Passing of Tony Pun a great loss for all Australians

Dr. Anthony Pun OAM, a central figure in Australia’s decision to grant residency to Chinese students following the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, has died in Sydney

18 May 2023 | Marcus Reubenstein (Image supplied)

Prominent Chinese community leader, Dr Anthony “Tony” Pun died last night in Sydney, aged 76. In 1989 he came to public prominence when he lobbied then prime minister Bob Hawke to allow Chinese students to remain in Australia, in the wake of the crackdown on Chinese student protests that led to the Tiananmen Square incident.

He was also known to have had the ear of former prime minister Gough Whitlam and was at Whitlam’s side for the 30th anniversary commemoration of the establishment of diplomatic ties with China.  

Born in Malaysia, whilst it was still under British colonial rule, Dr Pun moved to Australia in 1964. After gaining a PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of New South Wales, he became chief research scientist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, serving in that role for 19 years. He retired with 31 publications on blood transfusion, haematology survey, clinical laboratory computing and bone marrow transplantation.

Shoulder to lean on, Pun with Whitlam on the 30th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Australia and China

Speaking on his long career in public life that intersected with Australia’s political leaders, in a 2020 interview, Dr Pun said, “I have never played partisan politics. I’ve worked well with Labor prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke, and Liberal prime minister John Howard. I also served under Tony Abbott, when he was health minister, on the Australian Pharmaceutical Advisory Council.”

One of the most highly regarded ethnic community leaders in Australia, he served two terms as chair of the NSW government’s Ethnic Communities Council, was a member of the federal government’s Immigration Review Tribunal and the Equal Opportunity Tribunal of NSW, as well as founding President of the Chinese Community Council of Australia and one of the founding members of the Chinese Australian Forum.

Dr Pun is a three-time recipient of the NSW Premier’s award for community service, spent nine years as an Australia Day Council ambassador and in 1997 was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.

(L to R) Dr. Tony Pun with former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 2002

A fearless warrior for social justice

In his later years, Dr Pun was a vocal peace advocate not afraid to wade into controversy. In October 2020, Tasmanian Liberal senator, Eric Abetz caused a firestorm by demanding three Chinese-Australians appearing voluntarily before a committee hearing “unconditionally condemn” the Chinese government before giving evidence. In a strongly worded response, Dr Pun joined a large chorus of federal parliamentarians, human rights activists, media commentators and ethnic community leaders in condemning Abetz and demanding an apology.   

He accused Abetz of reviving McCarthyism for political purposes, writing, “The nightmare began when McCarthyism was re-incarnated by Senator Eric Abetz asking three young Chinese Australians to ‘unequivocally condemn’ the Chinese Communist Party. Congratulations to [Osmond] Chiu, [Yun] Jiang and [Wesa] Chau for having the courage to defend themselves when bullied.”

A regular at community events, such as this one for Multicultural Communities Council of NSW in 2022, Dr Pun (centre) was always a vocal and lively participant

Long after his retirement, Dr Pun remained an active voice in the Chinese community, well known for not pulling punches when it came to defending the diaspora. He wrote extensively for, John Menadue’s influential public policy journal, Pearls and Irritations and, up until recently, writing weekly opinion pieces distributed to ethnic community leaders from across the country.

He is survived by his wife Juliana, two sons Andrew and Leon, and grandchildren.