Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hieu Van Le- Lieutenant Governor of South Australia

First Vietnamese ‘boat people’ refugees arrive in Darwin. (1976)

Vietnamese refugees began arriving in Australia following the war in their country that largely came to an end in 1975. Many people were forced to live in refugee camps in various parts of south east Asia while they waited to find another home. Some were so desperate that they traveled to Australia in dangerous, overcrowded boats, suffering terrible conditions on the way. By 1987 more than 100,000 people from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had found new homes in Australia. As it had done before, Australia opened its doors to some of the many people around the world who had lost their homes and often their families due to war and oppression.

Vietnamese Australians constitute the seventh-largest ethnic group in Australia, with 159,848 the population claiming to been born in Vietnam according to the 2006 Census. Vietnamese is the sixth most widely-spoken language in the country, with 194,863 speakers. They vary widely in income and social class levels. Many Vietnamese Australians are upper-class professionals, while others work primarily in blue-collar jobs. Australian-born Vietnamese Australians have a higher than average rate of participation in tertiary education. In 2001 the labor participation rate for Vietnamese-born residents was 61%, only slightly lower than the level for Australian born residents (63%). Over three quarters of Vietnamese-Australians live in New South Wales (40.7%) and Victoria (36.8%). Being mostly refugees after the Vietnam War, they are generally antagonistic toward the government of Vietnam. The popular surname Nguyễn is the seventh most common family name in Australia(second only to Smith in the Melbourne phone book).
Note: Some of Australian Vietnamese are Hoa or Vietnamese Chinese, may have been classified as Vietnamese instead of Chinese.

Hieu Van Le was one of the first Vietnamese boat people to reach Australian shores some 30 years ago, in 1977. Today he is appointed to one of the highest official positions in South Australia. Note: Ironically, the South Australian Governor, Admiral Kevin Scarce, was a Vietnam veteran, has been interestingly paired with a Vietnamese refugee,Hieu Van Le as Lieutenant-Governor.

Note: The Lieutenant Governor is appointed by the Governor for a term ‘during the Governor’s pleasure’. The role does not in itself carry any specific duties or powers, except that the appointee is the first person called upon to act as the Vice - Regal representative in the absence of the Governor. The office of the Governor is non-political and is quite distinct from that of the head of the elected Government (the Premier). The Governor is appointed personally by The Queen on the advice of the Premier.(source:

Hieu Van Le - Lieutenant Governor of South Australia

Hieu Van Le (Vietnamese: Lê Văn Hiếu) is Lieutenant Governor of South Australia and Chairman of the South Australian Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission (SAMEAC).He was born in the midst of a war of liberation, in the year that the Vietnamese defeated the French army. He was born without a father, he said during an interview," my father was killed. Then from the day that I was born to the day I left the country I did not remember a day without hearing the gunshots, the rockets, the attacks, and without a day seeing other people killed. Many, many of them were my relatives, my friends". He was born in 1954, the same year the country was divided, and the year his father was killed fighting for independence from the French. In April 1975 there was mass panic as the Viet Kong headed to Saigon. Those that could escaped, but by May the South Vietnamese capital had fallen and the whole country was under Communist control. Hieu was black-listed into the category who had been in the military or civil service of the former regime of South Vietnam, because some members of my family were holding positions in the Saigon regime before 1975.

As boat people - the first journey
Hieu's brothers, who were both in the army, were sent to re-education camps and Hieu, who had just completed an Economics degree, could see there was no future for him, so he married his high school sweetheart Lan Van Le, and they planned their escape. The family found the means of escape when a friend told us that a fisherman in Vung Tau he knew was planning to escape with his family. Vung Tau was the place where Australian troops were based during the war.The plan was that the boat owner would take the boat out at midnight as usual for a fishing trip, and that his family and all of the supplies would be hidden in the boat. All other passengers would have to be picked up by another, much smaller wooden boat from another location. There were more than 50 people crowded on to a boat made for fewer than 10.In early 1977 Hiue and his new bride and 50 others headed off with Hieu as navigator.

Hieu and the boat had a tough journey in South China Sea, and they arrived at Malaysia coast , the coast guide were not friendly to the refugee. They abandoned their boat and swam onshore, the coast guide were forced to pick them up and later put them in a refugee camp with 3,000 refugee. The prospect of being able to settle in a new country is quite remote. Hieu joined a former officer from Vietnamese navy and a group of refugee,who had planned for another journey to Australia. They took one month to plan for the voyage to Australia.

The 2nd journey from Malaysia to Australia

And after months in a refugee camp there they did some repairs on the boat and set off for Darwin, endured a true tempest – huge swells and monsoonal downpours for three whole days and nights; the 4th day they encountered an active volcano with lava angrily spilling out into the sea. About a week later, the boat limped onward to the coast of Timor and dropped anchor. The last leg of the escape was crossing the Timor Sea, it will take 4-5 days from Timor to Darwin.

As illegal migrants they expected to be greeted by a gun boat but instead they were met by a couple of blokes out for a day's fishing, near Darwin Harbour. They had some zinc on their nose and a can of beer in their hands. And when they came close to us they waved at us and one of them shouted at us "G'day mate. Welcome to Australia!" And the they passed on and left us.

Finally they saw the rainbow of their future.....Australia.

The opportunity
Soon Hieu and his wife Lan were given temporary permits to stay and sent to Adelaide where the welcome continued.

With host families helping them and even one ex-Vietnam digger and his wife ringing the Pennington Migrant hostel with a special invitation. Inviting us to Loxton for Christmas so we arrive there and we live with them. And we did some fruit picking and my wife cut Lan did some cutting of apricot to dry as part of that process. So it was a wonderful opportunity.

The couple also have two children. Don, who's studying pharmacy, named after Don Bradman and Kim who is still at school, named after another Australian Test cricketer, Kim Hughes, the living proof of Hieu's vision of Australia.

The achievement

Lieutenant Governor Hieu Van Le is the first Asian to head the state's Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission. He has an MBA and an Economics degree from the University of Adelaide. He has been working as a senior investigator and manager with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission since the early 1990s and is a member of the Australian Society of Certified Practising Accountants (CPA) and a Fellow Member of the Financial Services Institute of Australasia (Finsia). He became the Lieutenant Governor of South Australia on 31 August 2007.

Mr Le is a recipient of the 1996 Australia Day Medal for outstanding service to the ASIC and has been awarded the Centenary of Federation Medal for service to the advancement of multiculturalism.

On 16th December 2008, Hieu was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Adelaide for his contribution and services to the community.

Related articles:

1. From refugee to Lieutenant Governor, web site of Premier of South Australia, Mike Rann
2. Interview Le at ABC,
3. Hieu Van Le's speech for Commonwealth Club Luncheon OCt 2009(The speech has detail account of his sea escape as boat people),
4. Governor of South Australia's official websites:

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