne, as a teacher who had an amazing collection of works by Jung and Freud. He encouraged his curious students to borrow them, which some of us did. I remember being badly subverted by reading Freud as a vulnerable 14 year-old -- which teenager would not? -- and revelling in the genius who could psychoanalyse Moses (no kidding! look at Moses and Monotheism) millenia after the guy was dead. As for Jung, well, I felt very wise in being able to see symbols and archetypes everywhere that others did not even notice. Imagine my later embarrassment when, as an undergraduate and hanging around profound friends whom I admired for their deep knowledge of philosophy and psychology (poor me, I was only an engineering major) to be condescendingly told that Plato, Freud, Jung, Hegel were all dreadfully wrong, and perhaps even worse, passe. We also had a fantastic math teacher -- Mr S.G. Ayyar (MA Madras) who challenged and stretched our potential to the point that I did not have to do any "drill" work at Uni math until my second year. The death of our beloved English teacher, Mrs J. Devadason (who bequeathed us an eternal love of Shakespeare), in our "A" level year was when I first thought seriously about the meaning of life. My debating buddy was G.K. Madhusudhan, still the best orator I have ever heard. He could convince his audience that black was white, that death held no terrors, that Stalin was a saint -- all in good fun of course. I was always the third speaker to his first, so I had to do impromptu rebuttals of our opponents points, and as I did not have much oratorical talent but instead was blessed with irreverance and rabelaisian wit, I served a useful function. (Madhu -- I confess now that I took lunch bribes from girls who wanted to be introduced to you after they were dazzled by your silver tongue.) A few other teachers profoundly molded the way I look at life. One was Miss Chiew Pek Lin, now Mrs Francis Wong (she married Prof Wong, an educationist), who taught me what it meant to care about people.
An aside about my high school, the Victoria Institution. The British patterned it after what was later known in England as a grammar school, which probably accounts for the large number of high achievers alongside a substantial eccentric and neurotic minority among its alumni. Its name amuses many British commonwealth friends of mine, as the only "institutions" they know are for the blind, the mentally handicapped, the psychologically disoriented, or for very naughty boys and girls ("Borstals"). (Once they get to know me well enough, they are mercifully disabused of their initial suspicion that perhaps I am psychologically disoriented!) This strange nomenclature afflicted not only my school but also many distinguished schools throughout the Malay peninsula. Some of my good friends are alumni of, e.g., the St John's Institution (the KL Catholic high school), and of the St Paul's Institution (the Seremban Catholic high school). One of the oldest is the St Xavier's Institution in Melaka, named after its local patron saint, the Jesuit Francis Xavier who was first interred there before being re-interred in Goa. I have absolutely no idea which British colonial administrator introduced the "institution" label -- I only hope it was not a private joke.
Midway through high-school, Malaysia got its independence from Britain. I was present in the stadium where the handover ceremony took place, and the first prime minister Tengku (Prince) Abdul Rahman was, in my mind, one of the finest statesmen the world will ever know. His generosity of spirit, complete altruism and unsurpassable noblesse oblige was an example to all. Here is a gem from his response to a question of how he could justify his "wasting his time at the greyhounds and horses when he was reading law at Cambridge". He said, "There is probably no better preparation for becoming a PM of a diverse and difficult people than frequenting such places to get to know their clientele". I think Pericles would have liked him, seeing that the Greeks were (are?) even more querulous and cynical than the Malaysians. Lately I learned that the Tengku's colleague Tun Dr Ismail was as great a statesman as him. Dr Ismail aborted a suggestion that the Malaysian Army be allowed to take over as a temporary government at the horrible times of the 1969 race riots. He said, "No military government has ever given up power easily, certainly not in Asia." We had real heroes in those days. Both the Tengku and Dr Ismail would have been horrified by the de facto racial division we see today, and surely saddenned by the circumstances that are making radical Islam so appealing to a whole generation of Malays.
It was in high school that I fell for the old gag that God is a "___" , where you fill in the latest intellectual obsession that you discovered. I filled it using the sequence "geometer" (was stunned by Euclidean geometry at 12), "analyst" (blinded by the calculus at 14), "geodesic computer" (saw Fermat's principle of least time at 16). Recovered from all that pretty quickly in college when I was told that almost all the interesting equations of mathematical physics are descriptions of some bloody Euler-Lagrange minimization form -- so much for disillusionment! So, I went back to agnosticism, much reinforced by exposure to Godel's proof in graduate school.
The VI was an interesting school that inspired in many (not me) a fanatical devotion fostered by the superior performance of its rubgy and cricket teams. This quirk was the doing of its much feared Headmaster Dr G.E.D. Lewis, a Welshman who was quick to anger but also quick to forgive. I know, because I caused him much grief with my foibles and insubordination, yet when I needed his kindness and advice he willingly gave it. A whole generation of VI students learned by observing him how a man can be great despite flaws, for his flaws were indeed legendary. However, I digress.
To be captain of the first 15 or 11 was the best way to get the girls. To be hopeless at both sports (guess who was?) was to be forced to go to other schools to look for female companionship (guess who did that?). Believe it or not, one of the old boys of VI was Hassanal Bolkiah, now Sultan of Brunei. His enlightenned father, instead of sending him to the usual school for aristocrats (the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar), sent him to the VI so that he could get to know the riff-raff whom one day he will rule. I was a few years his senior, so I never got to know him personally. Another international celebrity who passed through the school, but quite a few year before me, is the great singer Kamahl. The alma mater also nourished the International Trade Minister of Malaysia, Rafidah Aziz, who was in the sixth form with me, and whom I remember as one with the gift of the gab. This gift has never failed her. A memorable manifestation of it was paraphrased by the Sydney Morning Herald in May 1997 when she was asked about the rantings of the bizarre racist Pauline Hanson of Ipswich, Queensland. Here is what Rafidah said. "She is just like the Bobbit guy, all the tabloids and gossip magazines will talk about her for a while, then she will fade into oblivion." Hmmm .... that sure shut the interviewer up. However the VI alumnus whom I think has the most widespread influence is the head honcho Raja Petra Kamarudin of the political comment web site Malaysia Today. The authoritarian Malaysian government is trying to silence him. As you can see, VI alumni are often in the forefront on opposing sides of major issues.
Just in case you run away with the silly idea that the school produced only graduates of distinction, the following describes some of my cohorts: one was jailed for kidnapping, another is wanted by Interpol for decamping with large sums of shareholder money, and yet another changed sex. One of my seniors was the scion of a distinguished family, but was eventually struck off the list and jailed for unprofessional conduct in his legal practice. One of my juniors, the boy voted most likely to succeed in life -- he won six "blues" (meaning, for my Yank friends that he was a super athlete), was academically gifted, and was rich (drove a Merc to school) -- leads a high-profile firm, but reputedly has a high-class brothel as a hobby. The scandals of the Windsors in England pale in comparison with the delicious escapade of my classmate who absconded with his wife's niece.
Life is full of ironies. There were many whose career paths were blocked by lack of opportunity because their talents flowered in the wrong milieu or Malaysia was not ready for them. The poignant stanza in Gray's Elergy said it best: "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness in the desert air; Full many a gem of purest ray serene, The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear".
Among my classmates who completed the "A" levels with me was K. Vijayan, now a PR/Management trainer, whose wit and creativity was the envy of all. In our "O" level year (10th grade) he wrote an inspired pornographic novel steamier than the insipid Mills and Boon rubbish that passes for erotica these days. Fortunately I got to read his classic Malaysian samizdat before the prefects confiscated it. I could not possibly tell you in print its title for fear I might end up in jail, but the plot centers around an incestuous relationship between a young girl and her uncle in a rubber estate, and the samizdat was allegedly her autobiography written much later after she became a successful professional. Can you imagine the precocity of such imagination?! I swear that if the manuscript is still around, with a little touching up to make its references contemporary, Xaviera Hollandia wouldn't have a ghost of a chance against it. (Recently (2006!) I managed to resume contact with Vij again, but I have yet to ask him if he still has a copy of that samizdat around. If so I am sure one of my other classmates -- they are organizing a re-union of the 1961 A-level year -- will be happy to brush it up and be Vij's agent in promoting it to an erotica print house. You see, I discovered from the email exchanges among my classmates that age has not dulled their eccentricities.)
In 1962 I proceeded to New Zealand, courtesy its government via the generous Colombo Plan aid program, to read for the BE and then ME in electrical engineering at the University of Canterbury where I was a senior scholar (= medallist) together with my South African flatmate Bill Miles (hi Bill!). My soulmates were old fellow-Victorian Poolo Jothy (now retired from Telstra) and Jim Croll, now Chadwick Professor of Structural Engineering at University College London. Jim used to threaten to "pummel" me whenever I rationed his intake of the tins of yummy roasted Malaysian peanuts sent to me by my folks in their effort to relieve me of the dreary New Zealand diet. Jim and me were room-mates in a dormitory, Rolleston House, for two years. This was the cook's idea of gourmet meals -- breakfast: squishy tomatos on soggy toast; lunch: baked beans, mashed potatos, sausages; dinner: overcooked peas, victimised cabbage, very oily fatty lamb chops. We soon understood the real meaning of that charming phrase, "become inured to something". Despite all the cruel taunts that people make about how dull Christchurch is, I treasure my memories there, particularly what I learned by example about integrity and political morality from Professor and Mrs Woodward (if you read this, Jack and Mary, you will now know how much I owe to you), the former being also my control theory teacher. I also fondly remember what I learned about relativity theory and quantum mechanics from Professor Lawden (he taught me the isometry between the matrix mechanics and the Hilbert spaces of the wave mechanics).
As bonded scholars Poolo and I returned to Malaysia in 1966 to practise as telecommunications engineers with Telecom Malaysia, the government department responsible for the design, installation and maintenance of the national links. It was an exciting time. I spent four years designing and testing all manners of antennas, impedance transformers, line-of-sight transmission systems, etc. some of it done in Fortran IV on an IBM 1130. I practised "structured programming", long before I had heard the term, out of sheer necessity to debug my sub-routines and to control complexity. It was awesome how well Maxwell's equations worked, and how faithful Fresnel diffraction theory was to reality. If in AI we could be only half as successful! Malaysia was then a young country, lacking in senior and experienced engineers. Our degree studies in Canterbury was actually funded as part of New Zealand's contribution to the Colombo Plan, but our bonds were to the Malaysian government. We have never forgotten the generosity of New Zealand to our home country, nor its sympathetic nurturing of an entire generation of Malaysian telecom engineers to fill a badly needed development corps. Australia, Canada and Britain were also donors to the Colombo Plan. In our years with the Telecom, all the senior engineers were British trained (mostly from Brighton Poly or London U), and 90% of the junior ones like us were either Australian or New Zealand trained. (The Canadians trained the mech and chem eng types.) All the junior engineers rejoiced in the title "assistant controller of telecommunications" -- but of course in fact we controlled "bugger-all". Poolo Jothy and I had a Mr Deva Das Devan as immediate boss. He was "Devan" to his friends, but always MR. Devan to us. He was a Brighton graduate, and already had over 15 years experience when we joined. From Mr Devan we learned how to prepare tender documents, how to configure whole systems, how to budget, what is professional ethics, but most important of all, how to manage people fairly and compassionately, and to nurture their careers -- which is the essence of leadership. Poolo and I took the last lessons to heart, and it has guided us whenever we were in positions of responsibility. Sadly, Mr Devan passed away in 2004 but there is a part of him that lives on in us.
A sobering lesson absorbed by the more astute among us juiors was that there are often engineering situations for which one did not know what theory to apply. If one only knew! -- the problem is solved. Here is a legendary case that Mr Devan solved when he was a junior engineer, and recounted by his old technicians in hushed tones of awe. For what must have been years there was a puzzling phenomenon in some rural areas of telephony signals being weak in the early morning but becomming normal by about 9am. Checks of the circuitry and equipment revealed nothing. Then one day it occurred to Mr Devan that he should simply go out with his driver in a telecom jeep at around 3am when the signals were weakest and inspect the entire length of the telephony wires in the affected areas, bringing along a powerful flashlight. This is what he saw. Spider webs had bridged the two parallel wires, and dew had condensed on them. Shunt short circuit!. Problem diagnosed -- when the temperature rose with sunrise the dew evaporated, so no more shunt. All that had to be done thereafter was for a linesman to go out every so often and use a pole to remove the webs while being driven on a jeep.
I married Yokelin Tan, an alumna of the Convent Bukit Nanas and the University of Malaya, at the end of 1968 in a civil ceremony in the port town of Kelang during which we were both warned by the government functionary who conducted it that "should either party engage in another act of marriage before this one is legally dissolved, then under section 494 of the Malaysian Penal Code, you shall be liable to $XXXX fine and/or YY years of imprisonment". Under such threat, neither of us have ever been tempted to so breach the law. Yokelin hails from the Teochiew dialect, and is very tolerant of my many foibles and "jakun" habits. She is also a sororios natu maximus, a rank also enjoyed by the spouses of many of my male colleagues. I had three groomsmen at my marriage, my pals Quah Cheok Hong, Poolo Jothy, and Junid Saham. Junid and Poolo were also my flatmates in New Zealand, and I still meet with them regularly, and I caught up with Cheok Hong in 2005 after a long hiatus.
I had become interested in modelling and simulation, and the systems theory that was its foundation, and joined the University of Michigan's Logic of Computer's Group in its (now defunct) Computer and Communications Sciences doctoral program. Although I was a U of M fellow, my travel was funded by a Fulbright scholarship. My advisor was Professor Bernie Zeigler, but I was privileged to also have been mentored by others, including Professors John Holland, Arthur Burks, Bernie Galler, Arch Naylor, John Meyer, Bill Rounds and Joyce Friedman. Yokelin and I had a great time in Ann Arbor, which we remember with much sentimentality. The demonstrations against the Vietnam war were in full swing, and free pot was available at the "Diag" on most weekends. Unlike President Clinton, neither Yokelin nor I ever had a joint, but also unlike him we had both inhaled as it was enough to just sit around the "Diag" to breathe the "passive" smoke pervading the air. Among my classmates whom you probably know at least by reputation are Sudhir Aggarwal (now CS chair at SUNY-B), Andy Barto (now at UMass), Ray Perrault (now King of IJCAI), Bing Yao (now at Maryland), and Sue Bloch (now Prof of Law at Georgetown). Now, don't you get cheeky and say, hey, these are all famous guys, so what happened to you?!! I graduated in 1974 with a thesis on the topological implications of simplifying dynamic systems using homomorphisms. It was this research that triggered my enduring interest in logic, computational complexity, analysis, algebra and the philosophy of science, and the applications of these pursuits to the understanding and design of complex systems. I returned briefly to Malaysia to seek an academic position in Computer or Systems Science, but none existed. I then worked for a while with the systems theorist George Klir at SUNY Binghamton before landing in Sydney University where in the course of time I became Professor of Knowledge Systems. My initial intention was to use Sydney as a listening post for academic opportunities in Malaysia, but as time passed Yokelin and I grew to love the ambience of the city, and after our second son was born it was clear that Australia was now our country, even though emotionally Malaysia still owns our hearts; but over-riding these we are internationalists in outlook and our highest loyaties are to human rights and social justice. (Yes, of course I do miss Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, but they are no longer recognizable -- poignant evidence for the old addage that "you cannot go home again".) I am told that I now speak with a hybrid "mid-Pacific" accent that has inputs from Malaysian, Indian, English, American mid-west, and Australian rhythms and pronunciations.
In August 1996, I left to join the University of New South Wales as Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, taking with me the core of Sydney University's component (there are others in Macquarie and Western Sydney) of the Knowledge Systems Group (KSG) and re-locating it in the Dept of Artificial Intelligence in the School of Computer Science and Engineering. Fortune has smiled on me when she persuaded outstanding graduate students to work with me in the past 25 years, and she further graced me with highly stimulating post-docs. They, and not any great talent on my part, have been principally responsible for the international reputation of KSG.
The University of New South Wales was a partner (with the ANU) in the winning bid for a government funded ICT research organization. It was set up in 2003 under the acronymic name NICTA. I took the UNSW component of KSG into it when I was seconded to lead NICTA's Knowledge Representation and Reasoning (KRR) program. My exit from this secondment is timed for July 2006, but I handed leadership of KRR to Toby Walsh, an international AI star of first rank, in April 2005.
One of my weaknesses is the inability to refrain from reflecting on
social and political history wherever I travel. In the second half of
2000 I succumbed to this weakness when I visited a few countries in
Europe. These indulgences are recorded here
if you are curious.