First Day: Penny Wong’s journey from shy student to Senator

Today she’s a household name and a formidable force in Australian politics, but moving to Adelaide from Malaysia as an eight-year-old, Penny Wong says she felt like an outsider.

When Penny Wong moved to Australia, it was summertime and her parents had just separated.

It was 1976. She was eight years old.

“I think Australia smelled dusty,” she said. “It just looked different and smelled different and the light was different.”

First Day Penny Wong
Penny Wong (centre) says she remembers her first day at school and the comments from people about her race. Source: Supplied

Born in Malaysia to an Australian mother and a Malaysian father, the dry heat of Adelaide was an assault on the senses for a child who had grown up in the tropics.

“I remember the first time I jumped into the sea here, and how cold it was," she said. “Obviously, in Malaysia it’s near the equator and pretty warm there, and me thinking, 'what’s wrong with the sea?'”

But she says she remembers "feeling like I didn't belong for some time," especially at her new school.

“I remember my first day at school. That was a bit hard, actually,” she said.

“I was probably the first Asian a lot of those kids had ever seen, and I remember things being said as we walked in to go to enrol.

“I remember people making comment about my race, and me realising, that was the first time I actually realised race was a factor.

“I think it was a very stressful few years.”

Senator Wong says her and her brother learnt to cook at a young age because they missed home so much.

It wasn't until Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating spoke about Australian identity, she says, that she felt at home here.

“There was that time he talked about our place in Asia,” she said. “He spoke specifically about Kokoda and the fall of Singapore as being as important to Australian identity and Australian history as Gallipoli.

“At some point in that period, I went back to Malaysia. I remember flying back in, and landing at [Sydney’s] Kingsford-Smith [Airport] on a hot summer’s day, and when the wheels hit the tarmac, I thought, this is my country now, this is my place.

"It was the sense of a national identity that contemplated me that made the difference."

First Day Penny Wong
Penny Wong was born in Malaysia and moved to Australia with her family when she was eight years old. Source: Supplied
After graduating from law and arts at the University of Adelaide in 1992, she worked in the trade union movement before moving to New South Wales to work as a ministerial adviser to the Labor state government.

She says her early experiences of marginalisation and racism motivated her to embark on her own political career.

"I think wanting to be in Parliament in many ways is connected to arriving here," she said. "That sense of knowing what it's like to be marginalised and what it's like to be excluded probably instilled in me a very strong sense of wanting to change that."

Penny Wong was elected to the Senate for the Australian Labor Party in 2001, and has been twice re-elected.

Under the Rudd Government she was appointed Minister for Climate Change and Water, and later served as Finance Minister. She is currently the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Throughout her career she has been an advocate for multiculturalism, and more recently, marriage equality.

At 48, she says her story is still being written - and hopes others will see her as a voice for those who can’t always speak out.

“I hope that a number of people in Australia say, ‘She spoke for us.’”

4 min read
Published 27 January 2017 at 2:54pm
By Rhiannon Elston