KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 11 — You are not your job description: A researcher shouldn’t be limited to writing academic papers; a startup executive could pen more than business plans.
If this isn’t true, no one told Tan Bok Hooi. He wears many hats: particle physicist, entrepreneur and author.
His latest book project, Love Will Find You, was part of the exhibition at the Malaysian Pavilion during this year’s Frankfurt Book Festival. Tan’s first collection of short stories, A Man and His Wallet, was selected as one of the 50 Best Malaysian Titles for International Rights for 2016/17.
Born in Penang, Tan did research in particle physics, specifically work in the Higgs boson which was only experimentally discovered in 2012. He later became an entrepreneur in medical devices; yet neither academic nor business pursuits dampened his childhood love for writing.
Tan says, “During my younger days, we had to write essays for exams. I figured that the only way to learn how to write is to master the flow and the beauty of the language. I never really fully understood the meaning of verbs and nouns yet what was important to me was the rhythmic flow of the words akin to the soothing musical notes of a song.”
The future storyteller found a sanctuary in a playground next to his school library, where he recalls reading Pemburuan, a novel by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. He says, “Later, the ecstasy of seeing my first short story published still resonates within me until today. Nobody can snatch that away because it’s yours forever. You can always draw from it as inspiration whenever the need arises.”
For Tan, research and creative writing both necessitate leaving one’s comfort zone. He explains, “Theoretical physics requires imagination beyond the seemingly comprehensible established framework guided by the logic of mathematics and the fundamental laws of physics. To seek a pen and share the stories of your life... we are all mortal beings where emotions never run dry. Therefore there will always be a story to be written. It’s just a question of when.”
Love stories are a particular passion. Tan says, “There is no greater story than the very story of our own. Love is a faceless entity that permeates the vast universe. It is incomprehensible yet love is what makes us truly human. Love speaks loudest from the heart. So there is no better story to write other than a love story.”
While the avid reader and writer enjoys gifting his own books — personally autographed, naturally — to his friends, he also makes it a habit to share books by other authors. He says, “The books that I give my friends would be Tuesday’s with Morrie and For One More Day – books by Mitch Albom, who weaves magic from within, making ordinary lives extraordinary.”
Life hasn’t always been a bed of roses for Tan, however. He shares, “Yin and yang form the circle of life. In order to fully savour the sweetness of victory sometimes we need to experience the bitterness of defeat.
“There was a period of time during what I termed as corporate wilderness. I was at my lowest ebb. I realised that the only one who can elevate yourself is none other but yourself. So you summon every little ounce of energy from within to bravely face the world of tomorrow.”
In time, Tan learned life-changing lessons that led him on his current journey as a writer: “During my corporate days I spent so much time working to fulfil other people’s dreams that I forgot to ask myself what are really my dreams and what are the things that make me truly happy. I was always chasing after something.
“Now I have put my foot down and declared that I’m the master of my own destiny and decide, based on my own volition, how best I choose to utilise my time and spend time doing what I enjoy most.”
While looking forward, the increasingly prolific author can’t help but also look back, returning again to his younger days. He says, “My parents never tried to prevent me from being adventurous and they gave me wings to fly.
“I had all the freedom that I could ever desire. As a young kid I never thought much of tomorrow... however I fully embraced and enjoy living in the moment. As an adult, that can be a struggle sometimes.”