Peng-Ean Khoo (Economics 1990) declined a five-year scholarship in Australia to attend Fitzwilliam and has followed her own, divergent path ever since.
Why did you attend Fitzwilliam?
I was at primary school and lower secondary school at SRK Main Convent and SMK Main Convent in Ipoh, Malaysia and attended upper secondary at Tanjong Katong Girls’ School and junior college at Temasek Junior College, both in Singapore. I was there on a partial and full scholarship for my O-Levels and A-Levels, respectively. So, by 16 years old, I was kind of on my own already. My parents had aspired for me and my three siblings to have an international education, so I knew from a very young age that education was the way forward for my life. In Singapore, I grew up very, very quickly. I had to do my own laundry, prepare my own food, motivate myself and complete my own studies. I had no idea that Cambridge existed. My teachers had encouraged me to apply.
I didn’t make my grades for Cambridge and I was disappointed. But I had received a five-year scholarship to go to Australia. My parents were excited. Then Fitzwilliam made me an offer. My parents received the letter and they were going to burn it! I was already in Australia at the start of my scholarship. It was too late for me to get a scholarship for Cambridge. They had a big dilemma and went to see a friend who said ‘are you mad?’
My dad is an accountant. Luckily, he helped his client in a transaction for a piece of land. That was my funding. He always tells me Hamburger Hill happened at the right time! Then I had to write a letter of apology to the Australian Government and I accepted the place at Fitz.
What was your experience of Fitzwilliam like?
I represented the College and the University at badminton. I rowed in my first year, to the horror of my Director of Studies, Dr Konstantine Gatsios. Our cox would knock on the door at 5.45am every morning. Then we’d cycle to the boat house. We were mad. I’m glad I did it, though. I’m still mad I was the one who caught a crab during the race. It’s been 30 years! You never forgive yourself. I rowed because that’s what you do when you go to Cambridge, if you’re a sporty person. I would’ve continued, but I was already doing too much sport. I played in all the College badminton matches. The court was at Portugal Place, in the Dungeons!
I came from a maths-centric background and I had no idea regarding the UK culture, politics or history. Political economy and economic history were two subjects where I wasn’t so equipped! It was academically very challenging for me – and I had to read a lot! In the second year, I chose more the maths-centric subjects and I found my rhythm. I would’ve liked another year to crystallise the advanced theory that I was most drawn to. What I learnt most from reading Economics in Cambridge is how much I love Economics, to dare to give myself the freedom to think with very broad and multiple lenses, and how to build operational systems and adapt tool kits to respond to the needs and challenges of markets and communities. My mum and dad were thrilled at my graduation. I feel good now looking back that I have done them a wee bit proud. All the photos are still at my parents’ home in Ipoh, Malaysia.
What happened after Fitzwilliam?
I applied to train with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). Price Waterhouse London offered me a place in the Products Group. I was advised to take a year off and think about it, but I had decided I wanted to be accountant at 10 years old, because my dad’s an accountant and I’ve always wanted to help him with his business. I always ask him: ‘Why did you work so hard to fund me for an education?’ He told me his own mother had fallen through the gap (because her father had passed on when she was four years old), and was illiterate, and he’d seen how much she had to suffer economically in her life as a result of the missed opportunity in literacy of all kinds. I’m the only girl in my family – I have three brothers – and his commitment to me is the reason why I’ll continue to push for any challenge. The HR Director of Price Waterhouse, Mr Keith Bell, during the milk rounds in 1993, had predicted I wouldn’t stay the long haul in public accounting – and he was right! I’m an action person – I need to go out and ask questions, fix things, make things happen.
I qualified as a chartered accountant in 1997 and had another two incredible years of opportunities in Boston with PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Technology Group. Being at PricewaterhouseCoopers prepared the foundation for my career for life. The qualification and the skills have enabled me to juggle between raising a family and having meaningful professional growth choices in serving in very active leadership endeavours. The grounding and opportunities in business and finance were unparalleled. It was a very mentoring environment and a very kind workplace with inspiring clients. But at 29 years old, I was done with high achieving. I couldn’t think of accounting or business or economics or anything – I’d get a migraine! I threw myself into another world.
I started to locate my own voice, and inform and articulate my own identity, especially in a context that embraces and transcends a post-colonial narrative. It’s been 20 years since, and I am glad that I had discovered art and poetry. It’s my integrator. I have exhibited and published my works in Boston, Singapore and Malaysia, and have many manuscripts and artwork in preparation, that perhaps I now feel more ready to share publicly.
I also came to terms with the unknowing destiny that I am actually an entrepreneur, and ended up cofounding 12 archetypal sustainable enterprises of The Economics of Universal Wellbeing with my siblings and friends since 2000. The name of this audacious venture is Bilberries Blue. During the last three years, together with a group of friends, we have decided to describe ourselves as a band of Sustainability Stewards with a purpose and commitment to build an ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) Economy through sustainable entrepreneurism. I understood only after 20 years of prototyping, iteration, awful mistakes and wonderful discoveries that the entrepreneurism that I hope to practise and co-create is boldly about love and friendship through inclusive participation in the market mechanism.
Please tell me about your family.
My husband is Dr Tat-Jen Cham. He’s the love and rock of my life. We met in Cambridge and started dating in the first term of the second year. We took a backpacking trip together from Cambridge to Italy. On the Spanish Steps in Rome, we just knew that we had found each other. A romantic story! He’s the dream husband and father of our children for me. He’s so dependable and he knows me. He’s always there.
I was very firm that I really wanted to be a mum. A lot of people have to go back to work and don’t get enough time bonding with their child. I didn’t have to do that. My life has been structured around supporting my children and family. It’s a privilege, and I don’t take this for granted. My husband comes back on time every day – he works as a professor at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and doesn’t travel very much. It’s what we both want. Our daughter, Beth, was born in 2003. She is now 16 years old, and we chat and exchange perspectives about what being a prepared adult means and entails. She's always had this clarity and self-determination about her, and I am glad to have a relationship with her where we can make joint-decisions very comfortably together. When she was six years old, she said to me, "Love is bigger than the universe." I gasped, and asked her, "How do you know?" She replied simply with the surety and sparkle from beyond, "That's how much I love my brother so”.
Our son, Keith, was born in 2007. Nobody knew then that he is bestowed with an extra chromosome 21. When I heard, I said ‘OK – I can do this’. He was five weeks premature and, as a young child, really challenged from top to toe. Now, he’s so amazing. His muscle tone has strengthened by miracle folds, because he’s had the benefit of developmental intervention, gymnastics and lots of outdoor play. His wisdom is incredible. I home-schooled him for a while, but it was a disaster. We both couldn’t be motivated to be a school, and he just pretty much wanted me to be his mum, not his school-mum. I realised then that I can’t be there for his whole life and I can’t do everything for him – I have to let him have his own life. And me, mine. He went back to school last year and he’s settled in and making friends.
We have a family project, which came for us to steward in 2005 - to build a sustainable township in the Malaysian rainforest through the efforts of our family company, Desa Khazanah. It’s at Sigar Highlands, Malaysia. We’ve learnt so much about patience, humility, beauty and the dignity of giving from the forest. It arrived in our lives as a twice-logged secondary forest and it’s been growing back naturally since then. The eagles, gibbons, fireflies, rafflesias (parasitic flowering plants), wild orchids, forest floor mushrooms are back, not to mention the clear running micro waterfalls! There’s a farm and we grow safe good food. As Food Forest Farm, we deliver direct our fresh produce to Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh, and we’re planning to offer to the Singapore markets too. We also have a rainforest homestay called Moonriver Lodge, which we had named in 2009 after our parents’ spirit of adventures in family, entrepreneurism and life. I realise what they do is to create, build and nurture places of homecoming wherever they go.
I think I have the perfect enmeshment of work-life situations, and at nearly half a century of age, I just have to toss my head back and laugh. I think my daily commitment now is to just jaunty on with life, and look forward to every day as being a present - a gift of preciousness and awesomeness. I am glad and thankful for all those who have poured themselves into my life, and hope I have the opportunity to do the same for others. Today, my simple rule, if ever there is such a thing, is: Live and roll in life, with a giant smile and an even bigger curiosity.