Foreign Minister Penny Wong visits hometown during Malaysian visit, spitting Australian diversity

Foreign Secretary Penny Wong has visited her hometown and drew on her early upbringing in Malaysia to try to reshape Australia’s image as an increasingly diverse country at home in Asia.

Senator Wong was warmly welcomed at a reception in Kota Kinabalu last night, where relatives, friends and political leaders gathered to welcome a daughter of the city.

She told the meeting that her visit was “an act of returning home” but also an “act of hope and an act of respect”.

“It is an act of hope that my story and the story of my family can contribute to the relationship between the country of my birth and the country to which I belong,” she said.

“And that story can add the human and personal dimension to strengthen the relationship between our nations.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many in the crowd claimed a direct connection to Senator Wong.

A former neighbor told the ABC she remembered her mother selling chicken eggs to Senator Wong’s father, prominent local architect Francis Wong.

“There was a gang of us. We were very close,” she said.

“We are very proud of her.”

Senator visits touchstones of her life

A black and white photograph of Penny Wong as a child, with her mother, father and brother.
Secretary of State Penny Wong with her family in 1972.Delivered

Francis Wong met Senator Wong’s mother, Jane Chapman, while studying at the University of Adelaide.

Senator Wong left Kota Kinabalu and moved to Australia at the age of eight, but she kept returning to see family in the city as she built a life in a new country.

The Secretary of State’s day in Kota Kinabalu was littered with visits to touchstones from her childhood and later life.

Sometimes the cameras were welcome, such as when she visited a popular eatery where she always enjoyed fish balls on her visits to the city.

A black and white photograph of a smiling young girl.
Senator Wong says her experience as an Australian born in another country is not unique. Delivered

The fish balls at Kuo Man restaurant, she said, were “almost as good” as the ones her grandmother used to make.

“This place holds a lot of memories for me,” she said.

“Actually, this is my first time here without my father.”

A woman sits cross-legged with schoolchildren in a library.
Senator Wong says her old elementary school used to have “a lot more old-style classes.”ABC News: Anne Barker

The cameras also tracked Senator Wong as she visited her old elementary school, Kinabalu International School, on a campus designed in part by Francis Wong.

School was still in its infancy when she started there, and young Penny Wong was only the 19th student.

“It was only one building and there weren’t many kids, but it was fun,” she told the students.

There was a sense that it was a slightly less forgiving place than it is today.

“There was a lot more old-style teaching,” Senator Wong said.

‘The strongest person I’ve ever known’

Other parts of her visit were private.

The media was asked to stay away when Senator Wong visited the grave of her grandmother, Ms. Lai Fung Shim, who survived the brutal Japanese occupation of Borneo.

A young woman holding a toddler stands with an older woman.  Both women smile.
Senator Wong paid tribute to her grandmother, saying, “In times of struggle, I think of her and what she endured.”Delivered

Senator Wong paid tribute to her grandmother – who she called her Poh-Poh – during a speech in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, saying: “In times of struggle, I think of her and what she endured.”

“Most of our family died in the war, and Poh-Poh was left alone to care for her children in the most difficult of circumstances,” she told the crowd.

“She was barely literate. She was loving and humble, and the strongest person I’ve ever known.”

But the trip wasn’t just a meander down memory lane.

Senator Wong also clearly intended to deliver a message about Australia and use her personal history to say something about the trajectory the nation is taking today.


“This story can be told by so many Australians. We have so many Australians who were born abroad or whose parents were born abroad, who have connections to South East Asia and other countries around the world,” she told reporters.

“I hope my story can help remind people in this region and around the world that Australia is a modern, diverse and multicultural society that likes to stay involved with the region.”

The suggestion – unspoken – was that Australia’s image in Asia could be stuck in aspic, with many still seeing the country as a largely Anglo outpost.

Senator Wong began to say an answer, “We don’t have enough…” before pausing and trying a softer tack.

†[Diversity] is one of the strengths of who Australia is,” she said.

“And we should tell the story more.”

Senator Wong cringed when asked if she was in a “unique” position to do so.

“I always resist the word unique. My experience is not that unique,” she replied.

But she also acknowledged that she was still well placed to tell the story of how Australia’s face had changed in the decades since she arrived as a child.

“If you believe something, you probably convey it better, don’t you?” she said.

“And it just happens to be the truth.”

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