Doorstop Interview, Kota Kinabalu International Airport, Malaysia

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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24 April 2024

SUBJECTS: Malaysian Defence Force training incident; ADF service in Malaysia; Anzac Day.      

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Firstly, I'd like to on behalf of the Australian people and the Government of Australia, offer our sincerest commiserations and thoughts to the victims of the helicopter crash yesterday in Lumut and their families. Australia and Malaysia share a very strong defence bond and relationship going back to the Second World War and a tragedy such as this really hits home to all across the world and particularly our two nations on the risks that are involved with service in the Malaysian and Australian militaries and we offer our sincerest condolences and our thoughts and prayers with your nation, your people, but particularly the people of the Malaysian Defence Force as the recovery begins. It's also a great honour for me to visit Labuan today, and to go to the Commonwealth War Cemetery, and see firsthand the resting place of thousands of Australians who served during the Second World War and paid the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of the Malayan Peninsula and Borneo. I was really touched by the number of graves there for which we still don't know the identity of those who have perished and they’re sacred places for Australians, because these are the places where our service men and women who served in the Second World War are resting. I was fortunate to lay a wreath and to pay my respects to those Australians and members of other defence forces who served here during the Second World War. I also want to pay tribute to the wonderful staff to locals who showed me around and who spend their working life looking after the graves of Australians who are buried here in Malaysia. It's a tribute to their hard work and their dedication to their trade and the Australian people truly thank them. I also want to thank the CEO of the Labuan Corporation for hosting me this afternoon and for his staff showing me around the beautiful island and a place of much paradise for the people of Malaysia.

JOURNALIST: How does Australia contribute to the upkeep of the war graves here?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Australia makes an annual contribution to the Commonwealth War Graves. There's an organisation that's based in Brussels that has the role and responsibility of maintaining Commonwealth graves throughout the world.  All Commonwealth nations make a contribution and it's a fitting tribute to our soldiers who served in all wars and conflicts representing Commonwealth nations, that they get an appropriate place of burial where their service and sacrifice is recognised and it's wonderful that Malaysia contributes so much to the upkeep of those graves here.

JOURNALIST: How do you keep alive the memory of the soldiers for the younger generation here?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well tomorrow is Anzac Day, it's the day when Australians come together and unite to remember the service and sacrifice of our soldiers, but also to pay tribute to them for the way of life that we enjoy in modern times. And it's something that we must be ever vigilant in ensuring that younger generations and future generations understand and know about the service and sacrifice of our forebears. And I've got to say that probably not enough Australians know about Sandakan, and just how horrific it was for Australian forces that fought here during the Second World War. I think that there were 15 or 1,600 soldiers who set out on the march from Sandakan to Ranau and only six of them survived. It's a horrific story of much suffering, and heroics. But the ones that did survive, survived with the support and the help of the local Malay people and for that we are eternally grateful. And I'll make that point tomorrow in my speech at the Dawn Service, just how much it means to the Australian people. The contribution and the support of the Malaysian people at the time to help some Australians survive.

JOURNALIST: Did you learn about this history at school?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we do. We study military history in Australian schools, particularly Anzac Day and its significance, but a lot of it is focused on Gallipoli and the landing at Gallipoli in 1915, which was the first time that the Australian and New Zealand troops had fought together and that's why Anzac Day is so significant. It commemorates the day that our forces landed on the shores of Gallipoli. Other World War two campaigns such as Papua New Guinea and our Prime Minister is currently visiting Papua New Guinea and walking the Kokoda track with the Papua New Guinean Prime Minister. Places like the Middle East are well known but not as much is known about the Malayan campaign and the significance of this area for World War Two and I hope to use my visit to ensure that more Australians understand the service and sacrifice of those that came before us here. But also, that the strong relationship that exists between Malaysians and Australians was born of that blood, that sweat and those tears, from World War Two and the support of the Malaysian people.

JOURNALIST: As far as Australia is concerned, what about the Five Power Defence Arrangements?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: The Five Powers Defence Arrangements is very, very important to Australia and our relationships within Southeast Asia. We recently published National Defence Strategy and it highlights the importance of Southeast Asia for stability and security of the Australian people and of our partners within the region. So, agreements such as that, the exercises, the training, that go with that Five Powers Arrangement, are fundamentally important to maintaining strong relationships in Southeast Asia and with the Malaysian military.

JOURNALIST: Inaudible.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Australian personnel and all three arms of the Australian military, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, regularly participate in joint exercises with the Malaysian military. I understand that we have had at Naval ships here in the region over the last year and that will continue into the future and we're welcoming a Malaysian presence at some quite key multilateral training exercises later this year, with Operation Pitch Black and with Kakadu as well. So, we're looking forward to continuing those strong relationships and building on them into the future.

JOURNALIST: As Assistant Minister for the Republic, what comment do you have for this direction that your country is going?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It’s a role that I'm very, very proud to have in the Government. At the moment, the Government's focus is on cost of living pressure. Many Australians are struggling with cost of living and we're putting in place measures to assist them with that. We've got a round of tax cuts that start on the first of July this year and other measures such as cheaper medicines, cheaper childcare, energy rebates, to assist Australians to get through a difficult period in our economy at the moment. But longer term, the Government has a vision of an independent, proud nation with one of our own as our Head of State, and we'd like to begin a conversation with the Australian people about how we can transition to a republic and have a Head of State that is Australian into the future.

JOURNALIST: As the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, how many are still involved in the Malaysian legacy?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: There are a number of ex service organizations in Australia that still have proud connections with the Malayan campaign and World War Two. There's regular family visits from Australians who have relatives who served here and are here at places such as where we visited this morning, so that will continue into the future. What we're finding is now you're starting to get grandchildren and younger generations that are interested in learning about their family history and connection to service in Southeast Asia. And they're making the pilgrimage to Labuan Cemetery and other places throughout the world to learn and understand their family connection to service in World War Two.

JOURNALIST: Are you happy with a state of maintenance of the Commonwealth graves and the memorial?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I was very, very pleased and very proud as an Australian of the partnership that exists between Australia and Malaysia to commemorate our military history. So, the visit to surrender point where the Australian Government partnered with the Malaysian Government to upgrade that memorial there makes you feel very, very proud to be Australian and a very solemn place at the war graves cemetery. But seeing the great job that the local community does in the upkeep of those graves, and the maintenance of the grounds is spectacular. And I want to thank the Malaysian community for the great work that you do in preserving Australian military history. It's something that we're very thankful for.


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