Melbourne. MALAYSIA's warning that it might recall more than 11,000 of its students studying in Australia if their safety was threatened by racist behaviour has sparked alarm among Australia's vice chancellors.
Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad made the startling comment after a student leader who returned home for the holidays claimed Asian students in Melbourne were becoming targets of racial abuse.
Adrina Shazlin Shukor, a 22-year-old final-year commerce student at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, said she was abused in the car park of a 24-hour convenience store. She told The Star daily newspaper that two Australians had hurled insults, used vulgar words and told her to get out the country.
Ms Shukor said she was frightened of being attacked and that she had cried for half an hour after the incident. She called on the Malaysian and Australian governments to protect her colleagues from racial threats.
Her remarks were reported widely in Malaysian newspapers and carried considerable weight because she is vice-president of the United Malays National Organisation Club of Melbourne and is said to be a member of an influential family.
UMNO is the dominant party in Malaysia's ruling National Front coalition led by Dr Mahathir.
The prime minister has commented several times on the debate over race in Australia that was triggered when independent Queensland politician Pauline Hanson called for sharp restrictions on Asian migration.
The incident involving Ms Shukor could not have come at a worse time as a number of Australian universities are hoping to win lucrative contracts to set up campuses in Malaysia. Asian students are estimated to be worth more than Aus$1.5 billion (Pounds 750 million) to the Australian economy each year, earning more than wheat exports.
Vice chancellors have repeatedly condemned racial behaviour and said it had no place on campus or off.
Fay Gale, president of the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, said the incident involving Ms Shukor was intolerable. She again called on the government to show leadership.
"Australian universities are places of open-mindedness, intellectual endeavour, and acceptance of students from all parts of the world," Professor Gale said. "We place a very high importance on the contribution made to Australian intellectual life by overseas students and it is frustrating to hear of them being made unwelcome by such stupid actions."
She said most overseas students formed warm, supportive friendships while they were studying in Australia and rarely if ever encountered such behaviour.
Malaysian education minister Najib Tun Razak said the government knew Asian students in Australia had been subject to racial abuse but believed the situation was under control. However, Malaysian students had been advised to walk in groups and to avoid going out alone.
RMIT vice chancellor David Beanland said racist incidents were isolated but such publicity about racism would sully Australia's reputation.