Subjects: Australia-Malaysia relations, modern Australia, parliamentary diversity, South China Sea.
PENNY WONG, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thanks very much for being here. I hope everyone’s had an interesting morning. We’re here at Foh Sang, and I thank all of the local shopkeepers and everyone who has been here, the community, for their really warm welcome. It’s been a really fantastic visit this morning.
We also started the day with some fish ball juk and some noodles, and I hope those who were with us enjoyed the food. It’s a coffee shop I’ve been to for many years. I was speaking to the owner; he’s been there for – he said he’s been there for 45 years. So it’s been a part of our lives as a family.
It’s been a really wonderful thing to come back to Kota Kinabalu. And, as I said last night, I hope that my personal story can contribute to the relationship but, more importantly, what I want to emphasise is that it’s not only my story. This is a story that many Australians can tell. We have so many Australians who are born overseas or whose parents are born overseas who have connections with South East Asia and other countries around the world. We are a multicultural and diverse nation, and I hope in part my story can contribute to reminding people in this region and throughout the world that Australia is a modern, diverse, multicultural society which is keen to continue engaging with the region.
I’m happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: How do you think that will help Australia deepen relationships with countries like Malaysia? What is the process there?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Look, relationships always require engagement and work. And what I’m really pleased about is that I think that the way in which we’ve been received – me and my delegation – has been really warm and hospitable. But it’s important to remember we’re not starting from now – you know, we have a longstanding relationship with Malaysia, very deep people-to-people ties, very strong defence and strategic ties, the Five Power Defence Arrangements which go back to 1971 I think it is. We’ve got people like my father and many, many other Malaysians who studied in Australia. We still have lots of Malaysians studying in Australia. So we have strong people-to-people links, and what the Foreign Ministers and members of the government, members of the media and the community can do is continue to build that relationship.
JOURNALIST: Speaking to some local shop owners here, one thing that they have been telling me is that they would really appreciate an Australian university in Sabah. Do you think that will be on the horizon?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Well, we’ll have a look at that. It’s pretty interesting walking around here. I think the last time I came here Dad and I were doing grocery shopping, so this time it’s a little bit different. I don’t think anybody noticed me then.
JOURNALIST: Are there practical things you need to do to improve the relationship, too? There’s quite extensive visa delays apparently for Malaysians coming in to Australia, having to show their bank records and more, lasting many weeks?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Yes, that’s been raised with me, as you would expect, by people in Malaysia, and I understand we’re working through the backlog. There has been a backlog and we’re conscious of the delays that’s meant, for people who want to come to Australia. And I was at the High Commission – was it yesterday or the day before – the last couple of days and spoke to people and they’re working very hard to get through that backlog.
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Obviously having a Foreign Minister who’s Sabahan by birth and is from East Malaysia – we hope that there will be more links. We did discuss that obviously education is important and there are some industry links. But we’ve got more work to do. Primarily this visit I wanted to focus on people-to-people engagement. And I was really grateful and honoured that so many politicians and dignitaries from different parts of the political spectrum and from the community have been willing to engage with me. It’s been very, really humbling.
JOURNALIST: How do you think that message has done down? Because you’ve been very consistent with your message, haven’t you, that Australia is a multicultural, diverse society, and how you deliver that message I suppose is as important as what you say, isn’t it?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I think if you believe something you probably deliver it better don’t you, and it happens to be the truth. And I think it is one of the strengths Australia has that we’ve insufficiently – it’s one of the strengths of who Australia is, and we should tell that story in the region more. I think that’s a good thing.
JOURNALIST: Do you think you’re uniquely qualified to do that given your own experience that you’ve seen change and felt it yourself?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I always resile from the word “unique” because my experience isn’t that unique, as I said. One in two Australians are either born overseas or have parents who were born overseas. So this is a very Australian experience. You’re seeing parts of my life here, but this story can be told by so many Australians. The story of migration, the story of balik kampung, the memories of where you came from and what that means about who you are. And that’s a really important part of the Australian story.
JOURNALIST: How important is that to Asia to hear that, to Malaysia and Southeast Asia?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Well, you might want to speak to some of the local Malaysians about that. I think it matters that Australia speaks to Southeast Asia in a way that recognises that we are part of this region and that our futures are shared. These are challenging times in the world. We’re all seeking to navigate these challenging times and we do it best when we do it together. And that collectivity comes from an understanding that our future prosperity and security is shared. Anything else?
JOURNALIST: You’re talking about the migration, of course there is the cultural exchange between these two countries?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Absolutely.
JOURNALIST: So is there any similarities between the culture in Sabah and the culture in Australia that might be?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I think Sabah is a very multicultural place also, yes? And you see the school we went to, you can see a lot of diversity in the families here and you see it in these communities. I think it is a wonderful thing for people from different cultures to share experiences. And that’s always enriching. And in that process you find things that are similar and things that differ, both of which you learn from.
JOURNALIST: In one way, of course, your experience is not shared in Malaysia, isn’t it? In the fact that there are not that many women in parliament in Malaysia, certainly not Chinese Malaysians.
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: That’s ultimately a matter for the Malaysian democracy. My views on that and Australia’s views on that are pretty clear. And if you look at the results of the last election in Australia one of the very, I think, inspiring stories of that election was how many women, particularly, from diverse backgrounds were elected to the Australian Parliament. That is something we should be, I am very proud of. I think our country did a great thing in the last election with that election.
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: The question is about the South China Sea, and I’d make a few points. The first point I’d make is that the South China Sea – the first point I’d make is that international law, international law norms, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,: these principles matter. They matter not only to claimant states but they matter to all states in the region. A great deal of our trade transits the South China Sea. There is a reason why it is important to have international law observed. That’s the position Australia will continue to take and the countries of the region will continue to take.
JOURNALIST: What is the best Sabahan food that you’ve tasted in these two days?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I think the juk we had this morning. See, that’s a very Malaysian question. You go to the food!
JOURNALIST: Do you have any advice for the LGBTQ community here who are largely, a little bit, passed aside here, as someone who is a foreigner of same sex marriage? What would be your advice?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I don’t give advice about domestic politics in the countries to which I go. But I would say this: people know my views from the things I’ve said over 20 years in public life.
Thank you, everybody.
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Authorised by Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia.