Game changer

“Game Changer: The 40 year journey of the Vietnamese Community in Australia – a personal reflection”

By Phong Nguyen, ACM.

Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to pay my respect to the past and present traditional owners of the land on which we are gathering and thank them for allowing us to hold this gathering. As Australia is commemorating the 100th year of ANZAC this weekend, and the Vietnamese Community is commemorating the fall of the Republic of Vietnam on 30th April next week, I would like to dedicate this presentation to:

The 521 Australian servicemen who died in Vietnam (VN) and more than 55 thousands Vietnam veterans who have fought in the VN War.
Three million heroic South Vietnamese soldiers, administrators and civilians who died defending the freedom and democracy of the people of the Republic of VN and protecting the free world against the threat of Communism.
Tens of thousands of the Republic of VN servicemen, government officials, administrators, public servants who died in the hard labour concentration camps and in prisons under the so called “Re-education” (Tap Trung Cai Tao) program of the Communist regime after the fall of Saigon.
Thousands of relatives of the Republic of VN’s middle and high ranking army officers and administrators who died in the so called “New Economic Zones” (Vung Kinh Te Moi) from diseases, hunger and exhaustion.
More than half a million of Vietnamese men, women and children who were killed, murdered, executed or drown during their escape to freedom from VN.
Thousands of known and unknown human rights and democracy campaigners and prisoners of conscience who had died in prison or currently serving lengthy sentences for standing up for the human rights and human dignity in Vietnam since South VN fell into the hands of the Communist regime.
And finally but most importantly, I would like to dedicate this speech to the late R.H Malcolm Fraser, whose humane and courageous decisions had saved and provided precious new life in Australia for 200,000 Vietnamese refugees like me. We are forever in debt to his life and his Prime Ministership. “Rest-in-Peace” Mr Fraser – our Father and Saviour!

May the sacrifices of those who gave and dedicated their lives so that we can live in peace, freedom and democracy today always be remembered, honoured worthily by our committed efforts in campaigning against tyrannic, dictatorial or human rights abusive regimes anywhere. LEST WE FORGET!

As I prepared for this presentation, the word “Changer” reminds me of a common remark that our politicians at all levels of government often used to drive home the diversity and multicultural aspect of Australia today which is: “Australia…(or name of a particular council) is a diverse country/municipality with people who come from more than 150 nationalities, speaking more than 400 languages and practising over 50 faiths and religions etc…” Indeed, Australia has gone a long way since 1901 when the Federation was formed and the White Australia legislation was introduced to keep non-British citizens and particularly Asians out of Australia. But, the road to multicultural and all inclusive Australia was not without a lot of toils and tears and courageous national leaderships to make it happen. The Vietnamese Community in Australia is both the testimony and the contributor of this extraordinary change and success story of Australia.

Within the limit of this talk today, it is an impossible task for me to do justice for the story of the Vietnamese-Australian people and the enormous contributions of this community to Australia thus far. Therefore, right from the outset, I humbly seek your understanding and forgiveness for the lack of completeness and for numerous shortcoming of this talk.

I shall first, attempt to do my best to provide you with a brief immigration and historical background of the Vietnamese Community in Australia.

Prior to 1975, there were very few Vietnamese living permanently in the West or in Australia. The majority of these were diplomats, business and Colombo Plan students. Although sizeable Vietnamese communities existed in Cambodia and Laos where they primarily engaged in business, never before in the Vietnamese 5000 year history had the Vietnamese left their country as refugees in such a large scale exodus in 1975 and subsequent years. The UNHCR estimated that more than 2 million Vietnamese had left Vietnam to seek refuge in the West, many in small and often unseaworthy boats with more than half a million of them perished in stormy weathers, robbed and murdered by pirates, running out of fuels, water or food, thousands of them died of diseases, exhaustion after reaching land, many women killed themselves and many young people committed suicide for unable to cope with the traumas they had gone through or witnessed. Those who were lucky and strong enough to survive the journey were placed in refugee camps scattering throughout S-E Asia like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. They were at the mercy of the free world to settle them.
On the eve of the fall of Saigon, a group of 215 Vietnamese orphans was airlifted out of VN for adoption and settlement in Australia. They became the first Vietnamese refugees to arrive in Australia. Unlike the US, which recued 130,000 Vietnamese refugees at the time of the collapse, Australian evacuating planes rescued only 34 Vietnamese nationals among thousands of Vietnamese personnel, including senior diplomats, who had worked for or had serious connections with the Australians during the war. Under orders from the Whitlam Government in Canberra, Australian Embassy staff was forced not to allow the 115 Vietnamese staff who worked at the Embassy to leave with them to Australia. As a result, Australian planes left Vietnam in April 1975 with a lot of empty seats whilst those who had strong links to Australia were left to face certain persecution from the advancing communists. One of the persons the Australian Embassy left behind was Mr Quang Luu, AO, former State Director of the Department of Immigration and former Head of SBS Radio in Australia. Quang Luu was diplomat at the South Vietnamese embassy in Canberra in the early 1970s. In August 1973, he was subjected to a violent demonstration by members of the radical left when he invited to speak at La Trobe University. Luu returned to Saigon where he was head of the foreign ministry until the city fell to the communists in 1975. Unable to evacuate with the Australians at the fall of Saigon, he subsequently had to flee Vietnam in a fishing basket and later settled in Australia. His courageous story was told in The Bulletin in June 1975 and decades later on ABC radio.
Early in 1975, under Gough Whitlam, Australia accepted just a few hundreds of Vietnamese refugees, most of them were the Republic of Vietnam’s diplomats and Colombo Plan students who were already in Australia. Together with the airlifted orphans and 34 rescued Vietnamese from Vietnam, the number was up to 1000 in 1975. This number was substantially increased in 1978 under the Fraser Government with a further settlement of 7000 refugees from S-E Asian refugee camps.
In late April 1976, almost a year after the communists took over the Republic of VN, the first boat carrying the Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived in Darwin. Between 1976-1981, 50 more boats of Vietnamese refugees landed in Australia which brought the total of boat people who reached Australia to over 2000. The name “Boat People” was created during this time. One of the refugees who made to Australia by boat in 1976 was the current Governor of South Australia His Excellency Ngo Van Hieu. Between 1975 and 1981, nearly 50,000 Vietnamese refugees were settled in Australia.
In 1982, the first immigrants from Vietnam arrived in Australia under the ODP (Orderly Departure Program (ODP) as a result of the negotiations and agreements signed between Vietnam, UNHCR and Australia to stop the flow and the deaths of boat refugees out of Vietnam.

To date, the population of the Vietnam born permanent residents in Australia is about 200,000 with substantial majority of whom are former refugees, one-third of this number arrived under the family reunion ODP which began in 1982. Currently, there are about 40,000 non-resident Vietnamese in Australia under student or working visas.

Today, Vietnam and Australia born Vietnamese population consist of just over 1.5% of the Australian population, with 70% of those settled in Australia since early 1981. Most Vietnamese live in NSW and Victoria followed by QLD, S.A and W.A. Around 90% of Vietnamese population in Australia reside in State or Territory capital cities.

During the period of accepting the Vietnamese refugees from South-East Asia refugee camps, the Australian Government was deliberately looking out for young, single and working age Vietnamese male refugees with a view that they would fill high demand for factory workers in Australia as well as contributing in the longer term to the economy. As a result of this policy, many unattached minors and single men were allowed to settle in Australia.

For many Australians, it is very difficult to comprehend why so many Vietnamese had left VN and risked their lives and the life of their children at sea in search of freedom. Some of the most common questions I was asked were: “Why did you leave?” “What was the journey like?” “What was it like to be a refugee?” Perhaps, I could share with you my answers to these questions, which I hope, can reflect most of the feelings and experiences of other Vietnamese in Australia and helps to explain the attitude most of us have toward work, life, education, opportunity and Australia itself.

I was born in VN 53 years ago into a middle class family. Life was tough and the war made everyone vulnerable to death, injury, orphanage and homelessness. Thus, my dreams as a boy was oh, soooo very small! Although my father was a Brigadier Colonel in the Republic of VN armed forces, our life was just adequate and normal. However, our lives were turned upside down on the 30th April 1975 when Saigon fell into the hands of the Communists. My father was taken away to be re-educated simply because he was on the losing side of the war. They imprisoned him for 13 years in hard labour camps, and we did not see him until 20 years later. He was very lucky to survive the ordeal. Meanwhile, like the rest of the South Vietnamese people, we were subjected to nightmarish living conditions and terribly brutal ruling of the new regime.

After taking over the country, instead of implement a national reconciliation program as promised, the Communist regime only used that promise as a pretext to lure every former South Vietnamese army member and public servant out of hiding to report to them and then detained and sent them to hundreds of gulag styled “re-education” camps set up throughout the country. Tens of thousands “re-educating” prisoners died of exhaustion, starvation, tortures and execution in these camps, whilst the relatives and family members of these prisoners, together with a large population in the South were sent to the countryside to work and live in the so called “New Economic Zones” where there was no running waters, housing or crops. They were stripped of all freedoms and basic human rights including movement, education and employment or trade. I would like to share with you a story experienced by my own mother which may give you some ideas of life under the communist regime after the fall of South Vietnam .

Two years after the so called Communists “liberation” which took my father’s freedom away and sent him and tens of thousands of former Republic of Vietnam soldiers and administrators the so called “Re-education camps”, my mother was struggling extremely hard to care for the four of us. One day, return home after a trip in the countryside to find ways of getting us out of the country, mum was visibly shell-shocked, traumatised and crying. She told us that, after what she had witnessed that day, we must leave Viet-Nam at all costs even if we have to die at sea. She said, died at sea would be better than living under the new regime. She told us that, on the way back to Saigon from My Tho, a provincial city, her bus was stopped by the communist highway patrol police to check for what the new regime considered as contrabands such as: rice, cooking oils, MSG, flours, live stocks etc…. they found a lady with 2 kg of rice hidden among her other possessions. They dragged her out and demanded to know where she got it from and to admit that she was a trader of contrabands. She tearfully told them that she was not and that she got the rice from her sister who lived in the countryside, who gave her the rice so that she could go back to feed her starving 7 children in Saigon, most of them were young children and had nothing to eat for days. The police refused to believe her story and continued to accusing her of lying and being a cunning trader. They told her they would confiscate her 2 kg of rice. The lady knelt down at their feet and begged them not to do so. She told them: “If you do not believe me, could you please piss on the rice and let me have it back? Surely, I cannot sell it, but at least I can wash it and save my children’s lives with it. Please have mercy! if you don’t give me the rice. I rather die right here and now than to go home and facing my children starving to death.” The police told the lady that they didn’t care whether or not she or her children would die. The lady then told them she would kill herself by run onto the traffics on the highway. The policemen told her to go ahead and she did. A military car travelling close to 100km/h hit her. She was fatally wounded and bleeding profusely from her wounds. To the horror of every passenger of the bus, and despite of their protest, the policemen did nothing to help her or allowing other people to check on her, instead, they turned off the safety of their guns, pointing their guns at the bus passengers and ordered everyone to get back onto the bus and told the driver to drive it away leaving behind the assumed dead lady!

When the feared nightmare of living under the Communist regime had turned into an even worse reality for the entire population with severe food shortages,starvation, human rights abuses, retribution, political persecutions, religious discrimination and forced militarisation to fight in Cambodia etc… the initial floods of refugees in 1975 turned into a tsunamis and the biggest Exodus of refugees by boats in the history of mankind took place.

My mum, my older sister, my younger brother, my youngest sister and I successfully escaped from the Communist VN in 1979 by boat after four attempts in which my brother was almost killed.
How did it feel to be a refugee?
For me, a word that could sum up and describe somewhat my refugee feelings and experiences was “Homelessness”. There are three phases of this experience:

The first and most powerful and overwhelming sensation a refugee feels is that he or she is leaving what is known as a home. No matter how little, how shanty, how poor it is, it’s still a home and the village or town or city he/she lives is still a hometown, home village, and the country where he/she lives, no matter how poor or undeveloped is still a home country and is a homeland to him or her. To be uprooted from such a home, left in a hurry, in secret, without any idea of what the future will hold or where one would end up, in fear for your own life and the life of your love ones, having no time to say good-bye to relatives and friends are extremely painful and psychologically hard and traumatised for the refugees, both children and adults. This is the first phase of homelessness for a refugee.

The second phase of homelessness comes with statelessness in the refugee or detention camps. Here a sense of lost, stateless, no rights, non-citizenry, alienation, bewilderment, powerlessness, questioning one’s own decision to leave home and country, frustration and hopelessness after a short relief and euphoria of being safe and reaching the safe haven, can be a real killer for a refugee. One’s sanity depends a lot on what the future holds: returning home or to be settled in a foreign land. Hope becomes the key for survival and justification for one’s decision to escape. The longer one waits and the longer there is no news of re-settlement, the worse one becomes in terms of feeling homeless, powerless and hopeless.

The third phase of homelessness for a refugee like me was when he/she arrived at the final destination like Australia. Here, the emptiness, both financially and emotionally, can be overpowering at first. Without money, recognition, a home and, for most refugees, without the language amid a population that seem to have everything and capable in everything, the sense of homelessness, total dependency, alienation, being different and uselessness are, once again, present and accentuated. Inferior complex can sap away one’s confidence very quickly. Former status, education and achievements in your homeland are now counted for little or nothing when it comes to job, accommodation and education in the new “homeland”.

However, the most powerful and the most lasting feeling of all, for me, a Vietnamese refugee, was the feeling of gratitude toward the government and the people of Australia for accepting us and providing us with a new home. This feeling was even greater when I realised how significant the acceptance was and the circumstances in which it happened. One thing I did not know, and many Vietnamese refugees in the refugee camps who were eventually settled in Australia did not know was how close Gough Whitlam was toward the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist regimes and how determined Gough Whitlam was in refusing to help and to allow the anti-communist refugees from Viet-Nam to settle in Australia.
It was fashionable in Australia in early 1975 under Gough Whitlam’s government to support the communist victories in Indochina. This was the position of most leading ALP figures (Whitlam, Cairns, Tom Uren) and also of the overwhelming majority of academics, journalists and other opinion leaders involved in the public debate on Australian Vietnam commitment.
Even after witnessing the mass exodus of people fleeing the Communist victors in VN and learned about the atrocities and human rights abuses committed by the Communists in Vietnam and Cambodia via the refugees, Whitlam and the ALP refused to change their position. On the contrary, on January 26, 1978, Uren and some of his Labour comrades issued a statement addressed to Pol Pot in Cambodia (then Kampuchea) and Phan Van Dong in Vietnam. The leftist signatories declared their support for the “national liberation struggles of both Vietnam and Kampuchea” and urged both leaders to resolve their “current border conflict”. No mention was made about the human rights violations then taking place in both countries.
In September 1978, Whitlam addressed a conference in Canberra where he declared that he did not accept the validity of any of the reports about human rights violations in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. He was particularly emphatic about Cambodia, declaring: “I make bold to doubt all the stories that appear in the newspapers about the treatment of people in Cambodia.”

Gerard Henderson, in an article titled “How Whitlam closed the door on refugees” based on the released department files, revealed how the Labor Party and Gough Whitlam were hostile towards Vietnamese asylum seekers in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He wrote: “Clyde Cameron’s account in “China, Communism and Coca-Cola” (1980) about how Whitlam told Cabinet in 1975 that he was “not having hundreds of f_ _ _ _ _ _ Vietnamese Balts coming into this country”. The Whitlam government’s excessively harsh policy to potential asylum seekers is also documented in Hal Colebatch’s Ph.D. thesis at the University of Western Australia.

Cabinet papers for 1975 reveals that the issue of Australia’s response to Vietnamese asylum seekers was not discussed in Cabinet. An examination of the departmental files for 1975 reveals that Whitlam practised the message that Australia will determine who comes to this country some decades before John Howard preached it in the 2001 election. The released material also demonstrates that Whitlam completely ran the policy on this issue, at times rejecting the somewhat softer line proposed by his foreign minister, Don Willesee and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Should Whitlam stay on as Prime Minister beyond November 1975, how many Vietnamese would be settled in Australia? Would the White Australia policy be truly and practically abandoned? Fortunately for the Vietnamese refugees and perhaps, fortunately for Australia, these questions weren’t needed to be answered because Gough Whitlam was dismissed and Malcolm Fraser became the caretaker Prime Minister and went on to become the 22nd Prime Minister of Australia for 3 consecutive terms.

In order to understand how difficult and courageous Malcolm Fraser’s decisions were to accept a large number of Vietnamese refugees into Australia between 1975 and 1983, it’s important to understand the history of the White Australia Policy.

The White Australia Policy became law soon after Australia became a federation in 1901which was called the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. Subsequent acts strengthened it until the start of WW2. During the Second World War, Prime Minister John Curtin reinforced the policy by saying: “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race”. Alfred Deakin, the Attorney General who drafted the legislation did not hide the fact that the legislation was made to keep the Asians out of Australia. He said he believed that the Japanese and Chinese might be a threat to the newly formed federation:

“It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors”

After WWII, under the need to “populate or perish” in other words “populate by European whites or risk having Australia overrun by Asians” Australia took in European immigrants and refugees. In 1949, Australian Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell said: “We have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us” thus the policy was relaxed to allow European migrants to come to Australia with the aim to keep the Asians out and to protect Australia from the so called “Yellow Peril”

Although the policy was abandoned by Robert Menzies and Harold Holt in the 60s, but in fact, it was not until Whitlam made it into laws which stated that race would be totally disregarded as a component for immigration to Australia in 1973 that the dismantlement of this policy was truly begun. In 1975, the Whitlam Government further passed the Racial Discrimination Act which made racially-based selection criteria unlawful. But this did not stop Whitlam to discriminate the Vietnamese refugees based on his anti-Vietnam war and Communist sympathetic attitude.

Deep down, despite of all these legislative changes, the Australian public in the 70s were still sceptical and strongly opposing Asian migration. In other words, at the time of the arrival of the Vietnamese refugees, anti-Asians and the White Australian attitude were still alive and well. According to a Morgan Gallup poll conducted during Fraser’s acceptance of the Vietnamese refugees, the government was facing a very hostile public opinion with 61% wanted to limit the intake and 28% wanted to stop taking the Vietnamese refugees all together, not to mention the initial opposition from the Labor Party as well.

Malcolm Fraser, not only faced a hostile and anti-Vietnamese refugees from the public, he also faced opposition and doubts from his own ministers and cabinet. In 1979, Andrew Peacock as foreign affairs minister warned of “a regional crisis of major dimensions, not to mention the danger of very serious strains on the unity and character of Australian society given traditional Australian fears about the yellow peril”. Peacock said in a memorandum for cabinet.

Malcolm Fraser, as Prime Minister had to deal with the same refugee boat arrival issues as today’s Prime Ministers. That is: How could he square the government’s obligations as a signatory to the UN refugee convention with the reaction from Australians to large numbers of people arriving from Asia? How could they deter people coming to Australia by boat, given the paranoia this stirs up among Australians about the security of its borders?

The Fraser cabinet considered some options that sound familiar with what we heard today: turning the boats back, offshore processing, a detention centre in Australia and temporary visas. The difference was Fraser rejected them all, while the Keating government pioneered the use of detention centres in remote areas and the Howard government adopted the rest. Instead he looked for an UNHCR and regional solution to these problems, he offered Australian financial aid to the UN High Commissioner for the building and running costs of holding centres in SE Asia. As the result, most Vietnamese refugees were processed by Australian officials offshore, in holding centres in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and then flown to Australia. They were no different from the 2029 Vietnamese who arrived by boat between 1975 and 1979 and were accepted as refugees, but they were less visible and satisfied Australian concerns about not turning up uninvited.

A few factors worked in Fraser’s favour at the time of the Vietnamese refugee crisis. One was the sentiment that Australia had a moral obligation to help the victims of a war in which we had fought. It was an argument he put forcefully and successfully.

The other was Fraser’s ability to see the benefits of having the Vietnamese refugees as a plus for Australia and not as not as a threat. Unlike Alfred Deakin, he saw the inexhaustible energy, the power of applying to new tasks and the endurance of these Vietnamese refugees as the new group of Australian battlers for Australia’s future. Thus, he wanted them to feel welcome and embraced by Australia’s humanity and kindness. He said: “If you embrace a positive view and embrace the courage of the people who are prepared to try and get a better life for themselves and their families, I think the political pressure starts to diminish”

Malcolm worked very hard to win the opposition over to support the Vietnamese refugees. In opposition under the Fraser government, Whitlam turned his support for the policy after Vietnam expelled mainly ethnic Chinese citizens and following a concerted effort by Fraser and his immigration minister Ian McPhee to achieve a bipartisan policy.

Another key factor in resolving the issue of refugees in the 70s was an international agreement that stemmed the flow from Vietnam but allowed large numbers of refugees to go to Western countries. Such co-operation, combined with humane treatment of asylum-seekers was the best way to cut boat arrivals in Australia.

Due to Malcolm Fraser’s humane approach, resolve and courage more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees were settled in Australia without a big controversy and the program had literally changed both the face and fate of Australia forever. Given the fact that most Australians were still concerned and had strong reservations about the capacity of the Vietnamese to fit into Australia’s European and English centric culture and language. The success of the Vietnamese settlement had become an unofficial answer to the litmus test on the success of multiculturalism and the abolition of the White Australian policy in Australia.

The fact that the Vietnamese-Australians have succeeded spectacularly in a short space of time
with their persistence, inexhaustible energy, adaptability, hard works, loyalty and a deep gratitude to their new homeland Australia has helped to quell the fears of “Yellow Peril”, strengthen the case for multiculturalism and help to put the “White Australian” policy to rest forever. I will never forget what Mr Fraser had told me at a Vietnamese function when he said: “Thanks goodness, your community has made my decisions right!”

Instead of giving you a long list of achievements and high profiled Vietnamese-Australians, I would like to share with you a story of an ordinary Vietnamese refugee family in Richmond, Melbourne which I interviewed for a special booklet to celebrate the 40 years of settlement of the Vietnamese Community in Australia entitled “40 Years, 4 Families and 4 Stories”. I believe this story encapsulates very well the qualities that Alfred Deakin had correctly stated about the non-white Australians 114 years ago, and it explains why with these qualities the Vietnamese-Australians have helped to make Australia a great nation in the last 4 decades:

Mr. Hung Canh Phan, born in 1954 in Binh Dinh Province, Viet-Nam. Hung is the youngest son of a family of seven children and three of whom died very young. His mother died when he was not yet 1 year old. His father remarried and when his stepmother was pregnant, his father left her to go to North Viet-Nam in 1954. His stepmother had to make and sell Vietnamese rice papers to feed five little children in extreme poverty. Due to the poor situation of his family, Hung did not go to school like other children at his age but had to stay at home to help his mum with making rice papers.

Moved by his situation, an older uncle of his dad arranged the paper works and paid the school fees for him to enter elementary school when he was already 7 years old. Since he still had to help his mother with making rice papers, Hung had to mix schooling with work. At the end of primary school, he passed the public high school entrant exams but did not study because his mother could not afford it. He stayed home to help his mother making rice papers for another 3 years. Knowing how intelligent and how keen he was to go to school, a former teacher sponsored for him to attend high school. Due to the late start, Hung had to study extremely hard to catch up with other students. He did not only catch up with them but skipped 2 full years of high school to be equal with students of his own age. Hung passed both Matriculation Exams major in Science and Maths in 1969 and 1970.

Hung went on to pass the entrant exams of Saigon Teaching University in 1971. The year he graduated in 1975 was also the year that South Viet-Nam was lost to the Communist invaders from the North. Being a trained teacher graduate from a South Viet-Nam University, he was not trusted by the new regime and was sent to the remote Phu Quoc Island where he taught year 12 Maths. In 1979, he married and his first daughter was born in 1980 in Phu Quoc Island.

In 1981, Hung escaped Viet-Nam by boat with his wife and his one year old daughter to Thailand. After spending 3 months in the refugee camps, Hung and family were accepted to settle in Australia. He arrived in Melbourne in September 1981. Hung was only 27 years old at the time. Just 2 weeks after arrival, Hung started to work for a farm in Lilydale whilst completing a 4 month English course in the Nunawading Migrant Hostel.

After spending one year in the migrant hostel, in 1982 Hung and family were granted a Ministry of Housing flat in Elizabeth St, Richmond. This was also the year that Hung’s second daughter was born and he started working as a process worker full-time for Holden (from 1982-1988). However, Hung kept working in the farm on the weekend as well (from 1982-1988). Hung said the reason for his hardworking attitude was because he wanted to save enough money to return to study.

Unfortunately, Hung’s marriage broke down at the end of 1988. At that time, his two daughters were only 7 and 5 years old. Hung chose to move out and let his wife and the children to live in the housing flat, but his two children insisted to go with him. Without a home and with two young daughters to care for, Hung relied on his friends for temporary accommodation.

A few months after his separation, in 1989, Hung suffered a massive stroke, became paraplegic, lose his memory and capacity to speak. The stroke was so severe that doctors and the hospital thought he would not survive more than 2 months and if survived, he would be bed bound and never walk again. When Hung came to, he begged his two children to stay with his former wife whilst he was in hospital. Driven by his worries for the future and the fate of his two young daughters, Hung steeled himself to live and regain the use of his faculties as soon as possible. To the utter astonishment of his doctors and hospital staff, 6 months after having emergency surgery on a massive stroke, with incredible efforts and will power, Hung was able to stand up and walk again.

Losing all his jobs and left paraplegic, the Department of Social Security only granted him and the two children $65 per week to live by due to his 5 year’s double job hard earned savings. For the sake of having his children with him and to avoid the chance of his children come under state protection or losing both parents, Hung did not complain or appeal about it but struggled on. With the help of his two children, Hung learned to speak, to walk, to move around without wheelchairs or walking sticks, to look after himself without anyone’s help and incredibly, to help his children complete and excel in their education.

Can’t afford tutoring, Hung took upon himself to teach his own children. Both daughters attended Camberwell College after one of them was successfully gained entrance to Mac Robinson selected school. Against all odds, this paraplegic pensioner and father has successfully taught and helped his 7 and 5 years old daughters:

Diana Phan – passed VCE with an ANTAR score of 99.70 and graduated from the University of Melbourne in Medicine in 2005.
Mary Phan – passed VCE with an ANTAR score of 99.40 and graduated from the University of Melbourne in Dentistry in 2007.

Today, Hung is a proud grandfather of Dr. Diana Phan’s 2 children aged 5 years old and 9 months old and continues to help his daughters as he has done in the past 25 years.

When asked what has helped and motivated him to overcome all incredible odds to be where his daughters and he are today, Mr Phan said:

“Because I loved my daughters and because I was in fear of losing my children and my children would be left behind without me. I had experienced the loss of my mother, my father and abject poverty, hence I fought hard and struggled with all my might for my children’s sake…. the key thing I have taught my children is that they must be self-controlled, self-disciplined, must try their best and never give up when facing adversities. I was extremely lucky to survive and cared for by this generous and blessed country, I hope my children will continue to contribute more and more to Australia”

Ladies and gentlemen,

Forty years ago, a momentous game changer event took place in Australia: the dismissal of a democratically elected Prime Minister of Australia Gough Whitlam by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr on 11th November 1975. It was the first and the only dismissal of an elected Prime Minister in the 200 years of Australian history! Very few Australians at the time realised how that dismissal was also a game changer or perhaps can be more correctly described as a life and a destiny changer for hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees awaiting resettlement in many South East Asia refugee camps, nor could they know how important these Vietnamese refugees would help to play a vital role in ending the White Australia immigration policy for good and in the success of Multiculturalism in Australia 40 years on.

Were we the game changers? We hope so, but we and our children’s children certain will continue to try our best in the next 40 years to be even bigger game changers for this wonderful country of ours AUSTRALIA!

Thank you Australia for the past 40 years, thank you our Father and Saviour Mr Malcolm Fraser and thank you for listening.

HOME | Back to Top