Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s visit to South-East Asia this week has a much more personal element than the usual bilateral talks with regional government ministers and officials.
- Senator Wong’s trip to Malaysia will include a side visit to her own hometown Kota Kinabalu
- Her brother James has told local media they will have a family get-together after official events
- Senator Wong has signalled a stronger focus on Australia’s relations with South-East Asia
Senator Wong leaves Vietnam this morning for Malaysia, on her first visit to both countries since she was sworn in as Foreign Minister last month.
But her trip to Malaysia will include a side visit to her hometown — the regional capital of Sabah province on the island of Borneo.
Kota Kinabalu is where Senator Wong was born and started school, and where she lived with her parents until she migrated to Australia with her mother and another brother at the age of eight.
After official talks and meetings in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, she will make an overnight visit to Kota Kinabalu where she will visit her old school and meet local leaders, including alumni of Australian universities.
Family members in Sabah say they are excited and proud about Senator Wong’s special “homecoming” as Australia’s new Foreign Minister.
Her younger brother James, who still lives in Sabah, says they are planning a small family get-together once the senator finishes her official events tomorrow evening.
“We are really excited about her visit back home as a Foreign Affairs Minister,” he told Malaysia’s Star Newspaper this week.
But Senator Wong’s visit to Kota Kinabalu is as much about diplomacy as it is family, and sends a strong message not only about her personal connections in Malaysia, but more importantly about Australia’s place and identity in the Asia-Pacific region.
As Australia’s first Asian-born Foreign Minister — and indeed its first foreign-born foreign minister since Nigel Bowen in 1972 — she can draw on her family heritage to remind South-East Asian nations of Australia’s image as a multicultural nation.
Ahead of the visit, she said Australia’s future was tied to the future of South-East Asia.
“My visit seeks to deepen these ties, building on our existing partnerships for the benefit of our countries and the region.”
It is a theme the Foreign Minister is expected to elaborate on when she delivers a speech in the Malaysian capital tomorrow and during meetings in Kota Kinabalu.
In Kuala Lumpur, she will meet Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, as well as Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and the Minister for International Trade and Industry, Azmin Ali.
Senator Wong will also discuss joint efforts on climate change, economic recovery, education ties and health security.
Second trip to South-East Asia in a month
In Vietnam, Senator Wong has held talks with the country’s President, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, and Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son.
She also helped launch a new Vietnam-Australia Centre, which will draw on Australian expertise to bolster Vietnam’s leadership training and research skills.
It is Senator Wong’s second trip to South-East Asia since the election, and her fourth trip to the Asia-Pacific region, after visiting Indonesia, Solomon Islands and Fiji.
On a joint visit to Jakarta last month, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and two other ministers, Senator Wong flagged a much stronger focus on Australia’s relations in South-East Asia.
Preparing to fly to Malaysia, Senator Wong said she looked forward to “the great honour” of returning to Kota Kinabalu, and Sabah, as Australia’s Foreign Minister.
Her brother James said the Foreign Minister had told him she also hoped to visit their paternal grandmother’s grave, and depending, on her schedule, go out for a local bowl of her favourite porridge.
Mr Wong said his sister’s roots in Sabah and her political achievements in Australia were an inspiration to many people in Sabah.
“We are so proud of her and we know many Sabahans are too,” he said.
He said Senator Wong had made many family visits to Kota Kinabalu “and walks about like a normal tourist”.
“We all grew up together as one family,” he said.
“She loves to keep her visits to [Kota Kinabalu] low-key,” he told the Malaysian Star.
Though security protocols and the demands of being Foreign Minister might mean that is no longer be possible.