Malaysian-born technocrat behind first NZ Covid-19 tracer app

PETALING JAYA: When Covid-19 hit New Zealand in March 2020, Malaysian-born Alan Chew, who is a successful entrepreneur there, got a calling to do something for the country that made him what he is today.

Although his educational qualification is in accountancy, he has always been a tech geek with a deep interest in the history of pandemics. This made the 66-year-old technocrat realise that contact tracing was vital in any pandemic.

“We wanted contact tracing to be adopted rapidly,” he told FMT in a Zoom interview. “With QR code technology, all that is needed is a piece of paper and a mobile phone.

“For me, it was not about money. As the leader of the successful Houston Productivity Solutions, I said, ‘Let’s do something for New Zealand.’

“We worked very hard and finally succeeded after two weeks. So we submitted our paper to the ministry of health, which accepted the design after a six-week delay.

“I was thrilled.”

Chew did not ask for a single cent as royalty, saying what he and his team did was a form of thanking the country that provided him free top-level education and full support in his business ventures.

The Covid tracer app, which is used by more than four million people in New Zealand.

Ultimately, the app was developed and built separately by RUSH Digital. But the ministry has put a special thanks to him on the app itself, acknowledging the importance of his contribution.

Chew, who has two children with his Kiwi wife, said nothing could beat the joy of having contributed to society in a big way.

As a child, Chew lived in Kampong Dollah in Kuala Lumpur in a dilapidated house that depended on drinking water from a public pipe stand.

The Berjaya Times Square now stands on where his home used to be, but Chew said he could still recall the nervous days when storms brought coconut trees down onto houses, killing and maiming people.

“My late father migrated from China to escape abject poverty. He worked very hard and built a house using materials that he brought back from his jobs. Everything was second hand, but that was absolutely no problem for me.

“I think this gave me and my two siblings the resilience to move forward. My sister is in New Zealand while my brother still lives in Malaysia.”

Alan Chew sitting on a coconut tree stump in Kampung Dollah, Kuala Lumpur, when he was two in 1957, and Chew at the age of 10.

He said that although he was raised in abject poverty, growing up in Malaysia was the happiest time of his life.

Chew finished his secondary school education in 1974. He said he set off for New Zealand because he was told racism was nearly absent there.

“True enough, it was plain sailing all the way with plenty of support from the Kiwis in all I did,” he said.

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

Besides this success and his entrepreneurial achievements, Chew’s Asian origin did not stop him from being elected onto the seven-member board of WEL Energy Trust, a public philanthropic trust that has assets of about NZ$1 billion (RM3 billion).

“I was the only Asian among the 28 candidates that stood for election,” he said.

In 2012, he was appointed by the New Zealand government to the board of another major philanthropic organisation called Trust Waikato. He remained on the board until last year.

Although he witnessed the 1969 race riots and went to New Zealand because he felt left out by affirmative action policies, he remembers Malaysia as a good place to grow up in. He said Malaysians were capable of doing wonders if given the opportunities.

“It was the political events and one-dimensional changes to society that quickly changed my view of Malaysia and of the place for non-Malays in that nation. It was a clarion call for me to move out to prevent the stunting of my growth.

“I still love Malaysia dearly and I hope the nation will soon come together as one people to realise the original and very noble goals of the 1Malaysia programme,” he said.

He was referring to the unity slogan made famous under the Najib Razak administration.

He said 1Malaysia’s aims were as important and achievable today as they always had been, even if the catch cry was now scandalised and the author had moved on .

“I really pray that Malaysians of all colours and creeds will come together to join hands and give renewed meaning to the original 1Malaysia ideals of ethnic harmony, national unity and efficient governance,” he said.

“That would be so uplifting.”