“G’day mate, welcome to Australia!”
Been ‘Down Under’ lately? Sound familiar? It is to Hieu Van Le, but not because he likes travelling. It’s because it was with these words, laconically expressed to him by two local fisherman in Darwin Harbour — beers in hand — that Le was welcomed to his new homeland 37 years ago. The fact that he was in a flimsy wooden boat packed with 40 other people only makes the phrase more remarkable. How could it not stick with him?
“They saw us, raised their cans, said “g’day“ and simply moved on,” he recalls.
That was in 1977. He spoke no English. Paul ‘Crocodile Dundee’ Hogan hadn’t made a movie yet and three adopted Aussies called The Bee Gees had just resuscitated disco with Stayin’ Alive. Quite timely for 40 refugees packed into a boat low on fuel and water.
He smiles warmly about that moment now, but having travelled on the seas for over a month, Le says he arrived in Australia with “nothing but an invisible suitcase filled with dreams”.
Today, in his corner office in Adelaide’s CBD, where Le sits as chairman of the South Australian Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission, there hangs a poster from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It contains a quote from a man we all know — and a fellow refugee himself — Sir Albert Einstein. “A bundle of belongings isn’t the only thing a refugee brings to his new country,” it reads. In Hieu Van Le’s case, it couldn’t be more apt because on Sep. 2, everything he has brought to his adopted country will come to a remarkable culmination. On this date he will be officially appointed the Governor of South Australia — the first Asian to achieve the rank, and certainly the first refugee.
A Giant Leap...
To clarify, that’s a journey from boat person to vice-regal office holder in a Commonwealth land. The Governor is a non-political position in Australian public life usually reserved for Olympic legends, nuclear physicists and retired military ‘sirs’. These are men with names like Tennyson, Hindmarsh and Archibald. Van Le? It’s a fantastic story and you don’t have to be a fan of the Westminster system to realise the enormity of going from an invisible suitcase to the constitutional power bestowed upon him by none other than the Queen herself. That’s Elizabeth II — who from Sep. 2 he will represent in the state — a figurehead he describes as “an inspiring and admirable leader”.
He’s not looking to exercise power though. On paper he can now dismiss the government, but he’s much too nice a man for that — charming and well-humoured. An unassuming man, he says he is deeply humbled by the honour and privilege now being given to him. A man who — since his arrival with his young wife, both ‘full of life’ — has built that life by sticking to the Vietnamese traits he’s never forgotten: hard work, dedication to study, resilience and always trying to do the right thing.
“As a Vietnamese I inherited the traits of our people from over [4,000] years of history,” he explains. “As a people we have proven time and time again that we are very determined, very focused and very resilient. We can endure hardship, adversity and keep working until we overcome it. The more the challenge, the more we can motivate to overcome, and for this I am very proud to have Vietnamese blood.”
Working with Others
Of course his name hasn’t just been plucked from a bowl of pho to take up the role. Le has pedigree. First graduating with an economics degree and later an MBA from Adelaide University, he then became a member of the Australian Society of CPAs and was a senior investigator with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) from the early 1990s.
In 1991, he was appointed a member of the body he now chairs and other public service awards have followed: an Australia Day medal in 1996 and a Centenary of Federation medal for service to the advancement of multiculturalism in 2001. Such has been his passion for his causes, he has also received honorary doctorates from two universities in recognition of his achievements. In 2007 he was appointed South Australia’s Lieutenant (Deputy) Governor, and in 2010 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.
Despite this he acknowledges the role others have played, for it is the advancement of others that is his passion.
“Don’t ask me how or why this has happened because I don’t know,” he says. “All I know is that we come to this land, we try to educate ourselves, we take our opportunities, we work very hard... [but] more importantly my wife and I love people. We are interested in people, we love to be out there with people and we try to get to know the stories behind each person that we meet along the way.”
In his role as Governor he will perform largely ceremonial duties, reside in South Australia’s Government House and continue to rub shoulders with those people he represents. This includes a Vietnamese community that he says is punching well above its weight in Australia.
For that Le remains thankful. Thankful for the opportunities his adopted land has given him and for what he describes as the very Australian sense of the ‘fair go’ for all.
“When you bask under the light of other cultures,” he says, “you always appreciate your own culture more, and the more I learn about other cultures, the more I appreciate having this Vietnamese origin of which I am proud.”
Name: Hieu Van Le, Governor elect of South Australia
Born: Quang Tri Province, 1954
Arrived in Australia: Nov. 21, 1977
Educated: Dalat University, Adelaide University
Family & Interests: Married with two sons, Kim and Don — both named after former Australian cricket captains. Descendant of the Cham Kingdom, dating from the 7th century in Central and Southern Vietnam. Public servant. Foodie.