Swinburne Bachelor of Business graduate and Australia’s Honorary Consul in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

It was a low point in Australia’s relations with its neighbour Malaysia that prompted Ding Ing (Philip) Ting and other influential graduates from Australia to intervene to help restore the diplomatic friendship.

That was 1993 and Dr Mahathir Mohamad had refused to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic forum in the United States. Leaving what had proven a successful meeting, the Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating remarked that the forum was ‘bigger than all of us … Dr Mahathir and any other recalcitrant’. In the words of The New York Times, it set ‘the brickbats’ flying between two of the most outspoken politicians of the region.

Dr Phillip Ting AM

Nurturing the relationship between Australia and Malaysia

The remark sent Philip, like many others, to the dictionary to discover the word’s meaning. Although he feels the diplomatic tensions were exaggerated by the media, Philip, who was honorary consul for Australia in Kuching at the time, says that Dr Mahathir was clearly stung by the remark.

‘Mahathir was definitely very offended,’ Philip says. ‘After that happened, a lot of us — the senior Australian graduates who had returned to Malaysia — decided to form the Malaysia–Australia Foundation. We thought it was time to play our role to thank Australia for what it had done for us.

‘We were concerned that it could derail the relationship between Australia and Malaysia. A relationship nurtured over 50 years of people-to-people, educational and military cooperation.’ The newly formed foundation, with Philip as its secretary, arranged a meeting between the two prime ministers to try to restore the friendship. The meeting occurred a year later and, says Philip, was ‘very successful’. 

"The senior Australian graduates who had returned to Malaysia decided to form the Malaysia–Australia Foundation."

That such an initiative occurred, and that Philip Ting was a part of it, is due in no small measure to the role Swinburne played in his education and development 20 years earlier. He was among the first Malaysian students to attend Swinburne and, in 1974, he was the first Malaysian to graduate with a Bachelor of Business in accounting. While potentially isolating, Philip says the effect of being one of the pioneering Malaysian students enhanced his settling into, and understanding of Australia.

Philip has contributed to Swinburne in both countries, as a council member in both Melbourne and Sarawak and as chairman of the finance committee at the Sarawak campus. Philip helped found the campus in 2000, recognising the Sarawak government’s desire to establish a higher education facility in the city and sensing an opportunity for Swinburne.

Coming to Australia to study

He had arrived in Australia in the early 1970s from a ‘dirt-poor’ family of rubber tappers. Philip’s parents earned about one dollar a day. They lived with their extended family above his grandfather’s shop. The family pooled its resources to send Philip to Australia. He has, in return, supported cousins, nieces and nephews to follow their ambitions.

‘Before I got to Australia I had never seen carpet in my life. I wrote to my mother: “These Australians are funny, they put blankets on the floor”. In the Malaysia I grew up in it was just cement or mud floor houses. The first time someone put a steak in front of me I was at a loss to deal with it. In Asia if you do have meat, which is very rare, it’s a small, bite-sized kind of thing.’

During his studies, Philip met a young rheumatologist named Russell Buchanan in the supermarket. Russell, one of three brothers living with their widowed mother Joan, invited him home for dinner and Philip came to live with the family for two years. He describes Joan, who passed away in 2006, as his ‘Aussie mother’.

Lessons learnt from Swinburne

‘I was the only Asian in the degree stream at Swinburne. That was actually a very good thing because it made me assimilate into Aussie life quickly,’ Philip says. Among the values his parents taught him was that ‘education and continuous improvement, learning new things, is the key to success. 

"I have always said that I owe a lot of successes in life to what Swinburne taught me."

‘I have always said that I owe a lot of my successes in life to what Swinburne taught me. It had a very practical program and emphasised how to apply its lessons in real life. Classes were small and there was time for a great deal of interpersonal dealing between students and teachers … which was a huge plus to my capacity to gather knowledge. I don’t mean classroom stuff, but things that happen outside in the real world.

‘People like Bruce McDonald, who had spent some time at (prominent accounting firm) Arthur Andersen. Bruce had a huge impact on me and became a lifelong friend. Following his footsteps was very useful, as years later I achieved my dream and became a worldwide partner of the firm. Several other teachers had a major impact on my life, people like (accounting lecturer) Brian Spurrel. He had all the patience in the world.’

Building a career

While Philip’s instructors at Swinburne were bringing real-world lessons to the classroom, the real world evidently was taking notice. Accounting firms visited the campus midyear to trawl for talent. Philip was offered his first job with a chartered accounting firm months before graduating.

‘They saw the value of Swinburne graduates, so virtually everybody in my class was offered a job before they sat for their exams. That must be the greatest testament to how Swinburne was regarded by industry at that time,’ Philip says.

"They saw the value of Swinburne graduates, so virtually everybody in my class was offered a job."

Had Philip not studied at Swinburne, and instead stayed in the hamlet in which he grew up, he estimates his occupation would have been as a farmer or fisherman. Or as a tradesman, had he studied in a Malaysian technical college. But at that time Swinburne offered him and ‘poor Asian kids like me’ a free education.

What followed graduation was a career in Australia, Malaysia and the United States in accounting. Later he became a stockbroker in a firm he created, built a company with interests in cement, steel, construction, quarrying and transport, and acquired a bank in Sarawak.

Since 1991, Philip has served as an honorary consul for Australia in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak state. He is, in fact, Australia’s longest serving honorary consul. His service, which evolved from his ability and willingness to assist Australian companies in Malaysia, was recognised in 2011 when he was invested as an honorary Member of the Order of Australia. Swinburne awarded Philip an honorary doctorate in 2000.

Swinburne in Sarawak

That affinity for Australia and the university, which began decades ago, has persisted. Philip’s children have also studied at Swinburne: his son Brendan is studying law and his daughter Tiffany is studying business.

Philip believes the most rewarding path for an individual is to chart their own course in life, and he tries to encourage that by showing students how they can benefit from a willingness to take calculated risks. ‘I sponsor apprenticeship programs working with young people. My philanthropic duties are directed to programs I strongly believe in, which can be anything to do with entrepreneurship,’ Philip says. He is also a part-owner of a company that employs around 700 Australians.

"Sarawak campus has about 4,000 students from 62 countries — it’s like a big United Nations when you walk onto the campus."

It is a reflection of his influence that the Sarawak campus has a policy mandating that all students must attend a course in entrepreneurship. However, he also takes pride in the way the campus has come to influence its host city.

‘Sarawak campus has about 4,000 students from 62 countries — it’s like a big United Nations when you walk onto the campus. It’s very multicultural,’ Philip says. ‘It’s doing a great job. It not only enriches the experiences of the students studying there, it has done wonders for the whole city of Kuching. The people are more broadminded, more forward-looking. For me, that is where the real benefit lies; the whole city has been transformed for the better.’

Words by Ian Munro.

Keep on exploring