30 Aug 2021

From poverty to helping trace Covid-19

From Here Now, 5:00 am on 30 August 2021

Amidst profound deprivation, Alan Chew’s illiterate parents raised him to become a leader in innovation and helping those in need.

No caption

Photo: Supplied

FOLLOW Voices on Apple Podcasts, SpotifyiHeart Radio or wherever you listen to your podcasts. 

Chew says his success is largely thanks to his family’s focus on education, which saw him move from Malaysia to New Zealand to further his studies.

Getting involved in helping with New Zealand's response to the global Covid-19 pandemic is the ultimate ‘thank you’ to his adopted home.

Alan's Dad, Chew King Loon

Alan's Dad, Chew King Loon Photo: Supplied

Alan’s father Chew King Loon was born in Guangdong Province (formerly Canton) in southern China when famine was rife.

Chew King Loon was packed off to Hong Kong to work as a goatherd, Alan says.   

“Being the oldest in the family, he had to leave the family around age 12 or 13 to see if he could earn enough money to help support the family back home.  My father left the family not knowing if he would ever be back again.”

Chew King Loon was illiterate but went to extreme lengths to better himself. He began to teach himself how to write by watching lessons through a classroom window during his breaks at work.

“He never had a proper education, but I think he’s quite a clever guy because as a result of just that education he managed to be able to read and write in Chinese to a large degree.”

Chew King Loon then made his way to Singapore by ship. He had to work for a long time at low wages to pay off debt, and when it was paid, he made his way to Kuala Lumpur and put roots down. 

Alan’s mother Ng Suet Moy lived next door and the two married. They raised their three children on squatter land - an abandoned coconut plantation in the village of Kampong Dollah, near Kuala Lumpur.

Earliest picture of Alan taken in village, Kampong Dollah in Kuala Lumpur. Alan is seated on the stump of a coconut tree that had fallen (usually in a storm).

Earliest picture of Alan taken in village, Kampong Dollah in Kuala Lumpur. Alan is seated on the stump of a coconut tree that had fallen (usually in a storm). Photo: Supplied

Even though Alan was raised in abject poverty and deprivation, he says growing up in his Malaysian village was the happiest time of his life.

“I didn’t mind and I didn’t know any better.  We were living in a house built off building materials my father had brought back from other jobs.  I can’t remember anything new in the house, everything was second-hand, but that was absolutely no problem for me.

“I can remember my childhood really, really well.  We have just jungle around us and we had a lot of danger there, particularly from coconut trees falling during storms.  I can remember one of my neighbours being maimed by it, she was having a shower and one of those trees fell on her.  I hear in other parts of the village where people had been killed but looking back, that never, ever scared me and I think it gave me this resilience moving forward, and that is 'why worry about things that you can’t do anything about?'”

Our inability to control the uncontrollable is an important life lesson for Alan Chew. 

“If you can’t control something, don’t make it worse by worrying about it.  You need to be aware of it, you might want to do something about it but when it comes to the crunch and you can’t do anything about it – accept it and move on.”

Alan aged about 10. His village is more crowded as more and more squatters also built on the land.

Alan aged about 10. His village is more crowded as more and more squatters also built on the land. Photo: Supplied

That pragmatic philosophy has helped Alan and his family overcome extreme adversity.

When Alan finished high school, he was intent on leaving Malaysia and applied to study at universities in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. When New Zealand accepted him, he jumped at the opportunity.

In 1979, he graduated from Waikato University with a Bachelor of Management Studies with Honours, majoring in accounting.

Alan has spent years working for philanthropic funders and worked in his own time developing innovative ideas during last year’s Level 4 lockdown.

“At the beginning of the pandemic I said to myself there must be something I could do to help, what can I do? Should I volunteer to do this? Should I volunteer to do that?”

While businesses were plunged into the unknown Alan’s company, Houston Productivity Solutions got thinking, developing a prototype QR code to be used for combatting Covid-19 in the community.

“We wanted contact tracing to be adopted rapidly. With the QR code, all you need is a piece of paper and all you need is a mobile phone.”

Jeffrey Tam started working for Alan just before the pandemic in March 2020 and helped devise a prototype for the tracing technology.

“The first prototype failed. But Alan wouldn’t say ‘oh you’ve spent enough, stop there’ he said ‘you must come up with an easier solution’. We really appreciated and it was not an easy decision for him. Even during that time he stepped up I think as the leader of the company to say it’s not just about the money, ‘let’s do something for New Zealand’.”

Alan sent his company’s final work to the Ministry of Health, free of charge. The Ministry latched onto what staff there called the "great idea" of using QR codes. Chew wasn't the only one to suggest QR codes, but emails went back and forth and Alan offered more advice as the Ministry honed its plans. Ultimately, the Covid app we use today was developed and built separately by RUSH Digital. But the Ministry have put a special thanks to Alan on their website, acknowledging the importance of his contribution.

“I am very humbled by it. I have benefitted so much from New Zealand society - my education was free, and more than that the free love that I get from people here. Malaysia was a dog eat dog society, probably because of its dense population. There are racial conflicts between one race and another, but compared to people in New Zealand, it was a completely new world to me.  It totally bowled me over when I came here and I always felt that I needed to thank New Zealand for that.”

This story was updated on September 2 to clarify that Alan Chew worked on a Covid tracing prototype and the original idea of using QR codes, but was not involved in developing the Ministry of Health's official NZ Covid Tracer app.