Dr Liang Joo Leow OAM

A man of one world but many voices

2019 UNE Alumni Achievement Award Recipient

A childhood tuned into the BBC World Service on shortwave radio shows in the polished accent of Dr Liang Joo Leow. Even so, many of this dermatologist and skin surgeon's patients are surprised to learn that he moonlights as a voice artist and simultaneous interpreter.

Liang Joo has voiced international campaigns for the likes of Tourism WA and the University of Technology Sydney, and has interpreted for Australian, British, US, Canadian, Indonesian and Malaysian heads of state at meetings of the G20, United Nations and World Bank. And he credits his UNE Bachelor of Arts (Linguistics) degree with opening up a world of opportunities.

"I always wanted to study Arts, but it was too fiddly juggling a combined Arts and Medicine degree at the first university I attended, so I put the thought on the backburner," says the winner of a 2019 UNE Alumni Achievement Award. "I enrolled in the UNE degree by distance in the first year of my dermatology training, to study languages and linguistics in my spare time. It was a way to formalise and cement the knowledge I already had. I found the units in Pure Linguistics fascinating; for the first time I was learning about languages as a science, rather than learning specific languages as humanities subjects."

During his childhood in Malaysia, Liang Joo discovered he had a good ear for different languages and by the age of twelve he could speak four fluently. Moving to Australia at the age of 14, he decided to study medicine after high school but maintained a personal passion for linguistics. Its applications - as a means of helping to maintain his patients’ intertwined cultural identities and health and wellbeing - are central to his professional practice today.

"Ours is a very multicultural society, yet language and cultural knowledge in Australia lags far behind that of most of the world," says Liang Joo, who now speaks English, Indonesian, Malay, Hokkien and Teochew, and understands Cantonese, Mandarin and French. "Too often medical practitioners do not provide their patients with a means of communicating in their native language. I'm still surprised by how few avail themselves of the free interpreter service provided by the Australian Government, since poor communication is fraught with problems, is more time-consuming overall, and can result in deficient health care."

As a non-executive director of Multicultural Care (a unique, in-home disability and aged care organisation for 600 clients from over 40 language groups) as well as Community First Step (a provider of community services in south-west Sydney), Liang Joo says he sees first-hand how languages open a window to understanding differences. "Without necessarily being immersed in a culture, the study of language is accompanied by cultural understanding; it gives you an acute awareness of the non-verbal cues and cultural inferences that can help you to avoid misinterpretation," he says. "At a high-level political meeting, these can have a major influence on the outcome of discussions."

Liang Joo is a consultant dermatologist with surgical privileges at St Vincent's Private Hospital, making him one of only three dermatologists nationally who regularly operate in theatres at a major teaching hospital.  He became the first dermatologist appointed to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, in 2017, and is a Fellow of the Australasian College of Dermatologists as well the prestigious American College of Mohs Surgery (microscopic surgery to treat skin cancer). He is also a medical educator, and advocates for undergraduate education in dermatology through his roles as a Conjoint Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales and an Adjunct Clinical Senior Lecturer at the University of Notre Dame.

All this makes for a very busy professional life, but linguistics adds an extra dimension. What began in the early days as a sideline in subtitling and foreign language narration for SBS has blossomed into a career as a voice artist, with Liang Joo now represented by a leading voice talent agency. "I am often called upon for voice-overs in a variety of native and foreign English accents on radio and TV. It requires a level of intricate control of your speech to take direction from an advertising director and produce the desired sounds, but this can be very satisfying."

Liang Joo also belongs to the International Association of Conference Interpreters and the American Association of Language Specialists. "Among the highlights of my linguistics work has been interpreting at press conferences during the Sydney Olympic Games, and interpreting the Schapelle Corby verdict trial for a live national television broadcast with only an audio-visual feed from the courtroom in Indonesia," he says. "I was also a passenger on the Canadian Governor-General’s personal jet during a visit to Malaysia, when I had the honour of meeting the King of my country of birth, which brought everything full circle."

For more information about the 2019 Alumni Awards