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The Colombo Plan

The innovative Colombo Plan saw thousands of Asian scholars study at Australian universities from the 1950s. And the scheme is still opening doors for Monash University in 2001, writes TIM PEGLER

Organising a class reunion is a tricky task. While simply selecting a venue and date can be a headache, locating former classmates is more like a migraine – surnames change, people move interstate or overseas, some have unlisted phone numbers.

Ms Lo Siew LinImagine then, the task facing Australian High Commission staff throughout South-East Asia this year. Their challenge is to track down thousands of scholars who studied at Australian universities on scholarshipsfunded by a long-running Commonwealth foreign aid initiative known as the Colombo Plan. The High Commission staffers have been seeking out these graduates to join in celebrations of the plan’s success.

Beginning in 1950, the plan, pushed energetically by Australia, saw Commonwealth countries pro-actively assisting in the development of newly independent Asian nations such as India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

A significant proportion of the foreign aid involved scholarships to Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and thousands of students took advantage of them. An estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Colombo Scholars ventured to Australian universities between 1950 and the mid-1980s.

The celebrations have been running throughout the year. Australia Malaysia Cultural Foundation executive officer Mr Geoff Sauer says more than 500 people, including 240 Colombo Plan scholars, attended a luncheon in Kuala Lumpur in July to celebrate the anniversary.

The Australian High Commission in Malaysia has already located 350 of an estimated 3000 Malaysians who studied in Australia, and is continuing the search. A medallion has been struck for the occasion, and the Australian Government has commissioned a book profiling some of the Malaysian scholars.

One of those interviewed by Mr Sauer for the book is Monash graduate Lim Siew Kwe. The principal of Assunta College in Petaling Jaya, Mrs Lim was the first woman from her village to go to university – and the first to study overseas.

After obtaining a Colombo scholarship to Monash, she completed an honours degree in geography and a diploma of education. Mr Sauer says the story of Mrs Lim, who came from a poor family who could not have sent her to university without a scholarship, typifies that of many Colombo scholars.

The Colombo Plan was embraced by Monash when it was still a fledgling university, offering scholarships as early as 1961 – the year Monash opened.

While records do not offer definitive numbers, it is believed more than 300 ‘Plan’ scholars attended Monash. Many Colombo scholars are now industry, government and community leaders. 

They are also some of Monash’s most distinguished alumni.

Success stories include Singaporean surgeon Dr Susan Lim, who performed the world’s second successful liver transplant, and Thai anti-corruption fighter Dr Pasuk Phongpaichit, whose controversial research has focused on the reliance of Thailand’s economy on prostitution revenue. 

Dr Lim graduated from Monash with first class honours in medicine and surgery. Dr Pasuk studied economics after winning a Colombo scholarship to Monash in 1965.

And the success of such graduates, the strength of their ties with Monash and the goodwill generated in Southeast Asia also helped bring the university’s innovative global expansion strategy to fruition.

Monash has had a campus in Malaysia since 1998, Monash College already offers courses in Singapore, and an agreement signed this year means programs will soon be offered at Guangzhou Huamei International College in eastern China.

Planning is under way for similar partnerships in the Chinese cities of Hangzhou, Qingdao, Dalian, Chengdu and possibly Beijing. Alliances have already been formed in India and Indonesia, and Monash is also looking into possibilities in Thailand.

Mr Tony Pollock, the executive director of the Office of International Affairs at Monash University, says students from the Colombo Plan countries continue to come to Monash in large numbers.

“Monash has been able to build a strong network of academic and social support structures for our international students because we have been doing this sort of thing for such a long time,” Mr Pollock said.

“There is now a growing demand for uni-versity education in countries such as India, Thailand, China, Taiwan and Indonesia.”

The domino effect from the Colombo Plan could bear fruit for Monash students in Australia too. At the July function, a Colombo scholar and the chief minister of Sarawak, Y.A.B. Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Haji (Dr) Abdul Taib bin Mahmud, announced the creation of a $500,000 fund to help Australian students study in Malaysia.

ACTION: For information on courses for international students, visit For alumni news and events visit or contact Mr Michael Simmonds on +61 3 9905 5007 or email

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