By Martin Conboy
I was reading an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Tim Soutphommasane of Monash University about how each Australian generation seems to discover Asia as though the region were revealed to it for the first time. He wrote about how former Prime Minister Paul Keating spoke of ‘engaging’ with Asia twenty years ago and although we have made progress in that time, we still have a warped view of Asia. The current Prime Minister put it: it’s about ensuring the economy can exploit the relentless rise of Asia’s middle class and positioning the nation to be “a winner in the Asian century”.
These days our economic activity is orientated towards Asia. Our largest trading partners are there. As once unknown destinations like Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia open up, we are traveling into to the region in greater numbers than ever. In my day, it was the European backpacker experience. These days it’s the full moon party in Koh Phangan, Thailand. All of these activities play their part in breaking down cultural barriers. On the inbound side of the immigration ledger last year, for the first time, more permanent migrants arrived from China than from any other country.
There are enormous markets in Asia and we must remember that in relative terms, we are a tiny nation of 22 million and that there are over 3 billion people in Asia. Asia may geographically be to our near north, as it always has been, but for many Australians it remains culturally the ‘far’ east. There is no question that we must get rid of this jingoistic mindset that somehow coolies populate Asia. The intellectual horsepower in Asia is immense and its workforces are highly educated. To say nothing of the age of some of their societies, that alone should command respect.
Tim Soutphommasane argues that we don’t always recognise this cultural chasm. Without noticing it, we’ve fallen into the habit of making a monetary fetish out of our relationships with Asia, seeing its value only in terms of dollar signs. Thus, even when pointed criticisms are made of our failure to develop Asian literacy, critics frequently lapse into arguments about maximising the “returns” from our “investment” in Asia.
He points out that, if Australia is truly to be part of an Asian century, we must be prepared to learn from the dynamism and diverse traditions of the region. At the same time, we mustn’t think only about what we can extract from Asia. We must also think about what we can offer to our neighbours. We need to consider what we can give, not just what we can get.
We struggle to get our young people to take up Asian Languages in the way that European students can easily speak 2 or 3 different languages. We only have to look at what a big hit our former PM Kevin Rudd was in the region – was when it was revealed that he spoke fluent Mandarin.
One really good positive that is coming out of the outsourcing to Asia story is the number of Australians who now travel there and not only establish commercial friendships but personal friendships as well.
One of my pet hates is the ludicrous notion that we are a nation of WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) when in fact according to the Australian bureau of Statistics, 10% of our current population was born in Asia and 14% are from Europe (excluding UK).
Many people overseas regard our multicultural experience as a stunning example of nation building. Our society is diverse but cohesive. We seem to have elections and transfer power without social upheaval and we have welcomed and absorbed successive waves of immigrants as citizens. With this in mind, I always find it odd that we feel that some people feel that we must have our call centres staffed by people with ‘Australian’ accents – whatever ‘Australian’ means, when in fact our country is a microcosm of all the nationalities of the world. As we approach the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli, a new report out suggests that some are now questioning that relevance of such a commemoration because of its potential to cause divisiveness due to the multicultural nation of our society given that a large chunk of our population cannot not relate to it, given their origins.
The big picture, though, is this: if we accept that we are living in an Asian century, we must stop thinking of Asia as just a market, an investment or an exotic holiday destination – a place close to our shores but not too close for comfort.
To borrow the words used by Horne almost 50 years ago, we shouldn’t play an “aristocratic role in the society of Asia – rich, self-centered, frivolous, blind”. That’s not the kind of behaviour expected of a good neighbour.
Read more: Sydney Morning Herald