Being Australian 23: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 14–“Immigration Nation” last night

I don’t plan to comment on the final episode of Immigration Nation in any detail. It undoubtedly is an excellent resource for discussion, however. Do explore the site.

These facts fascinate me.

Only 1% of the total immigration intake since 1976 is from boat people.

Australia has one of the highest rates of cross-cultural marriage in the world.

And God bless Malcolm Fraser.

I thought the explanation of the politics of boat people mania well done: boat people give the impression the government is not in control and also poison the discourse on immigration. This is made worse by the usual suspects in the media – tabloid press, talkback blowhards. Result: draconian policies out of all proportion to the size of the “problem”.

I met my first boat person at Wollongong High in 1980. He was either Cambodian or Lao. He turned up at school on his first day still in a military uniform. I was deputed to help him with his English. I had very little idea how to go about this. (My ESL career began to happen ten years later.)

The first Vietnamese boat person I really got to know was Hung Nguyen.

More than 30 years ago, during the Vietnam War, Mr Nguyen escaped his home in Saigon with his family in a fishing boat, and arrived on Australian shores.

“As a personal reflection, everything that I am today, I owe to the Australian taxpayer who had fished me out from the South China Seas, clothed, fed, and educated me,” said Mr Nguyen, who spent his teenage years in Armidale, NSW, and later studied medicine at the University of Sydney. Below is an edited extract from Mr Nguyen’s personal account of what happened the year he turned 13, which he wrote six years ago.

The Year I Turned 13 by Hung Nguyen

The year I turned 13, the 20-year-old war between the Communist North and non-Communist South Vietnam, where we lived, was drawing to an end. The American military and its allies had abandoned South Vietnam and the collapse of Saigon was an expected event.

I was born and grew up in this atrocious war in which no side was blameless. I remember artillery shells that whistled regularly at night over our heads and exploded, to our relief, somewhere in the distance. Some nights, when the shells fell too close, we hurried into our sandbagged shelter. I can still see in my mind’s eyes neighbourswho were there one day and vanished the next. I was used to seeing men carrying assault rifles in the streets and invalid returned soldiers who sold lottery tickets from their wheelchairs because our society could no longer support them.

My father was a full-time surgeon# at the local military hospital. He saw some patients after-hours in his rooms, which was an annex of our house. I grew up with the acceptance that life was shared by us, healthy people, and those who were unfortunate enough to have to queue outside our place in the hot and sticky evenings, with their malarial illnesses, tuberculosis coughs or haemorrhagic Dengue fever pallor.

Life was not all gloom and doom. We children played soccer in the streets, teased dogs around the corner, fought each other at school and climbed the gnarled flame trees, which blossomed each summer and bore long, tart, bean-like fruits for the next season. How interminably long the summers were back then.

I looked forward to the end of the war and the return of some of my uncles and cousins who were off fighting, sometimes for opposing sides. In the developing mind of a 13-year-old, it was logical to end the war, live in peace, re-direct all our efforts to rebuild the country and get rid of diseases. I could hardly wait to grow up quickly.

The year I turned 26, I worked as a surgical resident at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. The preceding 13 years saw the final fall of Saigon. My father was put away in the hard labour camps that were euphemistically called re-education camps for being a doctor on the wrong side of the war. There had been times when we thought we would not see him again. The Communist Party, in the name of the people, confiscated our house. We were the enemy. We were not part of the people, were not needed in the rebuild of our country and deemed to be the individuals most likely to sabotage that effort. One day our existence would be no longer required.

There were whispered secrets, covert trips in the dark, a dash across the Siam Gulf in a fishing boat and many months in a Malaysian refugee camp. We were well treated there. Eventually, we were selected to come to Australia, a country about which we knew little.

Grateful for the opportunity to remake our lives, touched that people in this new land came to treat us better then our own people did, my family was energetic and industrious in our efforts to make the best of our chances. Our high school teachers, in Armidale, NSW, were kind and patient to us children, and we repaid their efforts by doing rather well in the Higher School Certificate examinations.

Medical school was uneventful. Almost all of my fellow students were nice, fun loving and considerate. Some came from incredibly privileged backgrounds and some much poorer. Some of the more privileged students had difficulty comprehending any other worlds different from theirs while some of their less wealthy friends made careers out of resenting this lack of comprehension. The summers at medical school were still long but they were not to last.

Surgical residency was relentless hard work and long hours, the sort of hours that triggered the Australian Medical Association’s call for safe hours lately. It felt safe enough at the time but it was the sort of punishing hours that only a handful of young and very resilient people can do, and only for a few years at that. For most surgical residents, however, surgery was our single-minded love and purpose during that period. We lived and breathed it. We were to learn valuable skills and innumerable crafts to better care for our patients later in life…


I knew Hung at the tail end of his medical studies. We had many long conversations. He is being very modest when he says he did “rather well” in the HSC. If I recall correctly he came 4th in the state. (Please correct me, Hung, if you happen to read this.) He also wrote poetry in Vietnamese, French and English.

# So Armidale Hospital scored a top surgeon – who could not legally practise his calling. He was, I believe, officially a cleaner.

2 thoughts on “Being Australian 23: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 14–“Immigration Nation” last night

  1. Compare Jim Belshaw’s reaction.

    Jim makes some good points, but I think he is too harsh.

    I commented on Jim’s post. The first comment took, but something happened to the second, even to a shorter version I posted after the first version failed to appear.

    My second comment related to the Fraser government and the Vietnamese boat people, about which Jim says:

    I had something of the same reaction to the presentation of Mr Fraser’s later role with Vietnamese boat people. By then, the White Australia policy had been well and truly buried and for some time, yet this was presented as its real end. Certainly I did not see it this way at the time. White Australia was an irrelevancy, something past. Yet maybe the program was partially right, in that this was a mass Asian entry into Australia.

    I am not a strong supporter of Mr Fraser. However, as I learn more, I have to regard Mr Fraser’s role here as a major contribution to Australia.

    I think the program was more than partially right; it was, in my view, dead right! I offer October’s Quadrant in support. There hal Colebatch writes The Left Rewrites Its History on Refugees; what he says coincides with what I remember as a Wollongong resident at the time.

    …On November 29, 1977, an attack by Bob Hawke on Vietnamese refugees took up most of the front page of the Australian under the heavy black headline: HAWKE: RETURN BOGUS REFUGEES. Hawke was quoted as saying: “Of course we should have compassion, but people who are coming in this way are not the only people in the world who have rights to our compassion.” The previous day a spokesman for Whitlam was quoted as saying that there should be “Some sort of enquiry to determine where the refugees were coming from in such numbers and head them off at the source.” Whitlam was to claim that he disbelieved all stories of persecution in Vietnam. Mulvihill demanded that Vietnamese refugee boats should be turned back by the Navy. He said an ALP government would reverse the allegedly “open door” policy on refugees, and “make an example” of refugee boats by returning them under a Navy escort. He claimed in the Sydney Morning Herald of November 25, 1977, that other nationalities were “rightly indignant” at any dilution of processing for Vietnamese boat refugees.

    These attacks on Vietnamese refugees came from the leaders of the ALP, including its most senior official figures and spokesmen. The remainder of the political Left joined in. Shortly after this, a relatively large fishing boat, the Song Be 12, which had escaped from Ho Chi Minh City after the crew had overpowered communist guards on it, arrived in Darwin. The secretary of the Northern Territory Trades and Labour Council, Terry Kincade, said of these refugees: “They’re pirates who have seized a boat from a friendly country. They should all be sent back.” Darwin Waterside Workers’ Federation leader “Curly” Nixon threatened a strike unless the Song Be 12 was returned, preferably loaded, as National Times writer David Leitch put it, with “reffos”.

    The far left-wing religious journal Retrieval claimed: “REFUGEES: SOME BRING GOLD, OTHERS ARE THEIR SERVANTS”, and, incidentally, that “The widely-reported photographs of Khmer Rouge atrocities are fakes.” Meanwhile the ALP’s spokesman on immigration and ethnic affairs, Ted Innes, said the national’s “migrant community” was “aggravated” by the government’s refugee policy.

    The various communist parties of Australia then in existence—the CPA, the CPA (Marxist-Leninist), and the Socialist Party of Australia—all attacked Vietnamese refugees on the grounds that they were capitalists and enemies of liberation and also that they were cheap labour, the last-named ground having also been a major plank of the White Australia policy…

    Labor Senator Lionel Bowen also invoked anti-Asian white Australia imagery on July 27, 1976, claiming Australia was in danger from the “teeming millions in the North … And these people are on the move.”

    The leftist Nation Review of June 1–7, 1978, carried an article referring to Vietnamese refugees as “bourgeois capitalist exploiters on the run” and ridiculing efforts to help them. In the issue of August 18–24 it referred to them as “political extremists and soft-life seekers”. The pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia organ, the Socialist, of May 31, 1978, carried a headline: VIETNAMESE REFUGEES VICTIMS AND TOOLS OF ANTI-COMMUNISM and referred to them as “right-wing Vietnamese who betrayed their country”. The CPA’s Tribune of June 7, 1978, claimed: BHP PREFERS VIETNAMESE and quoted South Coast Labour Council Secretary and CPA National Committee member Merv Nixon to the effect that the situation was disgraceful and that: “We can do without these right-wing elements.” Tribune elaborated on this in the following issue and warned of “right-wing people organizing private armies”. At the University of Western Australia, ALP Left Caucus member Graham Droppert published an article in the student newspaper Pelican, Number 4 of 1978, under the heading REFUGEES OR RATS?, claiming they included “the pimps, the wealthy merchants, the racketeers, the standover men and other exploiters”.

    On June 20, 1978, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Clyde Cameron as saying:

    Vietnamese who are not genuine refugees should be sent back or put in detention camps …They were wealthy people who had made a lot of money on the black market and did not like the present regime or perhaps did not like having to work hard for the first time in their lives … by far the majority of Vietnamese refugees were right-wing.

    Cameron continued this anti-refugee crusade at length in Parliament and the press, and only a few extracts are quoted here.

    Merv Nixon I especially remember.

    What’s more, at the time I had my own reservations, wondering not about the refugees being “fascists” but whether they could, um, assimilate…

    The White Australia attitude was alive and well, even in my own head. Fraser’s courage in this matter really was crucial, and events have proven him right. At the same time, that was no doubt when quite a few Australians started feeling “swamped by Asians”, as Pauline Hanson so dramatically put is almost 20 years later. White Australia was dying, but was far from dead, and that, I think, explains the Hanson phenomenon as surely as people being freaked by Paul Keating. Jokes about “slopes” were common bar talk in the middle 1980s, not to mention “coon jokes” such as What do you call an Abo in a suit? The defendant.

    I also commented on the Colombo Plan students, but that comment did appear.

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