Our own teenage envoy

Posted on March 23, 1999 
Filed Under Anita, The Star

By Anita Devasahayam

NEW YORK, November 20, 1998. More than 180 heads of state and ambassadors from all over the world had gathered for the United Nations General Assembly to discuss technology issues. They’d just been interrupted, and asked to bear witness to a new UN declaration.

A young man walks up the platform, representing the teenagers of the world. He’s their official voice. He seems a bit nervous, but that fades away as soon he starts speaking. He proposes the idea, others take up the call:

“We believe in ethics rather than laws … trust, not fear,” says another teenage delegate.

The result? The establishment of Nation1 (see In.Tech, Dec 1, 1998), a “country for children” that exists in cyberspace as a forum for young people to express ideas and fight for their rights.

And the young man who stood in the front of the world? He was 16-year-old Gerald Tan Chuang Win.

Yes, that’s right — a Malaysian.

The homepage boy The declaration of Nation1 came after the week-long “Junior Summit” hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, attended by some 100 young people from all over the world.

For Gerald personally, it was a culmination of ideas he had been championing since he got online in 1995, when his father first bought him a modem.

Only 13 years old then, the Penang Free School (PFS) student ventured online with his trusty 486 PC, just when the Internet was beginning to make its presence felt in Malaysia.

“I still remember my Jaring membership number — 4503,” Gerald says.

Being at the start of the wave proved fortuitous. “When I first went online, I used to surf to kids and teenage websites looking for other kids. But I found that most `teenage stuff’ was written by adults.”

“I remember wondering about this — teenagers should be doing it! So I started designing homepages for teenagers for free,” he recalls.

Gerald speaks with a maturity seldom found among his peers. His father, Cris Tan, says he’s sometimes awed by his son.

“I am amazed by some of the articles he has written. I sometimes even wonder if the words he uses exist. This is my son?”

Tan is clearly proud of his son’s achievements. Although he himself is not a PC user or an Internet surfer, he wanted Gerald and his sister to explore the Internet.

“The Internet was the latest thing then, and new things excite me. I did not know how Gerald would gain from it, but that was not important to me then,” adds the managing director of Tele-Link Sistem Sdn Bhd.

Tan has no regrets, and believes that parents who prevent their children from gaining Internet access stand to lose out in the long run. Rising phone bills should not be an excuse, he adds.

Tan says that responsible parents would understand their childrens’ character, capabilities and handicaps.

“I am glad to know that my kids are at home in front of the PC, instead of loafing at malls or video arcades,” adds Gerald’s mother, Linda Cheoy.

His parents’ confidence seem quite justified — Gerald comes across as a trustworthy and honest fellow.

“Even as a kid, when I gave him RM10 to buy something, he’d return the change, no matter how little,” says Tan.

The Tans were thrilled when Gerald became the second Malaysian — the first was Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad — to have a live broadcast via the Internet (In.Tech, Dec 13, 1996).

Building online neighbourhoods In 1995, Gerald set up the first public website for teenagers, which he called Beverly Hills Internet Teens 90210, to help kids and teenagers around the world create their personal homepages, and to provide a platform to make their ideas and creativity available to others on the Internet.

The site was named after the company which hosted the page. The BHI (now known as GeoCities) site garnered 11 excellence awards including Lycos’ (then Point Communications) “Top 5% of All Websites” award.

To test his worth, he followed a banner on Yahoo.com and submitted his Wonders of the Web site (teenworld.com.my/gerald/wow) as his entry to MIT’s Junior Summit (see sidebar).

“I received an e-mail saying my entry had been rejected. So I wrote back to ask why, and the next thing I knew, they said they had made a mistake and the entry was in … I had won!”

The prestigious Junior Summit attracted 2,000 people, although only 100 were qualified to attend. Gerald was the only Malaysian who made it.

Not all rosy Like any young man, Gerald’s sights are set on the future. Yet, for all his achievements, he sometimes has doubts. For one, he is not sure of a career — he says he’s weak in Additional Mathematics, which may not qualify him for a course in Computer Science.

And while he’s had fun meeting all types of people, the “lowest points” of his life, he says, have to do with dealing with people.

“Sometimes, I end up doing everything myself, and people complain about my efforts. I’ve been called a dictator before,” he muses.

Even his relationship with his parents went through a strained period when they couldn’t understand why he was spending three to 24 hours on the computer. They were worried that he was not getting enough sleep and was going to do badly in school.

But their fears have proven unfounded. Right now, Gerald’s priority is the SPM exams.

“I want to study in a college or university. What is important to me is that I have the time and freedom to do my own stuff,” he says.

Gerald was also thrilled to be interviewed by his favourite publication.

“But I think In.Tech is too technical — you should humanise the paper, and have more stories on people.”

Well Gerald, how’s this for a start?

Related Links:
Highs and lows
Through teenage eyes

Published in In.Tech, Star Publications (M) Bhd.

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