A Chinese writer Mr Lin Yutang once wrote: life is like a drama, but even the most intelligent and the best actor would not know what was going to happen in the next scene. However, there is always something destined, and only the best drama plays out like real life.
The reason I chose Mr Lin Yutang’s words to start this article is because this piece is going to tell the story of a man whose life was full of dramatic ups and downs. I am sure you will be touched by his kindness and his care for others throughout his rough life.
This man I speak of is Mr Hong Lim MP. He is the only Member of Parliament of Victoria with a Chinese background, and also the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Asia Engagement of Victoria.
Survivor from the reign of bloody terror
The early years of Mr Hong Lim’s life consisted of connections between fortunate and unfortunate events. His heritage originated from Chaoshan, Guangdong, China, and he was born into a middle class family in Cambodia. At the time, Norodom Sihanouk who was the head of state of Cambodia pursued a policy of neutrality for Cambodia. This incurred the suspicions of the United States and most other western countries, who in turn cut the ties with Cambodia, severing the opportunity for young Cambodians to study overseas.
However, in 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown as the Head of State by Lon Nol and Sisowath Sirik Matak, paving the way for the formation of the Khmer Republic. Because of Lon Nol’s taking over and his pro-American political ideas, Cambodia reconnected with the west and started to gain help from the US, Britain, and its allies. Opportunities abroad were regained, including sending their top students to be educated overseas. Thanks to it, Hong Lim landed in Australia and began his study here.
The Cambodian government planned for the students to receive only 9 months of study courses. When that time almost ended, the Australian government decided to set a test and award scholarships to the top 15 students. Due to Hong Lim’s outstanding study, he was awarded the opportunity to continue his study in Tasmania University and got his Honors Bachelor degree in Politics and Administration. The Goddess of fortune had looked after this hard working young man. He received a postgraduate offer from Monash University before he graduated. In the meantime, the Australian government also agreed to provide him scholarship for the postgraduate study. It was in 1975, while Hong Lim was preparing his further study proudly and ambitiously in Melbourne, a great change was taking place in his hometown Cambodia.
In 1975, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea Pol Pot’s forces captured the capital city Phnom Penh and became the leader of Cambodia, changed Khmer Republic to Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot claimed to build a communist people’s republic, however, the truth was he built an extreme terrorist dictatorship instead.
He presided over a totalitarian dictatorship, in which his government made urban dwellers move to the countryside to work in collective farms and on forced labor projects; everything of modern civilization including glasses and watches became the symbol of ideological corruption; every intellectual was seen as monster’s incarnation and got persecuted. Pol Pot even had his tentacles to the overseas Cambodian students. He asked them to return and once they did, he would send them to the notorious jail S21. Fifteen thousand prisoners were held captive and tortured at this site but only seven people made it out alive. Mr Lim relived the moment that would change his life: “There was fifteen of us that came to Australia. Eight went back to Cambodia and got executed right away. I was lucky that I did not go back, otherwise I would not be able to talk to you here today.” In that year, he not only lost his friends, but also his parents and relatives in Cambodia.
Cambodia fell to isolation because of Pol Pot’s rule. The Australian government could not keep the connection with the Cambodian government, so the cooperation between the two courntries had to stop. Without the scholarship, Hong Lim was forced to drop his study as well. However, as Mengzi’s poem said: When Heaven is about to place a great responsibility on a great man, it always first frustrates his spirit and will, exhausts his muscles and bones, exposes him to starvation and poverty, harasses him by troubles and setbacks so as to stimulate his spirit, toughen his nature and enhance his abilities. After all these rough experiences, Hong Lim did not hit the mat, but became firm with indomitable will and gentle kindness. And he was also full of appreciation. During the interview when he talked about the experience of his early life, he said more than once that he was lucky, but even the lucky can be laced by Misfortune.
Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there
Becoming a politician was never Hong Lim’s intention although he chose Politics and Administration as his major in his bachelor degree studies.
“People always think I am serving the government now because I have a degree in politics, but that is not true. Who I am now has nothing much to do with my degree. Everything was just a conincedence. ”
According to Mr Lim, the opportunity for him to become a politician can be traced back to the influx of refugees from Southeast Asia to Australia in the late 1970s.
As mentioned earlier, Cambodia was in an unprecedented period of terror under the authoritarian rule of Pol Pot. According to the information contained in Phoenix (documentaries), more than one million people died due to the policies of his three-year and eight-month reign, which led the capital Phnom Penh becoming a frightening ghost town. It was not only Cambodia in unrest. Neighboring Vietnam was also in constant war. In 1975, the Vietnam people’s Army (North Vietnamese) captured the capital city Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) regime declared a collapse. As the result, tens of thousands Vietnamese fled from their country. A large number of Cambodians and Vietnamese crossed the borders into Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The peaceful landscape of Australia was also one of the ideal refuge paradises.
“At that time (1975), I just came to Melbourne, and there were many refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam,” Hong Lim said. Those refugees used to do fishing and ploughing in their own countries but never lived in a modern city like Melbourne. They did not know how to take public transport, did not know how to do shopping in a supermarket, and did not know how to survive in this city. The worst thing was they did not speak English. Thankfully, Hong Lim was here——”I had no choice but help them.” Melbournians with the appropriate skills and language were organised by him and soon the refugees had a helping hand. The Labor Party of Melbourne drew notice to this and appreciated Hong Lim’s political talent so they invited him to join the Victorian Labor Party.
In a word, to become a politician was not Mr Hong Lim’s original intention. In his own words:” one thing led another, it was a coincidence that I am in politics today.” However, I could still tell his motivations were to the country and the people during the interview. According to Chinese folk talk, 1975 to Hong Lim was a year of suffering: his homeland was destroyed, his relatives suffered persecution, and he himself was in a state of near despair. After I listened the terrorist rule of Pol Pot, I asked him how much did that influenced him. He did not answer my question directly but told me the importance of human rights and equality instead. I thought those tragedies might not lead him to politics directly, but it sowed the seed of human rights in his heart. He had a natural talent in being a voice for the people. This lead him to become an advocate for refugees trying to make a life here in Victoria.
Still going forward
Hong Lim has been serving the public since 1975. During the 40 years, he helped many people with different backgrounds from different countries. He said:” people come to parliament for help but also to find a way to make the community better. As long as they have this thought and the desire, I would like to help them. It is a very pleasant thing to do.” But he also joked that his job is “twenty-four-seven non-stop”, because people always have needs which would not stop when you finish work. Even so, he never felt tired, and never thought to stop helping others.
Furthermore, as the only Chinese background member of the Victorian Parliament, he spares no effort to solve problems and seek any needed support for the Chinese in Australia. With his help, many Victorian Chinese communities had gained financial and other support from the government. When the communities grew bigger, they themselves developed the ability to help more Chinese people in Australia.
Besides, in order to improve the interests of the Chinese people in Australia, Hong Lim more than once called on every person with a Chinese background to unite, no matter whether they were from mainland China, or Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, or Cambodia. He asked them to discard the borders and unite to make a sound, creating a harmonious and beautiful multicultural society with the government together.
Hong Lim made a great effort about it. In 2010, under his leadership and with his help, the Springvale Asian Business Association received $175,000 of the special appropriation of Springvale from Brumby Labor government, to maintain the heritage and development of Asian culture in Australia. He once expressed in his past interviews that the residents of Victoria should all be proud of our culture because we come from more than 200 countries, speak more than 200 languages and dialects and have more than 110 religions. “We are working close with the communities and city councils to maintain our multicultural traditions.”
In 2011, Chinese Community Council of Australia VIC Chapter was formally established under his advocacy. This was a leading organization to represent the rights of the Australian Chinese community. It was committed to the Australian Chinese community development, health, safety and numerous other aspects. Not only did this organization let more Chinese voices to be heard by the local society, but also provided the opportunities for Chinese people to learn about being multicultural. In September of 2015, Chinese Community Council of Australia VIC Chapter held the Piercing the Bamboo Ceiling National Conference. The bamboo ceiling described the invisible, untouchable, but existing obstacle in front of many Asian staff in the workplace. They invited people from many industries to discuss how to pierce the ceiling and give more opportunities for Asians to strive for leadership roles in Australia, as well as better inherit the Asian culture in Australia.
2015 was the 40-year anniversary of when Mr Hong Lim set foot on the political path. 22 years ago, in order to have people with different backgrounds sit together and to talk about a beautiful vision of a multicultural community, he organised the Clayton Multicultural Dinner Gala. Today, this party has become a great event celebrating and promoting multiculturalism in Victoria gaining support from every corner. Even though his youthful university days are long passed, he is still full of energy and will continue serving Australia, serving his people, and serving the multicultural community.
In fact, it was really hard to describe someone’s life with so few words. I personally benefited a lot during the interview with Mr Hong Lim. This article focused on his early life and his contribution to the multicultural community. We always note that a person’s early life experience would more or less influence their future. What Mr Hong Lim went through taught him how precious human rights are, and how important it is to maintain a sense of traditional culture wherever you go.
Mr Hong Lim has done many interviews, but most of them focus on his recent titles. However, we believe his amazing and heartfelt life experiences were worth writing about.