Good evening and doesn’t that video just say it all? Good evening and welcome to you all to this very special event, where we celebrate a milestone in the life of the New Colombo Plan – the announcement this evening of the fifth cohort of scholars for this quite remarkable program.

I acknowledge the enduring support of His Excellency, the Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, who is Patron of the New Colombo Plan but unfortunately couldn’t be with us this evening but his support has been enduring and I thank you very much for it.  

Thank you Senator Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education, for being here this evening. My Ministerial colleagues Alan Tudge and Anne Ruston and all of our parliamentary members who are here this evening – fewer from the House of Representatives than I had hoped but nevertheless it’s wonderful to have my parliamentary colleagues here and I’m grateful for their support for the New Colombo Plan.

This evening it is a great pleasure to be here with so many who have contributed to the success of the New Colombo Plan: members of the Diplomatic Corps; Vice-Chancellors and other university representatives from the 40 Australian Universities who partner with the Australian Government in pursuing the New Colombo Plan; other private sector partners; the New Colombo Plan Business Champions and members of the New Colombo Plan Reference Group.

I’m pleased that we have a number of New Colombo Plan alumni here this evening to welcome and mentor the 2018 New Colombo Plan scholars, the newest members of this exceptionally talented group of young Australians.

It was around four years ago right in this place where I launched the New Colombo Plan — it was a foreign policy initiative to engage our best and brightest young Australians in the Indo-Pacific region. The support the Australian Government provided was to help them to study, to live, to learn a language, to immerse themselves in different cultures, and build networks and gain professional experience in our dynamic Indo-Pacific region.

My inspiration for this policy, as I have indicated on many occasions, was the original Colombo Plan and the success of that Plan of the 1950s, a program that seeded deep connections between Australia and our neighbours as young people came from the region to live and study and gain a qualification from an Australian university. Over about 40 years maybe 30,000 young people were Colombo Plan scholars, and today they are business and political and community leaders throughout our region.

In 2014 we commenced a pilot for a New Colombo Plan and 40 New Colombo Plan scholars were supported to study and live and work in Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Another 1000 students took up the short-term mobility projects. So 40 scholars and 1000 mobility students.

Next year the New Colombo Plan will support 120 scholars in 20 locations and for the first time, our scholars will be undertaking programs in Tonga, Micronesia and New Caledonia, among the 40 host locations that welcome Australian undergraduates under the New Colombo Plan. There will be 13,000 students undertaking 2018 New Colombo Plan mobility projects.

By the end of next year, from a standing start in 2014, our New Colombo Plan program will have supported 30,000 young Australian undergraduates, connect to each other, connect to the Indo-Pacific region with an extraordinary degree of success and an appetite amongst them all to deepen Australia’s relationship with the region.

I believe this is one of the most prudent investments that the Australian Government can make in our long-term national interest and will help build our national prosperity and our place in the region.

We are already seeing the emergence of a new generation of young leaders who understand Australia, our place in our region and understand the countries in which they have lived and worked and studied.

Let me give you some more examples.

Daniel Eastwood-Whitaker, the 2015 China Scholar, has a new career in a new country thanks largely to the New Colombo Plan. After completing his studies at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, this Swinburne University graduate began a six-month internship with QBE Insurance in Hong Kong, gaining first-hand experience of finance-related projects. His internship was so successful that QBE offered him not one but two jobs, one in finance and another in IT. Daniel took on the position in IT and is now a Business Analyst in Business Systems Management for the Asia Pacific. This is quite different from his original plan to be an engineer when he started university. He describes the NCP as a life-changing experience and encourages his peers to seize the opportunities offered by the New Colombo Plan.

Then there’s New Colombo Plan 2016 scholar, Diane Salim, who was given the opportunity to pursue her passion for space and science in Japan, a country renowned as a world leader in innovation and technology. This Australian National University student undertook internships at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The Royal Astronomical Society went on to recognise the calibre of her work when it published a paper that she had co-authored.

Recently I met with two New Colombo Plan alumni at South Australia’s NCP Alumni Program launch. Charlie Hamra from the University of Adelaide studied Indian Politics and Culture at Jamia Millia Islamia and interned at the Centre for the Escalation of Peace in New Delhi, where he organised a second-track dialogue between India and Bhutan. Another, Michelle Howie from the University of South Australia, studied engineering and Korean at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, she undertook a research work, a placement at KAIST – a public research university in Daejeon, and she interned at Telstra in Hong Kong.

Both spoke of how important it is for Australians to have a global outlook and a culture of openness. For them, the New Colombo Plan had fuelled a passion to engage with the Indo-Pacific. They have shared their experiences to inspire friends, family and others in their chosen profession or university to take an interest in and engage with the region. Since returning to Australia, they have started a buddy program for exchange students, worked with in-language radio and engaged with local social and cultural groups.  

New Colombo Plan mobility students have also developed remarkable connections and later this evening we will hear from students from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne. Earlier this year 13 cellists and two pianists took part in an immersive, nine-day program, it’s called 'Connecting Strings' in Hong Kong, where they collaborated with their peers at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The project culminated in a gala performance, featuring cello ensembles and orchestras made up of student and professional musicians from Melbourne and Hong Kong. The project was so successful that another will occur next year in South Korea, which will include a final orchestral concert at one of South Korea’s major concert halls. I look forward to hearing from these young maestros a little later on tonight.

New Colombo Plan alumni, led by an annual group of Alumni Ambassadors and an Indigenous Ambassador to represent the special role of our First Australians, will drive ongoing connections in coming decades and I think this is a key to the New Colombo Plan’s success – our alumni will continue to remain connected with their host country, the contacts that they’ve made as well as New Colombo Plan scholars and students here. We will be welcoming around 10,000 new alumni each year. Just think of what a formidable network that will be of Australians throughout the Indo-Pacific.

In a few short years, the New Colombo Plan has served to strengthen Australia’s ties throughout the region — through our people, our universities, the private sector and between governments.

Many regional leaders have generously offered their endorsement of the New Colombo Plan.

During his visit to Australia earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told me he supported the New Colombo Plan, he noted China’s desire to work more closely with Australia in education and through the New Colombo Plan.

In his address to the Parliament last year, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee, recognised how the New Colombo Plan had built on the connections developed during the original Colombo Plan and he was grateful that a new generation would “continue the spirit of exchange” and build “goodwill between our peoples”.

Last week, the Government launched our Foreign Policy White Paper – the first Foreign Policy White Paper in 14 years and the only comprehensive report into how our national interest intersects with our international engagement. This White Paper is providing a framework on how the Government will advance Australia’s interests, our priorities, our values in the region over the next decade and beyond.

The New Colombo Plan features in the White Paper as a superb example of a successful foreign policy initiative — a long-term investment in our regional relationships that will pay dividends for decades to come.

Diversity is critical to the success New Colombo Plan. Scholars and mobility students bring a wide range of life experiences to their engagement with other nations.  The New Colombo Plan has supported many students who are the first in their families to attend university or indeed the first in their family to travel overseas. A significant number made Australia their home after beginning life elsewhere. Some had to deal with domestic and financial hardships, others with ill health and disability.

Each scholar we celebrate tonight has a unique story.

You will hear from Nepal Fellow Won-Hae Shim, a young woman from the University of Technology, Sydney, who is forging her own path in the construction industry. Currently working with Multiplex, her studies will focus on disaster-resistant construction, which she wants to use to inform ideas on emergency management and response.

For Deakin University scholar Siobhan Strickland, her study at BINUS University in Indonesia will be an original experience in multiple ways. Growing up finances were tight, Siobhan realised a good job was important to improve her prospects but without further education, employment opportunities were limited. Until now, her university career has taken place online to allow her to work full-time in a demanding job to help fund her study.  Her time at BINUS will be her first opportunity to study on campus with other students and Siobhan has described it as her opportunity to be a “real” student.

We have the original Colombo Plan to thank for the presence of Sydney University’s Tilini Rajapaksa among our 2018 scholars. After growing up in Sri Lanka, Tilini – who will be the Fellow in Myanmar – and her family migrated to Australia partly because of her uncle’s experience with the original Colombo Plan back in the 1970s.

There is the passion and enthusiasm of Hong Kong scholar Hafi Khan, a young man determined to use his New Colombo Plan journey to help rid the world of glaucoma blindness. Since migrating to Australia from Pakistan, Hafi has faced challenges that may have led some to abandon their goals. As a 17-year-old, he moved from regional Western Australia to Victoria to pursue his studies. Hafi was not yet entitled to become an Australian citizen so was unable to access financial support available to students. He was struggling to pay the rent, university fees and other bills. Hafi began working nights to fund his living expenses and studied during the day. He has said that: “Giving up will make temporary failure permanent.” He’s now a New Colombo Plan recipient.

Miles Archibald, from the University of New England, got his first taste of student mobility through a New Colombo Plan mobility project to Indonesia. It was his first trip overseas. Miles found the experience challenging but rewarding, stretching him socially and culturally – an opportunity for personal growth. It’s been a positive year for Miles, who has been working with UNE staff to establish an entrepreneurship unit at the university after taking part in the Sydney Entrepreneurship School and I am delighted to announce that Miles will be the inaugural QBE Indigenous Fellow.

I thank QBE for its generosity in sponsoring our Indigenous high-achievers. I also thank PwC, which continues its sponsorship of three scholars in 2018.

Private sector engagement has been essential, has been a key to the success of the New Colombo Plan and will be crucial to its longevity. I want to see the New Colombo Plan as a rite of passage for Australian students for decades to come and we now have over 240 private sector organisations supporting our program, using their connections and networks to place our students in locations throughout the region – the 40 locations that will host Australian New Colombo Plan students.  

I acknowledge the many businesses that have provided internships and other work-based opportunities for New Colombo Plan scholars – it’s such an integral part of their experience.

New Colombo Plan Business Champions have been effective, high-profile proponents of both the scholarship and the mobility programs. Their networks and circles of influence have contributed tremendously to amplifying the reach of the New Colombo Plan. Business Champions, such as Alison Watkins, the Group Managing Director of Coca Cola Amatil, and Angela Mentis from National Australia Bank, are among our strongest supporters.

As Alison said: “The New Colombo Plan really helps us accelerate the process of understanding other cultures and being able to build trust.”

And as Angela said: “It’s not just about study and business experience – it’s about cultural engagement, regional awareness and inspiring a vision that’s bigger in our future leaders.”

I thank each and every one of our Business Champions and other private sector partners who are here with us this evening. They have provided so many opportunities for New Colombo Plan students and I commend them for their investment in the scholars and in the program. I have no doubt it will be a worthwhile investment.

Thank you all for being part of this celebration tonight.

Congratulations to the scholars who are about to embark on a remarkable journey that will change your life. I look forward to hearing from each of you about your transformational experiences and the wonderful contribution you will make to our community into the future. Ensure that you remain connected through the Alumni program and I can assure you that this will be one of the most rewarding experiences that you could have.

With my partner Minister, Simon Birmingham the Minister for Education, the Australian Government is proud to support you as you develop your capacity to be an ambassador for Australia in the Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific. Congratulations all.

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