Modern Britain: Our journey beyond colonialism


May I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people. I pay my respects to elders past, present and future.

I also acknowledge all of Australia’s First Nations and recognise their place in Australia’s history, indeed in global history, as the oldest living culture in the world. And can I acknowledge all the other beautiful cultures represented here by my ASEAN counterparts, by my Pacific counterparts, by my Five Eyes, European and other counterparts in the room. I’m blessed to have you all with us today, particularly to the women, happy International Women’s Day.

For me, that includes understanding Britain’s own history and colonial past.

Whilst I will talk about Modern Britain, on this International Women’s Day I would also like to touch on my own journey as a British Woman of Asian ancestry – a representative of Modern Multicultural Britain.

Over twenty years ago, Robin Cook our then Foreign Secretary spoke of the reality of Britain in the 21st century.

He reminded us London was established as the capital of a Celtic Britain by Romans from Italy. They were then driven out by Saxons and Angles from Germany.

Richard the Lionheart spoke French and depended on the Jewish community of England to put up the ransom that freed him from prison.

The idea that Britain was a ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon society before the arrival of communities from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa is fantasy.

But if this view of British identity is false to our past, it is certainly false to our future too.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong recently made headlines for a speech at Kings College in London.

As is often the case with headlines and even today – and I appreciate I’m on dangerous ground by making this point at the National Press Club – some of the nuance was lost.

I agree with Penny Wong. We must frame ourselves for who we are today.  We must not let others constrain us in a past reality.

Just as brevity is the enemy of complexity, the story of modern Britain is distilled by distance.
A postcard of a painting that never was. 

To understand modern Britain is to understand that we must project with pride our modern multicultural reality.

Our diversity and the inclusive society we strive for is who we are today.
This is our modern nationhood.

A nationhood that demands equality and fairness – at home and abroad: values we share with Australia.

Last year, the British Council and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade explored this complexity in the landmark “UK / Australia Season.”

Over one thousand British and Australian artists and educators collaborated across the globe to connect us with nuance, beauty and truth. 

All seeking to answer the question, Who are we now?

Britain may have influenced the world, but in turn, Modern Britain has been shaped by the world.

We do not forget history but we must learn from it to inform our present and our future, to be a force for good we wish to be.

Next week I celebrate 4 years in my role as the British High Commissioner to Australia and also as the Head of our eight country Oceania Network.

You’ll be pleased to know I have another year to go.

A significant part of my job has been to strengthen our presence across this region, broaden our engagement and elevate our relationship with Australia to one of genuine strategic partnership.

I am reminded in this endeavour of the dilemma faced by the mathematician Abraham Wald during World War Two.

Allied planes returned with significant bullet damage.

The proposed solution was to add armour reinforcement.

But where to add reinforcement that would do the most benefit?

Wald analysed data showing areas where returning planes had sustained bullet damage.

Wald dismissed the intuitive answer, to strengthen parts of the plane that sustained the most damage.

His advice was to reinforce the parts of the returning planes that showed the least damage,

Why reinforce the part of the plane that came back unharmed?

Because the planes that sustained damage to those areas never returned.

Wald identified that sometimes, reinforcement is needed in the least obvious place.

Last year we announced the return of a diplomatic Consul-General for Western Australia, after a gap of nearly twenty years.

In my first year here, we re-established a diplomatic Consul General in Brisbane. With our Consul-Generals based in Sydney and Melbourne, our diplomatic network is restored and re-established covering all Australian states and territories.

The history and ties between Australia and the United Kingdom might suggest less focus is needed in this part of the world.

That is misguided.

There’s a phrase we like to use a lot about the Australia/UK relationship, ‘the best of mates’.
The thing about mates is that you should never take them for granted.

You have to work at it.

That is why our foreign ministers spent two days together with their defence counterparts at AUKMIN last month – to talk, to share, to understand, to challenge and to agree common purpose.

James Cleverly and Penny Wong concluded at the end of AUKMIN we are and remain the best of mates.

True partnership requires renewal and growth and that is what we are doing.

Partnership like our modern dynamic Free Trade Agreement which will transform bilateral trade between our countries.

Or UK accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

We invest in each other – in 2021, we were Australia’s second largest source of foreign investment. In return, the UK is the second-largest destination for Australian investment overseas.

Relationships do not survive, even in your private lives, unless they recognise change and adapt to new dynamics.

If not, we wake up one morning and realise we no longer know each other.  So we are activist about this relationship which matters deeply to us.

Today our Foreign Secretary James Cleverly concludes our new Women and Girl’s Strategy, which he’s launched now, built on the pillars of Rights, Freedom, and Potential. A priorty agenda we share with Australia.

I recently met with a year eleven student, a high achieving young woman of Asian ancestry.

I asked, as I often do of young people, where she hoped to be in thirty years.

‘Prime Minister of Australia,’ she said.

On this International Women’s Day, it’s heartening to recall her say this with a surety that belied not a dream, but a goal to be attained.

It’s an attitude we’ve sought to foster in the UK.

We’ve made great strides in ensuring our Parliament represents the diversity of Britain.

Thirteen percent of our people in the UK are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Today, ten percent of our House of Commons are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Whilst we have made progress, there is still more to do, not least as Penny Wong reminded us, in how we project to the world.

So, let me be clear:

Yes, I represent the Britain of Bronte and Beckham.

But I also represent the Britain of Mary Seacole and James Cleverley, of Riz Ahmed and Rishi Sunak, of Courtney Pine and Kemi Badenoch, and for the literary among you, of Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi.

A Britain that addressed its legacy of the slave trade by leading the world in the abolition of slavery, passing the Slave Trade Act in 1807.

A Britain that initiated in more recent time the global campaign against Modern Slavery. The Britain that led the world to COP 26, and through the Glasgow Climate Pact, kept 1.5 alive, particularly important to our Pacific friends. 

And just in the last week the Britain at the forefront of efforts to secure the landmark agreement on marine biodiversity at the UN protecting 30% of our oceans by 2030.

We are a Britain that has committed the equivalent of seven billion Australian dollars in support of Ukraine.

A Britain that has offered over two hundred and eighteen thousand Ukrainians a safe haven in our country since the beginning of Russia’s invasion.

A Britain that has offered Hong Kong-Chinese people the opportunity to become citizens in Britain.

And in true British style, we have done so with a minimum of fuss. 

We do this because Britain will always stand against aggressors and stand up for freedom and democracy.

And we do it with the will of the British people.

I am proudly British, and I say this as someone born in Malaysia without a drop of English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish blood coursing through my veins.

In ethnic terms I am Eurasian, the daughter of Chinese and Dutch Burgher parents who migrated to Britain with me in tow aged eight because they trusted British values and believed in the opportunity Britain offered my sister and I.

Ten million Britons, like me, are foreign born.

At nineteen, I took an entry level role as a clerk in the Foreign Office in London.

On my first day I had the common experience of many migrants at that time, the inevitable ‘Yes, but where are you really from?’ conversation.

My first boss on greeting me was bemused, he said:
‘I don’t understand how you hope to be a member of Her Majesty’s diplomatic service.’
I told him, I am a legacy of Empire, and you reap what you sow.

This was nineteen seventy-nine. A year later and perhaps I could have referenced a popular film release: The Empire strikes back. 

Over my career I have seen not just the ongoing change in my own organisation whether in terms of ethnic diversity or gender or other difference.

When I looked up the ladder then on that first day, there was no one like me never mind senior women.

Today women head our missions in Tokyo, Beijing, Singapore, Moscow, Paris, Berlin, Washington, Wellington, Ottawa and at the UN.

I was proud to make history and become the first female career diplomat of colour to become a High Commissioner when I went to New Zealand.

I have seen my country transform too. A yet more inclusive society where whoever you are and wherever your family came from you can rise and achieve the highest office.

I’m not sure we have an equivalent idiom of our American friends and their ‘American dream’.
If we did, I’d say I’m proud of the ‘British reality’.

A reality where we have a Hindu prime minister of Indian heritage, a foreign secretary of Sierra Leone heritage, and, yes, where the daughter of immigrants can start at the lowest level of the civil service and become the British High Commissioner to Australia.

Next Monday is Commonwealth Day. This is the first since the nations of Gabon and Togo were admitted.

Neither country has a colonial history with Britain, but their desire to join the family of nations that is The Commonwealth highlights the appeal of the Commonwealth ethos outlined by Queen Elizabeth:
“The Commonwealth is built on the highest qualities: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace.”

It is why Prime Minister Fiame of Samoa travelled to Kigali last year for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, to bring the Commonwealth to the Pacific in 2024 when Samoa will host CHOGM.


As someone from this region, and through my postings across the Indo-Pacific, including a return to the country of my birth as British High Commissioner to Malaysia, I have a cultural awareness and understanding of this region.

I believe this contributes to our understanding and the shape of our work in the advice I provide to my government.

My time in this role has overlapped with a period of significant change for Britain and the world.

Our departure from the European Union meant Britain had to reassess its place in the world against the shifting currents of our geo-strategic reality.

Our Integrated Review published in 2021 set out our plan.

It made clear we are – by geography – a Euro-Atlantic nation and the defence of Europe – our near neighbourhood – would always be a priority.

Our commitment to NATO endures, and I acknowledge my friend and colleague Betty Pavelich, the Croatian Ambassador who is the NATO representative here in Canberra. 

As does our commitment to Ukraine to regain their sovereignty.

But the Integrated Review also pointed to the importance of the Indo-Pacific and the need for us to engage in this region further.

In recognition of ASEAN centrality we have become an ASEAN Dialogue Partner. We want to work with ASEAN for their goals and aims as they are indeed ours.

In recognition of our Pacific friends at the frontline of Climate impacts, we will use our covening power as we did in Glasgow to give them a global voice.

Over the past four years the UK has doubled our presence across the Pacific Island Countries.

We now have High Commissioners in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.

Just as it is my privilege to represent my country in Australia, our missions across the Pacific are privileged to learn from and support our Pacific friends.

The creation of our new Pacific Development Unit headed by our former High Commissioner to Vanuatu, here with us today, further underlines our commitment.

We have established a strong network coupled with strategic oversight from those who understand the importance of the Pacific and have lived and worked in the region.

This is a point of partnership, and of pragmatism. Not words on paper, but people on the ground.

As our Foreign Secretary has said, Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific economies and security are indivisible.

Sixty percent of global shipping passes through this region.

Security and stability here affects us all.

And the UK has always been a seafaring nation.

Our ships HMS Tamar and HMS Spey represent our intention to maintain a permanent presence in the Indo Pacific.

Last year, HMS Spey assisted the humanitarian response to the Tonga volcanic eruption.

In the last week, thanks to our partnership with Australia, the UK delivered shelter kits to the Government of Vanuatu, to support their recovery effort after cyclones Judy and Kevin wreaked havoc.

These climate impacts is why at COP 26 in Glasgow we announced £274 million for a new programme to improve climate resilience across the Indo-Pacific.

Whether battling slave traders in history, providing natural disaster relief today, or being alert to those who threaten a free and open Indo-Pacific, Britain will always support democracy and freedom worldwide.


This is why we have committed to AUKUS, the tri-lateral security and defence partnership between the UK, Australia, and the United States.

The drumbeat of reporting and rumours about Pillar 1 will soon reach a crescendo.

The optimal pathway is coming, and journalists in the room wouldn’t be journalists if they don’t use the post speech Q&A to inveigle me for new information. It is a futile attempt.

In an effort to pre-empt this, let me say all will be known soon, and I cannot, today, speak to specifics.

What I can say it this:

Our historic AUKUS agreement reflects the unique trust between the UK, US and Australia.

It reflects our shared values, and our joint commitment to the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific.

In the face of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, it perhaps would have been understandable for the UK to pull focus.

Instead, we have doubled down on our commitment to the Indo-Pacific.

Our unwavering support for Ukraine has happened in parallel with the strengthening of our presence and engagement in the Pacific.

These are not separate issues, these are sides of the same coin.

We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests. We also recognise these views may not be shared by others.

Of course, we also recognise China’s significance in world affairs.

So diplomacy and engagement has never been more important.

Let me also use a sporting analogy because we know you Aussies love your sports.

A fair competition can only exist within a fair framework respected by all players.

Competition between nations is healthy, coercion is not. We will uphold the international rules based system, including modernising and reinforcing it in the light of experience and new global challenges like Climate Change.

We will support Australia and our allies across the Indo-Pacific, and anywhere the rules based international order is threatened.

This is the Modern Britain that has been shaped by the world.

This is the Global Britain that understands the legacy and responsibility of empire.

This is My Britain.

If you’ll indulge me further, I’ll end with an Emily Bronte poem:

I’m happiest now when most away
I can tear my soul from its mould of clay,
On a windy night when the moon is bright,
And my eye can wander through worlds of light.

When I am not, and none beside,
Nor earth, nor sea, nor cloudless sky,
But only spirit wandering wide
Through infinite immensity.

This poem has special resonance for me, as it may for many diplomatic colleagues with us today.

For me, whilst written in a different place and time, it speaks to this beautiful land and the spirit of its first nation’s people, wandering wide through the infinite immensity of time and space on this land called Australia today.

Like Bronte, I am happiest when most away, representing my nation in yours, and I thank you for the privilege.


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