By Tim Soutphommasane
26 March 2012
Each Australian generation seems to discover Asia as though the region were revealed to it for the first time.
Two decades ago, led by Paul Keating, we spoke of ”engagement” with the Asia-Pacific region, with grand hopes that Australia might find its mature, independent self in the process.
The project of Australia in Asia today has a slightly different emphasis.
It’s about ensuring the economy can exploit the relentless rise of Asia’s middle class. As Julia Gillard has put it, it’s about positioning the nation to be ”a winner in the Asian century”.
In truth, the idea of fulfilling a national destiny in Asia recurs in our history. It was present even during the 19th century. But perhaps the most provocative statement of the theme came from Donald Horne in the 1960s. In his classic The Lucky Country, Horne challenged his fellow Australians to contemplate the notion: ”We’re all Asians now.”
That we can so easily forget such previous calls for us to look towards Asia reflects one thing. Asia may geographically be to our near north, as it always has been, but for many Australians it remains culturally the far east.
This isn’t to deny some realities. Our trade and economic activity is geared towards Asia. We travel to the region in greater numbers than ever. Last year, for the first time, more permanent migrants arrived from China than from any other country.
Yet has Australian society truly opened itself to Asia? It’s a point worth debating. The mercenary tone of our conversations threatens to undermine any genuine cultural engagement we may have with Asia.
We don’t always recognise this danger. 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.
It’s little wonder we struggle to get students in schools and universities to take up Asian languages. We can’t seriously expect to build cultural literacy so long as we treat it as a mere instrument of economic self-interest. That’s not the way to motivate children and teachers to take on the hard slog of learning Mandarin or Indonesian, and to stick at it.
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. For example, might observing the experiences of youthful democratic cultures help us understand our own democracy better? Might there be value in reflecting on the similarities between Asian concepts of communal obligation and our own value of mateship?
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.
In his maiden speech to the Senate last week, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, laid down one particular challenge: ”We should ask what we Australians can do, in our modest way, to steer the world â€¦ towards peaceful overlap and pluralism.”
In its own modest way, Australian multiculturalism can serve as a model of cultural diversity.
Many people overseas regard our multicultural experience as a stunning example of nation building. Our society is diverse but cohesive. We have welcomed and absorbed successive waves of immigrants as citizens.
There are, however, more direct cultural contributions Australia could make.
Consider one proposal my fellow members of the Australian Multicultural Council and I have put forward: the creation of a prestigious international, Asian fellowship scheme.
Think of an Australian equivalent of the Fulbright Program administered by the United States. An exchange scheme of this sort would bring Asian postgraduates, scholars and professionals into Australia, while supporting Australian fellows to study and conduct research in the region.
The exercise wouldn’t, obviously, be about generating more revenue for universities. Rather, the goal would be to build enduring friendships and goodwill.
Just as the scheme would attract the best and brightest in Asia to Australia, so would it encourage more of our own scholarly elite to study and work in places such as China, Japan, Singapore and Korea.
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-centred, frivolous, blind”. That’s not the kind of behaviour expected of a good neighbour.