Focusing on the future
Throughout Peter Choong’s life, he was given ample reasons to fail, but it is a testament to his resilience that he has succeeded.
The migrant from Malaysia has overcome racism and economic disadvantage to become one of Australia’s leading orthopaedic surgeons.
“Just putting aside, and being prepared to not be bothered about’ things such as racism, or status, or maybe in some ways the realities of living, and just focus on what you’re meant to do, has allowed me to achieve,” Peter says.
“I was a young boy of eight when they had the so-called May 13 riots in Malaysia, and that set ethnic group against ethnic group, so the whole country just exploded into a state of civil unrest,” says Peter Choong, head of Australia’s oldest orthopaedics unit.
On that day in 1969, political tensions between the Malay and Chinese ethnic groups erupted into violence in which an estimated 600 died in Kuala Lumpur. The majority of these killed were Chinese, Doctor Choong’s own ethnic group.
“It was really the first time I realised that there were differences between people,” Peter said.
“Malaysia was establishing itself as a place where differences between people mattered. So we decided that we should get out,” he said.
Looking at options for their young family, Peter’s parents resolved that Australia would give them the greatest opportunity to thrive. But with the remnants of the White Australia Policy still obstructing Asian immigration, and a Malaysian government drifting towards authoritarian rule, their migration wasn’t simple.
“Both my parents were doctors, but you couldn’t just be any doctor. My Father decided the only way of doing it was to get an Australian Fellowship, to be the ideal candidate,” Peter recalled.
“He tried for years… once he passed, the process began,” he said.
“We also had to be very quiet. The concern was that they would take our passports and never let us leave, because it would be the brain drain… the government was tightening up, you had to be careful the whole time. It was like the apartheid of the East because one ethnic group had it over the other.”
Eventually, his Father succeeded.
“We settled in Noble Park, which is a pretty rough part of the world today and certainly was then,” Peter said.
“I don’t think too many people were used to seeing a little Chinese boy in school,” he said.
“There was a lot of racism, calling out of names and things like this. I learnt what it was like to get thrown into a fight, a few bloody noses.”
Peter moved to Melbourne Grammar for high school, where the racist attitude was “the same, in fact quite tough because they would play the status card”.
Within this cultural dynamic, the young Peter Choong resolved to protect himself through the one thing definitively under his control. His mindset.
“I decided early enough that it didn’t matter to me, because if it didn’t matter to me it didn’t matter,” he said.
“Because of that, people started to see me differently. Because of that I succeeded.
“White Australia was 4 or 5 years before. But people change really quickly. It occurred to me people were changing.
“I got into Medicine. I went to Melbourne University, which was a real privilege.
“It was this real collage, which to me reflected Australian life, that everyone could have a say. As long as you didn’t think it mattered, and you knew what the mission was, you could succeed.
“We had a big group of friends… I didn’t think you could have big groups of friends,” Peter said
Upon graduation, Peter moved to St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Melbourne, which became the scene for his raft of achievements.
A surgeon by trade, he has simultaneously earnt an outstanding record as a lecturer and researcher, with over 170 publications largely on the subjects of bone and soft tissue cancers.
A professor by the age of 33, he is now the head of St Vincent’s prestigious orthopaedic unit and he holds Hugh Devine Chair of Surgery, a recognition of the excellence of his work in research and teaching.
Reflecting upon these accolades, Peter returns to the power of mindset, and the freedom and ethic of his adopted nation.
“It’s just not letting anything put you off. If you’re values driven, and you stand for something and give it everything, that’s what life in Australia is about,” he said.
“I come away thinking there is nothing that cannot be achieved here.
“I think we have a real soul, with an ethic, and we need to express that internationally. It’s not an easy world we live in. The world is hugely complex,” Peter said
On what this means for people like himself, seeking a new life in the freedom and stability we can offer, he asserts that: “We’re a big nation, big land, big heart, and we should be embracing people, but I also see the other part that says while we do that we’ve got to regulate it”.
“The trouble is, when you’re really high up looking at it strategically it all makes sense, but when you’re that poor person sitting there in the queue with a card waiting to see before the sign comes down, it’s a very different story,” he said.
“I can remember waiting with my father, we didn’t have half the issues we talk about today. But there’s always this waiting. The sense of ‘will we get it, won’t we get it’. It’s much worse now, much tougher.
“I just feel for all the people who can’t speak the language, don’t understand the culture, are running away out of fear for their lives, they may not understand the process. And that’s where our government has to say okay we’ll step up and guide you.
“We’re a great nation because we are blessed by every culture here. You can visit everywhere in the world in Melbourne. We need to lead in migration issues,” Peter said.
He says that Australia has succeeded through inclusion, drawing on his own experiences.
“Good leadership is about having a vision, knowing how you’re going to bring people with you, and delivering on that vision,” Peter said.
“I believe we should have a field of tall poppies, and that they should all have their time in the sun. That means everyone has a chance to be the best that they can be,” he said.