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Lumen Summer 2005 Issue
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Australian experience builds global perspective

Architecture graduate Francis Wong is one of many success stories to emerge from the Colombo Plan, and one who counts his "Australian experience" as a major factor in his successful career.

The father of Senator Penny Wong - Australia's first Chinese-Australian woman to be elected a Labor MP - received his B Arch (Hons) in 1967 and has since practised as an architect in Sabah, Malaysia.

Beginning in 1950, the Colombo Plan - pushed energetically by Australia - saw Commonwealth countries pro-actively assisting in the development of newly independent Asian nations such as India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

A significant proportion of the foreign aid involved scholarships to Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and thousands of students took advantage of them. An estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Colombo Scholars ventured to Australian universities between 1950 and the mid-1980s.

For Francis Wong, the Colombo Plan provided a great deal of comfort.

"In the 1960s, the Australian public was extremely humanitarian and Christian in their relationship with Asian students. And the Colombo Plan office, at the University of Adelaide, was a real comfort to us because they genuinely cared for our needs.

"This kind of support never wavered even when we got entangled with the law for not declaring a transistor radio to Customs," he said.

The Customs incident is still fresh in his mind, although he concedes being ashamed of his stupidity. "The Colombo Plan Chief Executive saved the day when he convinced the Customs officials not to take further action."

Francis says the Colombo Plan offered opportunities for poverty-stricken students from third-world countries to obtain the best education, and then use this knowledge in the development of their respective countries.

"Because the selection of the Colombo Plan was based on academic ability, it ensured a high success rate, therefore minimising the cost of manpower development.

"My contribution as a qualified architect in Sabah ranges from government to public service in local councils, and also being instrumental to private sector economic and social development.

"Without my professional training in Australia, I would not have achieved as much as a citizen of my country. This says a lot about the Australian contribution to the ideals of the Colombo Plan," he said.

Francis Wong makes the point that foreign students, who had spent a number of their impressionable years in Australia, have a special affinity with the country.

"As a young man in Adelaide, I thought the Australian public was helpful, kind and generous.

"Lecturers would give whatever help required to those who were keen to learn. Farmers and factory owners were happy to provide summer jobs to Asians, and paid them fairly.

"And Rotary clubs were constantly inviting us to attend their functions where we sampled the best food and wine," he said.

During his architecture course (1961-1966), he was a conscientious student and was awarded the James Hardie Prize in Architecture in 1965 and also the South Australian Gas Company Prize in Architecture in 1966. He graduated in 1967, married Jane Chapman of Mt. Pleasant SA, and returned to Sabah to work for Public Works. From then on, his career path went through a wide spectrum.

"From 1969-2000, my career consisted of architectural practice, project management consultancy, real estate development, hotel and tourism operation. For a number of years I had employed some of my Australian friends from the University of Adelaide to help me design some of my projects.

"During the early 1970s, Sabah was short of technical expertise. Upon the formation of the Sabah Chapter of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM), I started a 'drafting school' to train supporting staff of architects offices, acting as 'principal' for five years until other new graduates from overseas could take over," he said.

Francis has a particular interest in architectural history. "I had redrawn many colonial buildings destroyed during World War II from rudimentary information from the archives and had donated these to the Sabah Museum for safe-keeping. During my sabbatical leave in the early 1980s I had spent sketching trips in Europe and elsewhere while taking Penny and her brother on holidays."

"I always believed in public and voluntary services. Gladly, I have been appointed since 1994 as one of the councillors to the local authorities to assist in the processing of development plans and to review building regulations. Currently, I am one of the advisers of the mayor of Kota Kinabalu, contributing towards city planning and building industry issues."

Francis retired from active architectural practice and other business interests in 2002 to take up a position in teaching architecture and interior design as Dean of Studies at the Sabah Institute of Art.

"I am enjoying passing on my life's experiences to young people in the classroom while acting as advisory consultant to a few property developers. I have recommended to a number of my students to continue tertiary education in Australia," he said.

"In my 'twilight years', I can say that my contact with western culture has enriched my understanding of the world in all its complexities. My daughter Penny is the epitome of the international person, crossing cultural boundaries with ease.

"I had orchestrated her upbringing and education to become a comfortable East-West blend. I am certain her contribution in Australia in whatever she does would be invaluable."

In summarizing his life in one statement, he says: "I owe a lot to Australia. From a World War II victim who lost his father and two sisters, with a mother working as a servant to an English family to bring up her three surviving children, the Colombo Plan was my turning point. Being married once to an Australian Caucasian and subsequent friendship with her family (which is quite a big Chapman Clan) has indeed enriched my understanding of western thinking on an intimate level. The influence of my university professors towards the value of education has come one full circle. It is now my turn to prepare the younger generation for globalization." ■

Story by Howard Salkow

{Some of the quotes in this article are taken from: Geoffrey Sauer (ed), The Colombo Plan for cooperative economic development in South and South East Asia 1951-2001, The Malaysian Australian Perspective, Australia Malaysia Cultural Foundation, Adelaide, 2001}

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