“Why wouldn’t anyone want to be an astronaut?” she asked, incredulously. “It is the coolest job in the world!”
Dr Vanajah Siva Subramaniam made Malaysian history more than a decade ago. She was one of the finalists in the Angkasawan program, Malaysia’s search for our first astronaut. Vanajah was the only woman who made it to the final four.
Currently working in the field of academia in Sweden, we had an incredible phone conversation with Vanajah, where she dissects her journey in the Angkasawan program and the life she’s created for herself after.
This is Vanajah’s account as told to the Varnam team.
You know, it was unthinkable that we would have something like the Angkasawan program in Malaysia 13 years ago. The Malaysian government were going to pick the first Malaysian astronaut, who would visit the the International Space Station on board Soyuz TMA-11.
It was announced that someone from the public would be chosen, anybody in Malaysia could apply as long as you were a degree holder who was over 21. Over 11,000 Malaysians tried their hand at it. I didn’t hesitate either. At the time, I was working in a manufacturing company in Klang as an engineer.
I was shortlisted for the Angkasawan program and as you probably know, I made it to the final four. Apart from me, it was dentist Faiz Khaleed, doctor Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor and pilot Mohammed Faiz Kamaludin, who is one of my close friends, even today.
They put us through the ringer with all the tests in Malaysia. It was one after another. Towards the end of the program, the four of us were flown to Russia.
When we arrived, we were met with doctors in the Russian Space Agency, who needed to attest that we were fit to be astronauts. We went through all the tests once again in Russia, with a few extra ones. We did the motion sickness test and another one where they made us sit inside a structure similar to a large Coke can, strapped us to a chair and spun it. Honestly, it was like sitting on an electric chair. The centrifuge with 9G and 8G were the hardest.
After all the tests, they did an evaluation. And we were invited back for two days. You see, their procedure was that each person tested has to be there in person to hear the results.
It’s so vivid in my memory. My name was called and I walked into the room. All eyes were on me. They said, “After doing all these tests, we have found that you are qualified to be an astronaut,” I tell you, that was the most surreal moment in my life!
The final two had to be chosen out of the four of us, and you know what happened next.
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 so many levels, it crushed me. We all knew the reason I wasn’t chosen.
Up to this day, no person has ever broken my heart as much as my country did,
The devastation left me home-bound for weeks. One fine day, I pulled myself out of the house to attend a function, and to my surprise, everyone was worshiping me. I had no idea what I had done. Up until then, I thought that I was a failure. It was only then that I realised the effect I had on our country. Slowly, I came out of it.
Honestly, the Indian community in Malaysia picked me up. I began giving talks in school, without charging a fee. I just drove to where I was invited and spoke to the young people who would listen to me. Throughout the entire ordeal, my ex, Mohan, my family and friends were my pillars of support.
the Indian community in Malaysia picked me up
I had applied to do my masters in Sweden the previous year, but I could not accept the offer due to the Angkasawan program. Once it was all over, I reapplied and was accepted.
But to get to Sweden, I needed about US$ 24,000 to get a residential permit to begin my studies, it was part of their regulations, you see.
Here I was, completely broke and needing this large sum of money to start the next chapter of my life. I asked a few people if they could help me, only to be turned down. And in case you are wondering, no, I was not compensated for the Angkasawan program.
in case you are wondering, no, I was not compensated for the Angkasawan program.
During the program, however, Captain Faiz and I were invited to Kazakhstan for an event organised by MEASAT Satellite Systems Sdn Bhd. On the plane, I met Ralph Marshall, one of the bigwigs in the company. He greeted Faiz and I and in the course of the conversation, I told him that I’m waiting for my masters application to Sweden to come through. He said, “Keep me posted,”
Once I received my acceptance letter, I told my friend in MEASAT to pass the message on to Ralph. MEASAT then awarded me with a scholarship to pursue my Masters on condition that I am bonded for three years.
Up until today, I have only had that short conversation with Ralph Marshall, but he and Anantha Krishnan have been instrumental in me being here today. I will be forever grateful to them.
So I completed my Masters in Industrial Engineering in Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. It is the second largest city in Sweden, but still smaller than Kulim!
Those were the best two years of my life. I made some incredible friends there, and until today, we remain close. I fell in love with Chalmers, I fell in love with Gothenburg, and I fell in love with a Swede. In that order! (laughs)
I returned in 2009 and did my thesis with MEASAT, but my heart was in Sweden. So I applied for a PhD in the same university. I was in a long distance relationship at the time, and my partner then, Jesper, told me to move to Sweden while waiting. My response? “I’m never moving for a man. No way!” I refused to be dependent on someone as I was, and still am, taking care of my parents.
I refused to be dependent on someone as I was, and still am, taking care of my parents.
The following year, I was accepted into the PhD program. I resigned and had to pay 75% of the scholarship, which was a lot of money that I didn’t have. So I went to three banks, got three loans to pay it off. Thankfully, the PhD program in Sweden is for 5 years, and it is considered an employment, the candidates get paid. That way, I could take care of myself, my parents and my loans.
After completing my PhD, I landed a job in Dublin, Ireland, where I worked for 15 months in Trinity College. At the end of 2017 I was offered a job in the School of Engineering of Jönköping University, in Sweden, where I work now as an Assistant Professor, my department is called Supply Chain & Operations Management.
Right now, I am the Program Manager for the 3-year Bachelors program called Sustainable Supply Chain Management, in which I teach two courses in Jönköping University. They are Research Methods & Communication and Quality Management & Engineering. I also teach in the Masters program and I supervise and examine theses.
The research project that I am involved in pertains to automated quality inspection in a manufacturing industry. Artificial intelligence researchers perform machine learning to teach the program to detect quality defects in a production line through capturing photos in cameras installed in the process.
This replaces the human inspection process with a machine. My part is to investigate how such a transformation affects the employees. I also study the effects of automation on social sustainability.
My PhD and research is geared towards ensuring we have a planet to exist on in the future by studying sustainability.
My teaching and research are very much tied up to sustainable development. They contribute to practices which minimizes impacts on the environment. My PhD and research is geared towards ensuring we have a planet to exist on in the future by studying sustainability.
I am also in the Management Team in my department, along with 3 middle aged white men. When it comes to fulfilling quotas, I am quite the catch; brown, female, middle aged, single, a PhD holder. (laughs)
It was a crazy journey, but I am extremely grateful for all of it. The hashtags #Ilovemylife and #mylifeisawesome are always on my social media because it really is. I do what I want, when I want. This is the reason I’m single. I’ve never wanted a husband, I don’t need a boyfriend any longer, I don’t like kids, cats or dogs. Everyone who knows me knows that.
I’ve never wanted a husband, I don’t need a boyfriend any longer, I don’t like kids, cats and dogs.
I absolutely love my life. Every birthday, I celebrate it in a new city. I love my birthdays and traveling is my passion, so this is a gift to myself. For my recent 49th birthday, I was in Florence, Italy.
The hilarious part is, every year, when I return to Malaysia to visit my family and friends, they only have one nuisance question for me, “Eppo kalyanam pannere? (When are you getting married?)”
Nobody is interested in how I am shaping the minds of future engineers and leaders of this world, but they continue to harass me on how many children I can bring in to this already over-populated unsustainable world that I am trying to save!
I believe marriage isn’t for everyone, nor is having kids. It is definitely not for me. Those who aspire to marry and start a family should do so, but not on the basis that it is a necessity. Certainly, not for the sake of family or society.
I hope that parents raise their daughters well enough to let them make that decision for themselves when the time comes. No one should be pressured into a marriage, be it a man or a woman!
No one should be pressured into a marriage, be it a man or a woman!
It is sad that in our Malaysian Indian culture, we’ve been brought up in a way that amplifies the oppression of women by men and society. It hits a new low because women are often meaner to women than men are to women.
My mother has the same spirit as me, if she was left alone, she would have achieved a lot in life. Growing up, my dad would always tell her, “Don’t ask my daughter to go into the kitchen, I’m not raising my daughter to work in someones kitchen. I want her to be independent,” My mum will say, “What are you talking about, shes a girl!” So I believe that we are experiencing more sexism from our own kind. If it wasn’t for my dad, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
We need to create that bond among women first, it doesn’t matter which generation we come from, we need to pull each other up not push each other down. When one of us does get a place in the boys club, that woman can support another and bring her in. Not shy away from that because she’s afraid people will think she’s biased.
When one of us does get a place in the boys club, that woman can support another and bring her in.
Forget being labelled biased. Be bias. Men have been biased their whole life. I think it’s time we women become biased too.
I’m very goal oriented. Being in academia has helped me grow and learn new things every day. I want to go all the way to become a full professor. My aim is to do this before I turn 60. You know, it takes many steps a long time to get promoted in academia. I need to do a lot of things today to accomplish this goal of mine.
Without goals, I feel like not doing enough with my life. That’s how I made the final four of the Angkasawan program, completed my masters and PhD. I visualised it and worked towards it.
Having goals is fantastic, but if you don’t plan and then execute it, the goal will remain a dream!
Vanajah may not have been launched into space as the first Angkasawan. But her strength and grit to follow her dreams is out of this world. Having made a name for herself in the Swedish world of academia, this Malaysian never stopped reaching for the stars. She’s already one.
Nothing makes us happier than seeing her live her best life. Onwards and upwards, Vanajah!