Thang Nguyen: The ugly ocker rears his racist head once more

20th july 2005

IN Australia, to paraphrase British political novelist George Orwell, all citizens "are equal, but some are more equal than others". This was made clear last week when Prime Minister John Howard wrote a letter to convicted Australian drug smuggler Schapelle Corby.

In a personal note to Howard earlier this month, Corby had pleaded: "I need your help to prove my innocence to the courts, release me from this nightmare and set me free." To which Howard replied: "I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that I will continue to take a personal interest in your case." He promised that Corby would get assistance from Canberra.

Meanwhile, as her lawyers have appealed, the Bali High Court has granted Corby a retrial, which starts today. The difference this time, however, is that there will be 12 witnesses from Australia who may get her free.

Howard's letter came after a series of what can be interpreted only as xenophobic acts since the 27-year-old beautician received a 20-year sentence on May 27 for smuggling 4.1kg of marijuana into Bali.

First, Australians told each other to boycott Bali holiday resorts and Indonesian products in Australia. Next, they regretted having made donations to Indonesian victims of the Asian tsunami and some issued death threats against Indonesian diplomats and civilians living in Australia.

Some enraged Australians sent bullets to the Indonesian consulate in Perth and twice sent a chemical powder, which turned out to be harmless, to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra. Worse, someone sent a package that also contained harmless chemical powder to Parliament House in Canberra and addressed it to their own Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, who on behalf of the federal Government had sent regrets for the previous incidents to the Indonesian Government.

Why can't these Australians see that a crime is a crime, regardless of where one commits it? Everyone is subject to the laws and punishments of the nation in which he or she commits a crime. An Indonesian who commits a crime in Australia falls immediately under Australian laws. If found guilty, he or she would have to face the consequence -- whether it is imprisonment or otherwise -- of their crime under those laws.

Most of what the Australian public saw on television on May 27 was a true-blue, young Australian woman facing stone-faced Indonesian judges and being taken by the arms by Indonesian police after the reading of her verdict. For many Australians, this image provoked nothing less than injustice done to an Australian on foreign soil.

Never mind that 45 Australians are facing drug-trafficking charges across Asia. And never mind that some have received more severe sentences than Corby's. Nguyen Tuong Van and Tran Van Thanh, for instance, have been convicted of drug-smuggling charges, and they both face death row in Singapore and Vietnam respectively.

Why don't these Australian citizens receive any attention or sympathy from the Australian public, let alone personal interest from their Prime Minister? Is it because their surnames are Nguyen and Tran? If this does not sound like racism, what does?

Of course, given Australian history, one should not be surprised that a broad group of Aussies is still xenophobic. Remember, it was only a few decades ago when the slogan "Australia for the White Man" was on the masthead of The Bulletin, the nation's most respected magazine. And who could forget Labor leader Arthur Calwell's "Two Wongs don't make a white"?

Sure, Australia has changed for the better since those dark days, notwithstanding Hansonism in the late 1990s. Just think of the many Asian Australians, their cuisines and diverse cultures that one can find today in Sydney, Melbourne and other places in Australia. Still, as Australians' reactions to the Corby case show, the spectre of White Australia haunts the nation. The message: a white or Aussie life is more valuable than a brown or Asian one. Justice may be blind, but for Australians it's not colour-blind.

Thang Nguyen is a Jakarta-based columnist, whose writing can be read at