South Australian Governor and Patron of OzAsia Festival Mr Le with Tina Wang, Rui Love, Alice Li, Tian Love, Payel Rahman and Kylie Oyama.
South Australian Governor and Patron of OzAsia Festival Mr Le with Tina Wang, Rui Love, Alice Li, Tian Love, Payel Rahman and Kylie Oyama. Calum Robertson

Governor gives back to the country that gave him a fair-go

G'day mate! Welcome to Australia. The shouted greeting wasn't anything like what South Australian Governor Hieu Van Le AC and his wife Lan expected to hear when they fearfully arrived in Australia.

They arrived in Australia in 1977 as part of the early wave of Vietnamese refugees, huddled in a 15m wooden fishing boat with 40 other people. The trip was "horrendous". After weeks at sea and violent rejection by coast guards along the way, the refugees arrived in the pitch dark at Melville Island.

In heavy dawn fog of the following day and with grave doubts as to how Australian officialdom would receive them, their tattered boat chugged clumsily into Darwin Harbour, exhausted by the long journey.

"All of a sudden, coming towards us was the sound of an outboard motor," Mr Le said. In the distance was a fast approaching tinnie with two blokes resplendent in singlets and shorts, hats, white zinc noses, beer can in hand and fishing rods perched on the stern.

"As they got close to our hull one of them raised his stubbie up, as if proposing a toast, and shouted out, 'g'day mate! Welcome to Australia'."

Every day for the last 41 years, the 64-year-old reminds himself of that greeting.

"It was the first experience I had with Australian people and it made a deep impression." he said. "I knew instantly we had arrived in a welcoming country, one where a laconic, easy-going attitude was the promise of a 'fair go'.

"Back then the arrival of boat people like us was considered a significant event."

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 18:  Queen Elizabeth II receives the Governor of South Australia, the Hon. Hieu Van Le and his wife Mrs Le at Buckingham Palace on October 18, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Philip Toscano - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 18: Queen Elizabeth II receives the Governor of South Australia, the Hon. Hieu Van Le and his wife Mrs Le at Buckingham Palace on October 18, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Philip Toscano - WPA Pool/Getty Images) WPA Pool

Mr Le landed in Australia at age 23, armed only with a bright mind and a firm belief in making the best of what was in front of him. His journey has been one of persistence and resilience.

His life, both then and now has had many facets. After escaping the ravages of the Vietnam War, he completed two Adelaide University degrees before working as a senior corporate regulator.

Prior to becoming Governor, Mr Le also served for several years as member of the South Australian Multicultural and Ethnic Commission (SAMEAC).

His personal, long-term mission through these roles has been to promote Australia's cultural diversity and harmony.

Prior to 1977 Australia was populated largely by people of Anglo-Celtic and European backgrounds. Then in the 70s came the large waves of immigrants from South-East Asia. These immigrants are now ageing into their senior years.

In his previous roles with SAMEAC, Mr Le noticed some important challenges ahead for ageing immigrants, particularly where English is not their first language. "Over the years, migrants have come to our shores from all corners of the world," he said. "Each of these may have its own cultural beliefs, traditions, practices, traditional medicines and circumstances that need to be taken into account in our aged care and health system.

"Some people may revert to a place of comfort, returning to their mother tongue or preferring their traditional food and customs. For many cultures, the concept of nursing homes or intensive care, which is given to elders in our society, are quite different experiences to those found in their native countries.

"In many cultures, older people stay in their home, in the extended family until they pass away, surrounded by the children, grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren.

"The warmth of being surrounded by family members and the ambience of the bustle of daily activities plays an important part in their later lives."

Government House SALA open day happening this Sunday August 13. Governor Hieu Van Le and Mrs Van Le with a sculpture  in Government House Gardens 11 August 2017. (AAP Image/Dean Martin)
Government House SALA open day happening this Sunday August 13. Governor Hieu Van Le and Mrs Van Le with a sculpture in Government House Gardens 11 August 2017. (AAP Image/Dean Martin) AAP DEAN MARTIN

Mr Le points to the busy lifestyles that people lead today, leaving many time-poor due to pressures of work, or running a business, raising a young family, and the demands of constant and instant news and communications. "People may, in some circumstance," have very little time for themselves let alone for their family and elderly parents," he said. "This demand on their time, and many other pressures, means that trying to find a way to make it easier for everybody is to place a loved one's care into someone else's hands.

"The challenge is that their parents and grandparents may in some circumstances "feel they are a visitor rather than an integral part of the family at the very time they should be enjoying the fruits of their working life and the happiness that brings."

Mr Le and his wife have two adult sons of whom they are very proud. Having cared for his own mother who lived until her 90s, Mr Le is well aware of the demands that brings both emotionally and physically in wanting to provide the best support for them. "Having experienced that, as parents we don't want to impose a burden on our sons," he said. "We fully understand the pressures they would be under."

He smiles and chuckles when he adds, "Lan and I would, of course, one day, love to have some grandchildren; no pressure!"

Mr Le has enjoyed every phase of his life and appreciated the many experiences they have brought, even when confronted with adversity. "I believe there is a strength and resilience deep in everybody. It comes to the fore when challenges provide an opportunity for it to shine through," Mr Le said.

He still has a journey ahead in which he hopes to "continue to do the best I can and enjoy a fulfilling life, at every stage of the journey".

And he will follow his passion of helping to make Australia's egalitarian society even better, fairer and more compassionate.


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