Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Australia Malaysia Business Council of Queensland Australia-Malaysia Ball, Stamford Plaza, Brisbane


It’s a pleasure to be here. Can I start by acknowledging my Federal Parliamentary colleagues, Bert Van Manen and Bernie Ripoll; my State Parliamentary colleagues, Minister Anthony Lynham and Mark Boothman; Deputy High Commissioner, Second Secretary; Lord Mayor; President of the Australia Malaysia Business Council of Queensland, Shona Lepp?nen-Gibson and your board; other distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

As Parliamentary Secretary to both the Attorney-General and the Minister for Social Services, it is my very great pleasure to be here this evening to represent the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC and the Foreign Minister, the Hon Julie Bishop MP.

Both the Attorney and the Minister have asked me to pass on their best wishes to you.

Australia’s relationship with Malaysia is one of our key partnerships, both in the region and the world.

The strength of the relationship is demonstrated by the number of senior visits to Malaysia this year, including a visit to Malaysia by Prime Minister Abbott in September and visits by Foreign Minister Bishop, Trade and Investment Minister Robb and the Governor-General in August.

This year is an important milestone in the bilateral relationship, marking the 60th anniversary of Australia’s diplomatic presence in Kuala Lumpur.

But our relationship goes back centuries.

Contact between Australia and Malaysia is thought to go back as far as the mid-1600s, involving Macassan traders who lived seasonally in northern Australia, fishing for trepang (sea slugs) before trading with imperial China.

Migration and diversity

Significant numbers of Malaysia-born migrants moved to Australia from 1950 onwards and Malaysia remains in the top ten of source countries of permanent migrants to Australia.

Since 1945, we have welcomed over 116,000 people of Malaysian origin as migrants to Australia, contributing to our cultural diversity.

Our migration has been a source of great social and economic strength. As a nation, we have found unity and prosperity in our diversity and respect in our differences. That is why today we are one of the most culturally diverse, yet socially cohesive nations on Earth.

Social cohesion

Our social cohesion is the sum of millions of successful settlement journeys to Australia.

We do not have some of the extreme problems that other countries do have. But social cohesion does not just happen by itself.

Our success has been built through the efforts and commitment of millions of Australians, unified by our goal of wanting a prosperous future for everyone.

For decades, we have worked hard to establish a consensus around the merits of our cultural and religious diversity and building community harmony.

Every day, Commonwealth, State and Territory agencies are engaging with communities and forming vital partnerships and we need to continue those partnerships to strengthen and support all our Australian communities.

Productive diversity

Our diversity and social cohesion connects us to other nations around the world in an unprecedented way. Around the world there are many different ways of doing business.

To be successful, we need to appreciate and understand these differences and identify any barriers or impediments that may exist.
This is where the value of our diversity becomes a real asset.

Australians have demonstrable links with other countries and an understanding of the languages and what the business practices and conventions are in those nations.

This is what the Australian Government calls ‘productive diversity‘. Productive diversity recognises the importance of working together with our diverse communities in developing important business relationships and partnerships and conducting business overseas.

Our cultural diversity serves us well, giving us that competitive edge.


And organisations such as the Australian Malaysian Business Council play an important role in relation to strengthening the ties and helping shape future opportunities for Australia. And it is the Australian Malaysian community that is at the heart of this relationship, building those important people to people links that is the core strength of this relationship.

From the first decades of the 20th Century, Malaysia was an important tin and rubber supplier for Australia, helping our young economy as it began to industrialise.

Malaysia was one of the first Asian countries with which we formalised trade arrangements after World War II.

Bilateral trade intensified in the years after Malaysia’s independence. And from the start of the 1970s on, Malaysia’s New Economic Policy began to develop the country as an export-oriented economy.

Likewise, from the 1980s, Australia began to remove old protectionist policies – a move that started the long, but extremely valuable, process of integrating our economy within a globalising world.

By the early 1990s, Malaysia was Australia’s eleventh-largest export market and several hundred Australian companies had established a foothold in Malaysia.

The Australia-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2012 continues to strengthen the economic ties between our two countries.

It is already delivering opportunities for Australian and Malaysian business alike through largely eliminated tariffs and increased equity ownership thresholds.

The Agreement has also increased ease of doing business for exporters. For example, exporters to Malaysia now only need to submit a declaration of origin rather than a certificate of origin, saving time and money for busy business people.

These changes are bringing our economies even closer. Today, Australia and Malaysia are among each other’s top ten trading partners, with Malaysia being our eighth largest trading partner overall and second in ASEAN.


But trade is not the only bond we share. Australia and Malaysia have long shared the commitment of keeping our region secure.

Our defence relationship has evolved from fighting together in the Malayan Campaign in World War II into a modern partnership focused on the more complex task of maintaining security in a much more dynamic environment.

Today, our security partnership also encompasses combatting the non-traditional threats of terrorism, transnational crime, people smuggling, cyber-crime, natural disasters, pandemics and violent extremism.

Over the past eighteen months, this relationship has grown stronger as we have had to respond to two shocking tragedies.

Not only did MH370 disappear over the South China Sea with 239 people on board, prompting a multinational search across the vast Indian Ocean, but three months later, 298 people from nations across the world were killed when MH17 was brought down.

Australia and Malaysia’s joint response to these two tragedies exemplifies the close partnership and the friendship between our two countries and the way in which we work together to seek to deliver results when crisis strikes or need arises.


Artistic and cultural exchange between Malaysia and Australia supports new talent and nurtures established artists and arts organisations.

It is also an opportunity to deepen understanding and friendship between our countries.

And work is undertaken between the Ministry for the Arts and Australia Council, working closely with DFAT, to build relationships between Australian and Malaysian arts and cultural sectors.


Education is another key pillar of our relationship.

As partners in the original Colombo Plan back in the 1950s, Malaysia provided the largest group of Colombo Plan scholars to study in our universities of any of the participating nations.

Annual enrolments in Australian educational institutions have increased by thousands in the decades since.

And this year, more than 22,000 Malaysian students were enrolled in Australian institutions, and thousands more are studying at Australian university campuses in Malaysia.

On the 6th of August, the Foreign Minister launched the New Colombo Plan in Kuala Lumpur – a scheme designed to build the skills and understanding of Australians about our key partners in our region.

And the New Colombo Plan will provide opportunities for Australian undergraduate students to spend time in countries in the region, including Malaysia.


Ladies and gentlemen, Australia and Malaysia have been close partners – close friends – for the past sixty years.

Having been involved in the multicultural space for about thirty years, I know how crucial it is to build and maintain linkages and networks between government, business and the community.

And these linkages and networks help support our social cohesion. The economic benefits that come through them are one of the primary drivers of Australia’s success as a nation.

Opportunity can forge even stronger bonds, and we are natural partners.

Can I conclude by thanking the Australian Malaysian Business Council of Queensland for hosting this event tonight and for playing its part in continuing to grow and strengthen the partnership between Australia and Malaysia.

I wish you a wonderful evening.