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Borthwick, Alexander Hay (Alex) (1919–2001)

by John Farquharson

The word ‘remarkable’ keeps recurring when people talk about Alex Borthwick, who as an Australian diplomat in post-war Asia ‘did not always run according to the standard gauge’. He had his own style. Wherever he went he made an impact through immersing himself and his large family in local life, culture, history and language. And he was unusual in sending his children to local schools.

It is not surprising then that he was able to win the confidence, respect, affection and hearts of people outside officialdom, as well as the government ministers and officials he had to deal with in the countries in which he served.

In many respects he was ahead of his times. From early in his foreign-service career, spanning some 37 years, he fought the White Australia policy and its legacy of racism, while in the 1960s he was against Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War. Earlier, he had been a proponent of diplomatic recognition of the Peoples Republic of China. And within the then male-dominated Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs and Trade) a colleague of the day, Tonia Shand, remembers him as being ‘an encourager of women across the staff spectrum’ before that was fashionable.

Passionate about Asia, all his postings, apart from his first to New Zealand, were by choice in that region. Involved in the setting up of the Colombo Plan in 1950, in every sense, he was a pioneer of Australia’s integration with Asia.

Son of a Gallipoli veteran, Alex Borthwick, who died in Canberra on November 17 of heart disease, aged 82, was born in the Victorian Gippsland town of Warragul on June 3, 1919. After primary school, he went to Sale High School before winning a scholarship to Geelong Grammar, despite having spent much of his early education playing truant in the Gippsland public library, unbeknownst to his family. On another scholarship he went on to Melbourne University. With war clouds gathering in Europe, he joined the University Regiment. As he had been brought up around horses, he opted to join the horse transport section. However, before completing his arts course, he left university in 1940 to enlist in the AIF.

He served in the Middle East, in Syria and the Western Desert, including the battle of El Alamein, with the 2/2 heavy anti-aircraft regiment and the 2/4 light AA regiment. On return to Australia in early 1943, he was stationed on the Atherton Tableland, near Mareeba, when details of a new recruitment scheme for External Affairs was published in orders of the day. Deciding that he might as well have a go, he was selected as one of the first intake of 12 under the diplomatic cadet scheme, inaugurated by Doctor Evatt. As such, he was one of the first few ex-servicemen taken into the then still fledgling External Affairs Department.

By mid-1943 he was out of the Army and in May the following year, having married Rosemary Hay in April, he was on his way to his first posting as third secretary in Wellington, New Zealand. Returning to the department in 1947, he went to the Pacific Division as second secretary. His first Asian posting came in 1949 when he went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as official secretary at the High Commission in Colombo. There he was involved in the January 1950 meeting of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers at which the Colombo Plan was established.

His other major Asian postings were Singapore as first secretary (1955-57), where he also acted as head-of-mission for several months; Thailand as first secretary and later counsellor (1961-65); Laos as Ambassador (1972-75); and Sri Lanka as High Commissioner and Ambassador to the Maldives (1975-79). Between postings there were stints in the department in various policy sections such as the Economic and Technical Assistance branch, head of the South-east Asia section and of the East and South Asia section, Pacific and American section and as assistant secretary in the Pacific section again.

What marked him out in his Asian postings, was his family of nine (two sons and seven daughters) and the way he broke out of the confines of the diplomatic enclave and expatriate society to make strong and enduring friendships with nationals. In Ceylon, apart from working on Colombo Plan projects, Alex facilitated the large-scale migration to Australia of the Burgher community, a group of mixed European and Ceylon ancestry. In Singapore, he and Rosemary, who in many cases helped form his views and stood behind his actions, supported the transition from colonial to national rule.

Thailand marked a new stage in the family’s integration with Asia. Rosemary became fluent in Thai and Lao, having done brilliantly in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office language examinations. The children went to Thai language schools, and when the two youngest returned to Australia they spoke only Thai. The Borthwick family always ate local food and served it to their guests. Asian ties went even deeper in Laos, where lasting bonds were formed with local people.

In his last postings, Alex carried on his work through threats to his health and well-being as the result of civil wars, coups, communal riots and disease. Under fire from rebel soldiers on a river trip on the Mekong, he rescued a Lao boy from the boat roof at great risk to himself and got him to a rural hospital in time to save his life. In health terms, he survived scrub typhus, dengue fever and filaria.

The respect in which he was held abroad, was also reflected among his departmental colleagues. It was his brother-in-law, Sir David Hay who, apart from being a fellow Foreign Service officer later headed two Federal departments, External Territories and Aboriginal Affairs, described Alex as ‘not always running according to standard gauge’. Sir David also saw him as ‘a remarkable person’, both as ‘a family father and as a departmental officer. In the former capacity he and Rosemary assembled and nurtured a unique variety of talent, love and good nature, the influence of which spread beyond those elastic walls of 13 Walker Crescent, Griffith [a Canberra suburb] and the many overseas posts in which they served. He was no push over when asked to do something which did not accord with his sense of what was right’.

Along with Sir David, other colleagues, referred to his great intellectual capacity, his incisiveness, and wide knowledge. Clipped of speech, chivalrous, with a great sense of humour, he was also good at the throwaway line. An instance of this was when the Duke of Edinburgh asked him whether his family of nine meant he was a good Catholic. ‘No,’ Alex replied, ‘just a careless Anglican’.

Another colleague recalled his creativity – how he did not break rules but sought solutions to ensure good outcomes, which reflected balanced judgment and good sense. In the days when there was much more rigidity about working hours, Alex would often arrive later than the scheduled starting time. Then the first thing he would do was to find the London Times and do the crossword puzzle. That completed, he turned to work that colleagues say he would then handle with great despatch and competence. Yet he never learnt to drive a car. A sidelight on this is that when asked in his Geelong Grammar scholarship exam to describe how the internal combustion engine worked, he said he didn’t know, but he could, and did, explain how to harness a four-horse dray. He got the scholarship.

After his retirement in 1980 Alex concentrated on work with the Australian Lao community and on his life-long love of gardening. His personal character was marked by courage, integrity, generosity and a disregard for worldly goods – the latter to an extent that sometimes dismayed his family. It was frequently his custom, when given a carefully chosen present, to offer it to the next person who walked in the door, and he died in the weatherboard government house the family was allocated in 1952.

His wife predeceased him in 1997. Two sisters and eight of his children, numerous grandchildren and enormous numbers of friends around the world survive him.

Alexander Hay Borthwick, born Warragul, Victoria, 3 June 1919; died Canberra 17 November 2001.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 29 November 2001
  • Canberra Times, 30 November 2001
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 2001

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Borthwick, Alexander Hay (Alex) (1919–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/borthwick-alexander-hay-alex-134/text135, accessed 21 September 2019.

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