Australian Foreign Minister recalls her Malaysian roots

KUALA LUMPUR: Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong spoke of her Malaysian roots and her family during her keynote address here.

In her speech, Wong, who was born in Sabah, reflected on her Malaysian roots and paid homage to her paternal grandmother for being her source of strength during turbulent times.

“It is an extraordinary privilege and honour to stand here today in Malaysia as Australia’s Foreign Minister.

“I doubt my poh poh (grandmother) could ever have imagined it. Her name was Madam Lai Fung Shim.

“She was of Hakka descent. My grandfather is Cantonese. So, there is still a debate whether I’m a Cantonese or a Hakka,” she joked during a networking brunch with government, business and civil society leaders here yesterday. Wong is on a three-day official visit to Malaysia.

She added that her grandmother was in Sandakan when the war came to Malaysia and was left alone to care for her children.

“She was barely literate. She was loving and humble, and the strongest person I have ever known.

“In times of struggle, I think of her, and what she had to endure.

“Her determination to survive, and to save herself and her children, is something from which I draw strength every day,” she added.

Wong said her father, Francis Wong, was a bright student who worked hard, with his efforts earning him a Colombo Plan scholarship to study architecture at Adelaide University.

She described his opportunity to study as “the opportunity that defined his life”, which allowed him to climb out of the poverty he experienced as a child.

She also said that her father returned to Kota Kinabalu after marrying, becoming a notable figure in Kota Kinabalu and designed prominent civic buildings, although many had been replaced today.

While Wong said her family history will be on her mind when she returns to Kota Kinabalu for an overnight stop, she said that she is focused on the future.

“Australians know our future lies in the region we share with Malaysia.

“And it tells you something about modern Australia that I am here today speaking to you as Australia’s foreign minister,” she said, adding that half of the Australian population was born overseas or had a parent born overseas.

“Australia will be reflecting this rich character back to the world, so the world can see itself in Australia,” she said.

Wong said Malaysia and Australia can work together to overcome common challenges in food security, health and Covid-19 pandemic recovery efforts.

She added both countries’ pharmaceutical regulation agencies have been working together on Covid-19 vaccine regulation, with Australia funding the efforts to ensure that the vaccines reach the hard to reach populations in Malaysia.

“Australia wants to strengthen these ties further. We want to give more momentum to our partnership with Malaysia.

“Last year, our countries signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, setting out three broad areas of cooperation: economic prosperity; society and technology; and defence and regional security.

“This is a strong basis for deeper cooperation, but we can do more,” she added.

Wong said in the education sector, more than 125,000 Malaysians have studied in Australia over the past 20 years, while many Australians are also benefitting from education in Malaysia.

She added that the two-way trade between both countries in agriculture, fisheries and forestry were valued at over AUS$2bil (RM6bil) and has enormous potential for growth.

“We supply more than 10% of Malaysia’s dairy, more than a quarter of its meat imports, and 80% of Malaysia’s wheat imports.

“There is much more we can do, and I note that Australia and Malaysia have committed to begin preparatory work on a general review of the Malaysia Australia Free Trade Agreement,” she added.

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