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Space programme finalist Vanajah still reaching for the stars

MALAYSIANSKINI | Around this time of year, Vanajah Siva takes a long flight back from the wintry climes of Jönköping, Sweden to celebrate Deepavali with her loved ones back in Malaysia.

Well, that’s most years.

This time around, as with many who place travelling as one of life’s priorities, the Kulim-born Vanajah finds herself grounded due to the restrictions in place with Covid-19 quarantine protocols.

When she first made the news a decade and a half ago, Vanajah was the only woman out of more than 11,000 applicants shortlisted for the final 18 of the Angkasawan spaceflight training programme and her fame grew as she made it to the final four before Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor was selected as the Malaysian cosmonaut-researcher to join the Russian Soyuz TMA-11 mission on Oct 10, 2007.

The final four back in 2006.

Today, she is blazing a different trail as an assistant professor at Jönköping University’s School of Engineering at a department called the Supply Chain & Operations Management. Jönköping is a town in southern Sweden, located on the shores of its Lake Vattern, about an hour and half east of Gothenburg, which is where Vanajah did her postgraduate studies.

At Jönköping, Vanajah is a programme manager for a three-year bachelors programme in sustainable supply chain management and teaches courses in research methods and communication, as well as quality management and engineering.

She is also researching automated quality inspection in the manufacturing industry, which essentially means studying the impact of having artificial intelligence replacing the human inspection process.

Vanajah also investigates how such a transformation affects employees and also the effects of automation on social sustainability.

She has spoken to Malaysiakini in the past, first in November 2006, in the aftermath of the selection process and on camera in January 2011, when she was leaving to do her PhD at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology.

It has, however, been quite a while, and we thought we would catch up with Vanajah. 

This is her story, in her own words:

I was a quality engineer in manufacturing companies in Malaysia, specifically Teknion Furniture Systems in Klang, when I applied for the astronaut programme.

In 2006, when I was selected as one of the final four candidates, I tendered my resignation at Teknion because my daily schedule was planned by Angkasa, requiring my presence for physical training, classes, photo-ops, interviews, TV appearances, lunches, dinners, events, et cetera. 

During those four months, I was under the payroll of a large organisation in Malaysia while being active in the astronaut programme, for which I was extremely grateful as it paid the bills.

Upon the announcement of the final two candidates, I was out of the programme, and without a job. At that point, I thought my best option was to work for Angkasa to continue to be involved in the programme. In 2006, with 10 years of work experience as an engineer, Angkasa offered me an entry-level position with, if I remember correctly, RM1,500 monthly salary. I declined.

Vanajah was the only woman in the last 18.

The organisation that had me on its payroll offered me a position at one of its facilities, which I accepted and attempted at for a couple of months. But it wasn’t for me. Through a recommendation from my boyfriend at the time, Mohan, I landed back where I was, a quality engineer, but at Alstom Power in KL, in January 2007.

I re-applied for the Master's programme at Chalmers for the intake of 2007 and was accepted, again. So I left Alstom in July, and moved to Sweden in August, with a scholarship from Measat Satellite Systems that came with a three-year employment contract.

Upon graduation in August 2009, I joined Measat as an assistant manager, a post I held for one year. In December 2010, I was accepted for a PhD position at Chalmers, which I began in January 2011.

Upon completing my PhD in January 2016, which was a five-year employment contract, I was jobless for four months, applying for jobs and attending interviews, while travelling as much as I can. It was my job hunting-vacation period. 

I did a Skype interview at almost midnight in Malaysia with Trinity College Dublin and was offered the post-doctoral position a couple of days after.

I flew back to Gothenburg and sold the few things that I actually owned, packed everything else in boxes and left them in the basement of a friend’s house, and moved to Dublin with a luggage of clothes. 

In Gothenburg in 2011.

I managed the administration and management of a large European Union research project in terms of collaboration between universities and companies, and dissemination of information and knowledge during my post-doc. I loved Dublin, Trinity, and the friends that I met there, but quickly realised it wasn’t a place I could call home.

I was interviewed for the position of assistant professor at Jönköping University in October 2017 and was offered the post in December the same year. Hello again, Sweden! And here we are.

It has been an adventure, and in hindsight, fantastic.

I am not the settling kind. The word settling doesn’t sit well with me, in fact, the opposite is true, it makes me restless. You’re not the first person to ask me this particular question, but I’ve always had the same answer. I will go where my job or my dream takes me. I’ve never understood the concept of settling, it sounds mundane to me.

Malaysia is always home, as in home is where the family is. And family here includes the friends who’ve grown to be a part of my life. I do not have this overwhelming need to belong somewhere, I never did belong, anyway. From the moment I left home and moved to another country, I slowly began to realise I will never belong anywhere, and that is okay.

Malaysia is the home of my entire family/clan/village, whatever you want to call it. Mom and Dad, brother and his wife, two nephews and a niece, three amazing aunts and their husbands, their 10 children (cousins) and their spouses and kids, one amazing uncle and his wife and daughter, a grandma and my late grandpa who passed in 2017.

Vanajah and her brother in Kelang Lama, Kulim, 1976.

These members make up the core family because they collectively raised me. I’ve also left behind some awesome friends, schoolmates, university mates, former colleagues, drinking buddies, former boyfriends and their families, best friends, best girlfriends. Pretty much everyone I’d ever known.

If you or someone else I know happen to share this very article on Facebook or LinkedIn, then one more person in Sweden will find out about the programme!

No, I do not start all my conversations with: ‘Do you know what I did in 2006?’ In fact, I’ve never volunteered this particular story to anyone, be it in Sweden or Malaysia. That is what I have my dad, family, friends and colleagues for. They’ve never shut up about it, even when I ask them to!

Every element of life in Sweden allows me to be exactly who I am. It is a judgement-free, individualistic, equal and evolved society.

Asked to rate the whole Angkasawan experience - best thing ever.

At the same time, up to this day, no person or event has broken my heart as much as my country did, with that choice. The worst part was, they justified the decision to not choose me at so many levels, it crushed me. We all knew the reason I wasn’t chosen.

Enough said.

I come back once a year, either for Deepavali, or in December, for a whole month. With the exception of 2017, and 2020. 

The Three F’s – family, friends and food, not necessarily in that order!

The cliffs of Moher, Dublin, 2012.

My grandma every year, specifically will make halwa just for me for Deepavali. She's in her 80s now, and she can’t make it herself because it's a lot of work, so she'll instruct my aunt, and then save a big plate of it just for me.

I absolutely love thosai, idli, puttu (mouth-watering!) and putu mayam, and all the sweet porridges, and wajik (my mom used to make the best ones, now my aunt does). Also, I love my grandma's and now aunts' bee hoon goreng, which is always there on the table, everyone in my family loves that dish.

My dad will check with me every day what I feel like, and I go through a list - nasi lemak, roti canai, wantan mee, nasi ayam, Penang kuey teow goreng (no taugeh!), asam laksa, satay, Hokkien mee, biryani, nasi goreng kampung, cendol, ais kacang, chempedak goreng, I could go on.

Also in the list of things that I miss, the self-care and pampering that I got used to in Malaysia, the monthly manicure, pedicure, waxing, facials, massages, and weekly hair appointments.

The issues that matter to me include female empowerment – no child brides, education for every female child, female students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem), female engineers in all industries, female pilots, female astronauts, female professors, female chief executive officers and chief financial officers, female presidents and prime ministers. Shall I go on?

Equality – of and for all genders, colours, races, religions and sexual preferences.

Climate change – we must learn to co-exist with our natural environment, not abuse it.

Free of judgement – I live a life I choose, and I let you live a life you choose.

The political scene is what it is, not just in Sweden, but all around the world at this point. I’m very happy in Sweden, and that’s good enough.

In Sweden, the Covid-19 policy is, 'We, the people shall abide by the advice and instructions of medical professionals and scientists.'

I believe that a little semblance of normalcy will return to the world now that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected to office (in the United States).

It is hard being a woman. It is harder being a brown woman. Imagine a brown woman in a white country. And then imagine US President Donald Trump normalising racism and sexism around the world.

Again, here’s hoping for a better world now. And Harris is an inspiration to all women, any colour.

As for the political scene in Malaysia - if I may answer your question with a question - does anyone know what to make of the current political scene in Malaysia?

I love movies, English, Tamil, Hindi and recently I have started watching, and liking, some Telegu and Malayalee movies too. I do not watch every single movie that comes out from these 'hoods', I am selective.

So looking forward to actor Daniel Craig’s final Bond movie. Love action movies, science fiction, movies about space, some rom-coms, family dramas that make me cry, and cartoons that make me cry. My all-time favourite is Ice Age.

I watch too many series (crime, politics, drama) and sitcoms too. Absolutely loved Outlander, and Away. Loving The Mandalorian. Never seen Game of Thrones. Always a fan of Friends, and Sex and the City.

Other pastimes? I took up gun-shooting when I first moved to Jönköping, loved it, and passed the test too. Sweden has extremely strict gun laws, so I’m not gonna get a license, but it was really fun learning to shoot pistols!

Then I started boxing. I’ve been a member of the Jönköping Boxing Club for the past two-plus years, been boxing twice a week, 90 minutes each. The last time I went boxing was in February this year. I’m waiting for the Covid-19 vaccine before I resume this extremely close-contact sport.

Horse riding in the town of Gamleby, Sweden, summer of 2020.

So I started playing badminton once a week now, and I do short jump rope workout at home thrice a week. I used to love walking, but since I bought a bicycle two years ago, I find it boring to walk. I cycle everywhere. I am not a health freak, I am simply an almost 50-year-old woman trying to stay fit and healthy.

The pastime I’m most passionate about is travelling. Twice a year, a birthday trip and a summer trip. And when I come home to Malaysia, I try to travel to one new destination in Asia.

I also love to read, and I love books, paperbacks or hardcovers. There is always a book on my nightstand (currently it is The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff), and a book in my workbag (currently Gloria Steinem’s The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off).

My favourite pastime is both winding down the week with Friday drinks at my favourite bars with old and new Indian songs on my headset and a book in my hand, and lazing on my awesome couch on the weekends.

An active favourite weekend will be riding the bus or train to Gothenburg to eat, drink, and be merry with my friends and spending the night at a nice hotel, waking up to a great breakfast (that I don’t have to make myself).

And yeah, I do not like cooking and cleaning!

I didn’t have role models growing up - I was the first one to go to university in my entire family/clan. There were no real-life idols to look up to. I grew up idolising movie stars and singers.

Since I was a kid, it was instilled in me that the one most important thing in my life is education. So, here I am, with a PhD, the highest education one can get. Lo and behold, it has changed my life. Thanks, Pa!

I dreamt up my life on my own, if it was up to my grandma, she’d have had me married off in my 20s and I’d be divorced right now (let’s face it, it would have never worked), and be very resentful towards my grandma!

In my teen years and 20s, some tried to tell me what I can and cannot do. I ignored those people and went on my way. After a while, they stopped telling me that.

The dream of a life that I wanted was mine, but a lot of people helped me get here, and I am forever grateful to each of them.

The continuous support, whether they agree with me or not, from family and friends, is my inspiration.

And today, I’m proud to say that every girl and woman who has broken free from even a single shackle that was holding them back is my inspiration.

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