by Jon Piccini,
Dr Jon Piccini is a Research Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Enquiry, University of Queensland
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Executive summary

  • During the 1970s, as Australia’s overseas student program moved from development aid to mass market, a group of Asian students sought to politically engage Australians on issues of poverty and political repression in their homelands.
  • This article explores how such an alliance was formed between largely Malaysian overseas radicals and their Australian counterparts, who sought both to inform others of realities in their homeland and organise vocal protests, particularly against the visit of Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak to Australia.
  • It also looks at government responses to this. Malaysia condemned troublemakers abroad and Australia considered ways it could silence their activism, which risked becoming an impediment to bilateral relations.
  • In telling this story, it is hoped that historians and policymakers alike can come to a deeper understanding of how the political activity of these temporary transnationals influenced the transformation of overseas student policy.

Recently, reports from a senior Chinese government defector that a network of students from the People’s Republic work as spies—monitoring the activities and opinions of their countrymen while in Australian tertiary institutions—raised media and public concern. In different yet perhaps relatable circumstances, Bahraini students have recently protested around Australia, seeking human rights and democracy in their homeland as part of the Arab Spring. While such stories explode seemingly from nowhere onto the media landscape, incidents of state surveillance and transnational activism are not a new phenomenon. Since Australia opened its doors to large numbers of foreign scholars in the 1950s, visiting students have criticised both their home and Australian governments, often incurring the watchful eyes of various security apparatuses and government departments.

One particular moment, when overseas students were seen not as the big business they are today but rather as impediments to diplomatic relations with our near neighbours, is explored here. The formation of an alliance between overseas and Australian students against the visit of Malaysian prime minister Tun Abdul Razak in October 1975 provides a window not only into a transnational protest community at work, but also one made up of first and third world students, a relatively rare phenomenon in the study of the ‘global’ and ‘long’ Sixties. The activities of these students provide an important perspective on changes in overseas student policy during the 1970s, as well as an interesting way of understanding how Australian governments sought to maintain alliances with less-than-democratic regimes.

Ever since its independence from Britain, Malaysia has been a key, if occasionally quarrelsome, Australian ally. This has been the case despite what Meredith Weiss describes as its ‘semi-democratic’ mode of government, and the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), used to this day against political critics. Along with similarly undemocratic nations like South Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, it was amongst the key anti-communist Asian states during the Cold War—seen as bulwarks against ‘dominoes’ falling across the region. All of these states, and particularly Malaysia, experienced significant student-led dissent during the late 1960s and 1970s, as the youth rebellions characteristic of the period spread across the Asia-Pacific. And Australia felt the impacts of this dissent in a very localised fashion.

Malaysia, after all, was a former British colony, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, and a key pillar of both the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Colombo Plan. Australia and Malaysia shared close military and political co-operation, even though Malaysia’s post-colonial opposition to Apartheid and the continuing White Australia Policy rhetorically challenged this relationship. Australian troops had served in the territory throughout the 1950s and 1960s, combating communist guerrillas and taking Malaysia’s side in the Indonesian confrontation. This collaboration underpinned the Five Power Defence Arrangements of 1971 between Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand.

Educational commitments under the Colombo Plan, furthermore, ensured Australia was host to many Malaysian students seeking technical training then unavailable at home. Australia also proved to be a favoured destination for self-funded or ‘private’ students, usually those of Chinese descent excluded from higher education under pro-Malay university entry policies. By the early- to mid-1970s, the numbers of overseas students in Australia were around 10,000—of whom some 6,000 were Malaysians. A large majority of these—around 80 per cent—were private students unconnected to government aid programs, and as such not sponsored by or directly answerable to their home nations.

Considerable scholarly attention has been devoted to Colombo Plan students lately. A 1951 agreement on technical and economic support that Lyndon Megaritty describes as ‘fighting the Cold War through aid’, the Colombo Plan involved the hosting of a small number of overseas students in Australian educational institutions. This was supposed to be a well-managed policy which would ‘ensure that Australia as a European dominated country was seen in the best possible light by its regional neighbours’, while also melding future Asian leaders in an appropriately anti-communist light. These students constituted the first post-war ‘figure’ of Australian global engagement, as Nicholas Brown has put it, and were also the first personal encounter many Australians had with Asians outside of a military context.

Private students—the main contributors to radicalism and consequently those who caused the highest level of governmental concern—are less visible in this literature. Though they were by far the largest group numerically, no clear policy or objective governed them until 1966, when the intention of helping ‘the students’ homelands by increasing their numbers of qualified people’ was announced. There were also perpetual concerns that these students were not making appropriate use of Australia’s overextended higher education network, or were closeted migrants hoping to secure permanent residency that were not assisting in fostering good relations between the two nations.

The voices of these students, however, often are missing from this picture. The Overseas Student Service was formed in 1957, which, under the auspices of government departments, sought to administer assistance to overwhelmed newcomers and distribute information. And, despite the Colombo Plan’s restrictions on the public expression of political opinions, both these students and their private counterparts (who were under no such compulsion) began presenting their views on the Australian and their own governments through the student press and other avenues.

Many students, conscious of the fine line between involvement in student affairs and ‘politics’ as understood by government, were reluctant to engage in open commentary. Others had understandable concern about their safety and future prosperity back home, choosing instead to focus entirely on their studies. Despite this, a small number of articles began appearing in newspapers like the University of New South Wales’ Tharunka and Monash’s Lot’s Wife, the editors of which actively encouraged correspondence from overseas students. One such writer was Koh Chee Hong, who in 1966 argued that Australia’s imperial fantasies and racism clouded positive engagement with the Asian region. Australia was described in feminine terms as the ‘daughter’ of Britain, hoping for the USA to defend her from the ‘Great Fiery Dragon’ of yellow hordes to the north. In a more humorous moment of activism, Singaporean student at UNSW Jimmy Koh entered a bathtub painted with the slogan ‘Keep Australia white by washing with Rinso’ in the university’s Foundation Day parade.

Equally, students began criticising their home governments, if infrequently. Indeed, the first time an overseas student made the front-page of Australia’s national student newspaper, National ‘U’, was when South Vietnamese student Tran Thanh Dang, studying his fourth year of economics at the University of Western Australia, addressed a ‘capacity audience’ of some 500 people on the high levels of support for the NLF amongst his countrymen, corruption in the former Diem regime and the rigging of 1967’s ‘elections’ as part of orientation week activities. The article explained that Troung, as a Colombo Plan student, ‘risks censure and faces serious repercussions from the Australian and South Vietnamese governments’ for expressing his opinions so openly, for ‘each recipient must sign an undertaking not to engage in political activities’. While National U did not directly challenge the silencing of these scholars, it did claim that Troung’s actions were:

an example to the many Asian students in Australia who have been reluctant to contribute to such debates and have thus denied Australians their much-needed first-hand knowledge of the Asian scene.

Australian students, for their part, were increasingly enthralled in this Asian scene. The Vietnam War was a key motivator. Increasing numbers of activists from all walks of life began to move from a position of opposition to the war to at least qualified support for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. This was part of a broader shift towards support for national liberation struggles across the developing world, which provided a new purpose and vocabulary for radicals in Australia. The Chinese revolution was another key reason for this refocusing of student lenses onto Asia, with romantic images of youth led revolution in Beijing and Shanghai seeming to be in tune with similar movements in the West. As Monash University activist Dave Nadel recalls: ‘the Cultural Revolution in 1967 looked like Mao had gone to the masses. Young people were revolutionists, as if the same thing happening in China was happening in the West’. These affinities were only enhanced by travel to China and other Asian destinations. Dozens of Australian youths travelled to the People’s Republic during this period, returning with rapturous tales of what they had seen, while thousands of others embarked on the decidedly less political ‘hippie trail’ through South East Asia.

That a large group of Asian students were in their midst, however, does not seem to have occurred to many of these activists. As OSS’s historian Vivian Fleming relates, the organisation was struggling for survival in 1969, ‘ironically so in years when general student interest in Asian affairs was rising sharply because of Australia’s Vietnam involvement’. The invisibility of this overseas minority, however, soon was to be challenged. A student movement exploded in Malaysia from 1969 until 1975, challenging corruption, poverty, racial policies and domination by foreign interests, the example of which fired an increasing outspokenness amongst the nation’s young diaspora. The OSS, numerically dominated by Malaysians, became more vocal in its demands throughout the 1970s. It cemented an alliance with the Australian Union of Students, and announced its abandonment of ‘a-political’ stances in 1973, stating that the days of focusing on ‘the symptoms and not the causes of overseas students’ unhappiness’ were over.

It was in 1974, however, that the two student communities would be thrown together by a moment of transnational policing. Khoo Ee Liam, who had studied in both Australia and New Zealand, was arrested in Malaysia under the ISA for having been involved in communist activities while abroad, and seeking to aid the underground Malayan Communist Party upon his return. While only the latest arrest made under these laws, it was the first to gain wide publicity in Australia, with reports quickly circulated of Khoo’s indefinite detention without trial and subjection to brutal torture. These revelations saw the first joint campaign between the two student movements, with the Australian student press devoting significant attention to this case and Malaysian students protesting publically for the first time.

On 31 August 1974, Malaysia’s national day, some 150 Australian and Malaysian students (the latter donning hoods to ensure their anonymity) protested on the streets of Sydney. Adopting some of the theatrical forms of dissent employed by Australian protestors, they held aloft a coffin emblazoned with the slogan ‘justice is dead in Malaysia’ while displaying banners reading ‘stop political surveillance of overseas students’. Then, in December, AUS Vice-President Ian MacDonald was expelled from Singapore in something of an international incident, when he tried to enter the country under a tourist visa with the intention of meeting dissident students across the region. He declared afterwards to the media that his case showed how Southeast Asian governments saw ‘the influence of student behaviour in the Western democracies, especially Australia, as a dangerous disease…to catch’.

The Malaysian government, in particular, expressed alarm at this unexpected transnational alliance, and fears of its contamination of bilateral relations soon raised concerns in Canberra. Malaysian ministers, including soon-to-be prime minister Mahathir Mohammed, condemned what was seen as ‘meddling’ by Australian students in the nation’s affairs during a December press conference. They sought to blame an upturn in struggle by Malaysian workers and students, particularly around the eviction of squatters in the province of Johor Bahru and the demonstrations of impoverished rubber farmers in Baling, ‘on foreign students…encouraging some Malaysians “to create a lot of problems in this country”’, as one correspondent put it. During the same conference, Malaysia’s Home Affairs minister Tun Ghazali took this criticism further, tersely arguing that Australians, who ‘solve their problems by shooting their Aborigines and having a white Australia policy’, had little to teach a post-colonial state like Malaysia.

This sort of rhetoric, which Catherine Chan locates as a beginning of an increasingly conflictive relationship with Malaysia under Mahathir’s leadership, sparked a concerned response amongst the Australian government. Long-serving High Commisioner to Kuala Lumpur Alfred Parsons authored a concerned 11-page report in early 1975, entitled ‘Malaysia: Private Overseas Student Program, Is it a success?’ In this report, Parsons related to his superiors that despite it having been ‘in the past a successful program…recently, a number of factors have conspired to suggest the need to review the policy’.

While reiterating many pre-existing concerns, like Australia ‘not getting [its] money’s worth from the program’ and that many more conservative Malaysians were ‘shocked by the impact of Western permissive culture on their children who have gone overseas’, the phenomenon of ‘criticism of Malaysia by Malaysian (i.e. Chinese) students in Australia’ was a new cause for alarm. Not only had ‘Malaysian student stirrings…caused several Malaysian ministers to be vocally critical’ of Australia’s race relations record, ‘the behavior of Malaysian students in Australia could affect our bilateral relations’ as well.

The students’ new vocality, as well as a 40% increase in numbers and their increasing reticence to return home, was blamed on Whitlam government reforms to immigration laws and the ‘more liberal attitude we have adopted towards allowing foreign students to participate in political activity in Australia’. While these restrictions had never applied to private scholars, Parsons used such concerns as evidence of the growing problem of ‘commitment’. Similar issues had been raised in the past, but the notion of ‘commitment’, and a plan for its rectification, was new. As he put it, ‘many of the private students presently seeking admission to Australian schools, colleges and universities cannot in any way be described as committed Malaysian citizens’. Yet, what constituted a committed citizen proved difficult to pin down:

There is no obvious answer to the question: how do we recognise a committed Malaysian and how do we keep him committed? Some wastage is inevitable; it is a matter of reducing the level of wastage, thereby preventing the whole purpose of the program from being undermined.

Parsons then went on to elaborate a few key ways in which Australia might assist in producing a more committed Malaysian citizenry. These ranged from enforcing the requirement of students speaking Bahasa Malaysia, the country’s new official language, yet a second for the Chinese minority, to allowing the Malaysian government to impose a racial quota on students journeying to Australia, ensuring the Chinese minority was no longer over-represented.

While this later proposal was dismissed as racial discrimination by an interdepartmental meeting held to discuss Parsons’ report, a proposal that Malaysia vet and keep lists of all its private students sent to Australia was seen more positively. This was supported so long as ‘any action were seen as coming from the Malaysian Government’, meaning ‘the move could be seen as one for which Australia had no direct responsibility’, and thus would not further besmirch Australia’s international reputation. An internal Immigration Department memo cut to the core of the issue: ‘participation of the home government in the selection of students…should generally ensure that student’s criticisms of the home government…is avoided’.

The enforcing of these requirements, however, would require a new scandal—and one soon presented itself. Tun Abdul Razak had presided over Malaysian politics since 1970, introducing the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) of 1971 and strengthening it in response to the mobilisations of 1974, which crossed previously demarcated lines of race and saw student radicalism spill over into a growing workers movement. Under the auspices of their supposed communist domination, changes to the UUCA were forced through parliament that dissolved all existing student organisations, including the University of Malaysia Students Union (UMSU) and effectively banned student participation in politics. When Razak announced he was to head a tour of Australia in October 1975, aimed at clearing up what were seen as misconceptions propagated by a ‘Hate Malaysia’ element, many Malaysian students united with indignant Australians to publicise these and other crimes of what was labelled the ‘Razak clique’.

Razak’s acts were placed in the forefront of Australian radicals’ imagination throughout the year by increased co-operation with Malaysian students. Malaya News Service, a joint project with the Australian student union was published fortnightly from July 1975, containing reports and opinion pieces on protests and repression across South-East Asia. An International Students Solidarity Week was held over July-August of that year, which sought to build local understanding of issues facing international students in Australia and back home, and was justified in these ways:

Student Solidarity is International. It exists in spite of, and as a result of, the nature of national governments. American students supported their counterparts in South Vietnam. The Dutch Students supported their counterparts in Indonesia in their struggle for independence. Today the British, Australian and New Zealand student organisations support the student struggle in South East Asia, and condemn imperialism as ‘practiced’ by their respective governments.

This cooperation influenced the planning of the prime minister’s visit. Australia’s acting High Commissioner warned during a meeting with Razak early in 1975 that ‘it seemed to be a common practice these days for students to lend support to each others’ causes’, while the Prime Minister was assured that the tour’s October timeframe would mean they ‘should be preoccupied with examinations’.

Despite these careful preparations, expatriate Malaysians responded to Razak’s tour announcement by writing to the student press, seeking support in keeping with this historical tradition of solidarity. H Leong was indicative of many, writing to National U demanding that Razak, a man ‘of the same species as Franco, Pak Jung Hi [and] Nguyen Van Thieu’, be opposed and boycotted by Australian students. As the author put it:

the Malaysian people need your support, they either are under fascist repression and could not voice their demands or are under constant political surveillance (in Australia) and dare not voice their opinions.

And when the prime minister arrived, he was challenged by a series of demonstrations that seemed deeply surprising to the visitor. As he pleaded to the Australian media, ‘I expected perhaps a petition or a small delegation with a list of grievances but not this’. At nearly all of his destinations Razak and his entourage were met by dozens of protestors—quite an achievement for a student movement traditionally weakened during the end-of-semester period. A Malaysian student was convicted of ‘having thrown a missile likely to damage property of the Australian government’ and fined $50 by the Adelaide Magistrates court, while a busload of protestors from Sydney and Melbourne followed Razak to his various engagements. Images of a burning effigy draped with a banner reading ‘I am a fascist’ were featured in the media, despite its ‘preoccupation with the Constitutional Crisis’, as one post-rally report in Tharunka bemoaned. Despite their relatively poor media showing, the report praised the rallies as successful, with Australians increasingly ‘identifying their struggle with the struggle of Malaysian students’ and a new level of publicity directed toward the violent, anti-democratic acts of one of Australia’s closest regional allies.

Though the Australian government, increasingly enveloped in events leading to Whitlam’s dismissal, remained relatively tight-lipped on these protests, the Malaysian government responded in a characteristically heavy-handed fashion. In language reminiscent of that used by Parsons earlier in the year, the Razak government imposed a new series of restrictions on its students overseas. While those who ‘carry out normal student activities…would be alright’ any Malaysian students who were ‘definitely not studying…and wandering around from Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide causing trouble’ should be sent home. While the extra-territorial application of Malaysian laws was obviously impossible, new measures were placed on departing students to ensure their quietism. Mahathir announced that students would have to register with the government before departing, a stipulation previously recommended by Parsons, while parents were to be made to sign a declaration that their offspring would remain loyal while overseas.

In 1979, the Fraser governments’ Private Overseas Student Policy Task Force reported on the state of the sector, proposing two key changes that would ensure students’ long-term quietude. Firstly charges were now to be levied against overseas students, a return to pre-Whitlam policies that constituted the first step towards the full-free paying industry of today. Previously cast as the next generation of leaders being melded in a pro-Australian and anti-communist mindset, the new gospel of neoliberalism turned these students into paying customers studying ‘primarily for their own benefit’. The report also recommended that students, who were still staying in Australia after graduation at an alarming rate, be sent home for a compulsory two-year period before being able to apply for Australian residency. This policy was implemented in 1980 and had an immediate impact, with a massive dive in numbers of students staying on in Australia.

And after the Razak incident, student protest did actually die down. The UUCA successfully stymied the latest round of student activism in Malaysia, which had a logical flow-on effect to their fellow nationals in Australia. The threat of retribution by the Malaysian government—made all the more real by the Fraser government’s deportation policies—also would have contributed. Eugene Sebastian has told how Overseas student activism picked up again in the 1980s over moves by the Hawke government towards the imposition of full fee paying places, while today it is rare, as Meredith Weiss and Michelle Ford have discovered, for these ‘temporary transnationals’ to engage in politics.

Historians and policymakers alike have much to learn from this moment of transnational solidarity and repression. Recently, historians have begun mapping overseas student activism and government attempts at curtailment during the ‘long sixties,’ and this study adds an Australian perspective to this transnational narrative. Quinn Slobodian has discussed the West German government’s record of deportations and obstruction towards its Afro-Asian students, while Matthew Shannon has told the story of Iran’s overseas students, who formed a global opposition to the shah when few dared raise questions. Shannon’s research is in many ways illuminating here from another perspective: he highlights how the US government ignored the highly vocal pleas of Iranian students to use its position of authority to force the shah into democratic reforms, and instead funnelled more and more money into his slowly crumbling dictatorship.

A similar ignorance seemed to be at play in Australia’s case, with the Whitlam and Fraser governments keen on ensuring Malaysia’s position as a regional bulwark against communism. Evidence of human rights abuses, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly provided by a vocal group of oppositionists seemingly did little to abate support, and Australian governments at the very least unconsciously aided in the suppression of these voices. Equally, this story gives us a new perspective on the evolution of Australia’s overseas student industry from aid program to mass market. While concerns around the political activity of overseas students were not the key or overriding reason for the marketisation of overseas student policy, the story of this vocal group of Southeast Asian students and their Australian supporters is an interesting and almost completely ignored chapter in the transformation of Australia’s higher education system.

Selected Further Reading

Brown, Nicholas. “Student, Expert, Peacekeeper: Three Versions of International Engagement.” Australian Journal of Politics and History 57, No. 1 (March 2011): 34-52.

Chan, Catherine. “From then to now: A prehistory of ‘recalcitrance’ – Student protest in 74-75 and Australian-Malaysian relations,” B.A. Hons. Thesis, University of New South Wales, 2005.

Fleming, Vivien. “From Dependence to Independence: The History of the Overseas Student Service.” B.A. Hons. Thesis, Flinders University, 1986.

Hastings, Graham. It Can’t Happen Here: A Political History of Australian Student Activism. Adelaide: Students Association of Flinders University, 2003.

Megarrity, Lyndon. “A highly-regulated ‘free market’: Commonwealth policies on private overseas students from 1974 to 2005.” Australian Journal of Education 51, No. 1 (2007): 39-53.

— “Regional Goodwill, Sensibly Priced: Commonwealth policies towards Colombo Plan scholars and private overseas students, 1945-72.” Australian Historical Studies 38, No. 129 (2007): 88-105.

— “Under the shadow of the White Australia Policy: Commonwealth policies on Private Overseas Students 1945-1972.” Change: Transformations in Education 8, No. 2 (2005): 31-51.

Oakman, David. Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2004.

— “‘Young Asians in our homes’: Colombo Plan students and White Australia.” Journal of Australian Studies 72 (2002): 89-98.

Robins, Daniel. “Melbourne’s Maoists: The Rise of the Monash University Labor Club, 1965-1967. B.A. Hons. Thesis, Victoria University, 2005.

Sebastian, Eugene. “Protest from the Fringe: Overseas Students and their Influence on Australia’s Export of Education Services Policy, 1983-1996.” PhD Thesis, The University of Sydney, 2009.

Shannon, Matthew. “An Augury of Revolution: The Iranian Student Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1960-1972”. M.A. Thesis, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, 2009.

Slobodian, Quinn. “Dissident Guests: Afro-Asian Students and Transnational Activism in the West German Protest Movement”. In Wendy Pojmann, ed, Migration and Activism in Europe Since 1945. New York: Palgrave, 2008, pp. 33-55.

Weiss, Mededith W. and Michelle Ford. “Temporary Transnationals: South-East Asian students in Australia.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 41, No. 2 (2011): 229-248.

Weiss, Meredith W. “Intellectual Containment: The Muting of Students in Semidemocratic Southeast Asia.” Critical Asian Studies 41, No. 4 (December 2009): 499-522.

—  “Still with the people? The chequered path of student activism in Malaysia.” South East Asia Research 13, No. 3 (November 2005): 287-332.

Citation: Jon Piccini, A Dangerous Disease to Catch: Overseas Student Activism in Australia during the 1970s. Australian Policy and History. February 2013.


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