Keynote address in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

  • Speech, check against delivery

Introduction - personal ties

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

I doubt my Poh-Poh could ever have imagined it.

Her name was Madam Lai Fung Shim.

She was of Hakka descent.

When the war came to Malaysia, she and the rest of the family were in Sandakan.

Most of our family died in the war, and Poh-Poh was left alone to care for her children in the hardest of circumstances.

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.

Her son, Francis Wong, was a bright student who worked hard. His efforts earned him a Colombo Plan scholarship, to study architecture at Adelaide University.

The opportunity to study was the opportunity that defined his life.

It meant he could climb out of the poverty he experienced as a child.

It meant doors opened that would have otherwise been jammed firmly shut.

It meant he could come to Australia – a very different Australia from what we know today.

And it meant a charming young Malaysian man could meet a bold young Australian woman.

They married and moved back to Kota Kinabalu, where I was born, and where I spent the first eight years of my life.

Dad brought back with him knowledge and skills. He became a notable figure in Kota Kinabalu, designing prominent civic buildings – although sadly I am told many have been replaced.

The value of that education has never left him. He always told me: “They can take everything away from you, but they can't take your education.”

The Australia-Malaysia Relationship

And I am glad that he is far from the only Malaysian to gain from an education in Australia.

Indeed, over the past twenty years, more than 125,000 Malaysians have studied in Australia.

And many Australians are benefiting from education in Malaysia.

Malaysia is one of the most popular destinations for Australian undergraduate students supported by the New Colombo Plan.

Since Malaysia joined the New Colombo Plan in 2015, around 2,000 Australian undergraduate students have been supported to undertake study and internships in Malaysia.

Our shared history of cooperation has endured through seismic events, including World War Two, the Malayan Emergency, the Asian Financial Crisis and COVID.

Yet it is largely education that has the foundation on which our countries – and our peoples - have built mutual respect and understanding.

And it is education that is so central to how we build a shared future with shared experiences.

From the 1950s when the Colombo Plan started, we continue to strengthen our long tradition of cooperation in education – to build connections and friendship, and to harness opportunities that benefit us all.

Malaysia is now host to the largest overseas Australian university presence in the world, creating an important transnational education hub in Southeast Asia.

Monash, Swinburne, Curtin and Wollongong universities all have a significant presence in Malaysia.

The opportunities of education provide an endless potential for growth for individuals and for their communities, and for their countries.

These community links are at the heart of our relationship.

Though we are tied together by geography, the human ties of family, business, education and tourism are stronger.

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.

Australia wants to work together on the challenges we both face – including food security, and health and pandemic recovery.

Our countries' pharmaceutical regulation agencies are working together on COVID vaccine regulation, and Australia has been funding efforts to get vaccines to hard to reach populations in Malaysia.

Our two-way trade in agriculture, fisheries and forestry is valued at over $2b AUD (MYR 6b) and has enormous potential for growth.

We supply more than 10 per cent 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.

I want us to modernise our trade relationship, so we can take up more opportunities in the digital economy and face challenges like cyber security.

Australia's trade agency, Austrade is working with the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation to promote research collaboration, capacity building, and technology exchange.

And under our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, we are also expanding cooperation on cyber security to counter new threats and unleash new opportunities.

Next week, officials from across the Malaysian national security community will convene in Putrajaya to participate in the Digital Cyber Bootcamp - which is Australia's flagship cyber capacity building activity with regional partners to improve cyber resilience in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

This is our first Bootcamp in Malaysia, and will help build Malaysia's capacity across the full breadth of cyber affairs, covering topics such as: critical infrastructure, global cyber governance and the application of international law in cyberspace.

We are also cooperating on more traditional security threats, including transnational crime, counter-terrorism, and people smuggling.

And under our bilateral Malaysian Australian Joint Defence Program, Malaysia and Australia continue training and professional exchanges of Defence officers which remains a core component of the bilateral Defence relationship, that stretches back over half a century.

Of course as well as that, Australia and Malaysia are among the five countries that are party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements, formed in 1971.

These arrangements commit Australia – along with the United Kingdom and New Zealand – to consult in case of an armed attack on Malaysia or Singapore.

Indeed just this week, senior officials-level delegations from all participating countries, are meeting in Penang – an especially nice place for a meeting!

But just as important as all of these direct partnerships between Malaysia and Australia is how we work together through regional institutions like ASEAN.

ASEAN centrality

ASEAN and ASEAN‑led institutions hold the centre of the Indo-Pacific.

We are diverse nations, but we all agree that we want to live in a region that is stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty.

Where disputes are guided by international law and norms, not by power and size.

A region that is peaceful and predictable.

These are the same principles articulated in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Achieving this requires a strategic equilibrium in the region.

ASEAN is the foundation of this equilibrium – it is the centre of the Indo-Pacific region.

Its strength lies in its ability to speak for the region and to balance regional powers. All countries that seek to work with the region have a responsibility to engage constructively and respectfully with it.

Which is why it is such an honour for Australia to be one of only two countries that have a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN.

And I will be sharpening the focus of my department on Southeast Asia, so Australia is better equipped to engage with the region.

So we can be a stronger partner for the countries of the region, including Malaysia.

As I have said, ASEAN is at the centre, but we can also seek new partnerships and arrangements that also contribute to our shared objectives.

We see the Quad as working alongside ASEAN and other regional architecture to strengthen our shared interests with the countries of Southeast Asia.

Strategic equilibrium enables countries to make their own sovereign choices – rather than having their future decided for them.

We have a responsibility to work together to achieve our shared interests and ensure our region remains peaceful, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty.

Those of us who grew up with family stories from the war, owe it to our grandparents – and our children - to preserve that region.


My family history will be on my mind today when I go back to Kota Kinabalu.

But more than the past, I am 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.

I referred to Australia being a different place when my father arrived around sixty years ago.

My Malaysian heritage is one of the 270 ancestries now represented in Australia.

Half of the Australian population was born overseas or has a parent who was born overseas.

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

Because we share common ground.

The time has come for Australia's full story to be told: our modern diversity and the rich heritage of First Nations peoples.

As we look to the future, I hope Australia's story will be part of your story.

Thank you.

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