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Dr Kishan Kariippanon’s grandparents were indentured labourers on plantations in Malaysia. Just two generations later, Kishan has completed his PhD, his third degree. The doctor turned public health academic is a testament to the power of education. 

W hen Dr Kishan Kariippanon was young, he was told he would never be more than a gangster. He was made to feel ashamed of his ethnicity and told he would never be able to access a university education.

Growing up Tamil in Malaysia, Kishan was treated as the ‘Other’, part of an ethnic minority which was looked down upon by other ethnicities in the South Asian kingdom. His grandparents, originally from Tamil Nadu in India’s south, had arrived in Malaysia as teenagers.

“My grandparents were indentured labourers,” Kishan says. “They were skilled in clearing the jungles for plantations.”

“I spent a lot time denying that I was Tamil. I did not embrace my culture,” Kishan says. “We were always taught to be Western and Europeanised. In class, I was only allowed to speak Malay, not my first language of Tamil.”

Incredibly, more than 30 years later, Kishan is on the eve of his graduation from the University of Wollongong, receiving his Doctor in Philosophy. But it was just another chapter in what has already been a fascinating life, one motivated by the power of education and the promise of giving a voice to those who cannot speak.

Kishan was unable to access an education in Malaysia and could not afford to attend a university in the majority of the west. So, he went to Russia.

Dr Kishan Kariipponan from UOW's School of Health and Society

An education in Russian culture

He spent 10 years in the former Soviet nation, living first in Siberia and then in St Petersburg, all the while studying for a degree in medicine. It was, he says, a life-changing experience.

“My application for my degree was to write an essay on [Russian novelist Alexander] Pushkin. I had to study culture and arts and philosophy as part of my medical degree. The Russian view is that they are not creating doctors, they are creating empathetic individuals who happen to be doctors,” Kishan says.

Immersing himself in the culture of Russia transformed Kishan’s view of the world and his chosen profession. Having a bedside manner was not a bonus, it was at the heart of studying medicine.

“We were expected to listen to people and hear their stories,” he explained. “Literature changes the way you communicate.”

During his time in Russia, as he was learning to adjust to his new environment and his new degree, Kishan was also targeted for the colour of his skin.

He was attacked by Neo-Nazis, not once but numerous times. He felt so vulnerable that he planned his routes around the city of St Petersburg to ensure he was out of harm’s way. Following one particularly brutal attack, Kishan ended up in hospital with severe head trauma and anterograde amnesia.

The same people who attacked him would often come into the state clinics where he worked as a doctor in training. But despite the vicious beatings, Kishan was able to draw on his deep well of empathy and offer support, and a hug, to his assailants.

“I knew what they felt like. They were full of fear and it was a gang mentality. I knew the feeling from when I grew up in Malaysia, but unlike these boys, I had an option to get out. I went to Russia. They felt they had nowhere to go,” he says. “They would come into my clinic and look sheepish and the first thing I would do was give them a hug.”

Despite the injuries sustained in that one attack, Kishan went on to graduate at the top of his cohort in 2004.

A doctor in Timor-Leste

Two years later, he was working in Timor-Leste, or East Timor, for the Bairo Pite Clinic, a not-for-profit health centre that provides free care for hundreds of patients every day.

His mentor, Professor Gerard Bodeker from Oxford University Medical School, had encouraged the new doctor to enter the field of public health. For five months, Kishan worked alongside Timorese doctors and the director of the clinic, Dr Dan Murphy, to help local patients. For 15 hours a day, seven days a week, he saw up to a 100 patients a day, providing vital health care.

They were full of fear and it was a gang mentality. I knew the feeling from when I grew up in Malaysia, but unlike these boys, I had an option to get out

Dr Kishan Kariippanon

Yet his work with the clinic was cut short when he became suspicious of a client who was attempting to secure health checks for a group of 26 girls, so they would be able to be granted visas. Gathering all the evidence he needed, Kishan, who had become familiar with the practices of human trafficking in Russia, went to the International Labor Organisation.

The girls were saved by the authorities from being smuggled outside Timor-Leste, and Kishan was awarded a human rights medal for his efforts. But for his own safety, he was encouraged, in no uncertain terms, to leave the country.

Health in Aboriginal communities

Arriving in Australia to study a Master of Public Health at Monash University, Kishan began to deepen his interest in public health, and in particularly, health in Aboriginal communities. He took a job at the Department of Health in the Northern Territory where his work focused on health outcomes for Aboriginal communities.

Kishan was approached to deliver a talk at the very first TEDx in Darwin in 2011.

“My TEDx Talk was inspired by the Arab Spring [anti-government protests that led to the overthrow of many nations’ leaders], which had been taking place in the Middle East during that time. I was fascinated by how social media could help people to achieve emancipation. In my native Malaysia, more than 100,000 Tamils had risen up for the first time at the way they were treated,” he says.

“I was exploring whether Aboriginal youth could use social media to achieve their own emancipation and gain better health outcomes.”

The talk gained the attention of Dr Sam Prince, social justice entrepreneur and the founder and owner of the fast food chain Zambrero. Dr Prince, himself a second-generation migrant from Sri Lanka, wanted Kishan to join his non-profit health organisation, One Disease, which focused on eliminating crusted scabies from remote Indigenous communities.

Through his work with One Disease, Kishan became more familiar with Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land. It brought him the opportunity to work with Associate Professor Kate Senior, from the University of Wollongong’s School of Health and Society, an anthropologist who is deeply involved with Aboriginal health and communities in the Northern Territory.

Dr Kishan Kariipponan from UOW's School of Health and Society.Professor Senior came on as his PhD supervisor and opened to him the field of anthropology in order to understand and describe how Aboriginal youth use social media and mobile phones to communicate. Her unique style of supervision allowed Kishan to develop his methods and thoughts to become a reflexive researcher and complete his PhD at UOW.

Kishan seized the opportunity with both hands and made the choice to embed himself in the community in North East Arnhem Land, along with his wife and two young children.

Reclaiming his culture

For the next three years, Kishan was a stay-at-home dad/researcher, caring for his children while spending his days becoming part of the community. On the face of it, he was using his time in the field to learn from Aboriginal youth how they interact with social media, mobile phones, and with each other; whether mobile phones help or hinder their communications, how they use social media platforms and whether social media could be used as a tool to generate increased health and educational outcomes.

Yet that time with the Yolngu people, surprisingly, helped Kishan to get in touch with a part of his identity that he had long tried to ignore or suppress; his ethnicity.

“There were so many parallels between Yolngu culture and Tamil culture,” he explains. “There were so many crossovers, in the kinship system used, in the languages used in Yolngu Matha and Tamil, similar hand signals.

“For my whole life I have tried to be European, not Tamil. I’ve always tried to forget that part of my culture, but being in North East Arnhem Land helped me to identify with it, to reclaim my culture.

“I went from one spectrum to another, completely denying my culture to embracing it. Now, I reinforce to my children that being Tamil is a part of who they are.

“It was incredibly freeing.”

For my whole life I have tried to be European, not Tamil. I’ve always tried to forget that part of my culture.

Dr Kishan Kariippanon

Public health was the perfect fit for Kishan, combining his interest in people with his fascination with the field of health. His empathy, understanding, and appreciation for different cultures and for different people from all walks of life was influenced, in large part, by the decade spent in Russia.

A natural linguist, he speaks Tamil, English, Malay, Russian, and some Mandarin. After graduating from UOW with a PhD from the School of Health and Society, for his thesis on social media and mobile technology in North East Arnhem Land, Kishan now has three degrees to his name.

A lecturer in the school, he teaches across the spectrum of public health, including social marketing, sociology, anthropology, and social innovation.

It is all a long way from his early days in Malaysia. But is a reflection of how powerful education and empathy can be in changing the course of one’s life.

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