Penny Wong’s visit to deepen Australia’s engagement with Malaysia

by JAN DREW

THE visit of Australia’s new Foreign Minister, the Honourable Penny Wong (picture), provides a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on Malaysia to increase the visibility of the country. Few would be aware of the importance of Malaysia as Australia’s eighth-largest trading partner with two-way trade value amounting to RM76.3 billion (A$25 billion), the second-largest market in Asean. 

The fact that Australia is home to the largest number of Malaysian diaspora, with the exception of Singapore, with approximately 180,000 immigrant Malaysians — the UK is almost half that amount — or that 50,000 Malaysians are currently undertaking some form of education and training in Australia, making Malaysia Australia’s fifth top source country for education exports.

The importance of the Malaysia-Australia education-immigration nexus cannot be understated. Many of the diaspora are a direct result of Australia’s historic foreign policy that understood the value of education as strategically important to diplomacy and which saw the introduction in the 1950s of the Colombo Plan scholarships that saw many of Malaysia’s current leaders educated at Australian universities. 

Penny Wong’s father was one such recipient, studying at the University of Adelaide where he met his future wife and Wong’s mother. By the 1980s, over 20,000 students from 25 countries had undertaken education or training in Australia under the Colombo Plan, returning home upon completion, with many returning later to Australia as immigrants.  

Drew (left) says Penny Wong’s visit will not only raise the visibility of Malaysia and Asean, but should seek to reinforce the new govt’s commitment to the New Colombo Plan (Pic source: www.theglobalstudent.org)

Malaysia also plays a central role in Asean, not only due to its geographical location, but in the critical leadership it continues to provide. Asean matters to Australia as our shared prosperity relies upon it. 

“Our RM308.3 billion (A$101 billion) two-way trade with Asean in 2020 exceeded our trade with Japan or the US. Our two-way investment with Asean in 2020 was more than RM738.7 billion (A$242 billion),” explains the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) of Australia in a dedicated section titled “Why Asean matters: Our shared prosperity” on its website.

The new Australian Prime Minister (PM), the Right Honourable Anthony Albanese, pledged recently to deepen engagement with the region with a support package for Asean members of RM1.43 billion (A$470 million) through bilateral and regional development assistance programmes, which will benefit Malaysia. 

Professor Michael Wesley from the University of Melbourne recently stated that “education is the cheapest and most effective soft-power diplomacy a country like Australia can deploy”. 

PM Albanese reinforced this in his recent address where he indicated that education should be “front and centre” of regional engagement. This conviction forms the basis of the development of the former government’s New Colombo Plan scholarship scheme that was implemented in 2014 and which will see RM67.1 million (A$22 million) go towards sending about 6,000 Australian students into 40 countries in Asia this year, including about 400 to Malaysia. 

The DFAT-funded Australia Awards scholarships aimed at capacity building in developing countries are also highly valued, but the numbers barely compare to 1,258 scholarships awarded for scholars from Asean that has a population of over 600 million. 

Penny Wong’s visit (June 28) will not only raise the visibility of this important neighbour and this valuable region, but should seek to reinforce the new government’s commitment to the New Colombo Plan and the opportunity it provides to increase Asian literacy amongst Australia’s youth and address the imbalance in the two-way flow of students, which will deepen engagement with and create stronger ties to this strategic trading partner. 

Jan Drew
Director of The Global Student