Would you like to read an Alumni story written by an award-winning writer who speaks Arabic, has a PhD in Southeast Asian History and teaches at Princeton? Introducing our 1987 Daramalan College graduate Michael Laffan. With such a background he is someone we could literally call unique!


What is your fondest memory of your time at Daramalan?  

Hard to say! Junior Jabber, the public speaking competition, was a lot of fun before I realised that I don’t actually like speaking in public. (I am pretty sure that Bob Eccles won the year I competed.) The Kilothon was always a good day out (the running, not the 

asking for money), as was any game of cricket in the courtyard that didn’t result in injury. I also really loved the day Peter Dawson decided to send a few of us from Engineering Science around the school to collect air samples in jam jars. The librarians were most obliging. 


Who was your favourite teacher?  

That is a tough one. Perhaps engineering drawing was my favourite subject, but maybe I should go for most memorable staff. Judy Shergold was a great and encouraging science teacher, even when I slept under the lab table. Leela Kurian showed us how to make a chicken curry, Otto Hussar would doodle pictures of us in Maths, Father Murray would read passages from A Fortunate Life on Fridays (Maths again), and Yolanda Albina would tear her hair out at our behaviour at events at the Indonesian consulate. God meanwhile put the fear of Father Val Patterson into us. That said, I am really grateful to the encouraging teachers I had. 


Why did you decide to study Arabic? Do you speak any other languages?  

It was sort of a natural choice. Having done hardly any work in my first year of engineering at UNSW, I fell back on languages at the ANU. Arabic has supplied a lot of words to Indonesian, which I had studied at Daramalan and still use, so I was curious to see what I could learn of the former. After my undergraduate degree, which involved a year in Cairo, I took on a bit of Dutch, which certainly helped for the PhD on Indonesian history. 


What did you do after graduating from Daramalan? 

Well, first to Sydney to try the Bachelor of Engineering, then the ANU, then back to USyd for the PhD in Southeast Asian History, then on to Leiden, in the Netherlands, for a postdoc, and then at Princeton from 2005. 


What is your most significant career achievement? 

Maybe getting my first book published in 2002. It didn’t win any prizes, but it got me my job. 


Have you considered writing a non-fiction book one day? 

Given the fact that I put far too many people into my scholarly books, I am not sure I would be able to cut things down enough to write a readable fiction book! 


What is your next literature project? 

I am working on a book about the Cocos Islands now. Well, I have been for a while, but it is getting closer to being done. 


Which countries would you like to visit or study? Which countries did you find most interesting? 

The longer I go, the more I think about coming back and writing about Australia, hence the Cocos project. I find a lot of places interesting. I have really loved Japan as an occasional destination; South Africa is one of the most amazing places I have ever been — there is something familiar about it, to be sure; and India is truly amazing. 


What are you doing outside of your scientific career? 

Riding bikes whenever I can, including an awesome two-speed Fikas built by my cousin Luke. Check out his wares! 


What are you most proud of in your life?  

Both my kids — Faridah is in grad school at Cornell, and Daniel designs lights in San Fransisco. 




What is your advice for current students?  

Avoid using the words unique and literally. I can forgive the rest. 


Which talent would you most like to have?   



If you could have dinner with one famous person, dead or alive, who would it be? 

Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Posted By , 02 May 2024

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