Malcolm Fraser, our 22nd Prime Minister. During his time in office, he officially welcomed Vietnamese refugees to resettle in Australia, changing the lives of thousands in an instant. Although I am the daughter of refugees, I never truly appreciated the importance of this life changing decision until decades later.
The first time I met Malcolm Fraser was at a Vietnamese community dinner. It was the first time that I had the opportunity to meet a former Prime Minister of Australia, and I was in awe of his stature, both societal and physical. Despite this, he did not come across as intimidating or standoffish at all, but rather very approachable. He smiled and chatted to the continuous stream of people asking to have their picture taken with him. I watched on amusingly, as he towered over most of these people like a friendly giant. Mr. Fraser’s decision to accept Vietnamese refugees gave them a second chance to create a new home in Australia, and they were keen to thank him. Malcolm Fraser’s passion to improve society meant that he often supported the Vietnamese community, attending functions and giving these former refugees the opportunity to thank him in person. This was the first time that I met him, but not the last, as he continued to support the Vietnamese community in Australia, helping it to mature.
In 2013, I was involved in one of these projects, the Dual Identity Leadership Program. It aimed to teach leadership skills, while bridging the disconnection that some second generation Vietnamese Australians felt with their heritage. Once again, Mr. Fraser was in attendance at the fundraising dinner, acting asthe patron of the program. As he addressed the audience, he held up the poster that we had put together and pointed to the tag line “Embracing our heritage to become great Australians”. I had come up with it thinking that without accepting yourself, including your heritage, you couldn’t really unlock your full potential. To have Mr. Fraser agree with it made me feel so privileged. I also admired his mind, and his ability to adapt his thoughts and opinions with the times. He stood at the lectern and admitted that in the past, he had believed that immigrants should assimilate in order to truly become Australians. He no longer believed this and encouraged the younger generations to understand their cultural heritage, to take on leadership roles and to contribute to society.
The last time I saw Mr. Fraser was at an intimate dinner at the end of 2014. Once again, he was encouraging young Vietnamese Australians to get involved in civic responsibilities including politics, where we could make a difference to Australian society. In this small room, we discussed the political landscape with Mr. Fraser. Once again, I was amazed at how relaxed and comfortable we all felt, chatting to Malcolm Fraser. Everyone was happy to voice their opinions and after lengthy discussions, Mr. Fraser asked whether we had any more questions. After a decent pause, no one had anything to add, so I cheekily asked whether he would take a photo with my baby. He smiled and only agreed if we were also in the photo, proudly adding that his great granddaughter was the same age. This was the last time that I saw Mr. Fraser, but I constantly think of him in admiration.
Some Vietnamese Australians think of Malcolm Fraser as their ‘father’, giving them a second chance at life. As Prime Minister, he played an essential role in allowing Vietnamese refugees to resettle in Australia. In his later years, he continually supported a maturing Vietnamese community, encouraged younger generations to take on more leadership roles, to contribute to society and make our Australia a better place. Whether or not you think of him as the ‘father’ of the Vietnamese community in Australia, his actions sure seemed father-like to me.
With Mr Fraser no longer here, Australia no longer has a states man whose opinions mattered, who would challenge and raise issues that deeply affect humanity, on asylum seekers, human rights, environment, politics, young people and the future of Australia.
On the occasion of his first anniversary, it is with deep emotion that I pen these thoughts.
Dan Thanh Nguyen