LONDON: The producer of Nona, a women’s programme on TV3, has been asking me to look for Sufiah Yusof for the past few years. That led me to enquire about her from friends and contacts. I knew she was lying low and I did not blame her.
We got in touch last month and, after a few emails, agreed to meet at Albert Dock in Liverpool, the United Kingdom.
It was a very cold afternoon. Sufiah was late but she arrived with a big smile and greeted me like an old chum. Her friendliness was contagious.
Sufiah, 30, was a lot taller now, with a cute cropped hairstyle, wore no make-up and had an incredibly positive attitude to life. We chatted about families, university degrees and Malaysian food.
For someone who had been hiding from the media, she was surprisingly relaxed and easy going. She laughed as I kept changing my camera angle, but was patient enough to wait.
Ignoring the camera, she sat upright, hands in her lap, ready for my questions.
Her mannerism was a sign of a person used to television interviews. But this was her first media interview after seven years.
Although I have reported about Sufiah several times over the years, the last time I saw her in person was 17 years ago at her family home in Coventry, and once more a few years later at an event here.
I remembered going to her house.
I recalled the blackboards in the living and dining rooms. Workbooks laid out on the tables and shelves.
Sufiah, shy and smiling, sat quietly with her siblings while her father, Farooq Khan from Pakistan and mother, Halimahton Yusof from Muar, Johor, spoke.
Sufiah was one of five gifted children who had all been taught at home by their academics parents.
Back in 1997, Sufiah was just 12 when she made headlines around the world as she passed her A-levels and was accepted into Oxford University to do a degree in Mathematics.
“Child Prodigy”, “Malaysian Maths Genius” and “Britain’s Youngest University Student”, screamed the headlines.
We had filmed Sufiah on her first day at the women-only St Hilda’s College as she posed with a mortar board and robes.
The college requested that Sufiah be allowed to study without intrusion.
Q: How was your time at Oxford and what was it like being a genius?
Sufiah: It wasn’t the easiest thing, emotionally. But everyone has emotional difficulties and battles to fight. That was just one particular thing about my upbringing. No different from other young people’s challenges. Oxford is an interesting place with lots of interesting people. It was an experience I had.
(In July 2000, Sufiah hit the headlines again when she ran away from the university after sitting for the last exam paper in her third year. She sparked a vast police hunt in Britain. Her father claimed she was kidnapped and brainwashed by an organisation seeking the key to her intelligence. Her mother said: “It was a mystery and not Sufiah’s behaviour that we know.” A few days later, Sufiah sent an email to her parents, saying: “I’ve had enough of 15 years of physical and emotional abuse.”
That email cast blame over her father.
She accused him of having controlled her life through intensive tutoring. The media had a field day, with front pages blaring “Missing Maths Prodigy Vowed Never To Return Home”. It turned out that the 15-year-old Sufiah had travelled 155km to Bournemouth, south of England, stayed at a backpacker’s hostel and worked as a waitress for a week.
She then obtained a court order allowing her to be placed with a foster family under Social Services until she reached 18. She did not complete her Mathematics degree.
Sufiah was diplomatic when answering questions about that episode. “It was a difficult situation with my family. I dealt with it the best way I knew how. From outsiders point of view, there was a huge amount of family drama, but a lot of people have difficult situation with their family.”)
Q: How is your relationship with the family?
Sufiah: We are not in touch. I wish them peace. I wish them all the best in the world. I imagine they feel pretty much the same about me. In the modern world, people go off indifferent directions, sometimes, it’s emotionally healthy. Not bearing ill will towards each other, we move on and move forward. We realise certain family connection aren’t healthy.
(Before she went to Oxford, I remember watching and filming Sufiah playing tennis near her home. Her father was her coach. Back then, Sufiah was No. 8 in the country for under-21s.
After the game, as we walked back to the house, I commented on the size of her trainers.
“You have big feet.” She grinned and shook her head. “Not these big. Dad bought me these shoes. It’s a size or two bigger. He said I will grow into them.”
Her father most certainly ruled. Farooq had said he kept the house cold rather than warm so that the children could concentrate on their studies. Other rules included prayers, stretching and breathing exercises. They were allowed to watch television, but mainly educational programmes. After the runaway, Sufiah saw little of her family, except her mother and sister.
Relations with her father worsened in March 2001, when she appeared in a pre-recorded interview on Tonight with Trevor McDonald, on UK’s independent television channel ITV. She said she never wanted to see her father again. In August 2003, I met the family again, this time to write about Sufiah’s younger sister, Zuleika, as she celebrated her own A-Level results— Grade A in Pure Maths. Zuleika was 9. She was hoping to do three more Science and Maths A-Levels when she was 10, and was set to break the Yusof family’s genius record.
Sufiah’s siblings are fiercely intelligent — sister Noraisha and brother Iskander studied at Warwick University in their teenage years. Her older brother, Isaac, who also excelled in tennis, was working with her father. Farooq had perfected his famous method of “accelerated learning techniques” on his children.)
Q: When you ran away from Oxford, how angry were you with your father?
Sufiah: I did detach from my family. I was 15 and a different creature then. We didn’t have the same values or aspirations. We probably didn’t have anything in common. But it doesn’t keep me or them up at night.
(Sufiah claimed she was in touch with her family. She said maybe her family was “eccentric” and “difficult” at times. “All of us had instances when we were temperamental and dramatic, but we moved on.” She said she had mellowed a lot and 99 per cent of her life now was being “boring”, dull and content.)
Q: Did you not want to get in touch with them because you didn’t want any more drama?
Sufiah: Possibly, yes. It’s a case of emotional health and if the relationship isn’t productive, it will only cause stress.
Q: Do you miss them?
Sufiah: I am not a big fan of overemotional statements. We just get on with life.
(By July 2004, I wrote another story on Sufiah. It was on a happier note. Sufiah, then 19, married Jonathan Marshall, a trainee lawyer four years her senior. I bumped into them a few months later at a talk here. They looked happy. They separated after two years. At that time, I thought it was probably time to leave her alone. But four years later, the British tabloids exposed Sufiah as a sex worker. There were photos of her taken secretly by a reporter posing as a client. Using the name Shilpa Lee, Sufiah, 23, advertised her services on the Internet at £130-a-time. Pictures of her in skimpy attire and sexy poses were also published. “Don’t glorify my daughter. She’s an adult. She knows what’s good and what’s bad,” said Halimahton.)
Q: Can I ask about your time in Salford, Manchester?
Sufiah: It was an “experimental period”. I was a little wild. I was an experimenting, risk-taking person. You can experiment without committing. A lot of people do in their late teens and twenties. Looking back, there is nothing I would change at all.
(She said while she understood many would not approve of her “job” then, the media harassment and the horror of press intrusion were the worst experience she had to endure. Some even secretly filmed and blackmailed her. Sufiah said the aggression of the British media and their unethical approach were unbearable.
“There was a time when the media interest in me was ridiculous. I was getting a lot of emails a day saying they were going to make a documentary about me whether I consented or not. They were going to track me down, film me and reveal my address.”)
Q: Did you regret that period?
Sufiah: I have no regrets. There was a lot of interest from the media and public in Malaysia. I am grateful for the people who had shown compassion and support. It was a personal choice.
Q: What was the turning point?
Sufiah: There’s no big turning point. I was impulsive. I tried stuff out and then said I didn’t fancy that. I am childless but if I have a daughter, I would be worried if she is a risk taker like me.
(She said she was hiding and on the move because of media harassment and the fact that she could not afford to live anywhere permanently.
“They assumed they had the right to rummage through my life. I was on my own. It was stressful and scary, but it was a part of life. I am pleased with the way I handled and came out of it.”)
Q: What is your proudest achievement?
Sufiah : I have no money. I am room hunting, searching for a temporary job, unemployed and have no degree. I am content as a person, peaceful, so that’s my achievement.
Q: Is going to Oxford University at 12 not an achievement?
Sufiah: It was an interesting thing that happened to me. Oxford is an interesting place but I am not connected to it at all.
(I mentioned the “prodigy” title. She admitted education was important but said she wanted to study because she was passionate about the subject and not about what people think of her.
“I have dropped out of two degrees. My first degree in Mathematics was under pressure — more of a suggestion — my parents’ idea. “The second degree was in Economics, which I studied when I was married because my husband did not allow me to work. “Now, I am back studying a third time. I am a mature student, not a prodigy or a genius. I love it. Let’s see how this goes.”
Sufiah said she did not regret the way she was brought up, such as not going to school like other children. “My experiences, good and bad, have made me who I am. I am studying Engineering, which is related to Mathematics, and it’s nice that my brain still has that training and can do it semi-automatically.” She said she enjoyed a good challenge but reiterated: “I don’t think I was ever a genius. I got to Oxford very early. I might have a small talent for Mathematics and might be good at it at some stage. I hope I can contribute to a research project that leaves a good legacy someday. I must put my head down and get back into studying.”)
Q: Do you feel connected to Malaysia?
Sufiah: Genetically I am 50 per cent Malaysian. I feel an emotional connection to Malaysian culture. I’d like to explore that connection more. In 2008, when the British press were being aggressive, some Malaysians were full of compassion, which I respected. But I am also quite British in a lot of ways. So I am a bit of both worlds.
(I showed her the newspaper cuttings on her that I kept over the years. She smiled and shook her head as she looked through them. “It just shows how dramatic and out of control some media behaved. These were manipulative, staged stories. It is interesting to blog about the British media, but beyond that it’s not relevant to me.” Pointing at the names of British journalists who wrote articles on her, Sufiah said: “This reporter hates women. He is a horrible, horrible man. And this other reporter is a very unhappy man. He ended up being obsessed with attacking Muslims, or girls, and making dramatic stories about other people’s families.” Sufiah revealed enough during our meeting, but kept some details to herself. She said she had no partner but would go on dates, was living with friends but not giving away the name of the town and was doing an Engineering degree but did not mention the name of the university.
Sufiah seemed happy. She was working in a shop temporarily and said it was good fun.
I asked about her blog entitled “Inquiring Feminist”, particularly about a paragraph that read: “I was very unhappy as a child, love being a woman: I have no idea what the future holds but would not exchange my life for anyone else’s.” She mentioned Oxford University and “fathers”. She attacked the British tabloid journalists, who had harassed and condemned her. “These people are irrelevant. If they are male, no woman wants them. If they are female, no woman wants to be them. Their words and opinions are trash,” she wrote. “I spent some years living off the grid. I was forced into a fairly peripheral existence.” Profound words from a troubled past. The past she claimed she did not think about much. Yes, she said she was a content adult. She looked calm and happy. But I sensed some anger and a strong will. Sufiah, that brave 15- year-old ‘runaway girl’, is always there. Otherwise, she would not have survived. Mentally.)
The writer is a correspondent for TV3 Malaysia and a freelance writer based in London.