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Legislative Council

06 February 2019
Tien Kieu  (ALP)


Dr KIEU (South Eastern Metropolitan) (15:54:46): President, I congratulate you on your election to such a prestigious position. I congratulate all the new members of this chamber. I also thank all the members returning anew for their warm welcome. My presence here today started with the kindness and generosity of the Australian people through to the spirit of the national anthem: For those who’ve come across the seas We’ve boundless plains to share; With courage let us all combine To Advance Australia Fair. I am standing here today to deliver my first speech in this chamber. My journey to Parliament has been long and winding. To truly understand a person, one must dig deep and learn his or her journey rather than his or her destination, and so I beg your indulgence. Before coming to Australia life was all about survival for my family. My parents escaped from the communist-held North Vietnam and fled to South Vietnam in an act of survival and to live a life without fear. They both joined a paratrooper division in the Republic of South Vietnam’s military, where they met. This was before conscription, mind you, but they felt so strongly about protecting freedom that they volunteered to enlist. It was also remarkable for a woman in that era to voluntarily join such an elite and dangerous unit. I was their first child, and in what seemed to be a continuation of horrid luck for my parents I was diagnosed with a critical illness. They prepared to sell whatever they had and do whatever it took to cure me. All of the biggest hospitals in Saigon refused to take a chance on what was seen as a hopeless case—except one French hospital, perhaps out of mercy or intrigue to experiment on an unusual ailment. On the day of the operation, without money for a cab ride, my parents walked kilometres with me, a baby, in their arms. They arrived at the hospital only to learn that the operation was cancelled so that the surgeon could celebrate the coming Christmas. As fate had it, the relative of another patient overheard the conversation and suggested to my parents to try a doctor specialising in herbal medicine. Out of desperation my parents sought out the doctor, thanks to whom I survived without any surgery. As a child I went to bed not with the harmonies of lullabies but amidst the sound of explosions from artillery and bombs. I was mostly fed not on the milk of my mother, who was often away on mission, but with sweetened condensed milk bought from army supplies. In my childhood I often witnessed the violence and atrocities of war. Death and destruction was felled upon so many around me that soon I perceived everything from the shudder of explosions to the echoes of gunfire as less than extraordinary and rather as simply 'ordinary’. Then 1975 came. The communists took over South Vietnam, but the war did not end there. The victors opened up another front on the people of the south. They sent hundreds of thousands to the so-called 're-education camps’ in the most remote corners of the country. There were no sentenced terms. The detained had to stay in the camps until deemed sufficiently re-educated at the pleasure and mercy of the authorities. Some were there for decades. Many did not survive. To this day, countless bodies have never been found. Meanwhile, their families were not spared either. They were stripped of their livelihoods, their houses were confiscated and the people were sent to new economic zones to endure hardship. Education and employment were dished out based on personal history—the history of not just oneself but of one’s three generations. Unfortunately this was reserved only for party members and their families. It was a realisation of Orwell’s world: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. We simply had to find a way to escape Vietnam by whatever means for a life of freedom, a life without oppression and fear. We tried so many times; all failed. On two occasions, out of despair and desperation, we tried a petrol tanker with a tank about 8 metres long and 2 metres high divided into three chambers. We planned to ride the tanker into the sea and float the tank as a vessel with an engine and propeller fitted to the end chamber. The daring escape did not eventuate. The tanker did not make it to the water as it became bogged down in the sand. It may still be on display today somewhere in central Vietnam. On another occasion a boat capsized with more than 30 of my close relatives on board. Most did not make it. In the end we split up and I boarded a small boat about 13 metres long and 4 metres wide together with 107 other souls. We endured five days and five nights at sea with very little food and water. Each person received about two canteen capfuls of water per day. To further exacerbate matters, we were attacked by pirates not once but twice. It was nothing short of a miracle that we somehow made it to the shores of Malaysia, but we were the lucky few. Others had gone through unimaginably horrendous experiences. Many perished at sea because of starvation or thirst or at the hands of pirates. There is no way to know the exact number of those who died. Some estimates put it at hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Those are the deaths I will live for, so I vow to myself. Years later I had the chance to dedicate my PhD thesis at the University of Edinburgh to my parents, my teachers and my high sea companions, the boat people. The Australians came to the Malaysian refugee camp, took us in on humanitarian grounds and gave us safe passage to Brisbane in 1980. When I first arrived in Australia I could not believe that there could exist such a humane society outside of fairytales. Opportunities were abundant, and I took them with open arms. Starting right away I took a job as a labourer working with asbestos for some time before barging my way into the University of Queensland, where I was awarded the university gold medal upon graduation. The Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan then took me to the University of Edinburgh for my PhD studies. After that I spent three years as a research fellow at the University of Oxford before returning to Australia to take up a fellowship at the University of Melbourne in 1991, then a position at the CSIRO and professorial fellowships at Swinburne University of Technology and Melbourne University. My mathematical background has also afforded me the opportunity to dabble in financial algorithmic trading, in data science and artificial intelligence. Science has been my passion and still is one of the loves of my life. Science is full of wonders and order, the kind of orderliness that I often sought refuge in during my teenage years in Saigon. Science was an escapism to get away from the surrounding chaos and cruelty. Science has taken me to many magnificent institutions around the world—from being a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University to visiting scientists at MIT and the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. I have made many lifelong friends in the scientific circle. I have had my fair share of discovery and of course controversies. Given that background, I am very much interested in science issues and policy for our state. Australia is often regarded as a lucky country with abundant raw resources, but in our time and age we have to compete in an environment of increasingly sophisticated science, technology and innovation. The low-hanging fruits have been harvested. Genetic engineering, data science and artificial intelligence, to name a few, are now crucial for new economic growth. Quantum computers, quantum algorithms and quantum technology in general are advancing at great speed thanks to investments in advanced countries and economies. They will be paying huge dividends not too far in the future, if not already, in creating new applications and markets. Science and technology have been impacting many aspects of our lives, our living standards, our culture and even social justice. Advances in renewable energy technologies and extreme climate management in particular will be coming from scientific research and technological breakthroughs. Science and technology together co-evolve in a symbiotic manner. Victoria leads not only the nation but also the world in some fields of scientific research. We need to nurture and expand our scientific advantage. Research and development is expensive, but it is not only an investment in our state but the world itself. Victorian Labor governments over the last two decades have invested heavily in R and D, which has given our state undeniable advantages in scientific advancement, but we could always do more. We could always do more to shift our resources to suitably targeted areas as the times in which we live now present global catastrophe as a commonplace concern rather than a rarity. Our own supply of skills in science and technology is in serious shortage. The trend indicates a steady decline in the number of young people having an interest in the subjects of STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To arrest the decline we need to start with high school students, if not younger. We need to encourage more participation in STEM as subjects of excitement and intrigue as well as of relevance and for all genders. As a person driven to science at a relatively young age thanks to the influence of my teachers, I appreciate very much their role in guiding and imparting not only their knowledge but also their passion to students. I will fight not only to have more teachers given the resources to become highly skilled in educating students in the field of STEM but also to foster a climate where their passion and interest is undeniably contagious to their students. Furthermore, another pursuit that I have endeavoured upon pertains to the importance of multiculturalism. In our state of Victoria nearly 50 per cent of the population were born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. The South Eastern Metropolitan Region that I represent is the most culturally and linguistically diverse region of Victoria, with people coming from nearly 160 ethnic groups and nationalities and with more than 200 languages spoken. Springvale in particular boasts a diverse populace where more than 70 per cent of people were born outside Australia. The City of Greater Dandenong is the most multicultural and multifaith place on earth. Such a success does not just happen by chance. It demands the deep commitment of all the people involved. It requires unity in the common values of liberty, justice and equal opportunity. 'Our workforce and our entire economy are strongest when we embrace diversity to its fullest, and that means opening doors of opportunity to everyone’, as Tom Perez put it. Labor acknowledges that migration promotes significant long-term social and economic benefits to our society. Labor welcomes migrants into our community, including many who come as refugees or people seeking asylum. Labor understands the need to raise awareness of the benefits of a vibrant and tolerant community that balances cultural identity with the need to recognise and respect the beliefs of others. The Victorian Labor government’s multicultural policy, with its supporting campaign Victorian. And Proud of It, has reaffirmed our government’s commitment to the ideals of multiculturalism and to continuing to provide a positive way forward for maintaining our strong and socially inclusive society. But we must remember too that the cultures that make up a multicultural society have their own needs. Take the Indochinese community as an example. Many young people came to these shores escaping the war-torn countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s and 1980s. They have worked hard and contributed extensively to their family, community and country. Now, more than 40 years later, they and their parents are reaching the stage of their lives where care—whether it is home care, residential care or health care in general—is needed. Aged care is a growing problem of demand and supply for our society as our population is ageing fast, particularly with the baby boomer generation and more so for ethno-specific aged-care requirements. The care provided must be appropriate to their culture, religion, language and dietary needs. This will ensure that both their welfare and their dignity are cared for. The Andrews Labor government already has long-term plans and investment commitments to support ethno-specific aged care, but with the current wave of care requirements for the post-1975 refugees from Indochina, further consideration and planning will be needed urgently. Abovementioned are some areas of my passionate interests, and I look forward to working with the ministers concerned and all parliamentary members to make further progress in these domains. The Buddha has taught us that gratitude is necessary for integrity. Today is the second day of the Lunar New Year of the Pig. It is, in our tradition and custom, the occasion to pay respect to our ancestors on this day, and I would like to add to that those who fought for, died for or are still fighting for freedom and for basic rights of humans. I am beholden to my parents for all the sacrifices they made. I am grateful to all my teachers and my mentors, who have shown me the possibilities, turning a sometimes wayward boy into the person I am. I am a better person thanks to you in no small part. I simply cannot name all the individuals who have helped me, but I want to specifically thank Hung Tran, Loi Truong, Trung Doan, Tuan Dao, Hung Doan, Kim Doan, Hung Chau, Daniel Mulino, Anthony Byrne, Adem Somyurek, Ben Davis, Steve Michelson, Declan Williams and especially Luke Donnellan for introducing and unflinchingly supporting me in my political endeavours and for their instrumental help in my campaign. I also want to acknowledge the help from the Australian Workers Union, the community, the supporters, the volunteers and my friends, many of whom are here today in the gallery. Thank you, and I am so glad that our paths have crossed. Words are insufficient to express my debt and gratitude to my wife of 39 years for everything, from giving up her food ration in the refugee camp to feed an exhausted and hungry husband to sharing with me all the burdens and hardships that life has thrown at us. Without her love, encouragement, support and understanding I would not be here—I would not be where I am today. To my beloved daughters, I am proud of you. I am honoured to be a part of the labour movement. It is unflinching in its elevation of inclusiveness, progressiveness and the right for everyone to find opportunity equally. I have participated in social and community activities for nearly my entire adult life—from volunteering during my student days to eventually founding multiple volunteer media organisations, some lasting over 20 years. My participation in politics at this stage of my life, even though I had never dared to dream or believe that it was possible when first setting foot in Australia, is yet another attempt to repay this country. I am humbled to be elected, and take with utmost seriousness my responsibility for the community as well as for my constituents, who have bestowed upon me the great honour and privilege to serve. I have had a second life full of possibility, all thanks to Australia. For that I am eternally grateful. I owe this country an unrepayable debt. All I can do is strive to reduce that debt, and I assure you I will do my best. Members applauded.