August 03, 2014 01:00 By Jonathan Pearlman
Hieu Van Le becomes the first Vietnamese-born individual to be appointed as the Queen's representative in his home state of South Australia
On a ramshackle boat off Malaysia, fearing that they may be in crocodile-infested waters, young Hieu Van Le and 40 passengers steered a narrow path to safety and thought the worst was over.
But the threat of reptiles proved to be the least of their worries. Soon, they found themselves battling a monsoon that lasted three days and sent 5-metre waves ramming into the boat.
When the storms died, they realised that an erupting volcano in Indonesia had expelled a trail of boulders and debris that threatened to smash the boat.
“Several times we thought of ending our lives on the journey. Several times,” Le recalls.
It was 1977 and Le, who was only 23 years old, had fled war-torn Vietnam with his 19-year-old wife on the tiny vessel that soon ran out of fuel and water.
They had hoped to “bump into” Thailand, only to find themselves in Malaysia, which refused them asylum. On they went to Singapore and Indonesia, which also blocked their entry.
Eventually, the voyage of about 4,000 kilometres ended in northern Australia, where the refugees were allowed to settle.
It was the first wave of post-war Asian migration at a time when Australia was still, as Le, says “basically a white Anglo European tradition”.
Le, 60, went on to become a leading accountant and a highly decorated community figure.
Capping his string of prizes and awards, he was last week appointed governor, or Queen's representative, in his home state of South Australia – the first Vietnamese in the world to be appointed to a vice-regal position.
“It is the stuff that you can only really find in fairy tales,” he says in an interview with The Straits Times.
“We left everybody behind in Vietnam. We just wanted somewhere free and stable and peaceful to build our life and a future.”
After landing in Darwin, Le and his wife soon moved to South Australia where they picked fruit and found work in a linen factory.
From 1976 to the mid-1980s, Australia accepted about 90,000 Vietnamese refugees.
“It took a few years for us to get used to the society – a new language, new tradition, new lifestyle,” Le says.
“The public knew nothing about the Vietnamese people and culture. The two sides started to work it out.”
Le’s Vietnamese qualifications in economics were not recognised in Australia, so he went back to university.
Eventually he earned an accounting degree and an MBA at the University of Adelaide. In 2008, it also awarded him an honorary doctorate for service to society.
Le worked as a chartered accountant and at the tax office, before taking a senior position at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, leading the fight against white-collar crime.
Meanwhile, he devoted himself to community work and the promotion of multiculturalism.
He was appointed lieutenant-governor – effectively the deputy, appointed by the governor rather than the Queen – in 2007.
Le and his wife have two Australian-born children, Don and Kim, both named after famous Australian cricketers. Laughing, he notes that neither became a cricketer. Both are pharmacists.
Announcing that Queen Elizabeth II had formally accepted the appointment, South Australia's premier, Jay Weatherill, praised his “incredible journey”.
“Le has a story of great significance to South Australia – from arriving as a boat person in 1977, advancing his education, establishing a family, rising through the ranks of business and community leadership, to becoming the lieutenant-governor of South Australia,” Weatherill said.
Le says he hoped to use the position to build ties between the state and countries in the region as well as promote multiculturalism, Aboriginal reconciliation, volunteering and youth employment and suicide awareness.
Asked about Australia’s recent crackdown on refugees, including detaining boat people in offshore detention centres in the Pacific, Le admits that he has “strong feelings about it” but prefers to take a diplomatic approach.
“It is quite inappropriate for me to make a comment in this position that can be seen as political comment or interference,” he says.
Despite being the Queen’s representative, Le acknowledges that he is sympathetic to Australia becoming a republic.
He says he’s looking forward to taking up his position and moving into Government House – the official residence – in September, joking that he will need a GPS device to find his way around his stately new abode.
“I genuinely think this appointment says more about the society here than about me. It is a powerful recognition of the migrants and refugees that have set foot on this land and are continuing to build the state we have here.”