Nick Xenophon: He’s no xenophobe!

A fifty-four-year-old Australian Senator, with a passionate interest in Malaysia, arranges a fact-finding tour to the Asian nation to observe electoral processes ahead of the upcoming general elections.
He arrives a day ahead of his fellow bipartisan parliamentarians, Liberal Mal Washer, Nationals Senator John Williams, and Labor MP Steve Georganas, who are scheduled to meet a government minister, Mohammed Nazri; the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim; members of Bersih, a coalition of NGOs seeking reform of the electoral system, and the secretary of the Electoral Commission. The opposition had invited them.
Seems pretty routine, even boring, doesn’t it? Well, it was, until immigration officials stopped Independent Senator Nick Xenophon from entering the country at the airport. They said he was a prohibited migrant who took part in illegal activities on his last visit to Malaysia in 2012. You may remember the photo of him being tear-gassed as he was caught up in protests in Kuala Lumpur, which were demanding electoral reform.
Senator Xenophon claimed he was deported because he was placed on a watch list, also reserved for terrorists, because he was a security risk. He spent 15 hours in detention and he had his photo taken sitting outside immigration offices at the airport.
The foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, wrote: “Nick Xenophon’s actions regarding Malaysia are either foolish or cynically self-promoting in a year in which he faces re-election.” He went on to praise Malaysia as “one of the most democratic and freewheeling nations” in Southeast Asia: “Indeed, its very openness allows people such as Xenophon to grandstand there.”
I asked Senator Xenophon about the grandstanding charge: “It’s ridiculous. The plan was for me to go there and keep my mouth shut. If I were allowed into the city, it would have been a short visit and we would have written a report for Parliament. The only media coverage would have been an interview with Mal Washer by Jim Middleton for Asia Pacific. “
When I suggested it was that photo (above) at the airport which led some of the media to accuse the Senator of trying to help his own electoral chances in September, he said: “One of the opposition leader’s staff took the photo. One of the newspapers asked me for a photo so I sent it to them as a favour. It wasn’t grandstanding either.”
Senator Xenophon and Labor MP Michael Danby, chairman of the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, co-authored an article in The Australian the day after Sheridan’s piece, criticising the deportation and Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s lack of action on the issue. They wrote: “The Foreign Minister and your paper asked if it was appropriate for Australia to have a role in another country’s elections without a specific request from their government. When it came to Myanmar, Timor and Fiji, Australia’s answer was yes.”
Xenophon told me: “It’s quite right for us to see what’s going on in Malaysia and we should help if the opposition asks us to do so. We can’t ignore them.”
And I remember how meddling foreigners, which is how Malaysia’s media, under instructions from their government, describe Xenophon, helped break down apartheid in South Africa. Pretoria always dismissed its critics both in the media and foreign governments of not understanding how strong South Africa’s democracy was. When the outside world placed bans on playing sport in South Africa, especially its beloved rugby, apartheid started to crumble.
Xenophon and Danby point out that an international observer group who visited Malaysia last April concluded there were legitimate concerns about the country’s democracy: massive gerrymandering, electoral roll fraud, and intimidation of voters. Amnesty International has accused Malaysian authorities of harassing and intimidating Suaram, one of the country’s leading human rights groups. And lest we forget, the Opposition Leader, Anwar Ibrahim, spent six years in solitary confinement on false charges of sodomy and corruption. One of the most democratic nations in Southeast Asia? Hardly.
Senator Xenophon first got interested in Malaysia when he met Anwar in Australia in 2010: “I was quite shocked by the way he was treated: solitary confinement and trumped up charges. I told him ‘I promise you we will send an MP to monitor your trial.’ When no one else was available, I put my hand up.” The Senator went to Malaysia last year to observe the trial of Anwar, who was acquitted of sodomy charges. Xenophon also told me: “But don’t get me wrong. I love Malaysia. It’s a wonderful country.”


Walkley Award-winning Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian, Rowan Callick, wrote in the foreign pages this week the deportation of Xenophon was a return to the ultra-nationalism so favoured by former prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to keep himself in power. Prime Minister Najib Razak is now following in Dr Recalcitrant’s footsteps by taking a hardline on foreigners, especially one with history, like Nick Xenophon. (I guess calling Najib the “new Dr Recalcitrant” means I will be detained at the airport, too!)
This is going to be a difficult election for Najib, and he apparently saw the deportation of an Australian senator as a perfect opportunity to show Malaysians who’s the boss. Callick quotes leading opposition MP Tian Chua as saying Xenophon was deported for describing Malaysia as authoritarian: “Yes, quite right, and we deport him to prove him wrong. How dare he call us authoritarian.” It’s a Malaysian Catch 22.
It reminds me of a story the late Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country, tells about South Africa in its apartheid days. There’s a big room without any windows, and it’s packed with South Africans, smoking and drinking and partying for hours. A foreigner hears the noise and opens up the door. Staggered by the smell, he says: “This place stinks.” The South Africans look at him and say: “How would you know? You just got here.” The Malaysian government adopts the same attitude toward foreigners.
Senator Xenophon believes there is also a risk of a backlash against his deportation. He told ABC News this week: “Australia and Malaysia are the greatest of friends. This shouldn’t affect the relationship but I think if the Malaysian government thought that they were doing the smart thing, I think it spectacularly backfired on them. This was going to be a low-key visit … none of you would have heard about.
“But if it means more Australians in the region are aware of how dire and critical the state of Malaysian democracy is and how Malaysian democracy is at the crossroads, then that unambiguously is a good thing.”
The Senator says there’s a fundamental flaw in the reasoning of Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who says so long as the country has elections, Australia won’t be sending observers. Xenophon told Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast this week: “But if the electoral process is so flawed, so corrupt and you have the official opposition and leading non-government groups saying, ‘please, please help us,’ then I think we need to look at it quite differently.”
Senator Xenophon is a politician who will help us look at things quite differently in Malaysia. It is ultimately a human rights issue. UN human rights experts last year denounced what they called “disturbing” harassment of Malaysian activists who are pushing for election reform and urged the government to protect them.
Amnesty International has also criticised the Malaysian Government for giving authorities power to hold people for 28 days without charge. Malaysian police earlier this month arrested two men on suspicion of having recruited people ‘for the purpose of terrorist activities” under a new security law, Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA.
Amnesty’s group deputy Asia-Pacific director, Isabelle Arradon, said: “This first arrest under SOSMA shows that the Malaysian authorities have just replaced one oppressive regime with another. The Malaysian authorities should not compromise human rights in the name of security. They should immediately revise or repeal the new security law.”
Nick Xenophon has fought against poker machines, online and sports betting and the predatory pricing policy of Coles and Woolworths, to name a few of his campaigns (you can see them all on his website:
He pulled off a few stunts during his election campaigns, which aren’t the kind of things you put on your CV (although he does have a photo of one on his website!), but they were funny and, in my experience, you can usually trust a politician with a sense of humour. (Richard Nixon had no sense of humour!)
But Senator Nick Xenophon says he wasn’t grandstanding on his trip to Malaysia, and I believe him. He is passionate about his campaigns, and electoral reform in Malaysia is one of them.
What Australia needs is a grandstand (pun intended) of Nick Xenophons, fighting for what they believe in. As he says on his website: “… the most important part of my job is speaking up for people who might not otherwise have a voice.”

6 thoughts on “Nick Xenophon: He’s no xenophobe!

  1. When writing an OPINION piece, as a journalist, does one still need apply the golden rule of balance? Mr Xenophon is well known for his passion for HIS causes. He is also well known for the outlandishness in some of his ideas. The Senator is a mere distraction in the ways of Malaysia. Surely if the UN and Amnesty are looking at the affairs of this country Nick has little to offer.
    And if the UN and Amnesty are toothless tigers where does he lie in the scheme of things.
    And as for grandstanding, you quoted him as saying ” the plan was to keep my mouth shut.” I believe you know him well and the “plan” was outlandish at best.
    And Tom, with respect, to compare South Africa and Malaysia might be a stretch,in my OPINION.

    • Steve, As always, I enjoy your comments. But I disagree with you on a few points. If the Senator was a mere distraction in the ways of Malaysia, why did they bother to deport him? Malaysia does care about Australia, and they used the hardline against foreigners’ approach to get our attention. I think it will backfire against them.
      He certainly attracted more response in Australia than the UN and Amnesty International for his calls for electoral reform (both of whom I support, of course). That’s what used to happen in South Africa. When the media, foreign or domestic, got up their nose, they’d toss them out or, in some cases, lock them up. Malaysia put Anwar Ibrahim in solitary confinement for 6 years; South Africa put Nelson Mandela on Robben Island for 27. Both were innocent. How’s that for a comparison?
      I do know Nick Xenophon well, and I’ve never considered him outlandish. I really wish we had a grandstand of Nick Xenophon-like politicians. And yes, Nick likes to talk, but he also knows how to keep his mouth shut.
      Thanks for getting me fired enough to reply with a rant!
      Cheers, Tom

    • Slam, I knew you would ask that, and I will answer it. But first, thanks for giving me the opportunity to correct my Nelson Mandela comparison. It’s still a good comparison, but I should have said Nelson Mandela spent 18 years on Robben Island before being transferred to another prison in 1982. But he did spend 27 years in jail. And he did not deny he planned sabotage against the apartheid regime when he gave his famous speech before the dock in 1963. He said: “We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.”
      After several trips to South Africa as a working journalist, I did not have a good word to say about the government of the country. A fellow journalist, who I didn’t meet until ten years after my first trip in 1977, told me this, and I thought he was joking. But no, I thought about it, and he was right. So I reported on South Africa, and its people and it wasn’t until 1990 when Mandela was released that I had a good word to say about the South African government. I can’t say I know Malaysia as well as South Africa, but its claims for democracy are greatly exaggerated. I guess that accounts for the lack of balance in my piece. Thanks for pointing it out to me. But at my age, I am not going to err on the side of caution. And, as I said, I doubt that I’ll ever get past the airport in KL! Cheers, Tom

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