Some refer to us as ‘boat people’ — but we are survivors

Today marks 40 years since the first boatload of refugees fleeing Vietnam arrived on Australia’s shores.

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In the decade that followed more than 80,000 Vietnamese people came to Australia to find refuge.

We are two of those 80,000, both of us arrived in Australia while we were still quite young, only 3 and 11. So it wasn’t the memory of the dangerous sea journey that left its mark on us, but the stories from the journey that have cast a long shadow over both of our lives.

Family and friends who were taken by pirates while they tried to escape Vietnam, years spent languishing in refugee camps in Malaysia and the fear of not knowing ones fate. 

Our journeys to Australia followed a similar path. We were both ‘boatpeople’ escaping war torn Vietnam in the 1970s. The traits we needed to survive the boat journey and the years in a refugee camp are the same traits we had to draw on growing up in Western Sydney – resilience and determination.

We saw the same traits in many of the refugee and migrant families who settled in suburbs like Cabramatta, Liverpool and Fairfield. As a community we didn’t have much, but we certainly had the will to work hard, to do well, to make our parents proud, and most importantly to be able to give back to Australia, a country that had welcomed us with open arms.

One in 10 Australians are from an Asian background. Yet if we look to the corporate sector, only one in every 50 executive managers is from an Asian background.  If we look to our elected representatives, it took until 2007 when Penny Wong was made Finance Minister for there to be a cabinet minister of Asian descent.

Australia has given us refuge, free education and health care but it has not been without its challenges.

Our stories have taken divergent paths. One of us has climbed the corporate ladder in the finance and insurance industries while the other went into journalism and politics.

Despite the incredibly rewarding careers, we’ve also witnessed firsthand the lack of cultural diversity in our respective industries and in particular, in our own kind – Asian Australians.

Australia is a country of considerable ethnic diversity. The 2011 census revealed that almost a quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas and 43 per cent of people have at least one parent born overseas.  But our boardrooms, parliaments and TV screens stubbornly fail to reflect the diversity in our society.

One in 10 Australians are from an Asian background. Yet if we look to the corporate sector, only one in every 50 executive managers is from an Asian background.  If we look to our elected representatives, it took until 2007 when Penny Wong was made Finance Minister for there to be a cabinet minister of Asian descent. Currently, there are only four members of federal parliament who have Asian cultural heritage, representing just 1.7 percent of Federal Parliament.

Why does this matter? 

This matters because as Australians we should all be able to seize the opportunities presented to us, to take a lead and play a role in shaping the community in which we live, and the country that we call home. It matters because the colour of your skin, your hair, or your religious background, should not dictate the opportunities afforded to you.

There is a wealth of human talent that remains untapped and undervalued in Australia. And it is to our country’s benefit to unlock and support the emerging talent who are integral to facilitating the nation’s future and prosperity.

It’s with this idea and a desire to be truly embraced by and contribute to this great country that we have partnered to develop the Asian Australian Leadership Conversation series, a way to engage Asian Australians to step up and take on leadership roles while encouraging our public and private sectors to seek cultural diversity in their leadership.

Australia has given us a second chance at life and it is up to us to make the most of every opportunity and contribute back to the country. Forty years on and there are now almost 200,000 Australians who identify as being born in Vietnam. It was a miracle for many of us to make it to Australia alive. But now we are here and citizens of this country, it’s time for us to thrive and to reach for leadership positions.

Dai Le is the founder of DAWN, an advocacy organisation pushing for more cultural diversity in Australia’s leadership. Yung Ngo is a senior executive within Westpac and Chair of Westpac’s Asian Leadership Employee Action Group.

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