Impacts of the Colombo Plan

Then the Colombo Plan came in. Under the Plan, a limited number of students from Commonwealth countries were nominated by their governments for funded study in Australia. When the Plan became well known to the public, the reaction of the man in the street to the young Asians around them changed.

In my first year in Melbourne, I was often asked, “Which ship are you off, mate?” I used to give the name of the ship in which I had arrived. Then there were references to how well I was dressed – was I well paid? Then the penny dropped – my enquirer thought that I was a lascar. They were often seen on the western side of the city, where the port is, generally carrying a string bag (carried by most shoppers), almost inevitably with a trussed live chicken in it.

“If you are not off a ship, what are you doing in Australia?”

“Ah, you are a student. You must be rich then … You are not? … Come on, mate. You couldn’t afford to be here if you didn’t have a few quid.” This perception often led to an attempt, usually by the slightly inebriated, to touch us for the price of a coffee or a drink. Many “drunks”, as we saw them, loved to sit with us on public transport.

On the other hand, many Aussies refused to sit next to us and would rather strap-hang for long distances. Contradictorily, our apparent wealth also seemed to draw disparaging remarks – but that may have applied to anyone better dressed than the ordinary. Given the clear prejudice we had already seen against Aborigines, who, naturally enough, were generally not well dressed, it was (and still is) wiser for the brown-skinned Asian to be well dressed; anyway, our mothers would have expected us to be well dressed (but not to sit next to drunks).

When the drunks and others were told by the media that the Aussie taxpayer was financing the foreigners in the country, there was a sea-change in community attitudes. People took their charity to us with great pride – it obviously made them all glow, many with condescension. There were no more rich foreign boys and girls taking up valuable space in their country; we were all guests of the nation.

A friend of mine who helped to administer the Plan told me that all kinds of lurks started to appear. For example, a middle-aged man claimed the cost of tennis shoes and racquets for his large family, as well as skis and ski clothing … , over and above his family’s living allowance. As this man had a relative who was a powerful politician back home, no claim, however ineligible, was rejected. This was an early lesson for Aussie bureaucrats about Asian corruption.

A fellow student told me, with great glee, how his politician uncle had successfully organised his Colombo Plan nomination – Australia (apparently) had to accept all nominations within quotas. He was doing an undergraduate course, already available in his own country, and he had plenty of money (for suede desert boots and corduroy slacks as well); he should have been ineligible.

Then there were Mickey Mouse courses conducted in Australia for Asians and other near neighbours. A large team of twenty-four mature, experienced, and some senior professional public servants from a wide range of countries attended a natural disaster administration course of about six weeks. Australia had experienced no major disasters. So, the group was shown how a local drainage blockage in the national capital (with a population under a quarter of a million) had cut off traffic, inundated a few houses, and drowned two children.

As one of the course members said to me, “They call this a major natural disaster; it’s a joke and an insult.” Another said that the course provided a bit of a holiday – his wife was flying out privately to join him at the end of the course. A half-fare holiday was worth the boredom and irrelevance of the course.

(The above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ are intended to show how patronising some Australians – including certain bureaucrats – were; and the manner in which the well-intentioned Colombo Plan was exploited by some beneficiaries with powerful relatives back home. Offering hospitality selectively enabled me to obtain a clear picture of what was happening.)